The Year in Comics: 1996

Our friends at the Pop-Culture Bomb-Cast started a new podcast series that looks at some of the comics they loved from specific years. Episode 1 was 1986 and they have announced episode 2 will be 1996.

I started to look at 1996 to be ready to listen in, and decided to do a little write up about the year.

First off, here were the 3 biggest trends in comics that year.

3. Spawn Overload – the top comic that year was easily Spawn; 4 of the top 10 comics sold that year were regular issues of the book. You also had supplemental titles like Spawn the Impaler, Angela, and Curse of the Spawn cracking the top 30 sales list. The movie and HBO cartoon series were also in production at the time.

And 20 years later the comic is still going, but it’s not talked about like it once was. There is also talk of a new movie, written and directed by creator Todd McFarlane; instead of the campy Clown and bad effect, they are focusing on a more grounded, horror approach. It’ll be interesting to see if that helps to relaunch the brand.

2. The Downfall of Marvel – 1996 ended with the bankruptcy of Marvel Comics. The year was spent cancelling many big titles (Captain America, Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Iron Man, Doctor Strange) while ending their Marvel Edge imprint. The cancellations didn’t last long, as they were part of a bigger event – Heroes Reborn (see below). The bankruptcy came after the comic collector bubble brust in the early ’90s and Marvel’s debt quickly outweighed their income. They had spent quite a bit to acquire toy and card companies in deals that didn’t help the company; at the time, it was dubbed Marvel Studios and the goal was to produce the secondary merchandise from their characters.

Marvel righted the ship, thanks in part to Avi Arad and focusing on movies. Blade led the way in 1998 and expanded into the X-Men, Spider-Man, and eventually Marvel Studios.

1. Crossovers – 1996 was filled with crossovers; there were big ones, like DC vs Marvel and the Amalgam titles resulting from it, to smaller ones like Spawn/WildCATS, Medieval Spawn/Witchblade, Wolverine/Deathblow, and Grifter/Shi. Sales were so bad at this period that companies were willing to split profits for these 4 issue mergers. They definitely could generate some buzz though; Dc vs Marvel #4 was the best selling comic of the year, with Legends of Dark Claw, Spawn/WildCATS, and Super Soldier in the top 25 and 25 crossovers in the top 100 comics sold. Some were pretty good, while a majority were forgotten to $.25 bins.

The crossover trend would continue after this, with Marvel and Top Cow doing Devil’s Reign and Marvel and Wildstorm merging for the 13th issues of Heroes Reborn for World War 3.

There were also some notable first appearances:
Dark Horse: John Hartigan (Sin City).
DC: Aztek, Body Doubles, Holiday, Magog, Risk, Wonder Girl.
Image: Darkchylde, Wynonna Earp, Evo (DV8), Jack Hawksmoor (Stormwatch/Authority), TIffany (Spawn).
Marvel: Rikki Barnes (Bucky), Bastion, Chimera, Onslaught.
Other: Painkiller Jain, Pandora.

And finally, my top 3 comics/stories of the year:
HM: Onslaught – Onslaught was close to making the list. I mean, they turned Professor X into a bad guy (for the first time) and had him “kill” the Avengers and Fantastic 4. The series set up Heroes Reborn, which was interesting for the most part. It also brought Jim Lee and Rob Liefield back to Marvel Comics for the first time since they left for Image.

While it did a lot of good for Marvel, it also started one of my comic pet peeves – re-starting series. While it would happen every once in a while, Heroes Reborn went 13 issues before relaunching the series again. Since then, we’ve had 22 years of new numbers, back to original numbering, to “All New, All Different” numbering, and repeat the cycle. A new #1 comic became the 5 different hologram covers, poly-bagged with 17 different trading cards.

3. Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire – At this time, there was little in the way of Star Wars. The Timothy Zahn trilogy was getting the books relaunched and led to the Shadows of the Empire book. This was important to Star Wars lore because it was the first book/comic to deal with the empty periods between films since the original Marvel Comics series. It introduced Prince Xizor and the Black Sun, a rival criminal empire for the Hutts, which would be used more often in Star Wars lore. The book/comic would also lead into the Shadows of the Empire video game, action figures, cards, and much more.

2. Marvel Vs DC – While the series isn’t the greatest one written in the year, it was a lot of fun. The primary idea of the series was to pit characters against each other, with the larger outcomes being left to reader votes. This was a series fans had been waiting for, because fan’s can’t stop debating whether character X could be character Y in a fight. This series set up something bigger though: the Amalgam universe. The companies took their characters and merged them into new ones; Batman and Wolverine were merged into Dark Claw, Captain America and Superman became Super Soldier, etc. Many of the characters ended up being pretty lame as there was only an issue or 2 of each to build up their stories.

We also got Access, a jointly owned character created for the series, who could travel between universes; unfortunately he’s been in limbo since the event. The possibilities are endless with what the character could do, but Marvel and DC are so against each other that he’ll never see the light of day anytime soon.

1. Kingdom Come – If 1986 was the beginning of the darkness in the DC universe, this Elsewords series was an attempt to bring the lighter side out in a dark way. The story is set in a future where next wave of heroes are more willing to kill than in the past and eventually leads to an accident killing millions of innocents. Many of the older heroes are either ineffective in the new world or turn their backs on it. Eventually it leads to a big confrontation.

The story is very intense at times; it’s made mores o by Alex Ross’s amazing paint work. One of the subtle things I love about the story is the little nods to DC history and pop culture in general. Wizard Magazine did an Alex Ross issue showing all of the references (which is one of the few issues of the magazine I’ve held onto).

The underlying message of the book is hope and it stands up more than 20 years later. I re-read the book after 9/11 and it’s something I pull out to re-read every few years since.

Follow the Pop-Culture Bomb-Cast on Twitter to get their take on 1996.

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