For a person who often is associated with comic books, I've barely touched on the subject here in my itty-bitty nook of the interweb. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I stopped collecting them. When I write "collecting" I mean it in the sense that I don't buy single issues on a regular basis, letting my obsessive-compulsive side get the better of my wallet and what little unused space my etcetera-saturated, humble abode has. It's been a couple of years since I stopped going to conventions, looking for those elusive back issues to series that I yearned to have in order to fill the missing holes that plagued my life---Aztek: The Ultimate Man #9, for instance---even though I'd long ago stopped reading them. Why I stopped collecting isn't a story of a triumph of the human will over its own body's miserable, debilitating habits; while I was quite the fanboy, I never had it that badly. Between the ages of 11 and 20 I probably amassed two thousand comics at most---and that's a generous guestimate---which pales in comparison to the eight to ten thousand comics a couple people I know now have stored in long cardboard boxes. Rather, this has more to do with my own maturing coupled with the evolution of an industry that has, since the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, been more-or-less stuck in perpetual pre-adolescence.
A Very, Very Brief History of the American Comics Industry Since 1954, or Why Comics are the Way they are (More-or-Less, as I Know it)
A number of you may already know about the Seduction of the Innocent scandal---Dr. Fredric Wertheim's well intended, but misdirected book associating juvenile delinquency with comic books. In the aftermath of the book's publication were some instances of parents burning their kids' comics, congressional hearings, and eventually the industry's own establishment of the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code, which had a similar purpose to the MPAA's rating system, was meant to be a symbol of which comics were appropriate for kids, and which comics were lurid drivel. (Some examples of rules the CCA laid down are "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds," " No comic magazine shall use the word 'horror' or 'terror' in its title," "All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society." Obviously some rules were adhered to more strictly than others.)
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Wertheim's book, the fact that a fairly large part of the comics reading audience were older---former G.I.'s from World War II, for example---was simply forgotten about. Sales that were already slumping due to the bad publicity, but when the Code virtually dictated that the content of comics be geared toward children, the industry lost another significant portion of its readership.
Once the Code was instituted, pretty much every comics publisher finagled their stable of comics to adhere to the new rules. Not having the CCA stamp of approval was the kiss of death for a comic book. Your average corner store wouldn't carry comics that were missing the CCA logo on their covers for fear of being accused of selling obscene material to children by overzealous parents. And at a time when newsstand and drugstore sales were the driving retail force of the industry---comic book specialty stores weren't conceived of at this point---that meant if you didn't have a CCA stamp adorning your books, you couldn't sell any comics.
One conspiracy theory has it that the rules of the CCA were drawn up specifically to put EC Comics out of business. EC Comics was one of the most popular and successful comics publishers of the time, churning out mainly crime and horror comics, which featured a number of things explicitly banned by the CCA. In the end EC's only publication to survive was MAD Magazine.
The death of EC Comics left the racks open for superhero and romance comics to proliferate. Eventually most of the romance comics fell by the wayside and superheroes became pretty much the only game in town (resulting in comics readership being almost exclusively male). And this was the way things stayed for about 35 years, with a couple of exceptions. First, there was a fairly successful underground comics movement in the 1960s---its most famous patron being R. Crumb---which is known mainly for acting as an outlet for subversive political and sexual ideas, though it appears to have had relatively minimal impact on popular culture. Second, in the mid-to-late-1980s there was a shift in the market and some comics began to skew toward some darker themes. DC comics began publishing dark fantasy and horror comics again with the likes of Swamp Thing as written by Alan Moore and Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Meanwhile Marvel helped establish the anti-hero as the most popular type of protagonist in superhero comics---the Punisher and Wolverine being the two most recognizable characters in this mode.
It was also around this time that the distribution system changed, comics became increasingly scarce at newsstands and corner stores, while at the same time comics specialty stores began setting up shop. This new direct market was partially the result of kids who'd grown up reading comics and never stopped. As adults they were able to hold onto their childhood hobby by turning it into a profession, turning into collector--purveyors. At the same time the comics that a lot of people collected as kids in the 1960s had been thrown out by parents. Propelled perhaps at first by nostalgia or an obsession to fill out gaps in a collection, but later as much by these motivations as pure capitalism, the comics collectors began searching for those now rare, old comics from yesteryear, and thus the back-issue market was born. Rare back-issues became valuable commodities due to their relatively high demand.
Through the luck of a well made Batman movie and a little publicity, the John Q. Public now knew that (a) comics still existed and (b) some of them were worth more than a Benz. The result was a huge influx of new comics buyers. While a number of them were in it for the fun of reading and collecting, there was also a strong contingent of speculators---people who bought comics based on their promise for future value with the goal of reselling them at huge profits. The problem here was that speculators were buying multiple copies of comics that they thought would be worth a pile of money later on, while at the same time the number of collectors skyrocketed. Over the next couple of years print runs went through the roof, to the point where copies of supposedly landmark comics like Superman #75 (the issue where Superman dies) and X-Men #1 sold multiple millions of copies. Of course, this threw the supply and demand equation all out of whack. More comics existed in the market than potential buyers. All of those comics people bought, with the expectation that they'd one day be able to sell them and retire, were actually worth bupkiss because everyone already had multiple copies of them.
