Five Reasons Comic Books In The 1990s Sucked
I began my long-running love affair with English language comic books in 1990. By then, I'd already been reading Spanish language comics for several years. American (read: superhero) comic books didn't really interest me much until 1989, when the first modern Batman movie hit theaters. Amid all the furor over the movie, comic books were able to have the spotlight shone on them by the media for a brief moment. The occasional news stories about comic books "not being for kids anymore", as well being good investment vehicles, also got my attention at the time. By the spring of 1990, my English was good enough that my 12-year-old self felt like it was time to try some of these comics. I fell in love with the characters and stories almost immediately. Unfortunately, I jumped on board a short time before what would become one of the worst times for comic books, at least from a creative standpoint. Comics of the 1990s in general are often reviled for being pretty awful. And while some really great stuff did come out during that decade, 1990s comics did turn out to suck pretty hard. Why exactly was that, though?
I'll admit, one of the reasons I got into comics myself was because many comics were supposed to be "collector's items" that could become valuable over time. Comics speculators (or readers/collectors/speculators, such as myself) sometimes bought multiple copies of a first issue, hunted down first appearances, and dutifully checked Wizard Magazine every month to see what was "hot". Now, to me the stories and characters always came first, and if a comic I bought ended up going up in price, that was just a bonus. But I did end up buying a lot of crap that I otherwise wouldn't have really wanted, because of its potential value. Many speculators, though, went way more overboard than I did, buying multiple copies (sometimes dozens or more) of a "hot" issue, charging or paying ridiculous amounts of money for comics that were sometimes only months old and in plentiful supply and often not even opening bagged comics, since reading the comic would mean it was no longer in "mint" condition. This caused the comic book industry to become about something other than the artistic/entertainment product itself.
Eventually, the speculator market collapsed in the mid-90s, as publishers had flooded the market with overprinted crap, and most speculators collectively hoarded millions of individual comics that turned out not to be valuable because -- duh -- everybody already had them. Supply and demand, folks. How rare did X-Force #1 turn out to be? You can probably get a copy for 25 cents now, easily. Well, what am I saying, "probably"? The rush for easy profits from speculation-crazed buyers also pushed comic book publishers to churn out a LOT of absolutely unreadable crap, countless crossover events that forced fans to buy twenty different titles in order to follow a story, numerous useless variant covers (more on those below), ridiculous, boring characters and seemingly endless "events" and character deaths. From a creative standpoint, most of these trends were just that...hollow gimmicks.
2. Variant and Special Covers
The 1990s was the decade of the variant cover. You know, when a single issue of a comic comes in several different versions, the only distinction being that each one would have a different "collectible" cover. This was an oft-used trick through which publishers got speculators and collectors to essentially buy four or five versions of the same damn issue. The trend seems to have begun with Marvel's Spider-Man #1 (August 1990), which came in three different cover versions. A year later, X-Force #1 came out with a slight twist on the variant cover tactic: a different trading card in each bagged version. Then came X-Men #1, the Robin II mini-series, and on and on and on. I fell for the trick a few times, until the end of 1991, when I finally realized I was a moron and was getting ripped off.
There were also the "special covers". The first one of note I remember was the silver-embossed cover of Silver Surfer #50, which turned out to be a huge seller (for an otherwise low-selling title), and which motivated Marvel to then slap a hologram or die-cut or something-or-other cover on pretty much any #1 (or "anniversary", or whatever) issue for the next few years. These special cover comics were, of course, more expensive than a regular book, boosting the publisher's profit margins. The variant and special cover trends helped push the speculator market into berserker frenzy levels in 1991 and 1992. This did nothing for the creative quality of the comics themselves.
