Comic books in the 1990s were awesome

Whenever you read, or more likely see or hear a history of comics on YouTube, social media or whatever laughingly passes for comics journalism, you’ll find at some point some posting in a slightly sneering way about the 1990’s.

For example.



Now it’s easy to mock Rob Liefeld, and indeed I have many a time in the past because his work is poor (though there was worse than him back in the day, and there’s worse than him making a living even today) , but to write off a decade as the 90’s is often is the sort of lazy, sloppy commentary generally used by comics ‘journalists’, millennial YouTube commentators and people who don’t know about the history of comics.


Truth is a bit more complex. Yes, the 90’s were a time when bad comics were around in numbers, but it also gave us comics that reached out from our wee comics ghetto and dragged in new readers by the hundreds of thousands. You might not like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Jim Lee’s X Men, but they brought in a mainly younger audience, many of which did graduate to reading better comics.

But the early 90’s especially featured the peak of DC Comics as a publisher with their Vertigo line producing Sandman, Shade, Swamp Thing, and one of the most underrated 90’s comics, Pete Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma.


Even DC’s superhero line wasn’t bad before it too fell under the influence of early Image Comics, and while Marvel saw them take everything they’d built up since the late 70’s when they nearly went bust and waste it so they actually did go bust in the 90’s, the medium was healthy. The industry had problems but when you’ve got peak Neil Gaiman Sandman, mixed with work from Daniel Clowes, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, Peter Bagge’s Hate, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Hellblazer then their amazing work on Preacher,  Frank Miller’s Sin City, Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy’s Rogan Gosh, Seth’s Palookaville, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, and many, many others.


The Noughties were a good time too. Yes, there were skiploads of landfill superhero comics printed just as there was in the 90’s, and artists bizarrely became popular (including some who were cut out of the Image Comics stereotype)  who had as much talent as Liefeld has. It can be argued though that the latter part of that decade saw the Big Two descend into mediocrity and revamp after revamp in order to push themselves up in sales.


In fact I’d argue the 90’s were one of those rare golden ages comics as a whole gets that we’re now overdue on. Creators were free to do what they more or less wanted. Genuine creative genius’s hit their stride, while the medium took strides forward over the burning piles of Youngblood #1.  Even Image outgrew its early years and now publishes many of the best mainstream comics out there on the market today.

This is a problem with percieved comics history, the ‘journalism’ it pretends it has, and how people take an accepted vision of the past & buy into it without actually looking into it. The 90’s was a decade of change and upheaval in comics as a whole, but there was also a creative outpouring that still bears fruit today. What the issue is we look at the current comics landscape and see it lacking. Where’s the new blood to match a Dan Clowes or a Garth Ennis coming from today? Sure, there’s some great creators out there but we’re waiting for another golden age but it isn’t coming anytime soon but that’s another blog.

So go back and give the 90’s the love it deserves. There’s probably a whole load of great comics you missed or got put off reading. Give it a try!

Relive the 1980’s on MTV

The 1980’s is when the media landscape changed across the world, with the USA especially changing into a multi-channel future before much of the rest of the world. The channel which pretty much opened this new horizon for many was MTV, a channel which (and it isn’t hyperbole to say this) changed the world.

Many of you and I will have memories of MTV based upon late-night viewing sessions, whatever faded VHS tapes you might still have but really it’ll be what’s stuck up on YouTube. Well that changes now as someone has stuck a massive chunk of the channel’s output in the 1980’s up from the very first few hours through the 80’s and into the 1990’s. 

The sheer volume of material here is extraordinary, and this archive will keep anyone going so whether you want to see the first few hours after that first video by The Buggles, or Vincent Price introduce a Halloween special, or even all of Live Aid then dive in and be prepared to be lost for hours and hours.

The curse of the modern comic book speculator

Back in the 1990’s the entire comic book industry in the US and UK imploded on a truly massive scale thanks mainly to the speculator boom of the time. In short, the industry in the late 80’s saw the start of the boom times with superstar artists and writers like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld coming to the fore selling comics by the millions.


Things were fine for a while. Comics sold by the box-load as speculators would by double, triple even dozens of copies of a comic if they thought they’d get a return on it. Publishers brought out multiple variant covers, along with gimmicks like glow in the dark or die-cut covers.


I was working in a comic shop in Bristol at the time and can testify seeing customers come to the till with multiple copies of a ‘hot’ comic, purely because Wizard or the likes had said it was going to be worth a fortune! Of course, this was all built on sand and by 1993 the cracks were showing. By 96 everything had collapsed around everyone with speculators being stung as those 50 copies of Secret Defenders #1 they had bought. Shops were stuck with boxes of unsold stock. The industry as a whole nearly collapsed with the weight of the idiocy of it all.


