Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gleaming the Cube

The comics industry of the early 1990s was pure unbridled chaos. Sales rose steadily for many years in the late 80s, suddenly skyrocketed in the first three or so years of the decade, and then just as suddenly collapsed. There was a lot of money in comics back in those days. The late 80s was a high-water mark for mainstream superhero comics in general, and the sudden cultural relevancy of stuff like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns inspired a number of people to return to the field who hadn't bothered to think about comics since they were kids. There was a time, remember, when a comic being mentioned in Rolling Stone was cause enough to inspire industry-wide euphoria - and these things actually had measurable impact on sales, back in a time when media saturation for nerd-friendly properties was slim to nonexistent.

This renewed bid for relevancy climaxed in the release of the 1989 Batman movie, which either kick-started the boom of the early 90s collectors market or lit the fuse for the eventual disastrous implosion thereof, depending on how generous you're feeling. It seems - and this is a dimly-remembered bit of cultural anecdote, so feel free to dispute it in the comments - that this was also the period when newspapers around the country began a heavy saturation of local-interest stories revolving around people who had found old stacks of comics in their attic and sold them for thousands of dollars. I specifically recall an episode of The New Leave It To Beaver wherein one of the Cleaver grandkids found a near-mint copy of Fantastic Four #1 in an old box and got an offer of $3,000 for the issue. Gee, a whole $3,000! Comics were serious business!

So: comics were cool again. Tim Burton's Batman film actually succeeded in attracting new readers, finally dispelling (to everyone but newspaper headline writers) the campy atmosphere of the 1960s series, which had lingered in the public imagination for quite a long time due to constant syndicated repeats. Batman was a badass. Neil Gaiman's Sandman came literally out of nowhere and became an overnight cause célèbre for literary celebrities across the world. And in conjunction with these momentous events, a small group of up and coming artists very quietly began racking up some serious sales numbers over at Marvel.

Marvel's problem, as I mentioned last time, was the fact that this initial crop of superstar artists became far too powerful far too fast. In the space of two and a half years, Todd McFarlane went from being a weird, awkwardly cartoony artist on the low-selling Incredible Hulk to being the number one commercial draw in the entire comics industry. 1990's Spider-Man #1 became the biggest selling single issue of the modern era. That is, until 1991, when X-Force #1 beat Spider-Man #1's 2.5 million copies with 4 million. Then, just two months later, both records were smashed by Jim Lee's X-Men #1, selling something like 8 million.

Now, if you worked at Marvel at the time, you may just have been able to lie to yourself as to why these comics were selling so well. You may have been able to believe that the artists were just another interchangeable element in the same old factory setting that had been churning out Spider-Man comics for thirty years. There was reason to be comforted in this assumption: in the past, periodic attempts of "superstar" artists to branch out on their own had resulted in a whole lot of not much. Marvel hadn't lost many sales to Continuity Comics or Captain Victory, and I doubt even the relative success of companies like Pacific and Eclipse effected Marvel too much. These were essentially small-press outfits who sold their comics through the burgeoning direct market. They were small mammals who managed to survive in the shadow of large reptiles. Marvel probably worried more about losing star talent to DC - as they had lost Frank Miller in the 80s - but that was part of the expected churn of industry turnover, and had been since Kirby left for DC in 1970. The turnover of creators moving between the two giants did little more than reinforce the idea that the people who made the comics were replaceable, and even that the people who made the comics should be periodically replaced.

Of course, they were wrong, and their miscalculation wasn't just a little miscalculation, it was massive. Because when the "Image Seven" left the company, not only did they go into direct competition with Marvel (and DC), but they also left the company's flagship titles in complete and utter disarray. Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, Wolverine, Spider-Man and even steady mid-list mainstay Guardians of the Galaxy were all suddenly rudderless. (Amazing Spider-Man was safe because Erik Larsen had actually quit the title for a run on the adjectiveless Spider-Man, following McFarlane's absence - Mark Bagley had become regular penciller beginning with issue #351, and would remain at Marvel until 2007. I also remember reading an anecdote a long time ago to the effect that it was only an accident of history that Bagley wasn't a member of the "Image Seven", instead of Marc Silvestri.) The X-Men were the #1 franchise in comics and the loss of the creators who had enabled the explosive growth of the early 90s cut the books off at the knees - but, more important in the long run was the fact that Chris Claremont had been forced off the books after the artists' seized control. Without Claremont, who had very carefully controlled the direction of Marvel's flagship franchise for almost twenty years - hell, he had almost single-handedly built the franchise - there was nothing left but for the eventual, inevitable metastasizing. The books remained popular, but suddenly the future was full of doubt. (More on this later.)

