mike sterling's progressive ruin

Monday, September 19, 2005

As I've mentioned previously on this here weblog, one of my projects at the store lately has been going through dead stock in the back room. We have a buyer who just wants to buy a lot of comics in bulk, and doesn't care what they are...we're not getting much for 'em, but "a little" is better than "the nothing" we were getting for them before. Plus, we're freeing up lots of valuable store space, and that's the half-full cup I'm focusing on.

The vast majority of the bulk comics we're unloading are from the early '90s, that crazy period when comics were booming, recent back issues were selling like you wouldn't believe, money was coming in by the crateful, and these good times were never going to end, never! Well, they ended, all right, with promised blockbusters
not busting a darn thing, and the collectors/investors that were driving the inflated comics market bailing out and buying, I don't know, Beanie Babies or some darn thing instead.

One of those comic market bombs was the much-ballyhooed Image Comics/Valiant Comics mini-series Deathmate, which I mentioned briefly before. As I noted, a crossover between two red-hot companies was sure to be a sales success, and most stores ordered accordingly. However, it ended up tanking, whether it was due to its erratic shipping schedule, lack of the more popular Image characters (like Spawn), or just plain awfulness, it's hard to say. Actually, it's not hard to say...it was all three, surely.

At the time, I was still enjoying some of the Valiant books, and though I had little to no interest in the Image characters represented, I thought I'd give the series a try. No go...after the first two issues, I decided that it wasn't for me, and I hardly gave it another thought. Well, as a fan, I didn't give it another thought. As a comic store manager, I gave it plenty of thought..."well, crap, what am I going to do with this boatload of Deathmates?"

My plan for this weblog today was to gather together a full set of Deathmate, read the series from beginning to end, and do a (hopefully) light-hearted and fun review of the comics, and we could all have some fun reminiscing about this strange time in the comics industry.

That was the plan.

However, to pull the plan off, I would have to read the comics in question. And you know what? They're really, really bad. They're like the epitome of what early '90s "hot" comics were like...barely competent art, extremely sparse plots that still managed to turn into jumbled messes, laughable dialogue. I managed to give a full read to the first couple in the series, but could only manage to skim the rest.

The overarching "plot," as it were, of the series was that Solar (from the Valiant Universe), heart aching from the loss of his life-long love, flings himself into a some kind of interdimensional limbo and finds the WildC.A.T.s' Void (from the Image Universe). The two of them get down with some cosmic lovin', and as a result, the two Universes are merged, and the rest of the series is characters running around shouting at each other that something is wrong with reality.

The best part of Deathmate (and by "best" I mean "oh, look, the dog poop on my shoe isn't so thick by the heel") was probably the first story in the Prologue, which is at least is by Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith (inked by Jim Lee), so it's at least competent. It is a nice companion piece to the generally excellent early issues of Valiant's Solar series, in which Solar's companion Gayle asks him to stop extending her life with his powers...to let her die. It's affecting, in its way, and kicks off the whole "Solar seeks companionship with ultra-powerful cosmic being" thing I mentioned earlier. It's a bit more complicated than that -- isn't it always? -- but that's the gist of it.

Now, as for the rest of the series...lemme explain first, for those of you blissfully ignorant of how this whole Deathmate thing worked. Instead of issue numbers, which would have made things easier, the issues are identified primarily (har har) by color. The Prologue and Epilogue issues have silver foil covers, and the other issues have blue, black, yellow, and red foil. There are also variant covers, of course, since this was the '90s, but I'll get to those later.

The foil cover on Deathmate Yellow is probably the worst of the bunch. Scanning it doesn't do it any justice...I tried, these guys tried, but nothing quite properly conveys the piercing, acidic yellow on this cover. Sunday at the store I was packing up a pile of these for the bulk sale, and that yellow actually started to make me physically ill. And no, it wasn't the thought that we dumped so much money into this comic...I was having an honest-to-God reaction to that horrible, horrible shade of yellow. I've no explanation.

Anyway, back to the actual contents...the majority of the stories in the Deathmate series are Valiant and Image characters fighting each other, but the first story in Yellow features Valiant characters Armstrong and the Eternal Warrior being "Jerked Through Time" (that's the title, I swear) to ancient Rome. As a result...quite possibly the finest use of a vomitorium in an intercompany comic book crossover:


And, yeah, that's pretty much the highlight of that book. In fairness, it's not a terrible story, given that Armstrong is so slovenly a character that he's usually fun to read.

Deathmate Black is notable for being the only issue of the series to have even the slightest aftermarket demand, primarily due to the brief appearance of the briefly-popular Gen 13. Also, this issue provides a good microcosm of the '90s comics market. Here's what about half the books from Image looked like:


And here's the other half:


The most infamous issue was, as I recall, the one that was the most delayed, Deathmate Red. I believe it was also returnable, at least partially, as well, making it the hardest to find. Though why you would want to find it is beyond me...it's Youngblood and Bloodshot, with Rob Liefeld at the helm for at least the first half, and you can glance at this cover for a taste of its greatness.

