Were you there for the avalanche of comic book mania that rolled onto the scene in the early 1990’s? In case you missed it, somehow word got around that comic books were a good investment that would grow exponentially in value over the years, so not only were kids buying up any cover featuring Wolverine or Batman, but right alongside them at the the racks were middle aged professionals who had never set foot in a comic book store, hoping to make a buck buying 12 copies of the latest issue #1.
It seemed like new comics publishers popped up every month with product ready to ship to the glut of comic book stores that opened up in every strip mall across the nation and soon the market was flooded with hundreds of costumed heroes battling evil on the printed page. Major comic book companies like DC and Marvel took notice of the competition, adding holograms or metallic ink to covers, polybagged issues with trading cards inside and more to get noticed on overcrowded racks.
While those practices became standard throughout the decade, there were even more creative and sometimes outright insane gimmicks applied to the marketing of comics during this period and I fell for a for a lot of them. So you can believe that I know whereof I speak when I reveal to you 10 Awesome Comic Book Gimmicks of the 90’s.
Gen 13 Variant Covers
Jim Lee was the artists responsible for X-Men #1, which was at the time the highest selling comic book in history. So when he and his fellow Marvel artists jumped ship to form the mega-hyped Image Comics Group, everything he touched turned to gold. After producing a mini-series called Gen 13 about a group of teens with super powers escaping from an evil government facility, an ongoing series was announced with art by J. Scott Campbell and to create a buzz, there were 13 different variant covers produced of issue #1. Long before Pokemon, we were trying to catch ‘em all.
Featuring homages to pop culture of the day like the Pulp Fiction parody photo cover featuring a model dressed as Freefall doing her best Uma Thurman impression or Fairchild stepping into the infamous topless Janet Jackson cover from Rolling Stone, these images were hard to ignore. They were instant collectibles marked up to 20 or 30 dollars and displayed on the wall behind the register at all my local comic book stores, with lusty fanboys happily paying the price for the bragging rights and adding eye candy to their long boxes.
The most egregious of these covers in my mind was the Do It Yourself cover, which was literally blank. That was a real slap in the face, yet it was a fun idea and the completist in me still feels this is a missing part of my comic book collection.
The Good Guys
While covers were an obvious way to catch a potential buyer’s eye, sometimes a contest could work just as well. That was the case when Jim Shooter, formerly editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, then head honcho of 90’s upstart publisher Valiant and finally a publisher called Defiant announced his plans for a comic book starring the readers. Yes, The Good Guys were a superhero team made up of ideas submitted by young comics fans for what their desired powers and secret identity would be. If selected, their character would be a continuing character in each issue.
The most exciting part of the set-up for me was that the incident that created the super-powered beings in the story took place during the grand opening of a real comic book store called Mile High Comics in Anaheim, CA. This was a store at which I shopped at on a weekly basis. I was creating multiple superhero alter egos for myself every day in school and had I known about this contest, I could have stood a very good chance of being featured myself. Despite the clever gimmick, the art in The Good Guys was pretty terrible and in the era where you could sell a million copies of a book with a stupid story, but awesome illustrations, that pretty much spelled it’s doom.
Robin 2: The Joker’s Wild!
The debut of a new Robin in Batman comics with a radical costume redesign was a huge deal to me in the early days of my comic collecting and his original mini-series is still one of my all-time favorites. Apparently it was pretty popular with everyone else too because a second mini-series was produced soon after, pitting the Tim Drake’s Boy Wonder against The Joker. This mini-series featured multiple covers for each issue with a hologram of Batman, The Bat Signal, Robin or The Joker affixed to it. Trading card holograms were insanely popular at this time, so it was a perfect way to breath new life into the variant cover concept.
I was always a fan of these covers, but the gimmick took on a whole new meaning 20 years later in a most unexpected way. While visiting a company who were printing catalogs for my employer, I noticed that the owner had an uncut sheet of the holograms on his office wall. On closer inspection I was blown away to realize that they were the same holograms from Robin II: The Joker’s Wild! He explained to me that he had personally created those holograms in the 90’s and that it was one of his favorite projects. Definitely one of my most memorable days at the office.
Radioactive Man Glow-In-The-Dark Cover
From the moment Bart Simpson was shown flipping through an issue of Radioactive Man during the first season of The Simpsons in 1990, I was instantly fascinated by the proud underachiever having a favorite superhero. In the second season episode “3 Men and A Comic Book” we even get a peak into the pages of Radioactive Man and my imagination was again sent into overdrive. So in 1993 when Matt Groening announced his Bongo Comics line would include real Radioactive Man comic books, they didn’t even need a gimmick cover to get my money on release day.
Surprisingly, Glow In The Dark covers were not a common method of adding flair to a comic in the 90’s. Much like 3-D, the fad seemed to have had it’s heyday many decades before. With Radioactive Man however, it made sense from a conceptual standpoint that the irradiated crusader would have a glowing skeleton that illuminated when you shut off the lights. I always loved the slightly gritty texture it added to the cover and the interior lived up to the hype, I’ve have read this issue dozens of times. This series actually became my favorite Bongo Comics release and I collected every issue. The Simpsons always deliver extra entertainment and in this case, a gimmick cover was simply the glowing icing on the delicious sprinkled donut (drools).
