Worst Bubble Ever

June 25, 2011

Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Spider-Man taught that with great power comes great responsibility. But the superhero it might have profited you the most to have emulated is Kyle Baker’s Al Space. Al Space tried to teach the youth about the folly of investing in speculative bubbles.

Al Space debuted in 1991′s Epic Lite, an anthology of short pieces published under Marvel Comics’ Epic Comics imprint, which tended to feature underground or alternative comic artists like Baker. Al Space wore the cape, tights, and underoos de rigeur for costumed crimefighters, except he had a bit of a pot belly. Instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he spends six pages talking to little Billy Brown about his comic-book collection. “Well, this sure is a big stack!” Al Space remarks. “Let’s take a look at—Wait… This is all the same comic.”

“I’m going to be rich,” Billy explains. “Did you know that last year three million copies of McFarlane’s first Spider-Man were sold?”—referring to Spider-Man #1, a fourth Spider-Man title that Marvel debuted in 1991 to accommodate the demands of its superstar artist Todd McFarlane to have total creative control of a title and the prominent byline that comes with it. Hoping to capitalize on the mania for McFarlane’s work, Marvel packaged it in a bunch of different formats. It was sold in a sealed plastic bag, requiring kids to choose between preserving the book in mint condition and opening the bag to actually read the comic. Or you could buy another version with a special black-and-silver cover. A second printing with a black-and-gold cover was released a few weeks later. There was also a special “chrome” edition printed on a metallic cardstock. The true collector had to have them all!

Al Space proceeds to remind Billy, “Did you know that according to the market research, there are about five hundred thousand comic book fans? That means that five hundred thousand people bought three million comics. Okay, so we can logically assume that these comics were bought as investments. That means that even if every fan reads one copy of the book, which they probably didn’t, there are at least two million, five hundred thousand copies in protective plastic bags. Which means that fifty years from now, there will still be two million, five hundred thousand copies of that book still in bags. There are two things which affect the value of a comic. Rarity and demand. That book will never be rare, and since every fan has multiple copies, there won’t be much demand for many years to come.” Billy is crushed.

Billy wasn’t the only one who succumbed to the mania for investing in comics in the early 1990s, and it wasn’t just kids, either. The June 13 issue of the Weekly Standard features an account by Jonathan Last of the boom in the comic-book industry in the early 1990s and the crash that followed. In Last’s account, comics became serious collectors’ items some time in the 1980s. Copies of Action Comics #1, which featured Superman’s debut, sold for $400 in 1974, $5,000 in 1984, and $82,500 in 1992. “Price gains for the high-value comics throughout the 1980s attracted speculators, who pushed the prices up further,” Last relates. Another major factor that fueled the speculative bubble was a change in the way distributors did business, which made it easy for nearly anybody to go into business selling comics. Mistaking the entry of thousands of new retailers for a massive expansion of their audience, Last writes, the publishers “upped their prices and began publishing more titles, adjusting the supply to meet what they thought was demand.”

*   *   *   *   *

In their book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, economists Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber describe the anatomy of a bubble as follows. It begins with an event that excites speculative interest. Rising prices encourage new entrants. The increase in demand presses against the capacity to produce goods, and new assets have to be created to satiate demand. Fraudsters get in the game. Historic gains lead to an overextension of credit. When gains begin to stagnate, distress and panic follow. Investors run for the exits, and then comes the crash. “The pattern is biological in its regularity,” write Kindleberger and Aliber. The same story happens again and again, whether it’s about tulips, dot-com stocks, real estate, comic books, or wine.

So I will not comment at length on the fact that the wine world is presently waiting anxiously for the Bordeaux first growths to release their 2010 futures prices, with many observers figuring that Château Lafite-Rothschild may well reach the $2,000-per-bottle mark. Buy some if you are a multimillionaire, but don’t buy any hoping to become one. The same principle holds true all the way down the hierarchy. There is a limited number of wine collectors in the world interested in owning these wines. There is a much larger number of speculators willing to exploit those collectors to make an easy buck. The Bordealais think the cash-flush Chinese will pay the unprecedentedly high prices they are asking. But who is actually buying Bordeaux futures: cash-flush Chinese, or speculators hoping to flip the goods to cash-flush Chinese when the wines ship in two years? I’m not sure I would want to be holding very many of those hot potatoes. Take a look at eBay: you can buy as many Spider-Man #1s as you want for just a few bucks.