Aside from the core series, there were also variants and a "preview" issue. The preview is generally referred to as "Deathmate Pink," and you can see a pic of it here. It's simply a few pages from Yellow, with Shadowman sitting down and having a quiet cup of tea with Grifter. Oh, okay, not really, they're actually fighting. "Pink" was distributed with the Diamond Previews catalog, though, according to some of the signage I still had with our copies at the shop, copies may have also been distributed with boxes of Ultra Pro comic supplies.

The variants were simply gold foil editions of the books, which made the variants for Blue and Black stand out, but the gold variant of Yellow always used to make me look twice. It was just close enough to not be immediately obvious to me at the time, though looking at it now...well, the fact that the gold foil doesn't make me sick should be difference enough.

I should admit that, as I was processing the Deathmates for disposal, I thought I'd better check the back issue bins in case the Deathmate section needed restocking. Surprisingly, we needed Blue...though seeing as how this is probably the first time I've checked this section is, oh, a decade, who knows when it actually sold.

So anyway...so long, our backroom Deathmate stock...we barely knew ye, but I'm glad to see the back-end of you as you become someone else's problem.

Of course, with my luck, suddenly Deathmate will become red-hot again as soon as we unload all these turkeys. Though I shudder to think of a comics industry shift that would make Deathmate popular.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 12, 2005

In which Mike goes on way too long about things that happened 12 years ago. 

So we purchased yet another comic collection the other day, and in this one was a copy of Adventures of Superman #500. "Oh, big deal," you're surely saying, "every comic book store has about a bazillion of those damn things." And, ordinarily, you'd be correct, but this is the platinum edition, friends. It's packaged in a black bag with a silver super-"S" on the front, and with the phrase "limited platinum edition" (or something like that) printed along the bottom.

Okay, now you can say "oh, big deal."

What amused me about this comic is that, like its non-platinum counterpart, it is sealed in the bag so that you can't see the comic inside without opening up the bag. And the comic inside is also some kind of variant as, unlike the regular edition, the letters of the Adventures of Superman logo are embossed and raised up from the cover.

Now, the sort of person who is interested in buying the limited "collector's" edition of the pre-bagged Adventures of Superman #500 wouldn't be terribly likely to open up the bag and, um, appreciate the variance of the cover inside, I'd imagine.

Maybe I'm wrong...perhaps whoever buys this will not care about maintaining full resale value, and oh so carefully trim open the top of the plastic bag in order to slip the book out. (And yeah, I believe that Overstreet Price Guide's official policy is that carefully opening a prepackaged-in-a-polybag comic doesn't affect the value, but as someone who sells these things for a living, it doesn't work like that in the wild.)

Anyway, the point of all this was that, of late, I'd been reflecting back on the big comics market crash of the early '90s. Specifically, which comic you could point at and say, "the market crash began with this very issue."

For several years, the comic I pointed at as being the turning point for the comics industry decline was Turok #1 from Valiant Comics. When Valiant first started their superhero line, their books were warming shelves coast-to-coast initially, but all of a sudden, a collector's frenzy (spurred on by the new price guide magazine Wizard, and an influx of collectors/investors from the then recently-collapsed sports card market*) sprung up around these books. Prices began to skyrocket on early Valiant issues, which were being ballyhooed as hot, rare, investable items. New #1s flew off the shelves, and sometimes we even had to tag the new books with "1 per customer" signs -- and, as I noted before, that tended to encourage further sales.

And then Turok #1 was announced for release in 1993. Comic fans (including me) had fond memories of the original Dell/Gold Key Turok Son of Stone series, and the investors who couldn't care less about comics industry were still excited about yet another Valiant Comics #1. Plus, it was going to have a shiny "chromium" cover, and people liked the chromium back in the day. Plus, Turok was introduced to the Valiant Universe in 1992's Magnus Robot Fighter #12, which was commanding some significant coin of the realm in the secondary market.

So, basically, perceived demand was high.

Retailers, who were getting the "high demand" vibes for the book, ordered massive numbers. Turok #1 was going to be like printing money, for certain!

Well, even if you weren't there for it at the time, I'm sure you see where this is going.

Since everyone ordered large numbers on Turok #1, there was plenty to be had. Racks were overflowing with Turok #1. Part of the collecting appeal of Valiant Comics was the apparent scarcity...Turok #1 was the exact opposite of "scarce." The investors who preordered dozens (or hundreds) of copies quickly realized that there was no way they were going to be able to turn them around into quick cash. And retailers realized that there was far more Turok out there than there was demand. Some people began blowing out copies of Turok for below cover, further damaging the perceived collectible value of Valiant Comics, and comics in general.

