Comic Crash

How offing Superman almost killed the comic industry

Back Web Only May 13, 2015 By Bill Romanelli

The day Superman died, I was one of millions of people in line throughout the country. It was January 1993, and DC Comics finally released Superman #75, the “Death of Superman.” I was about to buy a comic, I thought, that was as important as the first appearance of Superman 55 years ago in Action Comics #1. Even in ’93, there were stories of Action #1 selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and on that January day I was certain my copies of Superman #75 would someday be worth a fortune, too.

It wasn’t the first comic I’d bought, but back then it was certainly the most important. Superman #75 was the comic that turned me into a collector, and DC Comics masterfully exploited that belief I shared with millions of other comic fans.

“Within a few weeks, copies of Superman #75 were selling on QVC for $75,” says Brian Peets, who owns A-1 Comics in Sacramento and Roseville. “Even then I thought, ‘Wow, that is such rampant speculation — that’s really going to be bad, because anyone buying in at that price has no knowledge of comics or the marketplace.’”

Peets’ concern was well founded, and I could not have picked a worse time to start collecting comics. I knew nothing about speculation, and larger economic forces of which I was completely ignorant were at work.  Shortly after Superman died, he nearly took the entire comic industry with him.

Superman #75 was followed by several related storylines and new titles, and all had to be part of the collection. It was a time of unequaled opportunity to get “Issue #1” of something, or even multiple first issues. DC’s competitors, particularly Marvel, fueled the bandwagon with their own special issues, storylines and new characters. A whole new crop of first issues, often with multiple variant covers, were there for the taking.  

Before long, anyone who published comics was appealing to the collector mentality. A cottage industry of comic speculators cropped up and helped people like me catapult the comic industry into a very prosperous season. If it was new or seemed important in the life of a character, we bought it.  And for a while, it was working.

What happened is now called the Crash of 1993 — even though that year started well for consumers and publishers. It seemed like there was a comic store on every corner as would-be entrepreneurs left good jobs to strike gold selling comics to people like me. Sadly, few of them knew any more about comics than I did.  

When the speculators turned out to be wrong and the average value of Superman #75 dropped to a few dollars above the original cover price, the whole circus tent collapsed.

“When people tried to turn around and sell those comics, they’d settled back into the $15 range. People were angry about losing money on their investment,” Peets says. “They tried selling other comics too, but everything came back on the market at about the same time and the market got very soft.”

Bitter consumers, who also felt duped when DC resurrected Superman after over-hyping his death, walked away from comics altogether. Publishers and retailers, however, were printing and stocking product as if the new popularity of comics would continue forever. The market was flooded with so many new titles that an overall decline in quality of art and writing was also inevitable, which only turned away more people.

By 1997, the volume of comics sold dropped 80 percent from its 1993 high. Many smaller publishers vanished, and even mighty Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy. But it was the retailers who got truly clobbered. With too many comics on their shelves and not enough buyers, two-thirds of the comic stores in the country went out of business, selling their leftover inventory for pennies on the dollar.  

That glutted the market with even more overprinted comics —many of the same titles I was carefully storing in my own collection.

The hot titles I’d collected had been overprinted to the point they were anything but rare or special — the two ingredients vital to making comics valuable. To add insult to injury, most of them had been repackaged into graphic novels that could be bought for under $10. As one recent article put it, the books I’d collectively spent several hundred dollars on were now worth “a little less than firewood.”

It would be years before the industry would recover, but it did and is now healthier than ever. A recent spate of gimmick covers, however, and “deaths” of some key characters, has me wondering whether the industry is learning from its history or poised to repeat it.

Check back next week for Bill Romanelli’s May cover story, “Level Up,” to learn more about the state of the Capital Region’s comic industry. Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll email you when it’s available online. 

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