What Really Killed Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #666

Everybody has a theory of how the American comic book industry died.

"It was the early 90s investor boom," some say. "The glut of variant covers and similar sales gimmicks created a bubble, and when it burst it took out the direct market."

Others lay the blame on publishers driving out seasoned writers and letting rock star artists run the show.

Still others fault those pesky SJWs for turning the Big Two comics publishers woke--which, the saying goes, will soon make them broke.

Everyone has a pet theory, but few notice that none of these explanations are mutually exclusive. The comics industry has become like an elephant in the dark. Fans and marginally interested social commentators alike are groping it, searching for a definitive cause of death.

Perhaps comics fans don't really want to know. The stage magician's audience want to believe there are coins behind their ears.

Like an onlooker who happened to see the coin hidden in the magician's palm, I have come into the knowledge of how the deed was done.

Here's what really killed comics.

First, some necessary background. A close friend--we'll call him Research Guy--has over the past few months embarked on an innocent quest to rebuild the long lost comic book collection of his youth. He created a spreadsheet of back issues he wished to buy going back to the 50s.

For easier identification, Research Guy added notes to his list, highlighting any significant events which took place in a given issue. He gave pride of place to famous character introductions, the first appearances of important concepts, and inclusion in major story lines.

Organizing many hundreds of comic books in this way yielded unexpected insights. My friend spotted a number of patterns running through almost all comic books within almost exactly the same time frames. It was as if the comics industry as a whole had an overarching life cycle.

This is the cycle Research Guy identified, using the timeline he observed for Marvel Comics, which gives a clearer representative sample.

  1. Growth (1960s): Iconic new characters debut regularly. Major concepts that will shape continuity introduced. Universe-defining events frequently take place.
  2. Maturity (1970-1980s): Introduction of new ideas tapers off as series hit their stride. Eventful individual issues still common.
  3. Stagnation (late 80s-early 90s): Writing quality declines. Increased reliance on gimmicks to drive sales. This includes replacing beloved icons with diversity doppelgangers and first signs of wokeness.
  4. Decay (Mid 90s-Mid Aughts): Narrative wasteland in which nothing of consequence happens for years. The worst aspects of sales gimmicks and nascent wokeness combine in the following pattern: Iconic character killed off, series reboot with new issue #1 often replacing venerable lead with diversity character, original numbering and lead character quietly brought back a few months later.
  5. Death/Shambling zombie status (Now) 

Sharing many qualities of a superhero himself, my estimable concept artist ArtAnon swooped in with additional sources that shed bright light on the elephant's graveyard.

It was the web site of Fantastic Four superfan Chris Tolworthy that finally put all the pieces together. Quite independently, Chris gathered supporting evidence for all of Research Guy's observations.

Look at this chart featured on Chris' site:

Rise and Fall of the Marvel Universe

The events noted on the timeline map almost perfectly to Research Guy's comics life cycle.

  1. 1961-1967: Under the guidance of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the story lines in Marvel's regular titles organically grow into the largest shared continuity in literary history. 1963 stands as the high water mark for the creation of new Marvel characters.
  2. 1968-1973: End of the Silver Age. Marvel sold to Gordon Gecko prototype Martin S. Ackerman. Number of monthly titles explodes. IRL time replaced with Marvel Time (Reed Richards said to have fought in Korea instead of WWII, Gwen Stacy killed to maintain status quo of Peter being single, Franklin Richards' age fluctuates wildly, etc.)
  3. 1988: Lee's misguided directive to give readers the "illusion of change" instead of real change renders dramatic tension impossible. Readers catch on that the status quo ante will always return. There are no more great universe-wide stories after this point, though great standalone stories are still being published.
  4. 1991: Character development rolled back and further character development forbidden by editorial fiat.
  5. 1996: The Heroes Reborn and Amalgam events kill Marvel's 30+ years of continuity. Marvel goes bankrupt. New owners cement the shift in focus from publishing single floppies to movie licensing.
Rather eerie how two separate comics historians' research lines up, ain't it?

Amazing Spider-Man 001
Excerpt from Research Guy's notes demonstrating Marvel's incredible 60s growth period.
The one line of data Research Guy lacked was sales figures over the period in question, which Chris helpfully provides. As you can see in the chart above, the overall downward trend is pronounced.

Comics fans once read Marvel books for the sense of continuity, high-stakes drama, and relatable characterization. The Marvel Universe was like the corner bar where they could drop in and catch up with the neighborhood regulars. They watched those characters' lives unfold over decades. And then the building was pulled down brick by brick to be replaced with a corporate chain joint. The prices rose while the quality dropped.

