[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 this first 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.
DC VERSUS MARVEL…AND AMALGAM
Sales were in freefall. The industry was ridiculously top-heavy with X-Men. Retailers were hurting. Comic books needed a lead-pipe cinch, a surefire winner. At 1700 Broadway in New York, the phone rang on the desk of DC’s then-Publisher, Paul Levitz. It was Marvel's then-President Terry Stewart. And he had an idea: A four-issue mini-series in which all of Marvel’s characters could meet all of DC’s.
“The thing basically starting with Terry and his concern and frustration with the shape that the market was in,” Levitz remembers. “We needed to get people back in the shops.”
Two issues were titled simply DC versus Marvel; the other two Marvel versus DC. Marvel would provide a writer and artist team, and DC would do the same. Superman artist Dan Jurgens was tapped as an artist on the DC side. He recalls the market urgency.
“One of the reasons that this project came together in the first place was that Marvel and DC both had a genuine desire to give the market something that would really help out retailers,” Jurgens says. “In comics, we tend to be a group of people for whom the sky is always falling, and the distributor wars had created a lot of uncertainty. This was something the retailers could really chew on and sell a bunch of copies of.”
The launch was economic. But the soul of the project was a buddy-cop movie starring Marvel Editor Mark Gruenwald and DC Editor Mike Carlin. Carlin had started as Gruenwald’s assistant at Marvel before moving to DC. The two were longtime friends who breathed life into the project—in secret early on.
“This was so hush-hush that only the highest echelons at Marvel and DC knew it was happening at first,” says Ron Marz, the writer of DC’s half. “I got invited to the party by Mike Carlin, who told me not to tell anyone. I think I told my wife, and I then told her not to tell anyone. But I certainly didn’t let any of my friends or colleagues in the business know until it was announced.”
The initial creative meeting was cloak-and-dagger.
“Our first meeting for the project was at Mark Gruenwald’s apartment,” Marz says. “They didn’t do it at either office because the editorial staffs at each company didn’t know it was happening. It was me, Mark, Mike Carlin, and [Marvel writer] Peter David, and we hammered out the whole framework of the thing.”
Inevitable Marvel-vs.-DC character battles would happen, with fan voting determining the results. That created its own odd dynamic, as in a comic universe vacuum, the planned Wolverine vs. Lobo would seem to be an easy win for Lobo. But voting by faithful fandom would (and did) tip things in Wolverine’s favor. Both contingencies were planned for.
“We knew going in that fans were going to vote, and I think we were willing to concede that Wolverine was likely going to win that,” laughs Dan Jurgens, who drew the Wolverine vs. Lobo sequence. “But we did two versions of each battle. As soon as it was clear who was going to win the fan vote, bam, we’d put in the correct finished art.”
The DC vs. Marvel project was exactly the tonic that retailers needed. The issues became the top sellers the industry had seen in years, and continued to pay off with Amalgam Comics, a series of one-shots that featured combined Marvel/DC characters: The JLA and the X-Men became JLX, Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate combined to become Dr. Strangefate, and so on. And at the end of it all, the fanboy-unthinkable almost happened: Marvel and DC almost decided to permanently swap two characters.
“I don’t know that the idea lasted more than one meeting with me or someone just throwing up on the table and saying, ‘Oh, God, that is so much more work than it could possibly be worth,’” Paul Levitz recalls. “I think the idea was characters that we wouldn’t necessarily miss, but could potentially make more valuable by generating new interest in another universe.”
Ron Marz’s memory is more acute on the subject.
“The characters discussed were She-Hulk and Martian Manhunter,” he says. “I felt like those were great picks, because at least in terms of power sets, they're kind of redundant characters. She-Hulk is, well, a lady Hulk. And Martian Manhunter is pretty close to Superman, just green with a big brow. They both would've seemed more original in the opposite universe. Again, from what I remember, the idea was a one-year term, at which point the characters go back to their home universes, possibly to be replaced by another swap of characters.”
The swap never happened. But Marvel vs. DC put some fire in the bellies of readers, and some much-needed cash in the registers of stores.
Remember X-Men ruling the roost? Strange things happened in those days, according to Uncanny X-Men writer Scott Lobdell.
“We had an X-Men story conference, and we were asked ‘If you could do any story, what would it be?’” he recalls. “I said I wanted to do a story where the X-Men are at home, they hear a noise, they run outside, and there’s Juggernaut pile-driven into the ground with this five-mile ditch that he’s impacted out before finally stopping and when they ask him what happened, he just says ‘Onslaught’ and passes out.”
Lobdell’s concept seemed like a winner, even though he didn’t know where to go next.
“Everybody said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ but that was all I had,” he recalls. “I didn’t know who Onslaught was at that point.”
Building up a mystery around Onslaught and just who he was became a Marvel editorial priority. And Onslaught became a bridge to an even more pivotal Marvel move.
