|When Comics Almost Died|
It is currently common knowledge that Marvel has in recent years been fighting hard to get the rights back to all of it's characters - Spider-Man and his associated characters from Sony (something which they've partially done); Deadpool, X-Men and Fantastic Four from Fox; and the Hulk's distribution rights and the character Namor from Universal. Why did Marvel sell off their characters in the first place? The answer to this is lies in the late-1980s and early-1990s when both Marvel and DC almost went bankrupt.
The Origins of the Comic Book Bust
The Comic Book Crash happened in a similar way to the Housing Market Crash of 2008 and even the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which brought about the Great Depression: speculation. DC and Marvel had their origins in the 1930s and 1940s - see here for DC and here for Marvel - during the midst of Depression and War where most people could not afford to buy non-necessities. Companies were also on a knife's edge and were often less willing to make risks in case it bankrupted them. DC's founder Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson after three years had to be bought out as he was going under. As a result companies like DC, Timely (Marvel's predecessor), Fawcett Comics and others printed few issues on cheap paper to save costs (incidentally this cost saving method created the first Batman/Superman crossover). This time was known as the 'Golden Age of Comics'. Cut to the 1950s and 1960s we have the 'Silver Age'. Superheroes had returned to popularity with a vengeance. DC had struck gold with their reinvention of the Flash and Green Lantern, a new series of Superman comics, and eventually bringing together their main heroes in the Justice League. Meanwhile, in the 1960s Timely, now called Marvel, under Stan Lee and Jack Kirby soon dominated the industry with their new comics including Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, and the Avengers. Even non-superhero comics were doing phenomenally well. Consistently Archie comics outsold DC and Marvel featuring wholesome stories about love triangles in the town of Riverdale. One thing was consistent - these comics were cheap. Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man's first appearance, was only sold for 10 cents. It was relatively cheap to be a comic book fan.
|Spider-Man's First Appearance|
Then we get to the 1980s and 1990s. Since the 1960s comic buying guides had been in circulation and soon comic collecting became profitable. The worth of Golden and Silver Age comics had shot through the roof by the 1980s due to both their comparative rarity and the popularity of their characters. An issue of Detective Comics #27, Batman's debut, went for $55,000 in 1991 to just show how profitable these were. Comics from the Silver Age, like X-Men #1, could be sold for a fortune - somewhere over $100 at times. Soon collectors, and non-fans, realized that if they bought a comic for $1 now and kept it in good condition then in ten to twenty years time they'll be guaranteed to earn a lot. Even if they waited a year they could earn up to $10. People would buy five copies of just one issue from the 10,000 comic stores across the US. This is when the problems began.
How the Bubble Burst
People started rapidly buying mainly Marvel and DC comics. Meanwhile, Marvel and DC saw the increased sales as a sign of increasing popularity of their stories. They had no idea that five issues of a Batman comic sold was actually going to one person waiting for its worth to increase instead of five people wanting to read the stories. Editors-in-chief saw an increase in sales so started printing more. In 1988 Marvel had 50 titles which grew to 140 in 1993. Not only that both companies started printing different variants of the same issue - sometimes up to 12 variants! Marvel in particular was at fault for flooding the market with titles. Both companies rose their prices as well, not much but there was still a price increase - from $1 in 1988 to $1.25 in 1993. While this was happening speculators were buying as many comics as possible so the normal quality checks were thrown out the window. Normally poor quality comics - whether through material, writing or art - were ignored by fans whereas speculators bought them regardless with the idea that they could potentially earn a lot later on. This became exacerbated with the creation of Image Comics in 1992. The idea behind Image was that Image wouldn't own their characters, instead the creator would - in contrast Spider-Man was owned by Marvel and not Stan Lee or Steve Ditko. This new company offered new promise for speculators: could they be the new Marvel or DC? Could they produce the new Wonder Woman or Superman? If this company went bust how much would one of their comics be worth in ten years or even twenty?
However, as the market had been flooded by comics of various qualities their worth soon plummeted. Comics were worth so much was because they were fairly uncommon so now this boom had made them extremely common. They just wasn't worth it any more and soon the boom became a bust. The bust didn't have a sudden, singular moment were comics lost their value as in 1929 or 2008. Instead it was a gradual but very destructive period between 1993 and 1996. Through this period we have the Comic Book Bust.
