Monday, October 17, 2011

Reasons the 90's Almost Killed Comics

While the 70's and 80's may have really helped comics, it was the 90's that almost killed them. Many people call the 90's the "Dark Ages" of comics, and it's easy to see why. Here are a few reasons:

1. Heroes Reborn

While DC got all the press for their recent reboot, Marvel tried it in the 90's with horrible results. The Avengers and the Fantastic Four were sent to another dimension, and we were treated to 12 issues of "meh" at best storytelling.

Marvel farmed out the work on their major titles to Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and others at Image Comics. It was a "daring" move that they hoped would generate sales. Instead, the 12 issues we have of this storyline through various titles were met with confusion and ridicule in many instances. I mean, when Captain America is stacked more than Power Girl, you should see problems coming.

While they did manage to bring the team back to the "real world" later, they can never fail to admit the idea stunk. The concept might have been good, but their execution left a lot to be desired. You can get the trade paperback editions of their storylines now if you need a good laugh.

2. The X-Men Get a New Title...and a Million Copies of It

Any avid fan of The Uncanny X-Men from the 80's still had some hope as the 90's rolled in. Jim Lee was the top artist out there, and when we were told he'd be taking over a new X-Men title we were thrilled. You were hard-pressed to find a comic book fan who wasn't scrambling to find that coveted first issue of X-Men when it came out, certain we were holding a million-dollar collectible in our hands! What we didn't know was that Marvel was anticipating a sell-out, so they were feverishly printing and reprinting copies of this book.

At first we were proud and excited to say we owned that first issue that was sure to go up in value. Then we noticed comic shops and bookstores were still selling it. Then they couldn't give copies away. Now what could have stood as a landmark collector's item is notorious for being one of the least valuable back issues of the X-Men franchise.

3. Weird Cover Stuff

The 90's were a decade of dazzle for comic book covers. Never mind paper, the publishers decided what we needed were gimmicks!

We had foil-embossed covers! We had hologram covers! We had more variant covers than you could shake a stick at! We had lenticular covers! We had polybags with and without collectibles!

Some comics came bagged with trading cards! Some covers actually glowed in the dark! A few were die-cut to get them that extra edge! We had gatefold covers that spread out for miles (it seemed)!

Of course, many of the more spectacular cover enhancements meant that the comic itself would cost a little extra that month to cover it. At the time, it may have seemed like a spectacularly cool gimmick to begin with, but soon everybody was on the bandwagon and some months it was hard to find a comic that wasn't decked out in some gaudy cry for attention.

Now this is considered a joke of the comic book industry. Whoever was selling holograms to the comic companies in the 90's retired a very rich man.

I have to admit I was right there grabbing holographic copies of Spider-Man comics thinking I was having something special to give to my sons one day. Now they are stuffed in a box somewhere in the attic collecting dust with my copy of X-Men #1. Still, if you were willing to destroy the comic itself to get the hologram off you had a cool collectible sticker.

4. The Clone Saga

Oh baby, if you want to look at a low point in the 90's, look no further than this "turning point" in the life of Peter Parker. This confusing mess of storytelling reigned supreme as the worst Spider-Man storyline of all time until "One More Day" came out ten years later.

What's so sad is that the original story this is based on from the 70's was actually a pretty good story. The Jackal (Professor Warren) created a clone of Gwen Stacy and later Spider-Man himself. Spidey had to fight the clone and disposed of his body later. The story left just a little ambiguity as to whether our Spidey was the real thing or the clone.

Well, the Marvel writers in the 90's decided to turn things on their ear and say that our Spidey was actually the clone, and the real Peter Parker had been living another life since that incident. Even another clone named Kaine was eventually brought into the story and we were given quite the ride for a while. Peter Parker left with a pregnant Mary Jane to live a hero-less life while Ben Reilly stepped in with a new suit and took over as Spider-Man.

Looking back on this, it's easy to see where this could have indeed been a killer project for Marvel. It really did give them a chance to partially reboot Spider-Man while keeping the long-time fans happy by not erasing years of comic reading. Instead, the concept became so convoluted that even the writers themselves were unsure as to where it was going and who particular heroes and villains were. Aunt May was killed off (something I say should have been left alone) but she was subsequently brought back by saying it wasn't really her that died. Gwen Stacy's clone ran away and we never ever saw her again in any storyline. So many possibilities that were tossed aside.

Because of sales, the storyline continued on for far longer than it ever should have. If three clones were selling, why not add hundreds more and create "Maximum Clonage"? Let's bring back dead guys like Kaine and drag this sucker on for another year! Eventually Peter and Ben had to team up to find out who really was the clone, and we ended up with a reveal that Ben was the clone and Peter was real...or was he?

The only really cool thing to come out of the 90's Clone Saga was Ben Reilly's Spider-Man costume. I'm sorry, but whoever designed that one really nailed it as an incredible update to the suit while still paying homage to the original. I wish they'd still left that one around. It did come out in an action figure though, so it's better than nothing.