Remember X-Men ruling the roost? Much of the rest of the Marvel Universe was stuck in a rut, with mediocre sales and not much excitement. And then, the unthinkable happened.
Marvel announced “Heroes Reborn,” in which four longstanding Marvel titles—Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man—would be outsourced to the creative studios of former Marvel talents Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, where they would get new origins and new #1 issues in a separate “pocket universe.” The 12-month deal was a business decision, through and through. The creators were paid very high fees, but had to achieve very high sales.
The decision blindsided Marvel editorial, and many saw it as a repudiation of their work. Editors went into scramble mode, and rising star Carlos Pacheco was put on Fantastic Four #415-#416, the final two issues before the title went off into the Heroes Reborn deal, to show management how good the titles could be. But the die had already been cast.
“Almost everyone at Marvel was upset when they found out,” Scott Lobdell recalls. “From the top down, the company had grown so frustrated with editorial’s efforts to jump-start sales that they were going to turn to outside vendors to re-imagine those properties.”
A story bridge was needed, and it was Onslaught.
“When word comes down that Marvel was shipping off those characters to another universe, me and [Editor in Chief] Bob Harras are sitting around trying to come up with a story that makes sense for the X-Men to stay where they are, but those other characters to go,” Lobdell recalls. “The question became, ‘Who has that power?’ And I said, well, ‘Onslaught can do it.’ So we started to figure out why the X-Men would be involved too. But it was really once there was the need for Heroes Reborn, that we reverse-engineered the creation of Onslaught.”
Tom Brevoort was a Marvel editor at the time, and remains one to this day. He also recalls Heroes Reborn as a seismic shift.
“It was definitely a sea change from anything that had gone on at Marvel previously,” he says. “The idea that you would outsource characters like that was unexplored territory. It might have been the end of Marvel as a publishing institution, and the start of Marvel as a licensing agency that had characters placed all over with other people.”
Strangely enough, Lobdell walked both sides of the street. He continued to write Uncanny X-Men for Marvel, and also wrote the new Iron Man in Heroes Reborn. Not that it was easy.
“I was very, very disliked,” Lobdell says today. “But I always wanted to do the next thing instead of the last thing. And this was the next thing. Plus, I’ve always thought the most important thing in this company [Marvel] is the characters, and not the creators or the editors or the marketers. For me, working on the character superseded any frustration and resentment felt by other people toward me.”
Wrapped up in Heroes Reborn was a poisoned chalice: Captain America. Cap was on the rise with a new creative team in writer Mark Waid and artist Ron Garney, who had started just a few months before the Heroes Reborn deal was announced. But part of the deal it was, and despite rising sales and critical acclaim, Cap went off to the pocket universe. The new Cap and creator Rob Liefeld became a target of derision. To his credit, Liefeld tried to calm the storm.
“He got hold of me,” Mark Waid says. “Rob faxed me his 22 pages of that first issue to ask if I wanted to dialogue it, to keep part of the continuity of the creators. I looked at it, and I said, ‘no thank you.’ It just wasn’t for me, this big, giant barrel-chested Captain America and the teenage sidekick. I just didn’t feel good about it. But he did call me and offer me the gig of scripting over his plot and pencils.”
Heroes Reborn had its own stops and starts. After six issues, citing that sales benchmarks hadn’t been hit, Marvel canceled Liefeld’s contract and reassigned his books to Lee. Then, as Marvel couldn’t get its plans together in time to take the books back after 12 issues, they tacked a thirteenth issue on to Heroes Reborn.
Marvel was plagued by even bigger problems. The company was dying under the weight of Ron Perelman’s financial machinations.
“Heroes Reborn was announced, and three, four weeks later, they had a massive bloodletting here,” Tom Brevoort remembers. “They let an enormous number of people go from every strata of Marvel.”
Brevoort recalls the purge.
“You’d be sitting in your office, and the phone might ring. You’d be told to go down the hall to Bob Harras’ office, and you’d be told you’re getting cut. Someone from HR would be down there, too, and you’d get your severance. And once the first call came in, everybody up and down editorial row knew it was going on, and we’re all living under the sword of Damocles, praying that phone doesn’t ring.”
The practical met the symbolic in tragic fashion on August 12, 1996, as beloved Editor Mark Gruenwald died of a sudden heart attack. He was only 43 years old. The news crushed a staff that was already reeling from massive layoffs and frightful change.
“Literally, between the last ‘regular’ Captain America issues being finished and before the first Heroes Reborn issues, Mark had died,” Tom Brevoort recalls. “I know logically one has nothing to do with the other, but it seemed scary. It loomed large. It seemed like destiny saying, ‘Yeah, this is the end of an era.’”
Come back Friday for the second part in our expansive look back 20 years at the momental year 1996 was for comic books.
—You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin