by Rob Lamberti
The comic book’s Copper Age was short, but it pushed boundaries in art and storytelling, and it filled the coffers of the industry’s big publishers — and even some smaller companies that made an impact, even if for only a short time.
The era arguably started in 1984 with the printing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Mirage Studios, along with Marvel’s Secret Wars 1 and Amazing Spider-Man 252. It continued until 1992. Other starting points include DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths 1 in ’85 or Crisis 12 along with Return of the Dark Knight by Frank Miller in ’86.
Or maybe it’s a spectrum that includes all of them, a discussion point among collectors who meet over tea and digestive cookies.
The smaller publishers punched way above their heads, making room in the Top 10 sales lists along with giants DC and Marvel.
The Copper Age however waned after DC Comics “killed” Superman in 1992. Many collectors also mark the end of the era with the creation of Image Comics — home of Spawn — by three top Marvel artists who stormed out of Marvel over creator rights and money in ’92.
Within a few years into what some call the Iron Age, or simply the Current Era, circulation dropped significantly, characters vanished as did a few publishers. Big profits were no longer in the funny papers but in the movie studio.
Along with the key titles and artists of the era, there were also some, well, interesting titles that sparked short speculative rushes, like Eclipse Comics’ Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters in 1986.
Along with the goofy titles, there were examples sophisticated story-telling and art probably not seen until the Copper Age, titles including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, marking the influx of Manga comics into the mainstream North American market.
But along with that depth in story-telling and art, the era was marked with conflict between the serious collector and speculative hoarder, printing gimmicks to fire up demand and marketing plans to rachet up profit margins unseen in the business since the 1940s.
Let’s explore the era marked with speculative energy by investors, resentment by collectors, the explosive growth in comic shops, and printers — especially Canada’s Quebecor — created silver, chromium, red or white embossed covers embedded with 3D holograms, with sharp-edged dye-cut designs that could glow in the dark.
Some books were wrapped in plastic bags that should never be opened in a bid to entice collectors to plunk down their hard-earned cash.
It’s also interesting market value of some issues remain high, considering that for the first time in almost 40 or 50 years, presses shot out more than one million copies of certain titles, including Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane and X-Men 1 by Jim Lee, which had five different covers.
Among the hottest books of the era include Spider-Man’s black suit, the symbiote introduced simultaneously in Secret Wars 8 and Amazing Spider-Man 252. There are rumours of a pending Marvel film based on that Secret Wars story of 1992, where everybody in the Marvel Universe fights a narcissistic power hungry character with god-like powers.
Other key Marvels include ASM 300, which introduced Venom, the anti-Spider-Man character popular among the younger set, New Mutants 98 with the first appearance of Deadpool, while Uncanny X-Men 266 has the first glimpse of Gambit. Don’t forget the Wolverine four-part mini-series of 1982 that is sought after in higher grades.
Before there was TMNT, there was Gobbledygook, a 1984 black-and-white photocopied and stapled 24-page comic about a fugitive android. There’s only about 50 of them and counterfeits are known to exist. The Overstreet Comic Buyers’ Guide warns signed and numbered editions do not exist so there must have been many shady deals in the past.
The anthology Albedo Anthropromophics 2, with a print run of 2,000 copies, introduced rabbit samurai Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, and it’s considered one of the hottest books of the era.
New companies launched and most vanished by 1987, but others including Valiant, are seeing a bit of a resurgence. The company created Bloodshot, reintroduced Solar, Man of the Atom and Turok, and hired artists including Barry Windsor Smith, who exploded into the comic word with Conan the Barbarian. Dark Horse handled the Predator and Alien series, and later Star Wars.
A couple of key series came out of DC Comics, including Watchmen by Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore also revitalized Swamp Thing and created V for Vendetta, which could have been the idea behind Anonymous wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. There was a resurgence of interest in Batman, in part because of the movies starring Michael Keaton, but also Miller’s The Dark Knight which provided the spark that launched the Copper Age’s renaissance.
Superman turned 50 in 1988 and the company also launched a modern, darker version of Sandman by Gaiman, along with the new character Death. Others like Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, made their first appearance.
DC created the imprint Vertigo to focus on adult-themed stories, including drugs, sex and graphic violence, that was popular among the older audience. While it made an impression among collectors, the line was pretty well ignored by speculators.
The era ended during the speculative rush for the bagged version of The Death of Superman in Superman 75. Many were hoarded by dealers and were never offered at face value on the newsstand. It sold for up to $30 the week it was distributed. Values dropped dramatically when DC didn’t keep Superman dead, and most speculators, who had been fuelling the huge print runs of the era, gave up on comics.
Dealers were left holding suddenly worthless and undesirable overstock because of the industry’s no-return policy. Much of that stock was put into 25-cent bins at comic conventions. The era ended with the demise of many shops, fewer collectors and a weaker new comics market.
It would take a while, but with the explosive growth of the cinematic comic universes, those 25-cent books in the remainder bins could now be worth a fistful of dollars.