Browsing for information on the nineties comics boom I came across a fascinating series of articles by Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics, one of America’s most famous comics retailers, offering a behind-the-scenes look at some of the financial shenanigans than afflicted the industry during that decade. (Start reading at the link and read the next seven or eight columns). His take on the boom and subsequent catastrophic bust is that it was pretty much entirely caused by Ronald Perelman, former owner of Marvel Comics. Perelman’s milking of the Marvel cash cow was spectacularly successful – netting him, when he finally got out of the game, a personal profit that Rozanski estimates is larger than all the money the entire industry had made up to that point.
What’s obvious from Rozanski’s columns is that the meltdown was waiting to happen: comics in 1989 (when Perelman bought Marvel) offered a seductive (to investors) and near-fatal (to the industry) combination of a hugely dedicated and financially naive fanbase and a business model whose monthly publication cycles encouraged short-term decision-making by everyone in the industry. Marvel in the mid-80s, Rozanski points out, was a publisher small-scale enough to work as a hobby in itself: buying everything it produced was still relatively affordable. Perelman hiked prices and drove lots of fans off, but comics being the daydreaming business it is, plenty of other fans actually turned incompetent gamekeepers and got into retail, dreaming of a cut of the money that was suddenly sloshing around. Perelman may have started the speculator boom but as a consumer at the time my recollection was that almost everybody bought into it – there was no sense, entering a comics shop, that you the customer were being encouraged to soberly reflect on whether those two polybagged copies of X-Force #1 were really a sound investment – DON’T ASK JUST BUY was the order of the day.
Rozanski also mentions some of the really apalling short-term deals Marvel and others did to retain their dominance in an insane and collapsing market – their licensing deal with their toy manufacturer, for instance, gave the manufacturer the rights to produce Marvel figures in perpetuity for the really quite ungenerous royalty fee of…0%. Rozanski’s story reaches its end what said manufacturer buys Marvel, basically in order to protect this deal, to find that it’s inherited the crippled leader in a gutted industry. With such 90s bugbears as variant covers, multi-title crossovers and issue enhancements making a profitable return to the business, the hidden question is: could it happen again? And the answer actually seems to be “no” – for all that most of the comics speciality market are undoubtedly still suckers, the precise combinations of distributor wars, corporate raiders and individual superstars that led things to go berserk in the 1990s are absent. Unless, as is fairly likely, there’s mental stuff going on behind the scenes which modern fans are entirely unaware of…