The major comic book companies are on track to prove that the only thing we learn from History is that we don’t learn anything from History. Just look at how they’ve been doing lately:
- DC Comics re-re-re-re-rebooted everything again.
- After getting a clue about not being needlessly dark, DC Comics are heading into a crossover where dark versions of our favorite heroes invade. Again.
- Nearly every single DC Comic has a variant cover. At least there are no minimum order amounts for most of them.
- Marvel seems intent on setting records for the largest number of regular covers a retailer has to order to get one variant cover (current record holder: 2000 copies).
- Marvel killed off a lot of their most popular characters, and now is bringing them all back again because sales dropped precipitously. Oops.
- Massive crossovers and Events seem to be endless.
- Far too many Marvel comics continue to ship late, allowing customers to read stories that occur after major events they couldn’t have read yet.
The comic book industry has a long-standing pattern of boom and bust, and the artificial boom currently underway is being underwritten by online stores that are big enough to order 100 to 2000 copies of a comic just to get the variants. And the events. And the crossovers. We seem to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ once again.
We’ve been down this road before. In the 1980s we had the black and white comic boom started by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that collapsed once it was clear that customers wanted color. In the 1990s we had the Death of Superman, the Breaking of the Bat, and the explosion and death of Valiant comics that resulted in the loss of over 75% of our comic stores and the bankruptcy of Marvel Comics.
And here we are again. When comics are sold as entertainment they do fairly well, although the current prices of new comics are prohibitively high for most people (new #1 issues of a lot of comics are now routinely $5 each). When they are sold as “collector items” or “investments” new comics may seem to do well, but as soon as a significant percentage of comic buyers try to “cash in” and sell their prized comics, it always comes crashing down. Silver age comics seem to be immune to the crashing prices, but bronze age comics are already hurting and lower grade non-key issues of Silver age comics are available at much lower prices than in the past if you are patient.
What always works well for sales is a recipe that comic companies seem to stumble over every few years, after which they lose sight of what worked and move on to gimmicks:
- good stories and good art
- characters readers care about
That’s it. Always works. But Marvel Comics has come up with an idea for this Fall that is painful to even think about:
Back in the early to mid-seventies, a series of stamp-size pictures were printed in various Marvel comics. There were 100 of them altogether, and if you were lucky you also managed to get a copy of the booklet that had spaces for each of the stamps. The idea seemed to be that you would cut the stamps out of your comics (thereby ruining either an ad or a part of the story on the other side of the page) and paste them into the booklet. There was a vague promise that someday a completed booklet would grant the happy owner the opportunity to get some sort of massive discounts. As far as I know, the completed stamp book was only good for a few things:
- a discount to a comic convention in New York in 1974
- a discount to a comic convention in San Diego in 1974
- a one hour meet and greet with Roy Thomas and a few other Marvel creators at that San Diego Con
- a permanent 10% discount on purchases from the Marvel store (requiring you to send in the booklet each time you ordered something and gamble on getting it back)
You can currently sell a completed book with all the stamps for about $300-$500.
Sound like a great idea? Not really. One of the stamps was in Incredible Hulk #181, the first appearance of Wolverine. Cutting that stamp out of that comic probably cost you over $1,000 if you had kept the comic in excellent shape. There was a virtually mint copy of that comic that floated around Florida comic shows in the mid-nineties that turned up at nearly every show. Somebody would sell the comic as if the stamp was there, somebody else would get it home and discover their mistake, and that person would sell it to some unsuspecting person at the next show. It became commonplace for dealers in Florida to examine every single comic from the early seventies before they bought it, checking carefully for the Marvel Value stamp.
There were at least two more sets of the stamps, as well as a few one-shot promo stamps, but nothing ever destroyed as many comics as the first series. Maybe this time the comics will come bagged with the stamps instead of forcing customers to cut them out of the comics (of course, that will also force people to buy two copies so they can keep the stamps mint in the bags).
In a foolish effort to repeat the past, Marvel is again printing Marvel Value Stamps starting in October. There will only be 53 stamps this time, and so far we have no word on which comics they will be in, no idea if there will be a booklet to put them in again, and no indication that chopping up your comics will pay off somehow.
Oh, the worst idea? That was licensing their IP to movie companies that would screw things up forever and unfortunately keep the future movies away from Disney studios. I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four movies.
It’s been over 40 years since Marvel tried Value Stamps the first time. Musical groups can’t hope to hit the charts for that long (although Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Paul McCartney have all managed that trick). The longest stretch of #1 records belongs to Cher, who lasted 33 years from I Got You Babe to Believe. Here she is with an actual video for a song that was number one when the first Marvel Value Stamps were released, Dark Lady.