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Out of the Box #1
By John Denning
July 20, 2006
Welcome to Out of the Box, Cinescape.com's latest weekly toy column. In what I'm sure is the first of numerous seemingly unrelated tangents, we're going to start by talking about comics. Bear with me and connect the dots.
There's a lot that's been written about comics maturing with their readership during the late 80's, some of these sources attributing the more complex, adult themes of books like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns to expanding the market beyond adolescent youths. In reality, comics have rarely been able to make a profit on their own. In entertainment, Hollywood is the golden cash cow that can turn anyone else's idea into its own million-dollar baby.
So when Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989 with over 40 million at the box office, people in and out of the comic book industry took notice. Here was a business designed to shake down impressionable youth for their allowance and loose change that managed a mere $850 million in revenues at the height of its boon in 1993. Compare that with $750 million that Batman has made in merchandise sales alone (didn't you buy something with a bat symbol on it that year?), and all the sudden comics could be big business.
Several high-end auctions of rare comics during this time likewise fueled everyone's drive to dig for four-color gold. The industry encouraged this with every gimmick it could: holograms, foil covers, alternate covers, direct versus newsstand editions. As they moved into the 90's, comics set the record for their highest print run ever with X-men #1, printing 8 million copies including all five covers. The death of Superman in Superman #75 had lines around the block at some locations, and had an alternate cover polybagged with stamp, poster, obituary, card, and that snazzy black armband.
So now we ask, what does this have to do with toys? If you look at the toy industry as it stands, some of the hottest lines are linked with comic and movie franchises. More than ever, toy series come with pre-constructed collectibility: variant figures, chase figures, McFarlane's short production runs, and so forth. It's starting to look like the early 90's comic book industry in 3-D.
But what happened to that industry? Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1997. X-men #1 now sells for less than a dollar. Further, while the death of Superman's black cover sold well, the same gimmick repeated with the return of Superman's "white album" cover bombed, with thousands of unwanted copies tossed in the same forgotten landfill where they dumped all those discarded Atari ET cartridges. Meanwhile, some who profited from the brief boom took their money and moved on to other industries.
That's one of the biggest links in this chain of faux collectibles. When Todd McFarlane and Image put out Spawn #1, it was the height of the comics collectible craze. Everyone bought Spawn #1. I bought Spawn #1. Because of the initial rush, it was actually hard to find a copy right afterwards for anyone who came late to the game. When I checked my local comic shop a month later and saw the issue listed for $15 already, I was sure a rich future awaited me. Unfortunately, hype has a short half-life, and supply and demand rule the collectible market side-by-side. According to Comicspriceguide.com, a 9.4 CGC graded copy of Spawn #1 remains listed at $15.
So now Todd does toys, continuing the pre-fab collectible gimmick. Now, McFarlane makes some cool toys, no doubt about it, but its always wise when collecting things to consider the simple fact that only time and scarcity create value. No matter how few chase figures are in a case, each store still gets them. If it seems too easy to find something, it probably isn't worth anything.
Now the toy industry, whether profits are rising or falling, is alive and well. Marvel Legends, once thought to have completed its run at ToyBiz has been given new life at Hasbro. DC Direct continues to produce series from all their most popular stories, from Crisis on Infinite Earths to the Elseworlds miniseires. McFarlane has produced 29 Spawn series, along with the best-selling Millitary and sports lines. There are plenty of options for collectors and plenty of cool toys worth buying.
What this opening column is meant to impart is an introduction to the viewpoints intended to be expressed here. Polybags introduced to the comic book industry what toys have always known. Original packaging will always increase the value of a collectible item. By sealing the comic in plastic, you are creating a distinction: are you buying it to read, or are you buying it to collect? The same question faces anyone buying toys: are they really toys or are they an investment?
Ignore the hype. Comics and toys are luxuries. That means they are designed for your enjoyment. If you are the type who enjoys collecting things, keeping them pristine and basking in your eventual profit, that's your angle. For the rest, set them free. Comics are meant to be read, and toys are meant to be played with (or at least arranged in elaborately cool displays). Take your toys out of the box and free them from the chains of constrictive packaging. When we talk about action figures here, we're going to put them into action.
Next week, we look at the less-than-legendary Marvel figures from before the popular line, as well as the future of the resurrected line under new management at Hasbro. Until then, go play with your toys. They miss you.