Of course things got better and fast-forward to today and even though there’s many saying the industry is doomed (and Covid-19 will affect the industry like nothing else) it will survive because the medium will survive.  But the speculator never went away. In fact the speculator drives a large part of the industry today, especially with variant covers being a trick to drive up sales used by every publisher.


The problem is they’re driving up prices, sometimes artificially, to the point where comics are seen mainly as an investment and not an art form. Look through comic channels on YouTube and it’s crawling with people seeing comics as a way to make money, which is basically just the 90s speculator market rebranded for the 21st century.  It’s whether that part of the industry burns out what will be an exceptionally fragile industry post Covid19 that’s the question.

And I don’t mind the usual day-to-day dealers making what they can, I’m one myself on a part-time basis, but the issue if overblowing the market which leads to the medium dumbing down (more big events! more relaunches!) even further than it is.  If Covid19 give us anything, it is a chance to reset things so that speculators don’t drive up prices to the point where the betterment of the medium comes waaay down the list to the latest ‘hot’ issue.  Separate the medium from the business and encourage people to read, even create comics rather than just see them as a way to get rich quick.

Sadly I doubt that will happen so we won’t find a good balance, but we’ll see how things turn out as it will be a very different industry after all this is over.


A short history of ballast comics

Comic distribution is now in the hands of Diamond Comic Distribution for a large chunk of comics, though other methods are available thanks to publishers like Self Made Hero. You want a comic or trade or graphic novel it’s pretty easy to get what you want these days, and unlike when I was young, a bloody chore. In the UK prior to the mid-80’s, you’d need to rely mainly on comics shipped via sea- freight meant for the UK market, so this is why older Marvel and DC comics have Shillings or Pence costs on the cover rather than Cents.


British price variants made up around 5% of the total print run, which back in the day of 100k print runs, meant a decent amount of copies made their way to the UK market. There’s a good article here explaining the differences, and it’ll also explain why Cents copies of older comics are worth vastly more than their Pence variants. These copies were distributed to newsagents, so your local corner shop would have the same issues as larger shops like W.H. Smiths or John Menzies.


There’s an entire blog to be written about the issues that system had, but this is about what still think an urban legend today, which is ballast comics.

Ships have to have ballast, and pre WW2 some of the cheapest, most disposable forms of ballasts were comics, so the first American comics brought to the UK came over in the bellies of ships. The ones not thrown overboard of course, the rest would drip into the UK, but of course by later in the war tens of thousands of American comics were coming into the UK thanks to American troops but these books were still used as ballast. In fact the late artist Jim Baikie first saw comic books in pages which would wash up on the shores near where he lived.

In the post-war years, comics would still come over this way, even when Marvel, then DC, were being distributed across the UK but again, these were Cents copies that entered the UK market.


You’d also have comics coming over which weren’t officially distributed in the UK, which were of course, nuggets of gold as official distribution of American comics meant you’d be able to get Avengers one month, but not the next and in those days that meant relying upon dealers or fans going to America buying a load though by the start of the 80’s the likes of Titan had sprung up in the UK shipping in American newsstand comics.

So to explain what actually happened with this unofficial supply of comics. Ships would load on ballast with comics being one of the cheapest options as back in the day you’d have print runs of hundreds of thousands, so when newsstands returned unsold copies in the US, they’d be used by ships because they were so disposable. These copies would get to the UK and if not flushed into the Atlantic, they’d be kept on or dumped portside and this is where for us it gets interesting.

If you lived in a big port city (which I did having grown up in Glasgow) you’d find piles of comics, sometimes slightly water damaged, in markets or newsstands. I remember one stall in the old Barras market, plus one in St. Enoch’s Square where I’d go down and pick up imports such as Amazing Spider-Man #129.


Sure, there’d be a bit of warping but you’d get comics now that’d you’d have to wait years for the UK reprint, plus there’d often be loads (one stall used to literally have 50-60 of each issue they had) of them so I do remember having multiple copies of what became key issues. ASM #129, for example, I had enough copies to keep me financially ok for a long time into the 90s whenever I needed an extra influx of money. My only wish is I’d kept some of those today! However people would go along dockyards buying pallets of comics to keep themselves going, and this wasn’t just Glasgow but in other port cities like Bristol and London. The further away from one of these cities, the less likely it seems you were in coming across such copies.

