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Ask Chris #115: What’s Up With The ’90s?

Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why each and every week, we turn to you, to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: What are your thoughts on 90s comics?@philjacke

A: It feels like I’ve said this before, but this may in fact be the single vaguest question I’ve ever gotten for this column. Let’s be fair, though: I tend to like the ones that allow me to do a little interpretation. That said, I’m half tempted to just say “The 90s: Ten years during which a lot of comic books were released, a lot of them were good, a lot of them were bad.”

But that doesn’t quite cover it.In comics, the ’90s were a time of incredible, sweeping change and upheaval across every aspect of the industry, the likes of which really hadn’t been seen since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sat down and came up with the idea of super-heroes with problems in Fantastic Four thirty years earlier. You can argue for days over whether those changes were good or bad — and which ones were which — but they were there, and they were huge. It was a weird time, and even looking back from 12 years after the end of the decade (and 22 from its extremely turbulent beginning), it’s hard to pin down a lot of why things happened the way they did.

To really get a handle on it, though, you have to understand what came before. The ’80s, after all, were no slouch themselves in terms of change and upheaval, and a lot of what came after can be traced to a few key events from that decade. Obviously, there was the “maturation” of comics with titles like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. I use the scare quotes because while those two books were certainly well-done and interesting in and of themselves, an overwhelming amount of the comics they inspired were anything but. The imitators learned the wrong lessons, and instead of creating stories that treated their subject matter with intelligence and craft, which is a difficult matter requiring a great deal of skill, the knock-offs tried to recapture the things that were easy, like cussin’ and violence. They were exactly the same kind of escapist power fantasy that they were pretending to rise above, just wrapped up in cheap, meaningless exploitation and sold to the audience as something that wasn’t for little kids — which in itself is the most immature, teenage motivation something can possibly have.

But regardless, books like Watchmen proved on a widespread pop cultural level what most creators and fans had always known: That super-hero comics could have value beyond just being disposable entertainment. But while that simple, revolutionary idea caused a huge change for comics, I’d argue that those early years of gritted teeth and pouches that always come to mind when someone says “The ’90s” were even more influenced by something else that happened the previous year: The Black & White Boom.

The B&W Boom played out like a smaller-scale test-run for what would happen in the ’90s: An explosion of small-press, creator-owned and often non-super-hero comics that would run its course before collapsing, leaving only a few survivors to go on to greater success. As you might expect, it had its roots in the push for independence and creator rights that got started back in the ’70s (which itself was rooted in the treatment of creators at the major publishers in the ’60s, which exacerbated problems that started between publishers and creators back in the ’40s, which really got started with the pulps and newspaper strips in the ’30s, and so on) and led to some of the cornerstones of independent comics, like Matt Wagner’s Mage, Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.

But the most important title to come out of that era, and maybe the single most important title in all of modern comics, was a joke that two guys came up with at their kitchen table that went on to become the most popular thing in the entire world: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

As I understand it, TMNT was originally the product of Eastman and Laird making fun of all the goofy stuff that was popular in comics at the time — teenage mutants in X-Men and ninjas in Daredevil — and man. Watching their joke about what it took to be popular in mainstream comics grow to become an omnipresent multinational mass-media powerhouse that eclipsed the stuff it was parodying, and spawned its own legion of imitators? That had to be pretty weird.

But weird or not, it was a huge deal. Within five years, Eastman and Laird had achieved commercial success on a level that the creators they grew up idolizing never had, and they did it with a property they owned. They weren’t just making some massive corporation rich off their work (though they were definitely doing that), they were making themselves rich with it, too.

Can you imagine being a young creator coming up in the late ’80s, knowing you want to work in comics and suddenly seeing these two dudes making millions off a comic they created with no publisher, no editors and no company? Seeing two guys who owned their creation after hearing horror stories about Bill Finger, who died in 1974 without ever getting to put his name on Batman, a character he co-created? Can you imagine what an influence that would have on how you’d decide to pursue your career?

Because I bet this dude can.

