[As December will begin the annual cascade of media stories reviewing the eventful year of 2016 that was, Newsarama was reminded of another eventful year for the comic book industry. It's been 20 years since 1996. For those of us that lived through those times, it seems like yesterday. For those of you who didn't, you might not appreciate just how crazy it really was.
In part one, we looked the crossover between DC and Marvel, the ensuing Amalgam event, as well as "Heroes Reborn" and massive layoffs inside the House of Ideas.
In this second part of a two-part story, we look at some of the more memorable events of a very memorable, and impactful, year.]
Imagine a year where Marvel and DC absolutely crush their sales, but the House of Ideas almost implodes and the industry is wracked by business failures. And in the background, your computer starts talking to you.
This year happened, 20 years ago. Remember 1996? Many titans of the comics industry still do.
SETTING THE STAGE
Context is everything, right? As 1996 started, things looked like this…
• Comic books enjoyed a massive boom period from about 1989 to 1993. But by mid-1993, a “speculator bubble” had burst, print runs crashed, and many stores went out of business.
• In 1991, in the midst of the boom, financier Ron Perelman bought Marvel Comics and used Marvel stock to secure junk bonds to acquire other companies.
• In 1992, major Marvel talent including Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and others left the company to form Image Comics.
• In 1994, Marvel bought Heroes World, one of the 17-or-so distributors that trafficked comics from publishers to stores. In 1995, Marvel started self-distributing, throwing the other distributors into chaos.
• X-Men ruled the roost in sales. As the year began, eight of the industry’s 10 top-selling books were X-family titles.
• Superman was a good seller for DC, but typically didn’t hit sales charts until you hit about no. 20.
• Something called “America Online” was achieving broad cultural awareness, and free AOL startup discs started appearing nearly everywhere.
Marvel Comics was a house on fire, but DC Comics was the steady ship. DC polished their image yet more with a prestige project that offered a glimpse around the corner into its possible future - Kingdom Come.
The four-issue mini-series was written by Mark Waid, and featured lush, painted art by Alex Ross. Ross had come to DC with a 40-page handwritten outline and multiple character designs, but DC needed a partner for him.
“It was Alex’s basic concept: heroes retire, new heroes show up,” Mark Waid says. “He had a lot of really interesting drawings and designs, but not really any texture to it yet. It needed something, and that’s where I came in, because I was the DC Comics expert.”
Kingdom Come was chock-full of Easter eggs, clever “this could be the future” twists, and the entire cast of the DC Universe. It took the industry by storm, sweeping up awards and selling massive amounts. It also, inadvertently, helped fan a tiny spark that became a massive cultural blaze.
RISE OF THE INTERNET
“It was Kingdom Come that changed everything,” says Jonah Weiland. “After I read that first issue, that was the day I decided I wanted to find a way into comics. That book created and drove a passion within me.”
Weiland was one of many people futzing around this new-ish thing called “the information superhighway” on 9600-baud modems in 1996. He already had a comics links webpage because Google didn’t exist in 1996. He added an unofficial Kingdom Come fan page.
“I wanted to do some programming, create a community,” Weiland remembers. “And after the four issues were done, I had a community that was posting upward of 250 times a day, which in 1996 terms, might have been the equivalent of million of Tweets. It was pretty incredible and I felt responsible for this community. That became the basis for Comic Book Resources.”
CBR.com became an internet comics juggernaut. But that wasn’t Weiland’s plan.
“It absolutely started as a hobby,” he says. “I had no idea; I had no plan then. I was just having fun. It wasn’t until 3-4 years later that between CBR and my other business, Boiling Point, a web hosting company, that I was able to quit my job. And I’ll be honest, those first few years were pretty brutal on my pocketbook. But very shortly after that, I started to see potential.”
Part of the potential was seen at (self-awareness alert; yes, we know where this is being published) Newsarama. The site started as a weekly comics news summary at AnotherUniverse.com. Mike Doran and Matt Brady were the early principals in a medium that felt new and almost dangerous.
“Something was stating to coalesce,” Brady recalls. “It was coming off of [early internet forums] Usenet, and more and more people were finding it. And there was a hunger for information. It was guerrilla, anyone writing about comics could find news tips on Usenet. There were friends of artists and people who shouldn’t have talked and people who should have known better. 1996 was still early. It was a rattling in a box and people were taking a look at it.”
Fans were certainly looking in the box, and creators were, too.