The Adventures of Superman #500
One of the biggest comic book gimmicks of the decade and the subject of enormous speculative purchasing from non-comic book fans, was The Death of Superman. An event that was actually created as a Plan B for a planned wedding issue that had to be delayed in order to coincide with events taking place on the Lois and Clark television program. But once the fire was lit, DC Comics kept the hits coming with 4 new Supermen taking up the mantle in Metropolis and plenty of creative covers along the way. I bought in hook, line and sinker. One of the most memorable covers at this time was for The Adventures of Superman #500, itself a milestone for the character.
With Superman allegedly deceased at this time, the cover featured the Man of Steel emerging from heavenly clouds and reaching out a hand towards the outstretched arm of Pa Kent. The trick was that if you removed the plastic film from the cover, the extended arm of the old man would disappear, separating the Father and Son. The gimmick was interesting in a symbolic sense, but the story inside was a real snore-fest for a pre-teen like myself. The story of an old Kansas farmer hallucinating a reunion with his adopted alien son just wasn’t going to satisfy me after the explosive, multi-issue brawl with Doomsday that sent the Last Son of Krypton to his demise.
Bad Girls N’ Boobs
In an era where the bouncing babes of Baywatch were getting huge ratings and becoming international celebrities, it’s no wonder that comic books began to jump on the trend. In fact, Marvel Comics released multiple Swimsuit Issues where established heroines like She-Hulk and Rogue posed with impossible physiques that made adolescent eyes pop out of their sockets.
But that wasn’t EXTREME enough for some and thus the gates were suddenly opened to the Bad Girl invasion. Though not necessarily villains, “Bad Girls” became the term for any female character that was drawn with a size Double-D chest and an outfit made of barely enough material to contain their assets. This trend arrived when I hit junior high and it was hard to ignore.
Lady Death from indie publisher CHAOS comics led the charge with provocative covers that were the primary factor in selling each issue. Find someone who can explain the storyline of Lady Death comics and you’ve also found someone who claims to read Playboy “just for the articles”. Other lingerie based heroines of note included the heavy mascara wearing redhead Dawn, Asian warrior Shi and western themed, Lady Rawhide, who spun off of from Topps Comics’ Zorro series. Vampirella was a horror based progenitor of the trend in the 70’s who had a resurgence in the 90’s, but a character like Purgatori took the concept to it’s final destination.
This legendary bit of comics history took the 90’s mantra of going EXTREME to the absolute limit. Malibu Comics was never a giant in the industry and the Protectors were not even close to approaching the popularity of the X-Men, so the publishers decided to make issue #5 of Protectors number one with a bullet…literally.
While no firearms were actually discharged to produce the hole that passed through every page of the comic (one would imagine that your average comic book couldn’t stand up to that kind of firepower), the “Forcebeam Hole” was integrated into the panels of the story and from an artistic standpoint was no small feat. Speaking of firearms…
Ultraverse Firearm VHS Movie
The introduction of a #0 issue was a 90’s concept that that flourished as a way of introducing a story and cast of characters to potential new readers (and became essential for the obsessive collector). But in 1993 Malibu used their Ultraverse imprint to introduce an amazing innovation in the form of a live action movie prequel comic tie-in…on VHS!
Firearm #0 was packaged with a video cassette containing a fully produced 35 minute short film that lead directly into the ongoing series. It’s not cheap looking either, this could have easily been a pilot for a weekly action drama series on ABC playing after NYPD Blue. You can watch the whole thing for yourself below.
Keep in mind that this Long before the modern era of comic book movies breaking box office records so any live action media based on a comics property was like gold to fan boys aching to see their favorite characters brought to life. Even a newcomer like Firearm felt like we were one step away from the Spider-Man movie finally hitting the big screen.
The Maxx Comic Book Soundtrack Cassette
Many 90’s kids probably remember catching The Maxx animated series as part of MTV’s Oddities block on late night cable, but that wasn’t the first attempt to dramatize Sam Keith’s trippy cult classic comic book series. In 1993 faithful readers could order an audio cassette tape that brought the story to life with moody music, immersive sound effects and actors speaking dialogue ripped straight from the word balloons.
This was not a completely new concept, I collected comics and cassette sets featuring Batman, Spider-Man and other heroes that got the full audio drama treatment as a kid. But The Maxx was part of a new breed of edgy illustrated expression that was very much for adults, so applying this level of production for a more mature audience felt like a real artistic experiment and surely acted as proof of concept for the full animated series to come.
Ren and Stimpy Air Fouler
Cartoons were not just for kids in the 90’s with the likes of Beavis and Butt-Head or The Simpsons being the cause of a lot of headaches for concerned parents. Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy somehow managed to avoid most of the controversy by simply being gross and avoiding the foul language and suggestive content of other adult animation. So when the time came for the irritable Chihuahua and simple-minded cat to get their own comic, Marvel decided to stick with what worked and include a bonus the likes of which has never been seen in the world of comics again.
Yes, the first issue of The Ren and Stimpy Show came packed with an “Air-Fouler” which acted as a disgusting alternative to air-fresheners available at any gas station. Having not smelled it myself I can only imagine Ren’s smelled like wet dog or rancid “Nose Goblins” while Stimpy’s had to be chasing the kitty litter scent, am I right? Personally I would have preferred my car to smell like Powdered Toast Man, but when it comes to Ren and Stimpy, being repellant is their claim to fame. Honestly I’m surprised scratch n’ sniff comics didn’t become a trend. After all, haven’t you ever wondered what Doctor Doom smells like after being in that armor for all these years?
I hope you enjoyed this look at a few of the wackier gimmicks of the comic book boom of the 90s. What were some of your favorite marketing ideas that got you handing over your allowance money for a unique and possibly collectible comic?