In any discussion of the ’90s, it’s inevitable that you’re eventually going to get around to Rob Liefeld. The Rob is like a walking zeitgeist for the era; depending on who you ask, he’s its greatest success story, its worst villain, or its most harrowing cautionary tale, but just about everybody agrees that he’s emblematic of the time. It’s at the point where his personal art style is visual shorthand for “1990 – 1995.” And when you start looking at how things connect you can get a much better sense of where he’s coming from.

But we’ll get back to the Rob in a second. For now, there’s another element of TMNT‘s massive success that shaped his career, and the entire industry in the ’90s: Collectibles. The single worst thing to ever happen to the comics industry.

Comic book collecting had always been a part of comic book fandom, but before the ’90s, it tended to be a secondary hobby to actually reading the damn things. That was actually the original motivation: In the years before you could stroll into your local bookstore and pick up a phone book-sized slab of reprints (and well before you could download a run of copies as a torrent, for the more piratical among you), collecting comics was the only way to get all the stories. Obviously, the stories that introduce elements that become prominent parts of the stories or issues that had better stories become more sought after because of what they represent to the ongoing saga. And just as obviously, you want to be able to read your comics, so it helps if they don’t have missing pages or crayon markings or whatever, so a copy in better condition is more valuable than one that’s been trashed.

But by the ’90s, there was a shift to the idea of the comic as a collectible in and of itself, a physical object completely separate from the stories they contained. TMNT makes the perfect example: by 1989, it was a massive worldwide success, but the initial print run that kicked everything off back in ’84 — and was therefore a pretty important comic book — was limited to an initial print run of only 3,000 copies. That’s rarity. When there’s an audience out there of millions upon millions of kids begging their parents for anything and everything related to the franchise (yours truly included), that’s demand. Throw that in with the newly minted direct market of comic book specialty stores that cater to comic book readers and collectors (another catalyst of the ’80s and ’90s that’s way too complex for me to get into at this point), and you have the beginning of a money-making machine that’s built on collectibility, rather than story content.

Thus, the entire cottage industry within a cottage industry springs up that’s built entirely around the idea of creating scarcity. It’s essentially a game of “how much are these suckers willing to pay,” with the answers codified for the marks in the last ten pages of Wizard, or its slightly more respectable cousin, the Overstreet Price Guide. Or as I call it, Satan’s Bible. Seriously, if we get nothing else out of digital comics, please let it be a stake in the heart of the collector and a burial at the crossroads.

The idea of comics as collectibles over comics as stories was a crucial element of the ’90s, and it almost ruined comics forever. But at the time, all it meant was money. Fueled by stories of how Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 had undergone a 1,000,000% increase in value on their 10-cent cover prices, customers were buying up stacks of whatever they thought might be hot so that they could bust ‘em out 20 years later and send their kids to college. Meanwhile, retailers were ordering millions of copies to keep up with that demand — and hedging their own bets with boxes of X-Force #1 (polybagged with a trading card!) in the back just in case they did take off. And all those millions were being funneled straight up to the publishers and, because of the way rights, rates and royalties had been restructured back in the ’70s and ’80s, the creators.

Clearly, this is a pretty sweet deal for the guys at the top of the pyramid, which is why DC and Marvel went out of their way to cultivate collectibility in what they were doing. The stories they produced in the ’90s reflected this approach, whether it was Marvel’s move to publish “Collector’s Item First Issues” with series like X-Men, Spider-Man, X-Force, and pretty much every comic with the word “Punisher” in the title, or DC’s bright idea of “killing” Superman, which produced one of the best-selling comics of the modern era.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear to me that this was probably a terrible idea — and not just because it was a story where Superman and a giant bone monster in green bike shorts punched each other to death. It’s great that they sold a million comics and bought Dan Jurgens a solid gold statue of Booster Gold or whatever, but they also had a truly massive amount of media coverage that told people that Superman was dead, and lured them into a shop where they bought a comic that — if they bothered to actually pop open the polybag and read it — ended with Lois Lane cradling Superman’s lifeless body. In real life — in most fiction — that tends to be the end of things. They told the biggest potential audience they had ever had that Superman was dead. Dead. Which, to rational people who are not familiar with how comic books work, means “there will be no more Superman stories so it is completely unnecessary for you to ever return to this shop and buy another one of these.”

