5 Game changers in the history of the comic industry

Published on September 4th, 2009

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few days, I’m sure you’ve heard about the major media merger of Disney and Marvel.  It seems that the internets are ablaze with wild theories about how this will spell the end of Marvel as we know it and change the comics industry forever.  But will it really be all bad?  How will it hold up to the other ‘game changing’ moments of the comic industry?

actioncomics1Action Comics #1 (1939)
Well really, if you’re talking gamechangers, you gotta start at the beginning;  Superman was the one that started the association between comics and superheroes.  Further, his anti-corporate actions really struck a chord with the disenfranchised depression-era population.  With millions of books sold, Superman’s influence wasn’t just limited to children, making comics an artform to be reckoned with.

Lasting Effects?
It was on the back of Superman’s success that the rest of the industry was built.  As comics proved they were profitable across the age gap, publishers expanded their output to include westerns, true crime, and horror titles in an effort to get readers of all ages.  Unfortunately while publishers were creating books for mature audiences, there were some who still saw comics as something solely for children.

comicscodeThe Comics Code Authority (1954)
The Comics Code Authority was the comics industry’s self-regulatory commission that was founded in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s book about the comic industry, The Seduction of the Innocent.

Ol’ Fredric thought that the gruesome horror and true crime books of the day were perverting the thoughts of the kids that read them.  His book spurned a movement with parents to crack down on comics to make them safe for their kids to read, leading to a full on Congressional inquiry later in 1954 (who knew the government moved that fast back then).  So, in an effort to eschew government regulation, the comics industry banded together and formed the Comics Code Authority.

The Comics Code established guidelines for what was appropriate for All-Ages comics, branding them with a seal of approval.  Then retailers and parents alike would be able to quickly tell if a comic was appropriate for Lil’Johnny or not.

The lasting effects:
initially the code cut the industry off at the knees.  Mature books (those featuring horror and crime) virtually vanished, only to be replaced by the saccharine sweetness of generic smiling superheroes  wrestling with basic morality plays.  As the years progressed, the publishers figured out how to make compelling naratives while still working within the confines of the code (see Marvel in the 1960s).

Today, the code’s influence can still be seen in output of most major publishers, but it isn’t as important as it once was due to the rise of the Direct Market.

store3thumb1The Start of the Direct Market (The Mid 70s)
Back in the day the only way to get your comics was from newsstands, drug stores, or other general stores and the distribution of comics was controlled by general periodical companies.  With sales slagging, comic retailers suggested publishers cut out the middle man and distribute straight to the retailers.  This direct marketing helped bolster the comics industry by giving rise to a multitude of independent publishers, allowing for greater creative freedom amongst the books, and giving rise to the comic book store as we know it.

Lasting Effects:
Basically everything about the comics industry today is an extension of the Direct Market, good and bad.  While it allowed for more mature stories and a wider breadth of talent, it also lead to a more insular, aging fanbase as the only place to find comics became comic book stores.

Image is formed (1992)
At the beginning of the 90s profits and media attention were at an all time high for the comic book industry with Marvel leading the way.  Building major titles around the hottest of the hottest pencilers, they were poised to be a force to be reckoned with in the decade.  Then the unthinkable happened and six of the best pencilers since Jack Kirby (in influence, not necessarially talent) left to start their own company, Image Comics.

Bolstered by a strong direct market, the company literally built on the the backs of these great artists did what few other independent companies could and gained a major foothold in the market making the big two into a big three.

Since then, Image has matured from it’s early days of being a showcase for artists to being a breeding ground for savvy up-and-coming talent in the industry.

Lasting Effects:

The formation and success of Image changed the way other publishers dealt with creators, their contracts, and royalties.  Up until Image the only viable option for a creator with original ideas was sell them to a big publisher for a one-time work for hire contract, or try to self-publish and in all likelihood get lost in obscurity. Image offers a highly visible market position for creator-owned projects, which has forced Marvel and DC to alter their practices when it comes to commissioning new and original characters.

joe_quesadaMarvel goes bankrupt (1996)
After alienating their proven writers for their hot artists, and alienating their hot artists for the bottom line, Marvel profited off the 90s comic boom off hype and gimmicks alone.  With gobs of money coming in, and no desire to spend it on their talent, they expanded their operation as faster than they should have, buying trading card, toy, and even distribution companies.  Then the bottom dropped out of the market, leaving Marvel with way too much on their plate.

In 1996 Marvel filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in an effort to reorganize and pull themselves out of the mess they made.  For years the company languished near collapsed, until they were able to attract new talent, refocus their books, and focus on the content of their books, not just the cheap marketing stunts (Not to mention all the Wall Street gymnastics to keep the company out of the hands of corporate raiders).

Refocused and reenergized, Marvel was able to regain their status in the publishing world and finally be recognized as a powerhouse of marketable properties.

Lasting Effects:
Marvel’s resurgence showed the power of these intellectual properties, drawing the attention of media makers from all corners.  Superheroes led the charge as comics became a more accepted form of media, leading to a cross pollination of ideas with television, movies, and the internet.

It was with this increase media profile that Marvel was able to attract Disney and sell their once bankrupt company for four billion dollars.

Will Marvel’s sale to Disney be the next big game changer in the comic industry?  Or will it just be business as usual with a new boss?  Only time will tell.

Matt Jackson