How the '90s Shook the Comic Book Industry

Maximum Carnage- Cover- Publicity- H 2018
Marvel Entertainment/Mark Bagley
'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s' author Jason Sacks talks about his definitive look at the decade that changed things.

The 1990s was a decade that changed the comic book industry forever in any number of ways, whether it was the speculator-fueled boom and bust that killed a number of smaller publishers; massive storylines like the Death of Superman; Spider-Man being replaced temporarily by a clone; the removal of a number of key characters from the Marvel Universe due to publisher decree; or a number of business decisions that have repercussions to this day. Don’t take my word for it, though; a new book from TwoMorrows Publishing, American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s, explains it all and puts everything into a helpful and easy-to-understand context.

The 288-page hardcover, the latest in the American Comic Book Chronicles series, looks at all of the major news of the 1990s — as well as some of the smaller stories that help elucidate things — in exhaustive detail, covering what author Jason Sacks calls the “most interesting decade in comic book history,” although he quickly explains that he means that in the sense of “chaotic or volatile,” rather than “enjoyable”… although there’s a lot to love in there, as well.

Sacks, who spent four years working on the project, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the book, the decade and the ways in which the comic book industry is still, in some ways, living in the ‘90s.

Let’s start with something simple. What are the American Comic Book Chronicles? How would you describe it for people not only new to the series, but also comic book culture itself?

ACBC is a comprehensive, decade-by-decade history of the American comic book industry. The '90s book is the sixth volume in the series. Altogether, the series covers the entire history of American comics from 1950 to 1999, and a pair of books on the 1940s are currently in production. Every year within that decade is chronicled in its own chapter. Each hardcover book is 288 pages and contains hundreds of images from comics and related material from that decade. The text of the books is also exhaustive — I wrote about 180,000 words for this one.

One of my favorite aspects of this series is that we don’t just tell the history of comics. The books also tell the story of the larger culture. In this book, I discuss the boom and bust in card collecting as part of the story of comics in the '90s and also touch on societal issues like the boom in violent crimes and the Clinton election. There also is a rise of vigilante-type characters — all those stereotypical heroes with the words “dead,” “death” and “blood” in their names — at around the same time the crime rate in America was surging to historical levels.

For someone looking to understand the comics business, the book also tells an important business story; the big story of that decade is a massive boom and an equally precipitous bust, and the poor business decisions alone tell a fascinating story. In that way, I think the '90s book can be read as a business book, or even as a bit of a tragedy, as young creators flew a bit too close to the sun and then saw their own egos cause them to flutter back to earth.

But most of all, I think readers will find ACBC90s to be a wonderful coffee-table book that’s fun to flip through and which will spark a lot of nostalgia and comments like “I never knew that!” I had a lot of fun putting together this book, and I think readers will have a lot of fun looking through it.

One of the things that really impressed me was the breadth of what’s covered: The book gives a surprisingly deep, full explanation of the decade in comic book culture as a whole, from the mainstream publishers to the indies, and also the ways in which it interacted with pop culture as a whole. How did you approach the process of summarizing what was, in almost every respect, one of, if not the, most eventful decades for the industry as a whole?

The most important way of choosing what was important was by the impact an event had across the decade. My excellent editor, Keith Dallas, preached over and over that we needed to approach this book like writing a novel rather than a series of events. We wanted context rather than a simple Wikipedia-style recitation of events. With that in mind, I started by choosing the most important events of the decade as the skeleton of the book.

Some stories make for great through-lines. For instance, the quixotic Tundra Comics was started in 1990 and eventually breathed its last in ’97. Valiant also released their first comics in ’90 and closed the decade with the appropriately-named Unity 2000. Marvel’s bankruptcy was a story that spanned many years, and the rise of the Image creators was one of the most complicated and fascinating events of the decade. We also profile some of the most important writers and artists of the era. The career arcs of people like Jim Lee, John Byrne and Warren Ellis tell a lot about how comics changed during that decade.

The problem is that there was so much interesting stuff to write about. We had to be a million miles wide and ten inches deep for some topics. In a survey book like this one, we often had to sacrifice detail for comprehensiveness. This decade was packed with interesting events and I wish we’d had more space to discuss them. For instance, there’s a great book to be written about the indie and small press movement of the ‘90s. Hmm...maybe I should think about writing that book!

I’m genuinely curious about your research process. The book quotes everything from original interviews to fanzines and magazines of the period. How did you get the information you needed?

One of the decisions I made going into this book was to quote contemporary sources as much as possible because peoples’ memories get mixed up over the years. I thought it was important to look at as many vintage magazines from the era as possible. So I have a full run of Wizard, The Comics Journal, Marvel Age, Hero Illustrated and the like. Rereading articles and interviews from that time gave a ton of great context. It was also fascinating to read a near-complete run of Comics Retailer magazine to get a ton of insight on the retail side of things. There were few things more pertinent to the history told in this book than reading a comment about the sales of the [DC 1994] Zero Hour crossover from a retailer in Michigan.

As an example, when researching Tundra Comics, The Comics Journal ran fascinating, in-depth interviews with [publisher] Kevin Eastman and Steve Bissette that told that incredible story in all its gory detail. I did some cross-checking of those two interviews against an Amazing Heroes article, found a book which profiles [Kitchen Sink Press publisher] Denis Kitchen, who was swept into the company, and reached out to my friend Dave Elliott for more details and used that to tell the story as I understood it. That level of detail ended up helping me tell a complex story in nice detail.

That got a little more complicated when telling stories about which there still was controversy. I heard four or five stories about how and why Jim Shooter left Valiant Comics. For something like that, all I could do was to try to share the stories and let the reader find a story that worked for them.