Plus, the chromium cover ended up being an embossed cover with a oversized chromium card glued to the front. It's not bad looking by any means, but people were expecting an actual full-chromium cover and not a glued-on card. It may be that's what was originally solicited, but it wasn't what people were expecting.

It's not as if the market immediately collapsed into nothingness following the release of Turok #1, but I think we all really began to realize that the glory days were over, and more and more collectors began trying to divest themselves of their investments over the following months...and years.

Another possible "death-knell" for the '90s comics boom was the aforementioned Adventures of Superman #500. If you remember the day Superman #75, the "Death of Superman" comic, came out, most comic shops were madhouses. Apparently a slow news week combined with increased media interest in comics resulted in a lot of news coverage of this particular storyline, and it seemed like everybody wanted to be in on it. On the day it came out, we had a line of people outside our store, stretched down the block waiting for us to open.

Now, keep in mind that we ordered Superman #75 a few months in advance, with absolutely no knowledge of what was to come. We did bump orders up to about four times what we normally received on our Superman books, which were okay sellers at the time, but nothing outstanding. So, seeing that line outside the store, we were forced to do the "1 per customer" thing, even posting signs in the window stating as such. Well, let me tell you, that pissed off some people something fierce, but if I had to choose between having someone mad at me because they one got one copy of Superman #75 and having everyone mad at me because they couldn't get any copies due to the first person in the door buying everything we had, well, it's not really much of a choice, is it?

And it was crazy even past that first day. I had huge waiting lists for fourth printings of Superman #75. That may seem like crazy talk, but I swear it's true.

So the "Death of Superman" story wraps up, the "Funeral for a Friend" storyline that follows wraps up, and the Superman books go on a very brief publishing hiatus.

And now, we have to order Adventures of Superman #500.

This isn't the issue where Superman comes back to life, but it is the kick-off for the long storyline that eventually would lead into the return of Big Blue. Demand is still huge for the Superman comics. People come by or call every day asking about what's up with Superman. "Is he back yet? Is he back yet?"

So, thinking about what we could have sold on the original, black-bagged, "collectors" edition of Superman #75 had we only known of the buying frenzy to follow, and considering the interest we were still getting in Superman, we place our orders for the white-bagged Adventures of Superman #500.

And so does most every other retailer.

You see where I'm going with this?

When Adventures of Superman #500 comes out, while it does sell relatively well, there's no attendant media push. The "Death of Superman" thing is old news, why should the media cover it again? Thus, there's no huge audience of "civilians" who otherwise couldn't care less about comic books lining up outside comic shops waiting to get their hands on the next new collectible. It's not a dog like Turok #1 was, but there's still plenty to be had, and for the investors that can drive collecting frenzies like the one for Superman #75, a lack of scarcity can only mean the bloom is off the investing rose (or, um, something like that). Coupled with the sudden realization that perhaps the black-bagged Superman #75 isn't worth the premium prices paid on the secondary market (at the time, I heard about someone selling them for $100!), this too surely was a contributor to the comics market crash.

Now this was just local market conditions...for all I know, someone in Wisconsin was selling Turok #1s and Adventures of Superman #500s like they had twenty-dollar bills stapled to the cover**, but it seemed to me that these two books did indeed mark the point where the comics market began its decline, as readers became disenchanted with event books and variant covers, as investors bailed out and starting buying toys and Beanie Babies instead, as comic stores started to shut down across the nation (we lost about seven or so in our tri-county area during that period)...wow, I'm bumming myself out, here. We were able to ride out that rough spot, but in some ways our store (and others, I'm sure) are still recovering from that huge crash.

It was a hard time, with some hard lessons learned regarding our own ordering habits...no one forced us to order that many Turoks, for example, but it sure seemed at the time like we wouldn't have any problem moving them! Of course, I'm moving them now...I'm blowing them out in our bargain boxes. I don't think I've had anyone pay cover price for a Turok #1 in years. Adventures of Superman #500 does still sell on occasion, but we have a pretty good clientele for Superman books, so that's not too surprising. We've still got plenty of 'em, though.

So, does anyone else have any likely culprits which, like Turok #1 or Adventures of Superman #500, seemed to trigger the '90s comic market crash?

* I could tell the new comic collectors fresh from the sports card market by the way they asked for "comic book Becketts."

** If they did have twenties stapled to the covers, you could be sure someone would complain "but, but...it's not mint!"

Labels: , ,

This is an archive page for the old Blogger version of Progressive Ruin, kept around to maintain all the old permalinks. Please visit the main page for the current version of this site. Thanks for visiting, and sorry for the inconvenience!

Copyright © 2003-10 Mike Sterling. Some images used are copyright © their respective copyright owners.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?