3. "Hot" Artists
Comic fans have always had favorite artists through the decades, and have gone out of their way to follow their work. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams and John Byrne, just to give a few examples. But in the 90s, the cult of the "hot artist" reigned supreme. The hot artists of the 90s were known for their dynamic and relatively unique artwork, which differed from more traditional comic book art in its use of extremely exaggerated anatomy, LOTS of lines and cross-hatching, ridiculous action poses and female hero costumes that looked more like stripper outfits. Oh, and lots of big, complicated-looking guns and pouched belts/straps. Artists like Todd McFarlane, Rob Lie...uuugghhh...sorry, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee became comic superstars. Their early (and not-so-early) work in titles like Amazing Spider-Man and the X-Men titles shot up in value, and the comic world reoriented itself to cater to fans' new obsession with these new styles. Many of these new stars left Marvel and/or DC in the early 90s to form Image Comics. Image was a good step in the direction of creators' rights, but a bad step in the direction of making comics that were unreadable and full of gaudy, juvenile art.
While I had some favorite artists, such as Dale Keown (Hulk) and Bob Layton (Iron Man, Valiant Comics), I was never a huge art fanboy. My main focus was usually the writing. Due to this, I had to endure endless annoyance at the market being cornered by "hot artist" books. Eventually, though, many fans realized that many of the hot new talents couldn't actually draw all that well and were using dynamism to cover up serious flaws in anatomy, perspective and storytelling. This became especially true of Rob Liefeld and his many imitators, who with time basically became laughingstocks. However, by the time that happened, the damage had already been done.
4. Character Overexposure
Since the early days of comic books, there have always been certain characters that have been popular enough to support several titles, and/or make frequent guest appearances in other characters' books. But in the 90s, comic book publishers took this idea to absurd levels. At one time or another early in the decade, there were three monthly Punisher books, at least six monthly X-Men related books, at least four monthly Spider-Man books, two to three GHOST RIDER books and Wolverine alone seemed to appear in nearly every title Marvel published. The Punisher even had a crossover with Archie, for crap's sake. DC started putting Lobo in damn near everything, and Batman had more titles, specials and graphic novels than anyone could reasonably keep up with. In the case of less established characters like Ghost Rider, Punisher, Cable and Lobo, the over-exposure fatigued their fans and killed the characters' popularity.
Again, overexposure was not new to the 90s (Richie Rich starred in over fifty different titles over the years, which sounds absolutely unbelievable now), but it was in that decade that it was taken to new heights (or lows, rather). With the collapse of the comic book market in the mid-90s, the trend abated, although it didn't completely stop. Another dimension of character overexposure was the over-creation of new characters, as publishers frantic to find the "next big thing" started throwing massive amounts of crap at the walls to see what would stick. Many new characters that debuted amid much fanfare (War Machine, Vengeance, Carnage) as well as older ones that were revamped (Morbius, Deathlok) were popular for a few months or a couple of years, and then faded into obscurity. In 1993, Marvel took this to a new level by debuting a new character in each of that summer's twenty-seven Annuals. NONE of them amounted to jack squat in the long run. More characters or the same characters in every other story did not equal quality storytelling
5. Too Much Product
As the nineties wore on, it became apparent that the millions of comics being published every year were being bought not by tens of millions of comic readers, but mostly by -- at best -- a few hundred thousand speculators and hoarders. When everyone started to realize that all of these comics were not going to become valuable investments, and that worst of all, most of them were horrendously written and drawn, sales began to crater. By 1995 the comic book market was disintegrating, and by the end of 1996 Marvel was declaring bankruptcy. It had all been too much, too fast.
During the largely Marvel & Image-fueled comic book glut of the early 90s, dozens of new publishers came into the market, trying to cash in on the hot new trend of the day. By the end of the decade, many were moribund or long dead, and many comic shops across the country shut their doors. While comic books have largely rebounded in terms of quality in recent years, readership & sales levels never again returned to the heights of the comic book heyday of 1990-1994, at least in the Americas. It is unlikely they ever will either, but that may not be a bad thing. Hardbound collections and digital comics, and to a lesser extent monthly traditional comics, are keeping the medium alive, albeit mostly as a niche industry.