As I mentioned before, this was the potential for a reboot that could have worked, but they didn't have this mapped out well enough before they started and it soon became a write-as-we-go-along scenario that was doomed. Marvel had no lower Spider-Man point until they came out with "One More Day".

Two years ago they put out a miniseries by some of the original writers who were allowed to redo the saga in six issues with no interference from higher-ups like last time. In those six issues, they managed to put together a good story that would have made the saga (if they'd been allowed to do it right) one of the highlights of the 90's. Though the story feels rushed in some parts (there are several weeks that pass between most issues so the story can progress in a logical sense) it's still a lot better than the original.


JoeGKushner said...

Don't forget the comic book from one of the smaller companies that actually had a bullet hole through it. Ah, the 90's.

William said...

Hey, you didn't mention DC at all. What about the "Death" of Superman and the Az-Bat saga? Those stories were rife with gimmick covers, clones and armor clad replacements. Not to mention "mullet" Superman.

Then there was Image (all style and no substance) Comics. Talk about a directionless mess. Their books were always late coming out and almost everything that did make it to the shelves barely made any sense. The stories were all over the place and never really went anywhere. Even their best-selling Spawn was a hot mess. To be honest, I'm surprised the company survived.

Then there were the other 900 comic companies that seemed to spring up over night and disappear just as quickly.

But the biggest contributor to the "almost" death of comics in the 90's had to be the speculator market. Fueled by such things as the aforementioned X-Men #1, Death of Superman, Spider-Man #1, the launch of Image, etc. It had people believing they were going to get rich by buying a comic that 2,000,000 other people bought at the same time. When it didn't happen, a lot of so-called "collectors" abandoned the hobby in droves. After the smoke cleared, the industry took a huge hit that it still has not recovered from.

On a side note, I agree the Clone Saga was a low point for Spider-Man, but I still have some fond memories of that time for some reason. I did very much like both Ben's Scarlet Spider and Spider-Man costumes.

Also, I think they made it pretty clear that Ben was definitely the clone when he disintegrated into dust after he died. Although I don't know why a clone would disintegrate. A clone is still a real flesh and blood creature. It's just sort of like a test tube baby. It's not some "monster" created in a lab from silicone or something. So, if you mortally wounded a cloned human, they would just die like a normal person. But I guess Marvel wanted to bring home the point (comic-book style) that Ben was the fake, Peter was the real Spider-man and that the "Clone Saga" was officially over and done.

Brian Reaves said...

William, DC gets theirs next week in the 2nd part of this post. Join us as we bash the greatest rip-off character ever created by DC in the 90's.

Mike said...

Looking forward to the DC part of this.
I remember people with no interest at all in comics finding their way to the comic store to pick a certain Superman comic.
I wonder how many actually kept it?

I agree that "One More Day" was the lowest point at Marvel.

Chris said...

Remember the companies that alllllmost made it? Some even became major players. I never read any (but I recently found a BUNCH of some long-boxes I bought for like $5.00...but Valient comics positioned itself for long-term growth and sustainability. Malibu seemed like it could have made it also.

The 90's were a mess. As far as everything being cyclical, the 90's was the epitome of "We read these as kids, now we're redesigning it all how WE see fit." It was adolescent boys who grew up into the industry FINALLY getting to publish the stories/characters they'd written/drawn as pre-pubescent teenagers.

It's almost like the 90's were a big "apology" for everything about the silver/golden ages. Rather than embracing the creativity, values, and "essence" of what was built before them, 90's writers/artists felt the need to be iconoclasts/cynics and break everything down, giving it all new spins that were "cooler" or "more extreme". It was a shame.

I'm glad the pendulum slowly swung back to where it is now; where it's a writer driven market with beautiful art to balance it out. We're currently (though I see it ending very soon) in the best time to be a comic book reader. We have beautiful STORIES, not just beautiful art (and by art, I mean splash page after splash page.)

Although we're (the comic industry) still suffering from little "annoyances" (i.e. Tracing a'la Greg Land, the never ending event, DC's new relaunch, "variant covers" taking the place of gimmick covers)...I'd like to think the industry has learned from its mistakes. I'm excited to see where comics will be in 10 years; with innovations such as digital comics/distribution. Even with DC's new 52...

Just give me good stories...

Kooz said...

Just commented on part 2, which I read first, naturally. I mentioned the gimmicky covers in my comment, but I see now that you already covered it. Well-done, sir! said...

Thanks, Laura. I still can't believe it's 500 already. You know, it's always been an inspiration to me that every other writer I meet understands exactly where I'm coming from. That has made all the difference.
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Anonymous said...

yes marvel did it a low part in the clone saga but the 90's gave us Deadpool and Cable and lets not forget the Age of Apocalypse ( yes alpha and omega did have gimmick covers) but it was good saga.

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