One caveat: The downward trend was temporarily reversed under the aegis of legendary editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. But the recovery on his watch only proves Chris and Research Guy's point. Shooter revived Marvel by being a stickler for continuity and shipping quality books on time. Following that formula is all that's necessary to bring comics back. 

Don't expect to see the Big Two embracing Shooter's business model anytime soon. Marvel began its transition from a comic book publisher to a brand management company in 1968. That shift in focus would be concretized in 96 and made irrevocable with the company's absorption by Disney.

As for DC, they've operated as a brand management outfit since the 50s. Marvel's decline has rightly been described as them becoming a clone of DC.

That right there is your culprit. The Big Two got out of the comic book publishing business and into the brand management business. The editors checked out, and good writing became an afterthought. Flashy art and gimmicks became the order of the day. The resulting investor bubble popped, and woke capital moved in to pick the bones clean. They're still at it now.

This creativity crisis isn't limited to comics. I've chronicled how every branch of pop culture from novels to video games to film suffered a creative collapse--right in the late 90s time frame noted by Chris Tolworthy and Research Guy.

Revitalizing the culture will take a new generation of creators dedicated to telling high-stakes stories of engaging characters on a timetable audiences can rely on.

This pro author has been pleasing readers for years. I've run and fulfilled two successful crowdfunding campaigns, and my third record-breaking campaign is now live on Indiegogo with just three days left.

Support the renaissance in popular fiction. Back the project today!


  1. Brian

    Absolutely fascinating. Look at a key date 1968.that year is like harmonic convergence for Age of wokeness.

    It's like world had a nervous breakdown after partly recovering from WW II but feeling deeply guily about the trentes glorieuses


  2. Interesting. I always liked your 1997 theory of cultural collapse, the cresting of the zenith into a death march to the valley. 1996 above matches that. But looking at that chart, it makes me wonder if there is a 20-30ish year cycle for modern culture. 1937 was the Campbell revolution, right? Did anything happen in Sci-fi/fantasy tradpud around 1968?

    1. Two things, New Wave and the replacement of the magazines with books. Call it the Ellisonian revolution, as the new book editors--when they weren't ticket-punching their way out of science fiction--were typically only familiar with Harlan Ellison and not 1940s Campbell or before.

      There is a 20 year cycle in science fiction, with "extinction events" lining up roughly with 1940, 1960, 1980, 2000...

    2. And 2020!

      Wow, that is interesting stuff.

    3. Thanks, Nathan. I was about to plead ignorance and go ask you and Jeffro :)

  3. Would be interesting to line up certain known legal events with this calendar. 1979's Thor Power, and the 1996 Telecommunications Act come to mind. Thor Power killed back issues, and the TCA allowed for Disney and others to feed on mergers, consolidating media and entertainment into a handful of giants.

    1. To make an educated guess, Thor Power Tools may have contributed to trades eclipsing floppies as the publishing arm's main revenue stream.

      The shift was so profound that floppies only exist as trade fodder. Story arcs are purposefully scripted to last exactly six issues for ease of compilation.

      You hit the TCA's effects on the dot.

    2. I wonder if Thor Power was as much of an influence on comics as on books.

      Comic companies had newsstand distribution networks and alternate sales venues (such as the multi-comic packs for grocery stores and Five-and-Dimes, as well as promotional give-aways), but there was no return to the company or back issue program with which I am familiar.

      Typically, the vendor would deface the cover of the unsold issues by tearing off the top third of the cover and returning that portion to the distributor for full or partial refunds, or normally a credit on the next month's order. The vendor was then supposed to trash the comic. Some resold the books at greatly reduced prices, or just put them into a freebie pile in the store.

      Direct sales eliminated newsstand returns. What the store owner bought was his, regardless of quantity ordered.

      This meant that speculation was introduced into the buying process. Small shops that couldn't handle inventory overruns, or refused to take a gamble on a new title. That meant the Big 2 were better insulated from independents taking over their turf.

      Not only were the "normies" in the dime stores, the grocery stories, and the independent bookstores cut off from an easy route of comic book purchase, but the small vendor had a much more difficult time of breaking into the comic shop business and staying afloat without a delicate finger on the pulse of his customers.

  4. Was discussing related issues with a buddy the other day. He has a friend who runs a bookstore focusing on kid lit. He passed on to me her observation that kid lit crashed in the early to mid 80s. Before that, there were good life lessons being taught in things like Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Prydain, etc. In the early '80s, a switch was flipped and the slide to brain sugar began. My first thought was, "this lines up with Brian's cultural decline timeline." From what I've seen of the recent Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, they went woke.

    I'm rereading Prydain to my boys. They don't remember it from before, but beg me to read it nightly. The youngest really wants to know who jumps into the Crochan as a sacrifice. I refuse to ruin the moment. We're only two chapters away from it.

