At the end of last week's column, I promised you that I would discuss this week the impact that the 1992 "Death of Superman" promotion had on the world of comics. Frankly, I view that particular marketing event as being the greatest catastrophe to strike the world of comics since the Kefauver Senate hearings of 1955. While there were certainly a plethora of other reasons why the American comics market began falling apart in 1993 (including higher cover prices, overproduction, and deteriorating art/story quality), in my opinion the "Death of Superman" promotion inadvertently exposed to the general public (many of whom ignorantly bought into the prevailing delusion that all comics were collectibles that infinitely rose in value) the "Ponzi Scheme" reality of the market for recent back issue comics.
What made the "Death of Superman" promotion so much different than all the rest of the specious comics marketing schemes cooked up during the early 1990's was that it was aimed at the general public. When I first heard about DC's plans to "kill" Superman, I immediately called DC President Paul Levitz to beg him to cancel the idea. I forcefully made the argument that since Superman was such a recognized icon within America's overall popular culture, that DC had no more right to "kill" him than Disney had the right to "kill" Mickey Mouse. I went so far as to state that, in my opinion, DC didn't actually "own" Superman, but rather was a trustee of a sacred national image.
My pleas for restraint fell on deaf ears. Paul had already committed to the program, and he told me that there was no turning back. He told me to call DC Superman Group Editor Mike Carlin, and to make my case to him. I tried that route, too, but Mike was just as adamant as Paul that deceiving the public into believing that they were actually going to kill off Superman would have minimal long term negative effect . Boy howdy, were they ever wrong. By the time that DC super-publicist Martha Thomases finished saturating the news media with the word that Superman was about to die, the story became front page news all around the country. People who had little, if any, previous interest in comics mobbed stores on the day that SUPERMAN #75 was released, some standing in line for hours to purchase just a single copy. As much as I detested the concept, I had to admit in the end that the program did achieve the desired effect of bringing into comics shops tens of thousands of consumers who had either never purchased a comic book, or who had not touched one in years. For a little while, the wonderful earnings we all generated from this huge new flow of customers seemed to make all my arguments against the "death" of Superman seem like a big mistake.
There was only one problem with this entire program. It was based entirely on a lie. DC never had any intention of actually killing off Superman. His entire "death" was an event solely contrived to sell lots and lots of comic books. Under many other circumstances, I believe that this promotion would not have had nearly as negative an effect. As I explained last week, however, the comics market going into the early 1990's had already been severely inflated by the addition of thousands of undercapitalized and unknowledgeable new retailers. It seemed at the time that there was now a comics shop on every corner, and the prevailing illusion was that the owners of these comics shops were all making a great deal of money. As a result, it became a common delusion for a while that you could make a fortune investing in comics. Greed, more than any other factor, is what inspired so many consumers from outside of the traditional comics world to chase after SUPERMAN #75. Heck, at least in the first printing, they couldn't even read the book without reducing it's "value," as DC polybagged the issue...
With over a decade behind us now since that ill-advised promotion was first conceptualized, I believe that all of us in the world of comics are still paying the price for the "death" of Superman. While the overall number of bitter negative comments have finally begun to abate, I continue to hear from at least one non-comics fan a month about how they felt ripped off when they were "tricked" into believing that Superman was really going to die. In DC's defense, I don't believe that they ever actually stated that Superman's "death" was going to permanent. In fact, Mike Carlin made a very valid point to me in our original discussion about how there had already been several other imaginary Superman "death" stories in DC's past, and that they had not had any negative effect. Where things went wrong, however, is that this particular promotion seemed like a sure bet to those members of the general public who had come to believe all the hype during the early 1990's about the investment value of comics. When these new comics consumers/investors tried to sell their copies of SUPERMAN #75 for a profit a few months later, however, and discovered that they could only recover their purchase price if they had a first printing, their bitter disillusionment did much to cause the comics investing bubble to begin bursting
By the end of 1993, it became painfully clear to anyone who studied the market numbers that the comics world was starting to shrink. Little did we know, however, that the decline would last for more than a decade, and would eventually reduce the overall unit sales volume of comics by a disastrous 80% from the 1992 peak. That huge decline in overall unit sales inevitably led to a severe consolidation in not only the comics retailing community, but also in the number of publishers and distributors. Next week, I'll return to the subject of distribution by touching upon Marvel's disastrous foray into self-distribution, and how that ultimately led to Diamond becoming the monopoly supplier of new comics to the Direct Market.
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