CAPITAL SALE TOPS TURBULENT YEAR:
THE TOP 10 COMICS NEWS STORIES OF 1996
by John Jackson Miller
(based on selections made by the CBG editorial staff)
[Comics Buyer's Guide did its first formal year-in-review in #1210, dated Jan. 24, 1997. In those days, we actually waited until the year was done to rank the stories -- a practice out of step with most other media outlets, which have usually run the year-in-review thing into the ground long before Christmas with pieces written back in November. But you'll see here that Marvel filed bankruptcy on Dec. 27, 1996, so there was some journalistic benefit to waiting...
Deaths proved difficult to handle. Curt Swan, Mark Gruenwald, and others died this year -- and we couldn't figure out whether to rank those stories separately or group them as we finally did. The next couple of years we took industry deaths out of the ranking entirely and acknowledged them separately.
In retrospect, I might have moved Kingdom Come onto this list -- but then, you can't always see at the time what's worth remembering later!
A discussion thread for this feature can be found here.]
For the first time in the publications’ histories, the editorial staffs of Comics Buyer’s Guide and Comics Retailer reviewed the year’s major news stories of the comics industry, ranking them according to impact, salience, dramatic value, and other criteria. Their resulting list of “Top 10 Comics Industry News Stories of 1996” follows, and is submitted as a basis for further discussion.
1. Diamond buys Capital
For sheer shock value, no story of 1996 could top how the “Exclusivity Wars” abruptly ended one July day. Callers to Capital City Distribution, the second-largest distributor and the fourth-largest employer in the comics industry, were astonished to hear receptionists answering in the name of Diamond Comic Distributors, whose purchase of Capital had been finalized that morning.
Capital, an industry mainstay throughout the 1980s and 1990s, had fallen on hard times following Marvel’s decision to distribute its own products in 1995. DC, Image, and other publishers signed exclusive deals with Diamond, and, while Capital managed to sign Kitchen Sink and a number of smaller publishers to exclusive arrangements, it was unable to compensate for the lost volume.
Diamond, under increased scrutiny in its new status as the last remaining major distributor for comic books to the direct market, affirmed its commitment to carrying products of small publishers, and all former Capital exclusives returned to Diamond’s catalog. Diamond hired several of Capital’s employees (including co-owner John Davis) in the weeks that followed the Capital purchase.
2. Marvel mayhem
The tribulations of the comics industry’s largest publisher continued in 1996, as rounds of layoffs hit the company in January and again in the fall.
Most of the action regarding Marvel happened not on Park Avenue but on Wall Street, where it became increasingly evident in 1996 that the company was a piece in a game that had much to do with high finance and little to do with comic books.
As majority shareholder Ronald Perelman sought to bolster the corporation’s flagging stock price in the latter part of 1996, he ran into opposition from holders of Marvel’s burgeoning debt. Carl Icahn, mentioned in a Dec. 27 CNN report as a fellow “takeover artist” with Perelman, purchased 25% of Marvel’s bonds at a fraction of their face value in November and December and mounted a challenge to Perleman’s plan to refinance Marvel with value added by Toy Biz stock. The Dec. 27 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Marvel was characterized as a move by Perelman to avoid meddling by what he called “vulture investors” in Marvel’s future.
It remains to be seen what, if any, lasting effects will arise from the industry’s largest publisher seeking bankruptcy protection. In the near term, increased uncertainty in the comics marketplace seems assured, and media attention to the Wall Street drama is doing little to bolster the public image of comics.
3. Image breakup
Readers got their first inkling of internal difficulties at Image this summer when Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow Studios struck out on its own. Silvestri’s amicable departure would stand out in stark contrast to the scene in September, when, just days following the public airing of a business dispute with fellow Image founder Jim Valentino, Rob Liefeld pulled up stakes and left the Image fold, taking his Extreme line of titles with him. The Image board of directors voted Liefeld out of his positions with the third largest publisher, and litigation between the two parties followed (as has public vituperation).
In the months since, Silvestri’s studio has returned to Image and Jim Lee’s Homage line has been pulled under the Image umbrella, as has a handful of formerly independent titles. Jeff Smith’s Bone has left the Image line. Liefeld’s titles are now being solicited under his Maximum Press label.
4. “Heroes Reborn”
Announced in 1995, Marvel made history by erasing it. The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man had published a total of 1,566 issues in their indidividual runs (plus Cap and Iron Man issues of Tales of Suspense); all came to an end in September, as Marvel launched new incarnations by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld.