“There was speculation as to what the internet might someday mean for comics, but I don’t think we could have foreseen the specifics,” Dan Jurgens says. “We had a notion that ‘someday you’ll have a scanner and you’ll be able to send your work over the internet,’ but I don’t remember anyone telling me that fandom would build itself around the internet and thus comic press and promotional events would be built solely around the internet. No one had the notion that you would read a comic on a phone which you would then put in your pocket. So of course, all that was massively transformational, but we didn’t know it at the time.”
Another massive transformation in the business was coming to its endgame as well.
DIAMOND CONSOLIDATES DISTRIBUTION
Marvel bought Heroes World, a regional comic book distributor, in 1994. By 1995, Heroes World was Marvel’s exclusive distributor. Suddenly, a distribution system that had existed in delicate balance for 20 years was thrown into chaos.
“Considering that Marvel represented 30 to 35 percent of our volume, this was a catastrophic event for everyone,” says Steve Geppi, president of Diamond Comic Distributors.
Diamond was the lead dog in the market with about 45% of the comic industry’s volume. Capital City Distribution was a clear-cut second with about 30%. The other 15-or-so regional distributors made up the other 25%. Diamond and Capital City were gut-punched. The smaller players went out of business. But the stores were hurt the most.
“Retailers were severely damaged, because Heroes World had no capacity to handle distribution outside its territory, and Marvel had no understanding of what logistics capacity Heroes World had,” says Milton Griepp, then a co-owner of Capital City. “And the retail community is the foundation from which all money flows.”
Heroes World was plagued by late shipments, missing shipments, and damaged shipments. And when a store doesn’t get its Marvel books for even one week, it’s hard to keep the doors open. Compounding the problem? The minute Heroes World became the exclusive Marvel distributor, it also became a failing business.
“They made the fatal mistake of telling the world they were not going to carry anything but Marvel,” Steve Geppi remembers. “And even though all of Marvel’s volume through Heroes World was significant, it wasn’t significant enough alone to justify a cost-effective distribution system.”
With Marvel cut out of the distribution pie, Diamond and Capital City were in a war to sign other publishers to exclusives. DC was the prize plum. Diamond got DC, along with Dark Horse and Image. Capital City got Kitchen Sink and VIZ Media. The writing was on the wall, and in July, 1996, Capital City sold out to Diamond, leaving only Diamond and Heroes World standing. To the company’s credit, Diamond bought Capital City. They didn’t just wait for the company to go under, and then pick up the pieces.
“It was true that we would have been the only ones,” Geppi says. “But it would not have been in my interests to see Capital go under. Because a lot of small publishers would have not been paid. If Capital couldn’t pay these small publishers and even some of the larger ones, it would have been devastating for many of them. And that would hurt my business, ultimately. So I felt it was the right thing to do, and yes, after we did the deal, every publisher that Capital owed money to got paid in full. It was a happy ending that came out of a bad situation.”
Heroes World hung on into 1997 before collapsing, and Diamond took on Marvel’s distribution. But make no mistake: In the interim, between a general market collapse and stores being pushed out of business in the distribution wars, the comics business lost 62% of its volume.
“In 1993, when Diamond was 45% of the business, the entire business was $500 million at wholesale. After Marvel came back and we were just about the whole world, we were only $186 million at wholesale,” Steve Geppi says. “The industry capsized in the middle.”
Geppi knows the Heroes World move forced the hand of distribution consolidation.
“But if you allow me to be what I will call very objective about this, this almost had to happen,” he says. “The collective volume that the industry represented by 1996 or 1997 wasn’t enough to support all those distributors. Having one distributor, with large publishers able to consolidate their marketing efforts in one place, and setting up, by and large, brokerage agreements where they set the discount schedule and the inventory was owned by them, allowed the distributor to go a bit deeper into inventory in small publishers. In an odd way, it may have been what saved the industry.”
Geppi says in 2015, the comic industry is back to $500 million at wholesale. It took 20 years.
SUPERMAN GETS MARRIED
The end of the year saw an important social occasion - the wedding of Superman and Lois Lane. Their engagement had been lingering a while…
“When we made the decision that Clark and Lois would get engaged [in 1990], it would be fair to say that we didn’t have a hard date for when the wedding would take place,” Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens says. “We thought, who knows? Maybe it was a five, 10, 20-year engagement? We actually started to plan it for [1992’s] Superman #75, which became something else entirely [the famous “Death of Superman.”].
But the Superman: The Adventures of Lois and Clark TV show decided to marry the couple, and the comics quickly followed suit.