Naturally all comic book companies were immediately affected with many smaller ones going bust entirely. Several of the larger companies decided to drop distributors to distribute their comics themselves, however, through the bust without a distributor many companies could not even afford to distribute their own comics. Marvel, who tried to be their own distributor, even filed for bankruptcy in 1997. DC noticed a drop in sales in both Batman and Superman so decided to do something drastic which affected the industry greatly. In 1993 they killed Superman in The Death of Superman and paralyzed Batman in Knightfall. These saw great publicity and a boom in sales for DC until hardly a year later Superman returned and Batman regained his ability to walk. Fans were outraged that a potentially monumental part of comic book history had been used for a publicity stunt which further damaged the industry. Furthermore, The Death and Return of Superman would have a long term impact on writing with many comic book historians citing this as when 'death died in comics'. Today comics are known for killing off and then resurrecting dead characters yet this is a relatively new phenomenon. Most characters remained dead when they died but the return of such an important character changed this. Now anyone could come back.
In 1989 Time Warner had taken over DC which partially saved DC when the bust came. Starting with Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 a wave of adaptations of DC's properties, mainly Batman, began ranging from the other Batman movies to Batman: The Animated Series. DC managed to recoup a lot of their losses. Marvel in contrast had no parent company to bale them out so they literally had no choice but to sell off their characters. If they didn't we would be talking about Marvel past tense. Blade went to New Line leading to 1998's Blade yet that was not enough to save Marvel so they sold off more. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Punisher, Deadpool, Namor, and Elektra to just name a few were all sold. Marvel still was not doing well; throughout the late-1990s it had three separate owners!
2000s and After
To an extent the comic book industry has yet to recover from the crash. DC and Marvel combined sell a quarter of what they sold in the 1980s a month. A large part of this is due to how easy it is now to pirate comic books. In the early-2000s Marvel, DC, Image and other major companies had their heads just above the water where Marvel in particular was still in danger of going under. It was earning money through Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four and Sony's Spider-Man but most of it went to Sony and Fox. In 2005 Marvel decided to make its own movies when the second-in-command at Marvel's film branch, Kevin Feige, realized that although Marvel could not use some of their big characters like Wolverine and Spider-Man they did have access to many of the key Avengers. Feige and the head of Marvel's movies, Avi Arad, decided that to make a huge crossover featuring many of Marvel's heroes. Feige thought big, so big that Arad resigned thinking it couldn't be done. Still not recovered from the bust Marvel had to go to Merrill Lynch for money. If their plan failed Marvel would not exist anymore. Feige wanted to start with Iron Man, a character who back then had few notable stories and most happened to be crossovers like the then recent Civil War story. He wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man and initially Marvel refused due to his controversial public image so Feige had to threaten to quit if Marvel didn't accept Downey as Iron Man. To everyone's surprise Iron Man was both a commercial and financial hit - Iron Man actually earned more money than Merrill Lynch had initially given Marvel. Soon Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man 2 were made in order to eventually create The Avengers, a movie currently the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. This was also due to Disney purchasing Marvel which meant that funding for movies soon became less of an issue.
|The New Era of Comic Book Media|
The success of the new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) saved Marvel. The MCU created a new wave of comic book fans, including myself who became interested in comics through Iron Man. As a ripple affect other companies saw an increase in sales and started producing their own adaptations. When Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy ended DC tried to make its own version of the MCU starting with 2013's Man of Steel. Both Fox and Sony tried to reinvigorate their own franchises by introducing Wolverine movies, rebooting X-Men, and successfully trying to reboot Spider-Man and Fantastic Four with the failed Fan4Stic and Amazing Spider-Man movies. Image also dove into this with the TV series The Walking Dead and we might also be seeing a new Spawn movie soon. Even Dark Horse has joined in with a new Hellboy coming out before 2020. Archie comics have been rebooting their characters over the last few years which received an edgy TV adaptation as well with Riverdale. Comic sales rose in accordance with the movies. Sales are still a fraction of what they once was and there were some dips in sales, such as around 2012, but they are not as low as during the bust. You could say that Iron Man helped rescue the comic book industry.
Currently there has been another dip in comic book sales since 2016 - personally I put the blame on how easy it is to pirate comic books compared to just five years ago accompanying a huge amount of titles published by DC and Marvel in recent years. However, this drop in sales has not been disastrous compared to the 1990s. One thing you can't keep down is everyone's love for a superhero.