The '90s was the decade that saw a sea change in the distribution of comic books, of where and who sold comic books, or who published comic books, of the entire audience of comic books, even — the reference to a “lost generation” midway through the book because of everything that had happened hits hard. What was it about that decade in particular that made all this possible, do you think?

The story of the '90s really begins in the 1980s. Comics were always about star creators, but by 1986, people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore had became iconic. Younger artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were watching as that happened. At the same time as Miller and Moore became stars, the Ninja Turtles became a phenomenon which showed there actually was the chance to get rich quick creating and selling comics. Then there was the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie, which showed comics could get attention and popularity from the general public. During those few years, McFarlane was becoming a star on Amazing Spider-Man, and he was paying attention to what was happening to the older generation.

Those trends came to a head in 1990 with McFarlane’s “adjectiveless Spider-Man,” which set him up as a star creator and sold a cumulative 2.35 million copies. That comic showed a young star creator could sell a crazy number of comics and demonstrated to people both inside and outside comics that there was a new era dawning.

From there, the '90s as we think of them really started. The next year Jim Lee’s X-Men No. 1 sold over 8 million copies, and that runaway sales success sparked the gold rush of people looking to pay their kids’ college funds with profits from holographic issues of Fantastic Four, The Death of Superman, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Youngblood. When they found their copy of Bloodshot No. 1 was worthless because everyone owned that comic, that helped spark the bust in sales that crushed the industry for the rest of the decade.

Looking back, it’s curious to see the ways in which today’s comic book industry mirrors the '90s, and the ways things are entirely different. DC, arguably, is the same company as it was for most of the '90s, and has remained essentially stable throughout, but Marvel went bankrupt in the '90s after a series of increasingly unfortunate business decisions that almost happened to the company as opposed to being made by the company. When you were researching the book, were there moments of seeing parallels of yesterday in today, or just the opposite?

History doesn’t repeat but it echoes, right?

That said, the entire focus of the industry has shifted since 1999. In 1993, comics were a collectible item and cultural force in and of themselves. The creation of Image Comics was covered on CNN, and the Death of Superman was front-page news when there were limited media outlets. That wave of interest was mostly dissipated by the time of the late '90s, but by 1999, comics were seen as a budding art form in which mainstream creators could create quirky work like Planetary, The Authority, Tom Strong, Battle Chasers and Danger Girl.

That said, everything changed in 1998 when the Blade film hit big and when talk began to focus on the 2000 X-Men film. Once Hollywood saw what comics could become, it sparked a new wave of interest in comics as a kind of IP house for the movie and TV industry. And though it’s cool we have obscure characters like Iron Fist and Doom Patrol on the small screen.

Are there lessons from the '90s that you think have been learned by publishers and have shaped the comic book industry as it is today? For that matter, are there lessons that haven’t been learned, but which you want to pass on? 

More than anything, the key lesson learned has been the importance of trade paperbacks [TPBs]. The first TPBs started reaching bookstores by the late '90s, spurred in large part by the growth of Vertigo series like Sandman, Hellblazer, Transmetropolitan and Preacher. Quality trades in bookstores equaled more stable sales, which helped the comics industry tremendously.

The lesson I wish the industry would learn is the importance of shipping comics on a consistent monthly schedule. When the Image creators, especially Rob Liefeld, couldn’t meet their deadlines for the Deathmate crossover [co-published by Image and Valiant in 1993 and 1994], it triggered a massive cash-flow crisis that crushed the industry. We run a similar risk today with comic series that don’t ship on time — though the industry has taken steps to mitigate the pain.

I also think the move to a single distributor has hurt American comic books tremendously. We saw a certain amount of arrogant inattention from Diamond when they won the '90s distributor wars, and that inattention has only gotten worse. It’s clear that competition would have helped that problem, but that just doesn’t seem like it will ever happen.

Along similar lines, were there forgotten gems of 1990s comic books that you discovered while working on the property? 

There’s a lot of forgotten gems from the '90s. Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt from 1991 is a fascinating meditation on war. Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruise is an excellent autobiographical graphic novel that ties the civil rights movement to his coming out of the closet. City of Glass by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik is a brilliant and transcendent graphic novel experience.

As far as mainstream comics, pre-Unity Valiant Comics are super solid superhero comics. Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen’s Iron Man from ’98 and ’99 crosses Tony Stark with James Bond and is super fun. Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man is also a treat. Jim Shooter’s Broadway Comics had promise. Amalgam Comics from 1996 and ’97 are silly, offbeat treats. Peter David’s ‘90s Supergirl series is underrated. And though it’s not obscure, I was surprised how well the big Batman: No Man’s Land storyline holds together.

This also was a big decade for indie comics. Most people remember Strangers in Paradise, but there were dozens of wonderful small press comics like Swan, Scud the Disposable Assassin, Through the Habitrails, Jar of Fools, Castle Waiting, Age of Bronze, Tales From the Bog and much more.

Is there some misunderstanding about the 1990s you feel the book dispels? Or were we all right about the decade the first time around? What did we get wrong?

That everything from the decade is cheesy, badly illustrated or created as a cash-in in some way. The quarter bins are filled to overflowing copies of Brigade, X-O Manowar and Clone Saga Spider-Man, and a lot of that material is pretty dire. But the '90s was also a decade when creators were able to break free of the constraints that held them back. We got smartly created big splashy commercial hits like Grant Morrison’s JLA and Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels. We got great small press books like Bone and Strangers in Paradise. We got a whole line of comics from Alan Moore out of the ashes of a different aborted line by him.

More than anything, we got a tremendous amount of interesting creative work, which helped change the comics world as we know it. The '90s in comics were a revolution, and we’re still living in the shadow of that revolution today.

American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s, published by TwoMorrows Publishing, will be released Nov. 21.