I swear to you, I started working at a comic book store ten full years after Superman “died,” and not a month would go by where someone wouldn’t wander in and express utter shock that they were still making Superman comics because he died back in ’94. And this was while there was a TV show about that dude every Friday night. They killed their own brand recognition in their primary medium.

But for the purposes of this column, the point is that it sold at the time, and ended up becoming the go-to sales tactic for super-hero comics. Because of that, we saw the rise of the event comic, the emphasis on Important Comics that Changed Everything (and could therefore be valuable in some vague, nebulous future that never got here), and on the Superstar Creator, who could make any book more important just by being there.

Which brings us back to the Rob. And to Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen and the other artists who came up at the time, but mostly the Rob. Those other dudes have fans and detractors, the Rob has ardent defenders declaring him the heir to Jack Kirby and bloodthirsty haters calling for his severed head on a pike. Reactions to his work tend to be a little more extreme — which I imagine suits him just fine.

I realize this isn’t the way that it’s supposed to work, but the older I get, the more I like Rob Liefeld. I’m the first to admit that I don’t care for his art, but the more you think about the climate that he came up in, the more you kind of understand how he got there.

A while back, I wrote about something Liefeld wrote on his website about dealing with criticism, and one of the things that stuck out was when he talked about his frustrations over an editor “reminding me that I didn’t deserve my success because I hadn’t earned it yet.” On one hand, I see what the unnamed editor was getting at, that the success wasn’t just because of his art. It was a product of the time, the end result of the machine that I’ve been talking about for this entire column.

But on the other hand, the concept of “unearned success” is a pretty nebulous one to pin down. The very fact that it was a success means that something earned it. Something in his art spoke to people, even if it was just convincing them that Wizard was right and this was a safer investment than gold. And if nothing else, Liefeld proved that it wasn’t a fluke when he was even more successful at Marvel with New Mutants and FIVE MILLION COPIES of X-Force #1, and then with Image. There are a ton of arguments about why that doesn’t or shouldn’t matter — artificially inflated sales from speculators, boxes and boxes of unsold copies littering comic book stores across America, the fact that it’s kind of a mess to actually read — but those are immaterial. The fact is that Rob Liefeld’s art sold millions of comic books and made him a financial success.

Again, I’m more a fan of Liefeld’s in concept than in practice, but try looking at it from his perspective: That dude was a millionaire, in his early 20s, from making comics. People can tell him that he sucks and can’t draw feet and that pouches are dumb and that sword blades don’t work that way and that guns do not typically rest on top of the fist, and for at least a couple of those, they’d be right, but he has hard evidence that he’s doing something right. How much “constructive criticism” are you going to take when you’re making millions doing it your way?

As hard as it might be to accept, history has smiled upon Rob Liefeld. Just look at what he’s done with that fame, and the collaborators he’s managed to work with or bring onto his comics over the years: Joe Casey. Joe Keatinge. Brandon Graham. Ross Campbell. Tim Seeley. Alan Moore. And, you know, Jeph Loeb, but nobody’s perfect.

Anyway, if TMNT #1 was the most important thing to happen in comics in the ’80s, then the formation of Image is unquestionably the most important event of the ’90s. The fact that they were able to leverage that machine that the major publishers had created to make them Superstar Artists who created Important Comics and come out of the gate with creator-owned books that — however briefly and for whatever reason — matched the sales of their corporate counterparts? That was a huge proof-of-concept for the very idea of independent comics. It doesn’t really matter if they were good — a couple of ‘em are downright unreadable — they showed it was possible. They showed that they were just as good at making collectibles as the major publishers, and at the time, that was even more important than making better comics — that would come later.

