Where's the Comics Bailout?

Bloggified by Jake on Wednesday, October 1, 2008

About 15 years ago, comic books literally blew up. And when I say "literally," I mean "figuratively." So maybe I should start over.

In the early-to-mid-1990's, the comic book industry was swept up in a boom the likes of which few businesses can ever dream of witnessing. The outlandish successes of comics--which can still be seen today as Rob Liefeld brags on Facebook that he's "watching Iron Man on Blu-Ray on a 67-inch plasma HD TV"--was the result of a perfect storm of movies, all-star talents, and speculation.

Readers who weren't yet teenagers in the summer of Tim Burton's Batman may have trouble believing the anticipation for that film. There were not many places you could go and not see someone wearing a Batman T-shirt. The bat symbol was plastered on everything. In short, imagine all the marketing hype you see behind every summer blockbuster of 2008, but concentrated on a single film.

Inevitably, the public's insatiable need for Batparaphernalia drove them to the comic stores. The hole-in-the-wall shops were overwhelmed by people wanting anything Bat-related.

If there was a Holy Grail of this time, it was Detective Comics #27. Years earlier, a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, had sold for over $100,000, and strangers to comic collecting saw the opportunity to snatch up the first appearance of Batman for a hefty payday down the road.

The limited number of Detective #27's out there led many to grab other back issues. Long boxes full of years' old Batman comics flew out of stores at well above guide. It didn't matter, many figured, since comics always increased in value. The longer a comic was around, the rarer it would become as it's printed brothers and sisters would fall victim to spilled drinks, bathroom reading, sun fading, cover creases, and other varied maladies. If a yellowed copy of Detective Comics #34 was worth $50,000, surely a perfectly preserved copy of Batman #458 would be worth double that in twenty years.

Speculators sought to get ahead of the game by looking at the long term investments. Buying up new comics and saving them in acid-free bags and boards, they assumed they could see big paydays in the decades to come. They bought up first appearances of new characters like Venom and the early works of hot talents like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld.

The publishers noticed this and began catering to these customers. New characters were being introduced every month, many with "1st Appearance" emblazoned right on the cover. McFarlane, Lee, and Liefeld were given their own books to plot and draw Spider-Man and the X-Men however they saw fit. McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 had a print run in the millions with three different covers.

It didn't take long for those star artists to figure out they could make even more money if they made up their own characters and published their own comics, cutting out the middleman and putting the profits directly into their own pockets. McFarlane's Spawn #1 outsold Spider-Man #1. Fans couldn't get enough of Youngblood and WildC.A.T.s and Cyberforce... well, until the second or third issues came out... months after the debuts... with bad dialogue and aimless plots...

The boom continued for a few years, highlighted with the Death of Superman in Superman #75, a book that had people lining up around the corner of the strip mall back when I worked at Atomic Comics in high school. Image was far from the only company trying to break DC and Marvel's duopolous hold on the sales charts. Valiant became a major player as it's smaller print runs on books like X-O: Man of War and Magnus: Robot Fighter were recognized as rarer commodities by speculators. Dark Horse relied heavily on movie properties like Predator, Aliens, Predator vs. Aliens, Terminator, Robocop, and Terminator vs. Robocop. Chaos filled the all-important "white chick in a skull bikini and professional wrestling tie-ins" niche. Topps and other non-publishing companies rushed to get in on the boom by either buying small publishers or by starting their own.

By the late-90's most publishers had gone broke, including Marvel, which filed for bankruptcy 32 times (at least that's what happened to the best of my recollection), and DC, who staved off bankruptcy thanks to Ted Turner taking over Warner Bros. The glut of titles on the market for characters no one cared about, the lack of follow though on start up titles, and the backrooms full of boxes and boxes of comics that were supposedly rare while still taking up an awful lot of space, sent the market into a tailspin.

Oh, and let's not forget the myriad film projects born of Hollywood's rush to churn out the next Batman that included Roger Corman's Fantastic Four, Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher who never wears a skull shirt because it looked too "comic book-y," a Captain America movie I could swear I saw on Showtime one afternoon in 1993 but have never seen anywhere else, and a Justice League TV pilot that makes "Misfits of Science" look like The Dark Knight.

Hundreds of stores that had opened in the early-90's were boarded up by the late-90's. Print runs that had been in the millions were considered booming successes if they could maintain 4% of that.

Price guides told you Spider-Man #1's silver cover was worth $50, but why would any retailer pay you even a tenth of that when he already had 400 copies in his garage because they wouldn't fit in the storeroom? To this day, you could drown a man in all the issues of Deathmate #1 in the Atomic warehouse.

Despite the devastation the late-90's bust had on small businesses, investors, and large corporations, the government never stepped in with a $700 trillion bailout. Secretary of Comics Julius Schwarz wasn't given unfettered power to do whatever he pleased to make sure America would never have to go without Green Lantern.

Investors bought Spawn comics for $30 an issue because they expected them to go up in value even though they clearly were not worth $30. Investors bought houses for $500,000 because they expected them to go up in value even though they were clearly not worth $500,000.

Disreputable comic dealers sprang up by the hundreds to exploit the comic boom, ripping off many customers by overcharging for their goods and services and often providing less than they promised. Disreputable mortgage brokers sprang up by the thousands to exploit the housing boom, ripping off many customers by overcharging for their goods and services and often providing less than they promised.

Comic publishers oversaturated the market with more books than could possibly be sold in the hopes of selling as much as possible before the bubble burst. Homebuilders oversaturated the market with more houses than could possibly be sold in the hopes of selling as much as possible before the bubble burst.

If Congress decides to step in and help the greedy, short-sighted assholes who have destroyed themselves by being greedy and short-sighted, I demand a Comic Book Collector Bailout bill (with a Baseball Card Collector rider attached). What's the difference whether the Treasury Department is buying billions of dollars worth of bad mortgages or hundreds of thousands of issues of Brigade #1? The argument that the mortgages might eventually be worth something can just as easily be applied to the comics.

I understand the scale is different and that the greedy, short-sighted assholes in this case could bring the entire American economy to its knees and have us all sewing Nikes for Chinese consumers at 3 cents an hour, while the comic speculators just blew their kids' college funds and wasted a lot of valuable storage space that could be used for holiday decorations. As such, I can support a plan that keeps us afloat, but the speculators, the enablers, and the corporations who sought to exploit an obviously unbalanced market must pay first and shouldn't see one dime of this money until this "bad debt" begins to show enough profit to pay back the Treasury with interest.

1 sarcastic replies:

Rob said...

Great post Jake. I would add that the average American who has had trouble paying bills in the last 8 years has had a number of different options, including predatory lenders, cash advances at absurd interest rates, cashing out the "equity" in his/her overvalued home, filing bankruptcy under new laws that protect creditors and not the filer, and best of all Payday and Car Title Loan stores that popped up everywhere. Now that those billionaires who milked every last dime out of the average worker are in trouble, I say we turn the tables back on them and present them with the same options they presented us. Ergo, the Treasury should attach a 29% interest rate to any loan given to a struggling financial firm, or make them issue collateral (the equivalent of a car title) to the American public, which ultimately means public ownership of private corporations.

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