Sales of Henry and J.J. Abrams' Spider-Man #1 are going through the roof! And while that may seem like good news in the short term, it's worryingly reminiscent of the comic book market crash in the 1990s. Could the same enticing sales.... lead to the same old problems?
J.J. Abrams, Sara Pichelli, and Henry Abrams were promised to make history with a new Spider-Man series, and they have managed to do it--by introducing a brand new Spider-Man hero. But even before the issue released, comic book site Bleeding Cool dropped a rumor that Abrams' Spider-Man series was set in a future timeline, starring Peter Parker and Mary Jane's son, Ben. Suggesting that it could be the previously-established timeline of Mayday "Spider-Girl" Parker, the result was impressive, to say the least.
Sales figures jumped, with standard copies of Spider-Man #1 retailing for $9 on eBay, and rarer copies selling for substantially more. Spider-Girl #59, the comic that introduced Mayday's little brother Ben, promptly sold out on eBay going for $15 a copy. The original cover of Spider-Girl #59 was posted--and sold for a whopping $1,800. The irony, of course, is that Bleeding Cool's reports were only half-right. Abrams' series is indeed set in a future timeline... but it's an entirely original one, completely unconnected from Spider-Girl.
Long-term comic readers will recognize the pattern, since it's the same one seen in the '90s, when speculators began to scoop up comics believing first issues, variant covers, historic twists, and events would become valuable in the long run. Ironically, all their purchasing did was urge publishers like Marvel to make more stock, actually driving the ultimate value of the product down instead. When the speculators finally realized they were being played for fools, they stopped buying--and comic book retailers closed down by the hundreds.
Regardless if intent, Marvel Comics is following all the same strategies that caused their problems back in the 1990s. Gone are the days when a Marvel Comic could run past #100, as the books are now relaunched just about every time a new creative team takes over, with the first issue marketed as an 'event' (in the case of Deadpool, FIVE relaunches since 2008). Meanwhile, Marvel is commissioning countless variant covers every month, with retailers encouraged to purchase certain levels to receive limited-edition variants as well. Again, the end result is an artificially inflated sales figures, leaving non-variant stock on shelves. And Spider-Man #1's sales now hint that the speculators are returning in full force.
Meanwhile, other '90s-era mistakes continue to seem tempting. Corporate ownership (like most industries) has nudged the bottom line back up as a priority over books readers want to keep buying. That also means a step away from real risk-taking, with a net slide towards socially conservative content. Alpha Flight served as an unexpected lightning-rod when Scott Lobdell wrote an issue in which Northstar declared his homosexuality; while Fabian Nicieza wound up in a confrontation with editorial when he wanted to make Nomad HIV-positive in an effort to confront stigma about the disease. Moving to the present, there's evidence Marvel is shifting to the same kind of conservative policy. Marvel Comics #1,000--intended as an anniversary issue--became controversial when Marvel edited a politically-aware note by writer Mark Waid on American self-identity, while Marvel dropped an essay by Pulitzer-prize-winning comic book writer Art Spiegelman for referring to Donald Trump as "the Orange Skull."
Marvel Comics #1,000 sold well, and Abrams' Spider-Man #1 will do the same. But the sales figures conceal much below the surface. Marvel superheroes may be bigger than ever on the big screen, but the comic industry is certainly not booming. If Marvel starts repeating the mistakes that led to the collapse of the industry in the '90s... the road ahead could be a bumpy one for comic book readers.