If those people hadn’t done those books in that way and made those numbers, would creator-owned comics even seem remotely as viable today? I’m not sure. I doubt it. I certainly doubt that there would be a major comic book publisher as prominent that did nothing but creator-owned books.

Obviously, that machine and the success that it built didn’t last. Thanks to a combination of Turok #1, Deathmate, Superman’s mullet and an entire legion of people somehow waking up and realizing that they’d been sold a four-color bill of goods with these “collectible” comics, the bubble burst. Independent publishers folded by the dozens, comic book stores that sprung up around the boom were shuttered (leaving the average American something like 70 miles away from a shop), quarter bins were choked with comics that used to be hot, and Marvel Comics — Marvel f***ing Comics, the people who own Spider-Man — went bankrupt.

It wasn’t sustainable. Generally speaking, the business model was built on chasing something that had really happened by accident, rather than on focusing on crafting quality. That’s not a knock against those comics — okay, it kind of is — but when the art form is so secondary that you’re actually telling people not to read their comics lest their greasy sausage fingers cause a crease that knocks it down to VF-, it’s pretty clear that you’re selling something that’s completely divorced from content. That tends to catch up with you, because the entire idea of collecting is, at its heart, that people want good comics. If Dr. Fantastico’s first appearance is ultra-limited and chromium enhanced, but nobody actually cares, it’s literally not worth the paper it’s printed on. And yet, the mentality persists, even today.

But while the Rob and the speculators might be the popular image (no pun intended) of the ’90s, they’re really only half the story. As much as Liefeld is the poster boy for the ’90s, there’s another contender for that title, and one that might be a little unexpected given the era’s reputation: Mark Waid.

See, that same machine that prized Important Stories and Superstar Creators also had an emphasis on New Stuff, and since super-hero fans tend to run screaming from anything new like it’s made of flammable bubonic plague, it tends to be New Stuff that’s already tied in with Old Stuff. After all, the only thing with more potential value than a death is a First Appearance. That’s why you get things like X-Force, a new take on an established franchise. And why Mark Waid was the perfect writer for the era.

In terms of pure skill, Waid’s light years ahead of most other comics creators, but he’s also a guy with an intricate knowledge and respect for past continuity who doesn’t mind doing new stuff with it. In a way, his run on Flash with the late, great Mike Wieringo is just as much of an archetypical ’90s book as Youngblood. It takes familiar elements that fans already knew, but presents them in a different way that feels exciting and fresh.

That’s actually Waid’s specialty as a super-hero writer, using that stuff from the past but with an eye towards looking forwad. Hell, he’s even the guy who wrote Kingdom Come, a commentary on the ’90s that actually came out in the ’90s, a throwback designed to show that those older charactrers had value even in a market that as dominated by… well, by Rob Liefeld characters. There’s a reason Magog looks just like Cable but with a dumber hat.

It wasn’t limited to Waid, though he’s one of the most prominent examples, and Flash really set the tone for the DC Universe at the time. James Robinson and Tony Harris’s relaunch of Starman is built entirely around offering a new take on Golden Age characters and their legacies that would appeal to new readers. Morrison’s JLA was an attempt to go back to the original idea of DC’s biggest characters (and Aquaman) on a single team that had been subsumed by the more down-to-Earth take of Justice League International and its team of B-listers. They were old ideas, just taken in a new direction.

In fact, that was a goal that a huge chunk of the ’90s were built around. It’s why there are so many legacy characters that cropped up in that era, like Kyle Rayner or Connor Hawke — people were looking for new ways to capitalize on those existing concepts. It wasn’t just at DC, either. Ben Reilly and the whole Spider-Clone fiasco were, at heart, just dredging up a piece of old Spider-Man continuity and seeing if there was something new to do with it.

Of course, that eventually led to the 2000s trend of too much emphasis on the past, reaching back to wipe out the changes so that everything can be put back just so. But that’s another column. For this one, that’s the ’90s: A lot of comics came out, a lot of ‘em were good, and a lot of ‘em were bad.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to chris@comicsalliance.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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