    1. Pick up John C. Wright's Tales of Moth and Cobweb.

      The hardbacks for Green Knight's Squire and Dark Avenger's Sidekick are well worth the price, and are definitely good in craftsmanship, worldview, and morality.

      You might want to hold off on Dark Avenger's Sidekick until they're teens, but Green Knight's Squire is suitable for anyone that's enjoying Prydain.

    2. To paraphrase Jeffro, don't read any tradpub books published after 1980.

  5. Because it was brought up elsewhere, X-Men is an outlier for the simple reason that the original run was not a success. The 70s edition was for all intents and purposes a reboot which is why it expanded so much during that period and into the 80s, only really stagnating by the beginning of the 90s and drying up by decade's end.

    Another example would be video games. There was a crash which cut the medium off at the legs. It only really got restarted in the mid-80s and kept its golden age up to the mid-90s when 3D games and engines and Sony entered the fray and began tampering with success. DLC was introduced in 2006 bringing about the current age we live in now.

    Growth (1980s): New IPs, genres, and ideas are introduced all the time. PC gaming and arcades come into full bloom
    Maturity (early to mid-1990s): Starting with the 16-bit generation and DOOM on PC gaming begins to solidify what it is. Cinematics are introduced, mainly as an intro video or as rewards for beating missions or the game. Nonetheless, arcade style gameplay remains the focus: overcoming challenge for rewards.
    Stagnation (late 90s to mid-00s): The second 3D generation is basically the first with prettier graphics. No new significant genres arise, and many old ones (especially 2D). Usage of cinematics increase. Arcade games begin to be relegated to "value" releases and insulted in reviews for "not offering enough content for the price" which corresponds with Sega exiting the console business.
    Decay (Mid-00s to Mid-10s): The first HD generation balloons costs, kills countless classic studios, and goes on much longer than other gens simply due to not being able to recoup losses. Games not take longer to make and are too complex to create therefore preventing the same games as before being made again (See Square Enix's comments on remaking Final Fantasy VII). Games are now seen as expensive movies. Arcade games are treated as bargain bin download fodder exclusively. No new genres are made.
    Death/Shambling zombie status (Now) The current generation has suffered the lowest software sales of any previous. Games are exactly the same as they were last gen except more woke with more DLC and season passes, are now even more expensive to make and require even larger teams. Has nothing in common with the industry of the '80s. Games are now movies. Arcade challenge is seen as ableist. Indie devs that try anything new are ignored for mediocre ones with ties to the right clique.

    I'm sure you find outliers. There are no companies in comics like Nintendo, for instance, but there is a very similar pattern in the industry. This is why there used to be roots revival movements once upon a time: to go back to the start and try it again. It's what is needed now. There's no future where we're at now.

    1. You're right that X-Men didn't achieve blockbuster status until Claremont's run. But keep in mind, Research Guy isn't measuring financial success. He's charting creative output. Stan Lee's original X-Men run still ranks with the other 60s books for continually introducing legendary characters and ideas.

      Postwar corporatism killed comics, and Jim Shooter is the smoking gun--no pun intended. Everybody, including Stan Lee, was sure the 60s boom was a fluke. Shooter proved them wrong by righting the ship in the 80s. Stan learned the wrong lesson from Gwen Stacy's death. Shooter learned the right one, so of course Corporate had to muscle him out.

    2. He also primed Valiant to be a real player before he was cut out and the place turned into the joke it is today.

      This notion that you need fans to run things is absurd. You just need someone who will focus on the bottom line and try for success.

    3. Wow. I'd always wondered how Valiant went tango uniform.

    4. Wonder no more: https://infogalactic.com/info/Valiant_Comics

      Shock of shocks, it was by Valiant's venture capital company, Triumph, selling off the shop to Acclaim Entertainment, so the latter could turn the properties into ... video games! Turok, Son of Stone was one of their releases.

      Valiant sale date: 1994. Acclaim Entertainment Chapter 7 declaration: 2004.

      Once again, raiders who stopped making comics and tried to cash in to "Hollywood".

    5. Mr. Niemeier:

      What were the lessons learned by Lee and Shooter from Gwen Stacy's death?

    6. Stan wrongly took the backlash to mean that fans never want characters to change.

      Jim rightly took the backlash to mean that fans want characters to develop naturally.

    7. Which also naturally means their story eventually has to end. That can't happen as long as the brand needs boosting.

    8. I haven't heard it put this way before, but it actually makes a lot of sense. You already mentioned the X-men, and this idea of Jim Shooter learning the "right lesson" also ties into the event that probably did more than anything to push them to the top of the sales charts. When the Dark Phoenix saga was first written, it was originally supposed to end with Jean Grey being "cured" of both her powers and her insanity and sent home to live out the rest of her days as a member of the team. But Chris Claremont and John Byrne both said that after Shooter saw their finish, he demanded a rewrite. Why? Because Jean had become a villain that wiped out an entire planet full of alien life just a few issues earlier, and according to their editor-in-chief, that demanded a few moral consequences.

      Claremont never liked Shooter, but he did acknowledge that Jean Grey's death only came about because he had instigated it -- and that it brought in hundreds of new readers because it ended up branding the X-men as a book where anything really could happen.

    9. You make excellent observations, which form the basis of Tolworthy's dating the end of great universe-wide events to 1980.

      You also filled in a gap in Tolworthy's account. He mentioned Shooter staunchly opposing bringing Jean Grey back to life and only changing his mind because Byrne and Claremont convinced him the story's internal logic required it. So Marvel's continuity was bent, but not yet broken while Shooter's reign lasted.

      NB: Byrne notoriously sang 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' when Shooter was fired.

    10. Thank you for answering my question. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Now let's apply this to other known areas where the same collapse occurred near this same time, such as anime and manga. I bet we'll find something very interesting going down.

    1. The Japanese engage in short-sighted corporatist asshattery? Perish the thought!

    2. No doubt the focus on "weird adults" with disposable income over normie audiences. But that might just be 2010.

    3. Anime started that around 2007/2008. You can find a clear drop off in non-otaku programming around then followed by many overseas companies suffering financial setbacks including the eventual closure of Bandai's US branch. Funimation being the sole survivor from those days is because there was collapse, no matter what modern weebs will tell you.

      The industry stopped their otaku focus around 2015 for the clear reason that it wasn't stopping piracy and making people buy more merch, it was just chasing away overseas markets and shrinking an already dwindling audience.

    4. Bring back Pioneer.

      Anyway, the American anime fascination might run around again soon, thanks to the weird adults problem.

    5. If the legal fallout doesn't sink Funimation and do collateral damage to the rest of NA anime first.

    6. The voice actors are part of the weird adult problem.

    7. The problem is that so many voice actors ARE weird adults.

  7. Bradford,
    Wouldn't it better for Fumination to disappear and thus reopen the magna/anime licenses to new players?
    Independent artists have revitalized English language comics and can now comic with the French BDs. In fact, until now I've refused to read any English language comic.
    I'm wondering if independent companies can similarly revitalize Western anime/manga?

    1. You'd have to break up the voice acting cults of personality, or else some Texas company will replace Funimation the way that Funimation essentially became ADVision 2.0.

    2. This is why having multiple studios back when anime in the west wasn't so tiny was a good thing. Funimation's monopoly is so big few others can get a foothold aside from niche companies like Discotek or Sentai. This is how they were able to become the monster they are.

    3. Nathan and JD,

      Thanks very much for your insights.
      If Fumination liquidates due to the ongoing Vic slander case, can anyone take over or it is a case of dire straits?


    4. Sony just merged Aniplex with Funimation. If the Funimmation brand drops, Aniplex will probably be the next name for the same beast.

  8. Also, 1997: WotC buys the failing TSR and thus starts shifting D&D design into a CCG-influenced, Seattle-bred environment. :)

  9. All the points made are valid, but there is one major point not being addressed: distribution. The direct sales aka comic book store model of distribution may have seemed like a godsend to the early 80s comic publishers, but it slowly led to the death of comics being available to the general public. Instead of keeping a strong relationship with the magazine distributors who stocked the racks at the grocery stores and drug stores, the comic companies tried to be their own distributors (marvel buying heroes worls distribution, etc) which eventually led to the monopoly known as diamond distribution. If you're not carried by diamond, good luck getting your comic in the comic shops. So the distribution for comics in the grocery stores and drug stores is allowed to die. So where are new comic buyers going to come from? What's the gateway? As anyone over the age of 40 can attest, their first exposure to comic books was likely on a spinner rack at a grocery store, drug store or a place like 7-11. Mom is shopping, so little Jimmy is drawn to the magazine aisle where the comic books are. That krogers or Walgreens just made a new comic fan. Where is that gateway venue today? It doesn't exist anymore. You want to know what will bring back life to comics? Get them back into the every day stores, not just in specialized stores usually run by introverted characters who dont understand how to run a business (seriously, look at who runs your local comic store honestly). This is the situation guys like Jim shooter created ( let's not forget he championed direct marketing comics). They went after the converted and gave up the kind of distribution that was their chief means of converting new fans. Shame on them and their shortsightedness.