Memories of Comic Book 'GIMMICKS' Resurface

DC Comics' December 2013 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We at Newsarama tend to monitor trends. Recently, we noticed several trends from the 1990s have returned – gimmicks. DC Comics just repeated “Zero Month” 19 years after their first month of all-“zero” issues in 1994. Variant covers have been back for a while; so have company-wide crossovers.

And most recently, Batman #13 kicked off the “Death of the Family” storyline (itself a play on the “A Death in the Family” storyline) with die-cut covers teasing the Joker’s new look.

This brought back some memories of the 1990s. Not all of them were good.

During the early 1990s, the comic book marketplace became more competitive than ever. Major characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man got all-new titles, which wasn’t as common back then. New companies such as Valiant and Image launched and did pretty well, which then prompted a lot more companies to launch, who then didn’t do as well.

Several other characters died, got better, or started wearing armor or found out they were clones of themselves who liked to wear hoodies, or something.

Anyway, by decade’s end Marvel was bankrupt and it was a lot harder to find a comic book shop. That’s the short version.

The era we once knew was called the Chromium Age, which we know because someone wrote a Wikipedia entry on it, and why would Wikipedia lie?

But time has passed. Valiant is back. Image is enjoying the greatest critical acclaim of its two-decade history. Many who grew up with the comics of the 1990s have some fond memories of them. But it might not be a good idea to get too nostalgic about the 1990s… there are some trends that don’t bear repeating.

Here’s a look back at some of the weirdest and wildest gimmicks of the 1990s. This list is at best extremely incomplete. That’s what kind of time it was.

Die-Cut Covers

 Adapted from mass-market paperbacks, this is relatively straightforward – have an obscured image with a hole or holes cut in it that reveals a larger unobstructed image beneath. It’s good for a reveal, but like many 1990s books, suffered from mass overuse.

The Polybag

The most loathed of gimmicks, this simply presented the book inside a sealed bag, meaning that reading it would destroy its resale value and the purchase of multiple copies were required. A slight variation on these books were ones that came with coupons to mail away for special “zero” issues – again making multiple purchases necessary to keep a “mint” copy.

A few polybagged books still exist (Marvel did one with the Human Torch’s short-lived death a few years back), but it hasn’t been as extensive as the 1990s. Often, polybags would contain posters and other bonuses (most notably the “Death of Superman” issue, which even came with a black armband), but the biggest bust of polybagged books has to be Marvel’s annuals of 1993, every one of which introduced a new character…and every one of which was polybagged with a trading card of said character.

Very few of these characters made an impression (remember Dreamkiller? Hit Maker? Eradikator-6?) , save Legacy, the son of Captain Marvel (that might have been in part because Marvel needed to publish a book called “Captain Marvel” to help retain ownership of the trademark), and the Battling Bantam, a vigilante boxer dressed like a rooster, who is most memorable for dying horribly in a Civil War tie-in. There’s a complete list of these characters on this site.

On a related note, using annuals to introduce tons of new characters also proved to be a gimmick unto itself – DC took a similar track that same summer with “Bloodlines,” where giant alien parasites bit people and gave them powers. Remember Razorsharp and the Pysba-Rats? Gunfire? Geist? Ballistic? Shadowstryke? Mongrel? Terrorsmith?

DC still comes out ahead of Marvel in retrospect, because the books had no polybags, and because they introduced Hitman, which we have long since established was the best book in the history of the universe.

Glow in the Dark Covers

One of the earliest gimmick books types involved covers where, simply, holding the book up to the light and then turning said lights off would reveal some sort of glow-in-the-dark variant of the cover image.

On occasion, this would reveal an alternate image -- The Sandman Special, with the story of Orpheus, revealed a Dave McKean drawing of Morpheus himself with the legend “In dreams I walk with U.”

The most extensive use of glow-in-the-dark was for the 1990s The Spectre series by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. Issues #1, #8 and #13, along with the cover to the “Crime and Punishments” TPB and a Mandrake poster, featured images that changed to skeletons in the dark. The effect was highly eerie and a great use of the gimmick (issue #13 is particularly stunning).

The biggest glow-in-the-dark cover was Green Lantern #50, where Hal Jordan went crackers, destroyed the Green Lantern Corps, killed his best friend Kilowog and his archenemy Sinestro, and became the big armored villain Parallax, leaving Kyle Rayner to take up the ring.