While all this was going on, what did the major comics publishers do? They had a gift-horse dropped in their lap---rapidly increasing audience and profits, which seemed to be based on the fact that comics were worth money. They flooded the market with "collectors items" and replications of proven formulas: issues with limited edition alternate covers; new spin-offs of popular series that allowed for those big sales of coveted #1 issues slavered over by collectors; team-ups; big slug-fests; and copycat artists who swiped the styles of the most popular artists of the time. In the end, most of what was produced were poorly written and poorly drawn, schlocky power fantasies. Good storytelling was out the door in favor of gimmicks in order to make a quick buck. Once the collectors got wise to what was going on (and it took a couple of years, 'cause lets face it, fanboys aren't necessarily the swiftest cats in the barrel), they stopped buying. After all, who would want a bad piece of art that wasn't worth the paper it was printed on? Publishers went from selling hundreds of thousands of copies per issue of their most popular titles, to tens of thousands. The market went bust. Big time. Marvel Comics, the biggest comics publisher in the nation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the mid-1990s, and comic stores all over the nation started closing shop.
At this point, the companies really had nothing to lose. A number of industry insiders were predicting the death of comics in the next five to ten years. An editorial shake-up at Marvel coincided with its financial reorganization. Over-hyped team-ups, big crossover events, and embossed covers were out. Fresh faces who'd cut their teeth in a re-surging indie comics scene, or in other media, were in. Emphasis was put on good, old fashioned storytelling rather than market trends. Companies' flagship comics that had been mired in stories requiring knowledge of years of continuity had been replaced with fresh spins on characters and clever new takes on old ideas. "Relaunch" was the word of the day.
The success of the first Matrix and X-Men movies put comics back in the spotlight of the mainstream press. Coming to terms with an audience that was closer to an 18-to-35 year-old demographic than the 8-to-14 year-old age group that comics had a reputation for serving, made publishers realize that making comics aimed at 8-to-14 year-olds probably wasn't the best way to move units. Since the mid-1980s the comics industry began catering increasingly to this older set of readers, but it wasn't until the late 1990s and early 2000s that major publisher's mainstream titles began to, in terms of tone and subject matter, regularly tackle more complex political, emotional, psychological, and sexual issues. (Here are some examples. Marvel Comics began its Marvel Knights imprint, which published Daredevil stories tackling issues like death and child abuse; Black Panther plot lines had him hunting down the killer of the poster child for a humanitarian aid organization while at the same time negotiating his way through a coup de tat of his throne; a post-9/11 Captain America re-evaluates his purpose as an American symbol and America's role in an increasingly tension-filled global society. Meanwhile, the other big gun, DC Comics, publishes the likes of Kingdom Come, a critique of the popular anti-hero figure within mainstream comics, with near photo-realistic watercolor paintings as its interior art; its Wildstorm imprint launches, Ex Machina, a series about a fictional mayor of New York---and former superhero---and his political doings; Vertigo (DC's imprint geared specifically to mature readers) finally escapes from the shadow of its most popular titles, Sandman and Preacher, to establish itself with a diverse stable of books including Y: The Last Man (a dramedy/adventure dealing mainly with the politics of sex and gender) and Lucifer (a series that delves into postmodern definitions of good and evil); and Alan Moore's ABC imprint, which explores a variety of pulp genre's, but manages to analyze them all in Promethea, a philosophical discussion of the origins of storytelling and its purpose, wrapped in the guise of a sci-fi fantasy. Meanwhile, smaller publishers are getting in on the adult action too. Dark Horse continued to publish the likes of Frank Miller's Sin City and reprint landmark manga like Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub. Pantheon, Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly, and Fantagraphics all have been working to publish more literary works that have garnered incredible critical praise and true mainstream press attention, such as Jimmy Corrigan, Persepolis, Box Office Poison, Blankets, Berlin, and Safe Area Gorazde. The list goes on. I've yet to even mention Image Comics, AIT/Planet Lar, or SLG.)
Bookstores wised up about the same time as comics publishers and began setting up small sections in stores dedicated to graphic novels and collected editions of serials. For the first time in over a decade, comic books were finally available in relatively large quantities outside of comics specialty shops. Needless to say, this extra exposure (along with the films and write-ups in publications like the New York Times Book Review) helped draw in new readers, and a new type of audience---the casual reader. The advent of the collected editions and one-off original graphic novels, meant that people could pick up a book, go home and read it, and not be left hanging for the continuation of the story until the next issue came out a month later. They got the whole story in one shot and never had to get in the habit of making monthly or weekly trips to the comics shop to finish a story. It seems like a small thing, increasing the page count of a comic book, but moving from novelties to novels has slowly begun a massive shift in the comics industry.