When I got older in the 1980s and started working in comic shops, these ballast copies starting drying up as seafreight became less used to get comics to the UK. Every now and then you’d hear of someone coming across a box or two. When I was working in Bristol and the waterfront there was being redeveloped the dream was to find a stash of Golden Age, and every now and then you would find small piles of them. A shop in London in the early 1990’s did manage to get lucky with a load which was brought into them, but once the UK’s big port cities saw their docks redeveloped into expensive flats the chances of finding these batches of comics died.

At the same time, American comics were now being airfreighted into the UK via Titan and Neptune distributors, while seafreight comics were still something shops could order, customers didn’t want to wait three to four months for the latest issues to arrive, so they were meant mainly for newsagents until that stopped in the 90s. Again, more on this another time.

These days everyone and their dog knows comics are worth money, so I never expect any collection or stash like this to turn up ever, ever again so anyone younger than 45 isn’t really going to know what it’s like to find a pile of comics on a table and find a literal goldmine. I miss picking up those slightly warped gems that’d fill holes in collections while at the same time stashing a few aside for a rainy day but the industry moved on, and now we get comics within 24 hours of our American cousins, something we could only dream of back in the olden days.

The end of the comics industry?

Diamond Comic Distributors closed a few weeks ago effectively meaning no comic shop will get any new American comic until Covid-19 is passed, which right now could be months, if not longer. This has caused a number of shops to say now they’re getting out the business while they can, while many others will struggle on but make no mistake, shops are going to close across the US and UK at an alarming rate in the weeks ahead.


I’ve seen a number of Tweets from people saying the industry won’t die and the medium will carry on, which is sort of true but the fact is the American industry has never taken a hit like this, ever. Yes, the whole ‘the industry is collapsing’ has been a thing for 70 years since the Wertham witch hunts of the 1950s but this is something which will change it forever.

In my lifetime there’s been a number of crashes, mainly small ones but the two largest are the 90s crash caused by the speculator boom which took out hundreds of shops, and also forced a number of people out of the industry full time, myself included. Then there was the 2008 crash off the back of the financial crash which ended up being short-lived thanks to the current bubble created by things like the Marvel films and ‘geek’ culture being so dominant.

Detective+Comics+#1000painfully glib.

And now we’ve got a generation who’ve known nothing but good times with the comics they want from the Big Two plus the wider dominance in media who may well fly the flag after this crisis is over, but the truth is the American and British industries are going to be drastically changed. People are losing their jobs, and potentially homes because of this so I find some of the debate from some painfully glib. Of course the medium will carry on, and the industry will continue in some shape or form but DC and Marvel will be even less adventurous than they are now.  And yes, I fully expect a Marvel/DC crossover to have a massive cash injection into the industry at some point.

But even Image will be affected. Less cash flow means less support for new books, so again, they’ll be taking fewer risks so they’ll be a more cautious publishing side, while independent retailers could be rare as many only survive on the weekly new comics to get people in. There will be a good side as some of the shysters and conmen who’ve grown out of the ‘geek’ boom will go, so no more conventions calling themselves ‘comic cons’ that have nothing to do with comics.

Whatever comes out the other side will be a horrible period of readjustment which will lead to whatever the new normal is, but we can’t be glib or complacent or the industry won’t get back to anything like what it is now.

How the Teen Titans saved DC Comics

DC Comics today is a massive juggernaut and has been now for decades. Since the 1980s it has been pushing the mainstream comics industry through works like Watchmen, Dark Knight, Sandman, Preacher and loads of other titles which have been critical, and sales, hits. But back in the 70’s, DC were struggling and if it were not for Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans then DC might not be here today.

After the DC Implosion, DC found themselves struggling again Marvel critically and saleswise. Attempts to revamp characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were long gone as the titles settled into a rut with creators who in some cases had been drawing for DC for decades who could match the popularity of hot new talents of the time like John Byrne.

Then in 1980, DC let Marv Wolfman and George Perez revamp the Teen Titans in their image.


The Teen Titans had previously been at best, an average selling DC title (which back in the 1960’s meant it was selling over 50k copies an issue) to a title regularly in the top 5 or ten at least.

What Wolfman and Perez did was to transpose Marvel’s style at the time to DC, which had been tried previously with the likes of titles like Superman, Wonder Woman or JLA, but to limited or temporary success. This time around the creative team stuck on a title for a long, long time which meant sales were consistent and indeed, high at a time when Jim Shooter had shaped Marvel into a sales machine dominant like no other time in its history. The title was so successful it spawned a second title printed not on the newsprint familiar to us all for generations, but the new baxter stock,so better paper so DC could target the then pretty new direct market.


