The Multiversity History column returns with another installment of our year-by-year look at the comics industry. Today we reach 1992, and man… what a year! I’ve already covered many of the minor milestones in previous columns, but I could easily expand this into a multi-part saga. Instead, I’ll try to provide a general overview today. Look for future installments (2023) to expand on major events like Image’s first year and the death of Superman. Before continuing, you might consider refreshing on 1990 and 1991.
The comic book industry continued its rapid growth of previous years with no signs of slowing down. Total annual sales revenue was around $500 million, with lucrative revenue streams from advertising ($7 million) and licensing ($500,000 for Marvel). Top sellers could easily move 600,000 to 700,000 copies per issue. During the busy summer months, Capital City Distribution shipped 500 unique comics per month, and competitor Diamond Distribution’s order catalog routinely reached 400 pages. Collections of paperback reprints had become common enough that fans could reasonably expect popular print runs from most publishers to be available in a shelf format. To support this growing market segment, Diamond instituted its Star System, a quarterly catalog of select list items that retailers could use to restock. Superheroes remained by far the most popular genre, but Frank Miller’s “Sin City” brought back detective comics in a way not seen since the late 1940s. Harris Publications quietly revived “Vampirella” with an irregular schedule, but her comeback led directly to the “Bad Girl” craze two years later.
With the easy money that accompanied the boom came innovation, expansion, respectability and mockery. The PC Comics startup pioneered digital comics, which it described as “electronic comics” or “Hypercomix.” Their first release was “Trouble at the Wox”, a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative that sold on CD-ROM for $20. Nicola Barrucci founded Dynamic Forces to sell limited edition and/or autographed comic books and merchandise. Over the summer, Eclipse Comics attempted to expand its audience by pushing its “Parts Unknown” miniseries by Beau Smith and Brad Gorby into video stores. It was a risk because it wasn’t related to the media, but it found readers. Restocks for the first issue exceeded initial orders. The second volume of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won a special Pulitzer Prize and Eric Drooker’s wordless illustrated novel “Flood!” received the American Book Award. Ronald Schmitt examined comic literacy in “Deconstructive Comics”, an academic article for the “Journal of Popular Culture”. In August, TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman opened The Words and Pictures Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts. It focused on original artwork with the aim of educating visitors, featuring everything from rock art to contemporary comics. Around the same time, his cohort Peter Laird used his half of the TMNT fortune to start the Xeric Foundation for self-publishers. In October, auction house Christie’s held its first comic book auction, institutionalizing comics as an investment. As the trading card market suffered a 20% drop in sales year over year, Topps created a comic book division to shore up its bottom line.
The rising tide, however, did not lift all the boats. World Color Press, once the world’s largest comic book printer, closed its plant in Sparta, Illinois, after a clumsy attempt at employee ownership. Comic book fans didn’t notice this, as most of the comic book printing shops had by then moved to Ronald’s Printing in Montreal. Over the summer, perhaps spurred by the revelation of Northstar’s homosexuality in January, three California comic book shops were visited by police in response to calls for obscene material. Golden Apple has received a warning. Approximately 45 comics were confiscated from Amazing Comix. At City Comics, the store manager was arrested. “Amazing Heroes”, the long-running news magazine for comic book fans, ended with double issue #203/204 in July. Its declining sales were attributed to “Wizard” and other competitors, but “Wizard” had only reached the point of breaking even and increasing sales four months earlier. Given that the publisher of “Amazing Heroes” was Fantagraphics, a company notorious for its disregard for mainstream comics and allegedly rude treatment of “AH” staff, I think it’s more likely that they just wanted exit the area. Fantagraphics was suffering from poor sales across the board and was forced to ax eight series and lay off four employees later that year, refocusing its efforts on higher-grossing graphic novels and its Eros pornographic imprint. In November, Capital City hosted a roundtable that was supposed to be made up of the most important figures in the industry. No women were invited, which angered industry reporter Heidi MacDonald and prompted her to form the Friends of Lulu at WonderCon 1993.Continued below
The internet was beginning to reach ordinary people in 1992, with Usenet, Compuserv and Genie becoming hotbeds for fans. As an added fan attraction, Compuserv waived the standard registration fee for comics professionals to encourage them to post on their Comics & Animation forum. One of the big talking points of the year came from a September 1991 letter to Comic Buyer’s Guide. The letter claimed to be from a mainstream comic book artist, but was signed “name withheld.” His main point was that artists didn’t need writers the way writers did, and that fans would be better served if artists were all allowed to write their own material. As Image exploded onto the scene with superstar artists doing just that, it proved to be a hot topic with new evidence to back up claims every month.
As the number of comic book retailers grew, they reached the critical mass that turned them into a profitable audience on their own. “Comic Buyer’s Guide” had split its business news into its own publication, “Comics Retailer”, in 1991. In 1992, “Wizard” and “Hero Illustrated” followed “Entertainment Retailing” and “Comic Book Business”, respectively. Seeking to use their digital strength, retailer Gary Colabuono formed the Direct Line Group, a nationwide organization of comic book retailers with 64 founding members. It had lofty goals to support independent comics and take power back from publishers and distributors, but market upheavals over the next few years found retailers lacking the confidence to rock the boat.
I am considering a format change for this column in 2023. If there is a topic you would like to see covered, please let me know by email. If you are viewing this after 01/01/2023, I will still accept suggestions. Thanks for reading!