Of course, within the next decade Kilowog came back to life, Sinestro turned out to have faked his death, the Corps came back, and Hal was revealed to have just been possessed by the real Parallax, a giant yellow space grasshopper personifying fear or something. Comics!

There was also a glow-in-the-dark cover for the issue where Superman got his new electric blue powers, but this is starting to get depressing.

You can check out a variety of glow-in-the-dark covers (with time-lapse animation showing the regular and glowing versions on this site.

Foil-Stamped/Embossed

The most standard of gimmick covers, and usually used in tandem with die-cut covers, this simply borrowed its style from paperback book covers of the time, giving most books a shiny, eye-catching quality that became significantly less eye-catching once every other books started doing it.

A variation on this involved prismatic foil, which had a rainbow-type effect. Indeed, foil-stamped covers became the most common gimmick of 1990s comics, often being slapped not only onto first issues and anniversary issues, but pretty much any issue that promised “An EVENT!”

It’s been used nostalgically a few times; Bryan Lee O’Malley a foil-stamped cover as an unannounced bonus for Volume Five of Scott Pilgrim

Hologram Covers

Another mainstay of the 1990s, these ranged from easily-scratched pieces taking up the bulk of the cover (Spider-Man’s anniversary issues in 1992) to smaller, trading-card-sized ones (the X-Men 1993 anniversary covers, including the story where Magneto pulled the adamantium out of Wolverine’s bones…he got better).

Some versions used tiny discs to create 360 views of the characters, but the main problem was the technology was difficult to produce on covers without getting scratched up or driving up the price point for a tiny image.

The Variant Interior

Only a few books used this, most notably Team Titans, a spinoff of, yes, The New Teen Titans that was 1990s excess to its core with characters like “Battalion” and “Deathwing” (don’t ask).

The first issue featured the same lead story and five different variant stories telling the origins of the different Titans. Though some great creators worked on these, including Adam Hughes, George Perez and Kevin Maguire, fans weren’t that enthused about buying the same issue five times…or that the first issue of this new book was Part Three of a nine-part crossover.

The “De-Hanced” Cover

Always one to be subversive, Grant Morrison went against the prevailing trends with a cover for The Invisibles #5 that was actually on a lower-quality brown paper stock.

Sadly, the actual issue was the first part of “Arcadia,” one of the most difficult Invisibles storylines (the issue opens with an extended conversation about utopia between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and requires readers to understand most of this through the context of their conversation), and probably didn’t help bring in new readers – Morrison himself has admitted it was a mistake to do the story so early in the book’s run. It’s still worth powering through if you read The Invisibles, and makes more sense once you’ve read more of the book.

”Rub the Blood: ”

The first issue of Image Comics’ Bloodstrike featured a “Rub the blood” cover with heat-sensitive ink. I’m still not sure what the hell this was, but in fairness, the new Bloodstrike series by Tim Seeley is really quite good. 

 Pop-Up Covers

These occurred less than you’d think, but were still used on several books, most notably the Sergio Aragones superhero comedy The Mighty Magnor and the first issue of Force Works, which was basically West Coast Avengers but more extreme, or something.

The oddest instance of this wasn’t actually a cover but a centerfold sequence in Ghost Rider #25, where the villain Blackout rips out Dan Ketch’s throat, and in a fold-out sequence Ghost Rider seems to leap from the page to throttle the bad guy. This was in an extra-sized issue featuring a metallic ink cover that helped lead in to the “Rise of the Midnight Sons” storyline that launched a bunch of other books that all had polybagged first issues.

If your head is starting to hurt at this point, we can’t blame you.

Chromium 

The inspiration for the “Chromium Age” title, this used a thin, more sparkly variation on the foil-stamped cover to create a super-eye-catching look, especially when the image involved gunfire. Valiant Comics popularized this with the original Bloodshot #1, and continued it through a number of other first and “Zero” issues.

Joe Quesada did a number of the chromium covers for Valiant, and actually turned in some really eye-catching work on covers like Ninjak #1 and X-O Manowar #0, which used unique perspective for the wraparound images and clever use of the chromium effect.

That said, the price point for covers like these got excessively high (usually around $3.50 in 1992), and not all artists used the effects as well as he did. Many chromium covers are now found alongside foil-stamped covers in quarter bins, though their metallic edges make them excellent throwing stars.

Valiant has recently made a comeback with some excellent books, but let’s hope their initial success doesn’t inspire them to go chrome again. It didn’t end so well the first time.