This issue told stories a year in advance of the newstand edition which didn’t always make the most sense, and once the newsprint version caught up to the baxter version, it became a reprint title for all the stories which had been printed for the direct market. Confusion aside, it still maintained sales well through and past Crisis on Infinite Earths, and into the post-Crisis era of DC where DC were releasing critical and commercial hits on a regular basis because The New Teen Titans gave DC the foundations to do everything afterwards. Eventually the title was canceled, revamped, canceled, revamped and is now just the Teen Titans.

New Teen Titans led to DC looking for new talent which led them to look to the UK thanks to 2000AD and Warrior, that led them to get Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland over first with Gibbons on Green Lantern and Bolland on Camelot 3000, one of DC first efforts for the direct market. Then they got Alan Moore for Swamp Thing and the rest is history as they say.

Perhaps next time you’re reading or watching one of those horrendous YouTube history of comics videos that goes from Action Comics #1 to the MCU in five minutes, remember the stuff that actually built the industry and gave it what it has today.

Comics in the 1980’s

I’ve been scouring the internet for video or film footage for a while now, and every now and them, in amongst the ‘geek’ videos telling you how great <insert shite Marvel/DC comic here> while desperately hoping for that big TV deal you’ll get a gem. This is one of those gems.

This is a compilation of stock footage from the 1980’s, though some may well be 1970’s with the Neal Adams footage, and it’s a joyful flood of nostalgia as these days of comics are gone now to be replaced by a more corporate version. Enjoy this look into the past…

RIP Russ Cochran

If you’re a casual comics fan the name Russ Cochran will never grace the same ‘geek’ documentaries or films that lay homage to Stan Lee or Robert Downey Jr, but Cochran is quite possibly one of the most important figures in comics who sadly died this week.

Cochran’s massive contribution is carefully caretaking, and releasing the work of EC Comics in formats which do the work justice. The giant hardback box-sets are the easy sign a comics fan is not just an historian but a lover of some of the best comics ever made.


Cochran was a comics fan who loved EC Comics, as well as the work of Carl Barks who started the entire idea of releasing comics in carefully curated editions with serious academic as well as artistic intent to preserve them for current and future generations.


These editions were, and still are, massively expensive but Cochran also released EC reprints in a variety of formats more affordable to the average fan.


Cochran’s contribution to comics as a medium and its fandom is immeasurable. These comics will teach you storytelling, design, scripting, everything and they’re great but for many in the 70’s and 80’s these were how people learned their first steps into the industry.

My dream is that before I die to have a full set of EC’s comics. I’ve got around a shelfload, with the Mad books being some of the most well-read comics I own. Thanks to Cochran making these things available maybe one day I will.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World

Jack Kirby was a genius, and his run of Fantastic Four is still one of the greatest runs of any sort of comics.


After Kirby left Marvel for DC, the prospect of Kirby creating a world from scratch was thought to be the sales coup of the century, but for a variety of reasons, his ‘Fourth World’ failed to set sales figures alight at the time. As an aside, if any superhero comic had those sales figures today they’d be the best selling titles of any publisher.

Those four titles, Jimmy Olsen, Mister Miracle, The Forever People and The New Gods, dropped enough concepts and characters to supply a creator or a publisher, a lifetime, but this was just a few years of Kirby’s life which is astonishing. There’s a lot out there describing what happened but this video is the clearest, most concise explanation of the story of Kirby’s Fourth World…

How many pages of comics did Jack Kirby draw?

Today most mainstream comics artists struggle with a monthly schedule, but back in the day, people like Jack Kirby would draw pages a day, especially in the early days of Marvel. So lets have a wee look at who did draw pages in huge numbers…


Kirby drew nearly 18,000 pages of comic art but he’s topped by John Buscema who was also one of those artists who’d just work and work, but they’re all topped by Curt Swan who again, drew and seemed to draw Superman for a century. Swan was again, solid and reliable and looking through that list is looking at a list of artists who (mostly) hit their deadlines, put out in many cases splendid work, and could draw comics, not pin-up pages.

As Todd McFarlane has said, some artists today are too busy drawing pin-ups while failing to put the work in to build up a body of work that will stand the test of time and fashion. Even someone as painfully dull as Don Heck carved his place in comics history and will be remembered in 100 years while <insert hot artist this week> will maybe hit a footnote.

A lesson then for upcoming artists is to put the work in. Because if you don’t in 30 years time you’ll still be hacking out pin-ups while the other person who did do the graft is doing half the work for twice the money.