With so much attention being spent on the ongoing Marvel / Image conflict, DC was ignored. The triangle boxes on the covers of the Superman family of titles were symbolic of the company's drastically old-fashioned approach to publishing. You could be assured that if you bought a Superman title you would receive a consistent, competent reading experience, built on the same solid soap opera foundations that Marvel had pioneered in the 60s. And, of course, this consistency was exactly why the titles sold so poorly. Consistency was anathematic to the popularity of Image: for some odd reason, seven creators who had (more or less) consistently produced comics on a monthly schedule for years suddenly fell into black holes of incessant delays. One of the founding books of the Image launch, Wilce Portacio's Wetworks, didn't even premiere until 1994. (At the time, this seemed like the biggest controversy in the universe, but that was before the days of Ultimate Wolverine / Hulk and Daredevil: The Target.) Consistency didn't matter - still doesn't really matter - it was a question of mass appeal. The kids would forgive late books if the content was hot (until, of course, they didn't, and until the retailers who had ordered books which they could have sold six months ago received unsaleable books six months late and went out of business as a result).

Valiant, another upstart that had met with great success parallel to Image by doing the exact opposite of everything Image did, prided itself on its machine-like consistency and overarching editorial vision. Valiant's output was some of the squarest comics that had ever been published - the line was based on two old Gold Key sci-fi heroes, for God's sake. They were incredibly consistent in terms of both quality and scheduling. A lot of effort was put into making the comics both good - by the standards of the time Magnus: Robot Fighter reads like fucking Proust - and on-time. The company just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the growing interest in comics as collectibles. Early issues of Magnus, Solar, Rai and Harbinger had absurdly low print runs, even by 2008 standards - the first half-dozen or so of all the titles had, I seem to recall, print runs in the low thousands. There was genuine scarcity, and the consistency of the company defied the current conventional wisdom regarding the necessity of hot artists. People who read the Valiant books genuinely liked them - they could never have become hot solely on the virtue of, say, Art Nichols or David Lapham - and when the scarcity of the early issues became known the feeding frenzy commenced. (Seriously, there was a long period in the early 90s when Harbinger #1 was the most-wanted comic on the planet. Seriously.)

As could probably have been predicted by anyone with an IQ above fifty, the moment that consistency was threatened - the moment Jim Shooter left the company - the careful, methodical growth of the company's first year-and-a-half was all upturned. They started putting out million-selling collectors' items like Bloodshot #1 and Turok #1 - but given that these comics weren't rare, and that the company's quality control grew ever-more spotty the further the company expanded, and it's not hard to see why they didn't survive the subsequent bloodbath. (If Shooter hadn't been forced out of the company, I'd bet good money the company would have managed to avoid the more disastrous mistakes of the post-Unity years, and would probably have survived the crash in some form.)

Hmmm. We seem to be having trouble with digressions . . .

Anyway, DC's problem was very simple: they weren't hot. They didn't have anything that could remotely be considered hot in the same way Image or even Marvel did. As I mentioned before, they had the Tim Drake Robin, and his first two mini-series were very popular - although, DC went overboard on the variant editions and "collectors' item" promotions. Even at the time, the promotional gimmicks for Robin II were criticized by fans as excessive. Lobo was hot for a brief spell, and considering the fact that the character was satire, it's amazing he had as good a run as he did - but overexposure did eventually kill the commercial appeal. (The only people not in on the joke, it turned out as, was DC.) Superman and Batman were mired in inextricable squareness. But they were icons - in a way that no one had really realized until then. The idea was simple: if they could learn to capitalize on the characters in their capacity as extra-textual "icons", they could maybe appeal to a broader base than those who tuned in weekly for the ongoing continuity.

People paid attention when things happened to these icons. People may have been aware of the formation of Image - I remember the event made a lot of mainstream news coverage at the time. But when DC said they were going to kill Superman, well, that was different. People didn't know who the fuck Spawn was going to be, and the intra-industry politics were mainly a business story. But people knew Superman. Everyone knew Superman. People lined up around the block to buy the copy of Superman #75 with the black armband. (Me, I bought the regular old un-bagged copy.) In retaliation to the escalating stakes of the Marvel / Image conflict, DC had dropped the proverbial hydrogen bomb, bringing a new wave of fresh customers to the store who would never have been attracted by anything so mundane as Cyberforce or X-Men. The problem was, these readers were expecting some kind of return on their investment, and were unprepared for the eventual revelation (so intuitive that it didn't even merit articulation to anyone in the comics industry), that this was just a temporary stunt, and not really the death of one of the most beloved fictional characters in the world.

But it wasn't just a stunt - although, obviously, it was. The Death of Superman was structured differently than most similar stunts: using the organizational advantages of the DC brand to good effect, they were able to capitalize on a singular event with far more alacrity than Image, which was essentially composed of seven (six, once Wilce Portacio dropped back from "founder" status) disparate and often feuding personalities. This provided DC with a tactical advantage in the cutthroat climate: with Marvel scrambling and Image beginning to sag under the weight of sudden success (and an inability to meet deadlines!), there was an opening through which a third party could catch both companies flat-footed, at least for a time. The problem was that DC wasn't the only company that saw an opening, and in the summer of 1993 saw many, many other companies did as well. Many of these companies hoped to appeal to the horde of new readers who had supposedly decamped for good on the industry's front lawn. But who of these hypothetical new readers really wanted to insulate their garage with crates of unsold Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1s?

More on that later. But first, here's Wizard's market report for November, 1991 - just before everything exploded:

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