The new versions generated plenty of debate, with Liefeld’s version of Captain America in particular the target of much heated invective from many fans. The “Heroes Reborn” titles were solid hits in the declining market of 1996, performing far better than their previous counterparts, although it remains to be seen whether the purchases came from new consumers or represent dollars rerouted from the dozens of Marvel titles that did not survive into 1996.
5. Continuing industry malaise
The comics industry’s recession entered its third year following the highly irregular boom of 1992-93, taking down more than 1,000 stores and several publishers, including Broadway. By year’s end, an estimated 12,000 full-time jobs remained in the comics industry, down from nearly 30,000 before the collapse. Where formerly more than 50 titles posted direct-market sales of more than 100,000 each month, by December 1996 fewer than 20 were into six figures — including no DC titles.
Further muddying the waters for anyone seeking signs of stabilization for the comics industry was the shrinking convention scene. The Dallas Fantasy Fair was canceled after more than 10 years as a major annual event in the Southwest, when its promoter, Bulldog Productions, pulled out.
More dramatic was the scene at the New York Comic Book Spectacular, where vendors arriving to set up before the show were turned away at the door of the Javits Center, as parent company Great Eastern Conventions cited the failure to get the floorplan approved by fire marshals. An alternative convention, “The Show Must Go On,” spontaneously developed at a nearby church and drew many of the planned show’s attendees.
Chicago and San Diego held particularly successful consumer shows in close proximity on the calendar, as the Republican National Convention pushed back the San Diego show three weeks. Litigation between promoters of the San Diego and Chicago conventions over the rights to their trade names dominated convention news in the latter half of the year.
7. Industry passages
The comics industry lost many notable talents in 1996. As the year began, the industry lost Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, Tarzan artist Burne Hogarth, Bernard Bailey, and Boody Rogers. March deaths included Jack Abel, Mike Roy, and Jack Berrill. Frank Doyle died in April, and Tom Forman died in May.
Superman artist Curt Swan passed away in June. Batman Adventures artist Mike Parobeck died in July. Marvel Editor Mark Gruenwald passed away in August. September deaths included Alex Kotzky, Lee Tennant, Fujo F. Fujiko, and Sam Kingston.
Media personalities lost in 1996 included Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee in May and scientist-author Carl Sagan in December.
8. “DC vs. Marvel”
In a year in which 23 different publishers joined to offer 29 distinct crossover projects, DC and Marvel’s event — featuring a reader poll determining the outcome of several battles and a week’s worth of “fused universe” comics under the Amalgam banner — captured reader imaginations and made the first week of March one of the strongest of the year for retailers.
With the help of ballot placements at record and video stores, the crossover generated some outside media interest, although clippings indicated that the distinction between Marvel and DC characters may have been lost on many outside the hobby.
9. Superman’s wedding
Clark Kent’s on-again, off-again marriage to Lois Lane finally happened in early October with the specially solicited Superman: The Wedding Album, in coordination with a public relations blitz and a similarly timed wedding episode of ABC-TV’s Lois & Clark.
While the comic book was a solid seller in comics shops, taking the #1 spot for the month of October, DC failed to generate a repeat of its 1992 “Death of Superman” coup in terms of bringing “civilians” into comics shops. With viewership declining in light of new network competition, Lois & Clark delivered a wedding episode critically drubbed both in and out of the fan community, leading some retailers to declare it a weak link in the promotion.
(It was a rough year in the mass media for a number of comics projects. Feature films Barb Wire, The Phantom, and The Crow: City of Angels closed quickly, and Superman: The Animated Series, despite strong reviews, entered a crowded animation field with a limited number of episodes in a year in which advertisers were lamenting the waning weekend-morning TV viewership of children.)
10. Syracuse retailer litigation
George Georgiade’s 24-hour store selling adult comics and videos hardly fit the standard comics-shop mold, but it sought aid from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund when the city council of Syracuse, N.Y., sought to cleanse his shelves through the application of zoning regulations this summer.
The CBLDF continued its defense of Planet Comics, which shut its doors in Oklahoma City in early 1996.
Runner-ups to this list were many and included the summer success of DC’s Kingdom Come, the trend of self-publishers joining larger publishers, the sheer numeric explosion of DC monthly titles, the launch of Diamond’s Comic Shop Locator Service, Todd McFarlane’s purchase of Eclipse’s assets, and several other newsworthy events.