“When the TV guys decided, ‘We have to do it in this season,’ we decided that the comics had to match,” then DC Comics Publisher Paul Levitz recalls.
A Superman Wedding Album with contributions from dozens of writer and artists was planned.
“The Wedding Album gave us a chance to get everyone who was ever involved with Superman artistically who was still alive to get involved in the book,” Jurgens says. “It even gave us a chance to use some [beloved longtime Superman artist] Curt Swan pages posthumously. It was great to get to get him involved in any way we could, to feel that presence. I still look back on it as a very special project, a very special book.”
TIDBITS, IMPACT, AND THE FUTURE
Think about it: Marvel and DC did a company-wide, cooperative crossover with dozens of spinoffs. All for the good of the market. It was reality in 1996, but seems impossible in today’s world of walled-off IP kingdoms.
“When we did this, it was a comic project,” Ron Marz says today. “But 20 years later, we’re dealing with multi-billion dollar franchises and IP farms. That’s what comics has grown into. I’m not saying that’s good or bad; it’s just the reality of the situation. These characters now, because of transmedia success, are now worth just untold hundreds of times more money than they were 20 years ago. And when they’re owned by parent mega-corporations, the sort of freedom and fun we had doing it in 1996 is probably a thing of the past.”
Or is it?
“If there’s a pressing need, it could happen again,” Tom Brevoort says. “The comics industry tends to work well when we need to, when there’s a void to be filled. We seem to react better to adversity than to good times. But as Marvel and DC have become more vertically integrated businesses and not just publishing houses, it is more difficult to bridge that gap. Can it happen? Sure, it can. But the desire has to be there, and it has to be there at a high level. Because the concern now is not just what it means for Superman and Spider-Man to team up in this comic book, but also what does this mean for the movie properties? People who are involved in many, many different areas of the business would have to come together and see the benefit of such a thing. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult.”
Dan Jurgens himself was an odd footnote in 1996: He was writing Sensational Spider-Man for Marvel and Superman for DC at the same time, something usually not done these days (paging Giuseppe Camuncoli and Cullen Bunn!). It’s not just the characters on a short leash - it’s the talent, too.
“I think now, they [Marvel and DC] want to protect their plans a little more than they did then, and they’re a little more concerned with the notion of ‘we’re building a publishing plan for years,’” Jurgens says.“And because of that, maybe they don’t want their key players on key books sharing that across the street.”
On the Marvel side of the street, 1996 ended poorly. The company entered Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy in December. Paul Levitz remembers it as a time of great sadness.
“The Marvel bankruptcy was an overwhelmingly strange thing,” he says today. “It was an odd bankruptcy because it wasn’t that Marvel’s business was failing, it was the financial engineering that Ron Perelman had done with the company’s funds that had driven them into bankruptcy. It was sad to watch, and awful torture for the staffers living through it. I have tremendous respect for Bob Harras’ work in that period, holding the whole editorial process together. To this day, I really can’t figure out how the hell he did it.”
But Levitz also thinks the legacy of 1996 was ultimately building a stronger business.
“The most long-lasting piece of this is the change in the distribution system,” he says. “In many ways, it facilitated the growth of the graphic novel. For the most part, in the old system, a store retailer couldn’t order a copy of the Watchmen [paperback] without ordering a box of 18. And no retailer could afford to carry 18 copies of Watchmen at a time, much less a full box of anything that sold less than Watchmen.”
The brokerage agreements that Steve Geppi alluded to were drafted: publishers would own their own stock at Diamond’s warehouses until the books were sold.
“We designed changes in the system so you could get onesies and twosises in the same way that they could in the traditional book business,” Levitz says. “As soon as we changed that, the graphic novel business started to grow at a healthier pace."
Scott Lobdell sees today’s relaunch and reboot culture (Hello, Star Trek; and what the heck, you, too, Space Jam) as having roots in 1996’s "Heroes Reborn."
“Today it’s become almost a monthly event, but at the time it was pretty staggering, and one could make the argument that this one single event opened the floodgates,” Lobdell says. “And it set a precedent: Just a few years later, Marvel gave Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada Marvel Knights, and that begat the Ultimate line, which was sort of an in-house version of 'Heroes Reborn.'”
For his part, Dan Jurgens chooses to remember the good times.
“It reminds me how much fun the ’90s were!” he says. “I know people love to rip 1990s comics in a lot of different ways, but man, you go through it, and we had a decade of things just happening at such a tremendous pace that it couldn’t help but be fun, for fans, for pros, and for retailers. There was just so much happening.”
- You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin