It’s 1985, Saturday in the summer. I’m standing in my local comic book store in New Jersey, talking to fellow fans about the latest events in the medium. Saturday is when the comics arrive, and we are all anxious to pick up our subscriptions, dutifully held by our local comic book guy. Crisis on Infinite Earths is being discussed, and no one is quite sure if this will fix the DC Continuity.
We are already picking up some of the mistakes and wondering how this will all work going forward with future storylines. Is it as good as the recent Marvel’s Secret Wars? There’s chatter in the letter columns and fan magazines like the Comic Buyer’s Guide. Everyone agrees George Perez’s art is top-notch, but soon it will be over, and we are anxious to get back to the current storylines with individual characters and teams. It’s hard to compare the two, and there’s a friendly rivalry between DC and Marvel fans, even if most fans buy at least a little of both.
38 years later…
It’s 2023. Saturdays at the comic book shop are no more. The camaraderie comic fans shared is very guarded now. You can’t just like something anymore— Certain things aren’t okay to enjoy, and God forbid you to express an opinion on the Internet. Fans now roam in small packs at small comic book shows. They’re off buying old comics for some run of good books from the past.
No one seems to follow the current comic book events, and no one seems to care. As store owners shift their business model away from new books to anything else that will sell— People find deals on Facebook Auctions and online. No need to go to a comic book store in the middle of nowhere. New publishers are forging their own paths— Atomizing further the already atomized fandom. And whatever you do, don’t mention politics!
How did we get here?
Slowly, over the last several decades, the comic book fandom has been battered, bruised, and scattered to the four winds. And yet, the good news is, it somehow still endures. Let’s look now at how some of the eras led to this. Perhaps a future fandom might learn from these mistakes.
The Blockbuster Era
It began innocently enough with Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC Comics needs to fix its sprawling continuity. Full of too many characters and sometimes conflicting storylines, the series attempted to reset the DC Universe and place the characters in their appropriate context.
The end result was the crossover was a huge hit, and while it wasn’t the first comic event of its time, it was the first large-scale event of its kind that was popular. Some comic book journos also credited the series’ success with saving DC Comics.
As a fan, I remember that prior to that time, DC was still considered old and staid. The crossover revitalized the interest in the comics, and fans no longer needed to know decades of comic book history to follow along. It had been streamlined for them.
But within a few years, the wheels were already turning to repeat the success and repeat it they did. With the success of that event and Marvel’s Secret Wars, the two companies started gearing up for events. The bottom line? Tie-in comics and crossovers sold books.
Don’t read Blue Devil? Well, you might if he plays a part in the upcoming crossover and then has to interact with Superman and Batman. Never heard of Tigra? Well, she shows up in your regular issue of Spiderman, which is then continued in The Avengers or whatever.
At first, the cross-pollination was good. Editorial standards still meant something. So as long as you had an excellent continuity, the stories could work. But years down the road, crossovers weren’t just a good idea; they were mandatory to keep boosting sales. Crossovers like the Evolutionary War hammered in characters like the Punisher, which felt more forced than fun.
Some of the talent started to balk. I remember an interview with Peter David complaining that he had to stop during his Hulk run to address a crossover event he didn’t want to do. It interrupted the flow of his story just to juice the sales.
The fandom felt a little squeezed. Most continued to buy and would tolerate it if it didn’t get out of hand.
But it quickly did—
The Speculation Era
“Hot” comics became all the rage starting in the ’90s. Magazines like Wizard treated comics like stocks, charting their prices at increasingly higher rates. Sure, most people followed the story, but what did it hurt to have a few extra copies of something if you knew it was an important issue?
Unfortunately, guys looking for a quick buck started entering the mix. They weren’t in the fandom; they just wanted to make a buck by buying and selling comics. Unscrupulous behavior became more common as everyone began to get worried they’d miss out on a big sale.
I remember visiting a comic book store in 1993 to check out Bloodshot #1 from Valiant Comics. I heard he was a superpowered hitman and liked the Mafia angle. But when I got to the store, they were sold out. I immediately went to my local big store, where I knew they ordered extra copies. Uncharacteristically, they were sold out too. I thought, “Damn, this comic must be popular!”
The very next week, I showed up to the big store, and there was Bloodshot #1 on the shelf for double the price. There was no way he got his reorder that fast. The store owner then bragged that he sat on a hundred copies because he knew they’d be hot and tried to sell them to me at the jacked-up price. I refused to pay and never bought the series. Speculation had driven this reader right out of Valiant Comics.
The lines had been drawn. There were now two types of fans vying for the comics: The Speculators and the Readers. Many of us said in the early 90s that the Speculator Era damaged the new fans the most. What kid would continue buying comics if he just bought them for an investment and put them in a plastic bag? Nostalgia runs in 20-year cycles. The nineties begat a future where 30-somethings remember comics as one big waste of money.
The Indie Era
Overlapping the Speculation and Internet Eras, the Indie Era was the emergence of Image, Malibu, Comico, First, etc. Like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Image made indie comics popular through television and just the mere fact they were cranking out popular comics with new number ones. Everyone wanted in on the Speculation market, and indie comic book companies sometimes survived almost solely on that basis. (I remember Lightning Comics announcing they would only print 100,000 copies of an issue to maintain its price.)
But, although you may have heard of all the indie publishers I mentioned, it’s unlikely you remember the dozens that popped up in the early nineties. Speculators didn’t just buy comics; they published them hoping to hit that same cash cow.
Few of them did, but this further divided the fanbase as even new fans were taken in by the latest flash-in-the-pan, only to realize months later that the comic book company went out of business. This made your “investment” worthless, and if you read it for the story, well, you’d never get to the end.
So added into the mix were fans who glommed onto a new comic that’s discontinued and then left the medium altogether.
The Gimmick Era
Also overlapping with the Speculation and Indie Era, cover gimmicks like holograms, platinum covers, gold covers, raised covers, and chromium covers— Other gimmicks like card inserts, signed covers, signed covers signed with ink featuring creators’ DNA, giveaways, variant covers— The list is endless. This was all another distraction from the story— Another fleece in the four-color Ponzi scheme that was about to collapse.
For every cool giveaway— Like the free plastic Green Lantern rings, or the multicovers that placed together make a bigger picture— There were a dozen rip-offs designed to jack up the price for a few months at cons.
The Bust Era
Around 1994, the entire grift came tumbling down. Comic bookstores in New Jersey closed faster than that Spiderman Broadway Musical. To this day, you will see the same comics in the cheap bins at flea markets because they printed millions of them. Everyone was playing Pass the Buck until the music stopped, and if you were stuck with comics instead of money— You were out of luck.
Before 1994, you couldn’t convince anyone comic books were worth a damn. After? Well, I went to a flea market that had a box of those comics, and I asked the woman, “How much?” She replied, “Ten dollars each. They’re collectible!” Trust me, you wouldn’t give two cents for any of those comics even then— But she didn’t know or care.
The comic book fans that were readers hung on, happy the speculators were mostly gone, but the damage had been done. Comic book publishers, insanely, doubled down on the collectible crap— Graduating to chromium covers that would only come to the store if they ordered 50 of the “regular” cover.
Crossover and big “story” events not only continued, the time between them rapidly decreased, making each one less and less unique. All the money publishers had invested in better paper and cover stock now started to add up, so the cover prices began to rise. Attracting fans back to the medium after it had beclowned itself was going to be tough, but few saw a way to do it. The fandom shrank again.
The Message Board Era
AKA: The Early Internet Era. As the Internet rose in prominence, its main early offering, the message board, helped bring fans together. As comic book journos had revealed themselves shills over and over during the Speculation Era, Message Boards allowed fans to bypass that media to find out what was really going on.
In 1992, The Bendis Board, a fan message board for Brian Michael Bendis, started. By the 2000s, it exploded along with his career, becoming one of the primary places fans could interact. Websites like ComicCon.com and CBR also rose in prominence with their message boards. And while speculation and greed had ruined comics for a time, the Internet would see it rise from the ashes and unite fans. For a brief, shining moment, this seemed to be true.
At first, the Bendis Board was about the Bendis fans, but it eventually became about the entire comic book fandom. Fans were using the board to communicate and meet up at conventions. Like YouTube stars, there were BB “stars” well known on the board for their posts and behavior. But as the message boards grew, fans started staking out their territory within that space.
Although there were moderators on the boards, the stakes grew as more fans flooded in (or at least the illusion of those Internet stakes did). What was once a forgivable faux pas became a personal attack, and message board drama consumed the fandom. Me and my comic crew at the time went from hanging out with message board commentators and recruiting them into our ranks to actively avoiding them at conventions for fear it was one of the boarders with some axe to grind.
The cracks in the fandom were now openly cracking, and this was long before woke politics entered the mix. Even after the Bendis Board shut down in 2014 and message boards went out of vogue— The Internet continued to atomize the fandom into smaller and smaller groups.
The Webcomic Era
AKA: The Late Internet Era; this era saw the rise of webcomics as it overlapped with the message board era. In fact, message boards were one of the reasons many of the webcomic creators could bypass the average comic book journos and get the word out.
By the mid-2000s, webcomics were becoming a growing and viable alternative to self-publishing. By the time I stepped up with my cohorts at the Webcomic Factory in 2010, some creators had created huge fanbases and tapped into the growing dissatisfaction of younger readers with the comic book medium. The turnaround on creating webcomics was easier, and cheaper— The only problem was monetizing.
Paper comics were still a thing, but some organizations wanted to create an e-comic book platform to redefine the medium entirely. Eventually, these platforms took hold even within the major comic book publishers, but they feared they could destroy the direct market. Rather than lower the price for an electronic copy (and making them cheap and easy to access as they did with e-books on Amazon), the publishers instead decided to hold the line on most comics, keeping the price the same. To this day, it’s probably the primary reason e-comics have never really exploded.
So in case you’re keeping score, the fanbase had split into many pieces:
- Old School Collectors
- Webcomic Fans
- E-Comic Readers (a subset of the Readers)
And that didn’t include all the divisions based on creators, creations, and franchises— Superhero or otherwise. But as the more significant Internet search engines game their algorithms and deprived indie webcomic creators of traffic (centralizing it in platforms that “published” webcomics), the most prominent era was about to drop.
The Movie Era
After decades of Stan Lee visiting LA trying to get someone to make a decent Spiderman movie— The era of the Marvel movie finally arrived. Marvel Entertainment had been, some would say, a convenient way to pump and dump stock using comic book fans by announcing crazier and crazier event comics.
Some say comic fans no longer had to actually buy and like a comic book series for the publisher to make money. Between that and using the corporate name to make comic books for libraries and schools, thereby securing big sales based on the needs of said government entities rather than risking fans not liking your story— Some say the law of diminishing returns was catching up to the publishers— But before another alleged four-color Ponzi scheme imploded, the movies caught fire. For a while, all fan sins were forgiven.
For a while.
Yes, even I, as skeptical as I had been of the comics, the creators, and especially Hollywood, was pretty impressed by Marvel, Phase One. Between Robert Downey Jr.’s gravitas, solid screenplays, and Jon Favreau and the Russo Brothers— I almost went out and bought comics again. Had the magic returned? For a few years, it sure seemed that way.
But the seeds for the next era’s mighty downfall had already been planted. Joe Quesada handed the reigns of Marvel to a noob named Sana Amanat. Women editors and girl bosses became all the rage at Disney and everywhere else. The ladies proclaimed they would take over the boys club industry and show us how it’s done.
Change was in the air, but not change based on what had gone before. It was a change based on ideology and politics and a corporate swing into “lifestyle brands” featuring “fashion”.
While we were eating popcorn at the movies, the woke moved in. Whatever unity had been created by the movies was about to be shattered into a million pieces.
The Political Era
AKA: The Marxist Era. Just as the Soviets spent millions infiltrating the movie industry during the Cold War to subvert American Culture from within, I am not alone in believing that much of what we’ve seen in this era is a direct result of the 1.1 million Chinese Communist spies in the West.
Make no mistake; the CCP cannot beat the United States financially, militarily, or even politically. However, by undermining the entire culture, they can eat away at our institutions from the inside, dividing the populace and turning our own citizens into working against their own interests. This is the Culture War.
Beginning with Gamergate, the groundwork had already been laid to press Marxist versions of Feminism, Race, and Gender Identity into all media. Where Gamergate was met with immediate resistance by the gamers, the comic book fanbase was utterly blindsided.
Weakened by being the bottom-tier medium in the corporate structure, the deeply divided fanbase— Just recovering from the message board drama, speculators, greedy publishing gimmicks, and new but smaller fan avenues to retreat— Suddenly lined up on one of two sides.
I found myself in the middle of a Facebook discussion, trying to talk other creators off the ledge. Out of nowhere, they had unified under the concept the entire fandom was under attack by evil, racist Trump Supporters. If they weren’t immediately purged from the medium and if you weren’t on board with the purging— Well, everyone had to just go!
I tried in vain to broker a peace deal between what I saw as the two factions, but I had yet to learn about the foe I was up against. The Leftist ideology that had taken hold of my former colleagues was not to be reasoned with.
Ethan Van Sciver had tried to warn me what was coming years prior, but I didn’t quite understand the scope of what we were up against. Comicsgate began to grow as the former fanbase began an Inquisitor-like purging that has lasted until this day.
You probably don’t need a recap of the last ten years of fandom, but in case you do— Suffice it to say that everything that happened on platforms like Twitter and Reddit happened to the Comic Book Industry times ten. Canceling of fans, blacklisting of creators— Even the comic book stores attempting to get in on the Marxism, usually destroying their business in the process.
The comic book industry had been hanging by a thread, and those that swallowed the red, red Kool-Aid set a fire and danced in a puddle of gasoline. Now even the most inexperienced, wide-eyed, new fan knows the facts— The Comic Book Industry is living on borrowed time.
Outsold by Manga every month and almost entirely dependent on their corporate backers for survival, the major publishers (some say) are just waiting for the call when their corporate masters are done pretending their IPs matter to them. Once every penny has been squeezed out of the movies and TV shows and cost-cutting measures become all the rage at their respective studios— Some studio suit is bound to finally say, “Why exactly are we still publishing comic books in-house?”
At that point, the Big Two close their doors while their studio lawyers attempt to sell licensing deals to other publishers. But this could usher in the complete collapse of Diamond and the direct market. The comic book stores, already on their last legs, could dry up and blow away.
Where, then, would one go to argue if Superman can beat up the Hulk? Where indeed.
The Iron Age: A New Hope
What’s happened now could’ve been a pitch at Marvel in the 70s: A rag-tag group of misfits and outcasts are banding together against impossible odds to rebuild what the Evil Empire destroyed. Facing impossible odds, they must battle feminists, ideologues, corporatists, and Commies to set right what once went wrong. Yes, True Believer, a new age is dawning in comics and fandom, and the surviving creators will use the same tools the Marxists used to purge us against them.
Comicsgate is still rolling strong and growing thanks to a combination of crowdfunding and YouTube videos by various creators, especially Ya Boi Zack and Ethan Van Sciver. And not to be outdone is Eric July and his nearly four-million dollar crowdfunding sensation Isom #1, followed up by the successful Isom #2. Then there’s Peter Simeti at Alterna Comics, who seems to be driven by the sheer love of the medium itself. He’s built a successful mail-order subscription business and is doing video podcasts. Add Razorfist and RJ at the Fourth Age into the mix with more crowdfunding, along with the Iron Age Magazine itself touting indie creators, and the future looks bright for fandom.
How do we avoid the mistakes of the past to build the fandom of the future? First and foremost, comic books have to be about the Reader. Therefore, the story quality must come first. Without a good story, you have nothing but a shiny piece of paper— A map that looks good but leads you to nowhere.
And to that end, the comic creator must come first. I’ve said it for years; without the creator of the comic, the guys working on it are just hired hands. Some still do a good job, but without the creator to at least guide them— The clock is ticking before it all falls apart. That begins the process of your beloved characters becoming just another piece of the latest product— Vulnerable to market speculation nonsense as well as woketardry coming out of CCP.
Victor Von Doomcook has said for years in his videos, “Without Respect, We Reject.” I would take it further, “The Creation Dies With Its Creator.” You might argue that some creations have been improved over the years without the creator, and I would not argue with you except to say this: For every Neal Adams Batman comic and Bruce Timm Batman: The Animated Series, and Matt Reeves The Batman, how many more Tom King Batman comics?
How many more George Clooney Batman movies and Not-Batman TV series like Pennyworth, Batwoman, and Gotham Knights? No, I’m confident that Neal Adams, Bruce Timm, and Matt Reeves could create something original that’s just as good. As for the other creators, as much as I can’t stand Joel Schulmacher’s Batman (and the nipples he added to the costume), he directed the Lost Boys, which I thought was great.
So it’s the repetition, the unoriginal, and the endless propping up of IPs that are known but long past their expiration dates. This is the tool of the corporatists. You can make more money with a known product in media, even if some of the previous incarnations have been bad. It’s time to educate the fandom to avoid the corporatists and the Commie satraps, who are now one and the same. Those greedheads just want your money, while the creators need your love.
Don’t despair, fanboys. The Iron Age is here. Embrace it. We need you.
Until next time, see you at the con.
Check out the previous edition of Comic-Con 101, where we looked at the Top 20 Signs You’re a Comic Book Marxist.
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