Trading Card Comics

One of the most infamous gimmicks of the 1990s was Plasm, the opening book for Jim Shooter’s line of Defiant comics. Simply put – the issue was rendered in trading card format, so you had to buy up packs and packs of cards and put them into nine-card holders in a binder to read the story, hopefully without any gaping holes in each panel.

Retailers were less than amused when the actual Warriors of Plasm #0’s story was printed in full in an issue of Previews…which also featured Batman #500, the issue where Azrael took over from Bruce Wayne after Bane broke his back, which itself featured a foil-stamped-die-cut-embossed cover and a giant armored costume designed by Joe Quesada. Comics!

The trading card gimmick was used a few more times but thankfully never caught on. Warriors of Plasm had a huge launch, but a mucus-filled SF book about an organic alien world that looked like…well, see the picture…wasn’t quite what fans were looking for, and dialogue like “YOU DIE TO FEED THE ORG OF PLASM!” and “No! We won’t be gore for your Org! We are FREE ENTITIES!” didn’t help. Perhaps just calling it “Planet Butthole” would have helped…

It still ranks as a hugely important book of the 1990s, as the experience helped drive its artist Dave Lapham away from mainstream comics and onto his own material on Stray Bullets. The great work he’s done there and on other books for Marvel/Vertigo/Avatar and elsewhere can at least in part be credited to Warriors of Plasm. Gore for your Org indeed!

Colorform Covers

Okay, despite all my cynicism, these were pretty much the best things ever.

After the death and return of Superman resulted in increased sales (and hair length) for the character, DC had a whole series of gimmick covers to help maintain the momentum on the books. Two examples polybagged the books with a sheet of Colorforms you could then stick to the slick-stock cover, creating your own scenes with the characters.

This was only done twice – once for Superman: The Man of Steel #30, where Superman had a brawl with very 1990s character Lobo, and on Worlds Collide #1, where the Superman books crossed over with the Milestone line of characters. This latter one was particularly fun, as it was the closest characters like Hardware, Icon and Static ever got to action figures (well, Static’s future self did get a JLU figure from MattyCollector.com recently).

Valiant Vision

Before the days of modern 3-D, Valiant cooked up this gimmick that allowed readers to read certain books in 3-D, or just as regular comics. The trick was “Valiant Vision,” a pair of cardboard glasses with polarized lenses that made reds stand out and blues fade into the background.

Not coincidentally, this gimmick was primarily used on Solar: Man of the Atom and (deep breath) Psi-Lords: Reign of the Starwatcher, both of which had red characters fighting against the dark blue background of space (yes, Psi-Lords debuted with a chromium cover).

The glasses were quite fun to use on comics that weren’t Valiant – many a Dave McKean Sandman cover got even trippier with the help of Valiant Vision. I have repeatedly asked Valiant’s reps at cons if they’re bringing this back. This has resulted in a lot of awkward silence.

And the Rest...

A number of other gimmicks circulated throughout the 1990s. Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios did an issue of Megalith printed on “indestructible” Tyvek and an issue of Crazyman cut to look like the character’s profile (it’s actually a somewhat amusing story with Neal Adams doing his take on TV’s The Prisoner.

Malibu Comics, prior to doing the Ultraverse, had an issue of The Protectors with a laser-cut hole through the entire book that eventually lined up with a character’s death at the end. When they started the Ultraverse, Firearm #0 was bagged with a VHS tape containing a short film that led into the comic’s story, which were both written by James Robinson.

Lenticular animation was used on a couple of books, most notably Robin III: Cry of the Huntress at DC (after Robin II, which used the aforementioned holograms). This take had a little strip where pulling on it would create a limited-animation effect, like Robin’s cape flowing in the wind. Of course, enjoying this required you to open the polybag…eventually, Robin got his own ongoing series, which debuted with a foil-stamped embossed cover, and it ran more than a decade because it was actually good.

In fact, that’s the one lesson I’d like readers and comic companies to take away from this piece –it takes a lot to stand out in a crowded comic book marketplace, and a lot to grab readers’ attention. But I was excited to read Batman #13 last week not because it had a die-cut cover, but because I knew it would be a book with a great storyline and artwork.

It might seem obvious, but there’s one gimmick that always works for a comic book – great writing, beautiful art and a sense that you’ve spent your time and money well reading this issue. And in the aftermath of the 1990s, for all the hundreds of books that people thought would be worth a fortune – the only ones people really remember are the ones that were truly worth reading.

Well, those and the Colorforms. Man, those were awesome!

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