These days, Marvel Comics is one of the most successful and prolific media companies around, but it wasn't always that way. Marvel Comics in the '90s was one wrong move from shutting its doors forever, even going so far as to file for bankruptcy and reorganize as a means of keeping the financial wolves at bay. It's well-known that the company was forced to sell off the film rights to some of its most iconic characters, but Marvel didn't find itself in financial ruin by accident - quite a few factors went into the company's decline over the years.
The reasons Marvel Comics went bankrupt are extensive, but the company still found a way to bounce back. By 2008, the company launched their film studio, and after 20 blockbuster hits, Marvel has bounced back. In 2009, the company was purchased by Disney for a cool $4 billion, which the House of Mouse earned back rather quickly. It's crazy to think that such a successful media empire almost went belly up, but if the events of the '90s hadn't taken place, there likely wouldn't be an MCU accompanied by incredible comic book sales and new and exciting characters.
They Bought Into The Spec Market With An Abundance Of GimmicksPhoto: Marvel Comics
By the late 1980s and early '90s, the comic book market was experiencing something of a boost. In the previous years, comics were seen as disposable, but as children from the 1960s were getting older and wanting to recapture their youth with new acquisitions of old comics, some issues saw a massive influx in value. Books that originally sold for a dime were somehow worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, which meant people with little knowledge of the industry began buying books in a speculative market.
To meet the demand, publishers, especially Marvel, began issuing multiple copies of their books. One issue might come in a polybag, which required people to buy one to read and one to keep. Others would come with a random trading card or embossed foil cover. Whatever the gimmick, the publishers ate it up and produced too many books for a growing, unstable market. Eventually, the bubble burst and the entire industry suffered. Veteran comic book author Neil Gaiman even forewarned it at a conference in 1993:
You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you're selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse.
Gaiman was right, and the bubble did burst. The damage to Marvel's stock nearly killed the company and certainly contributed to its need to file for bankruptcy.
Ron Perelman Put The Company In Debt
Ron Perelman was a millionaire entrepreneur and investor who set his sights on Marvel Entertainment Group in 1989. Perelman purchased the company for $82.5 million through his holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes, which he also used to purchase the cosmetics giant Revlon in 1985. As soon as he bought Marvel, he began implementing costly changes.
Perelman began rapidly spending Marvel's money and bought up a large portion of Toy Biz's public shares, several trading card companies, a distribution outfit, and a sticker company. When the dust settled, he had spent more than $700 million of Marvel's money on companies, which were used to push Marvel's sales. He used the trading card, sticker, and distribution companies to boost the company's gimmick books, which initially helped sales but eventually tanked the market.
He pushed the price of comics up and inflated the market bubble so he could then sell off portions of Marvel's stock for much more than he paid for it. By 1993, he had sold 40% of Marvel's stock, recovered his money, and led the bubble to burst. By 1995, the company's debt was massive, and Perelman attempted to start Marvel Studios to recoup some losses. An internal power struggle ensued, however, and went on for three years. When that finally ended, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and reorganized.
They Went Public In 1989
Marvel began as a small publishing house operating under the name Timely Comics in 1939. By the 1960s, the company evolved into Marvel Comics and remained private for most of its decades-long history. After Ron Perelman took over the company in 1989, he quickly made it public and began selling shares of Marvel Entertainment Group on the stock market.
Initially, this was a good thing: Spider-Man rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, the company's visibility rose considerably, and the value of Marvel increased from the $82.5 million Perelman spent to several hundred million in only a couple of years. The problem arose with Marvel's debt, though. As Perelman purchased more and more companies under Marvel's name, he had to borrow to make ends meet.
Eventually, Marvel's massive debt was purchased by numerous people and corporations who wanted to have a say in how the company was run. This led to a great deal of infighting for several years and ultimately tanked the company.
Marvel Embraced The Lunacy Of Crossover EventsPhoto: Marvel Comics
Creating gimmicks to sell comics through the inclusion of trading cards and other means was only one way Marvel boosted their sales in the '90s. Another was to launch a series of events and crossovers that required readers to purchase books they may not have otherwise.
The "Clone Saga," for instance, was a crossover event in the Spider-Man comics involving five titles: The Amazing Spider-Man; Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man; Spider-Man; Web of Spider-Man; and Spider-Man Unlimited. It also included Giant-Size books, one-shots, and others, leaving most readers unable to follow the story.
If you could only purchase one line of books, you were lost thanks to each ending with something like "To find out what happens next, pick up Web of Spider-Man..." This made the story difficult to follow, and the "Clone Saga" is considered one of the most despised crossovers because of it. Other Marvel events in this vein include Maximum Carnage, X-Men: Onslaught, and Infinity Crusade, to name a few.
While some events were amazing stories that readers loved, too many were convoluted messes few enjoyed or purchased.