*   *   *   *   *

In truth, however, the ridiculous prices being asked for Bordeaux over the last few years are only a small part of why I have almost completely lost interest in the wines. I started drinking Bordeaux in earnest with the 1995 vintage, and at that time back vintages were still plentiful on the shelves, so I was also able to taste through a number of older vintages back to the ’70s at prices I could make room for on a student’s budget. Most of the newer Bordeaux I have occasion to drink, even from estates reputed to be traditionalists, taste unrecognizable to me. It’s shocking to me how completely different the profile is from what it was as recently as a dozen years ago. And the further one goes back in history, the even more pronounced the difference is. In 1945, André Simon wrote that the wines of Burgundy “rarely possess quite the same light and delicate texture or body which is such an outstanding character of most fine clarets; they are as a rule more robust, more assertive, more immediately obvious.” Nobody today would characterize Bordeaux as light and delicate or consider Burgundy more robust and obvious.

The Bordeaux I remember, which were already considerably more modern than the wines Simon drank, were characterized above all by a sense of restraint. The physical sensation on the palate was overwhelmingly one of comfort, registering that feeling of instant gratification not unlike the feeling of sliding one’s feet into a perfectly fitting and broken-in pair of shoes. Attempting to catalogue the flavors with the usual taxonomy of tasting-note “descriptors” would have been a completely pointless exercise because the only meaningful way to describe the taste would be to say that they tasted like wine. No individual elements stuck out. Fruit was wholly immaterial. They did not taste like fruit any more than cheese tastes like milk. The new style of Bordeaux favors weight over comfort, multiplicity of flavors over integration, and fruitiness over vinousness—ultimately, the feeling they are trying to instill in the person drinking them is not so much a feeling of satisfaction or gratification, but a sense of being awed and impressed.

Which brings me back to Spider-Man.

If you page through the old comics of the so-called Golden and Silver Ages of the medium—the periods covering the introduction of the iconic DC and Marvel superheroes—the artwork seems rather plain and simple compared to the eye candy that turned a few of the artists like McFarlane into superstars. None of the work-for-hire pencillers and inkers of the ’30s or ’60s became stars. They worked for peanuts and died poor. But the thing about them is that they had learned to draw comics by studying life, whereas the star artists of the ’90s had learned to draw comics by reading comics. For example, John Buscema, who drew the Avengers and the Silver Surfer and pretty much every other superhero in the Marvel universe, trained as a boxer in New York in the 1940s and began painting portraits of other fighters—experience that doubtlessly came in handy drawing all those muscle-bound superheroes in tights, whose proportions might have been exaggerated a bit for effect but were still human forms that would have been recognizable to a Renaissance sculptor. The new wave of artists didn’t learn to draw the human form by studying boxers; they learned by studying Buscema—and just as Buscema exaggerated the proportions of the human form for effect, they would exaggerate the proportions of the heroes as drawn by Buscema. The images they produced were not drawings of people but drawings of drawings of people. The proportions were all wrong—any actual human so built would have broken into pieces from the impossible distribution of weight. Since they learned to draw from still panels, they didn’t have any anatomical sense of how muscles fit together and moved, so they tended just to draw a whole lot of bulges in the general shape of a person and divert attention away from the incorrectness of it all by filling in the spaces with a lot of lines and cross-hatching. Backgrounds were out of the question since they never learned perspective and didn’t have any experience drawing landscapes or much of anything else besides men in tights, so the negative space tended to be filled up with more lines and cross-hatching.

By far the worst offender was Rob Liefeld, who took the credit for creating X-Force at Marvel, got famous enough to appear in a Levi’s commercial, and whose style was vaguely reminiscent of McFarlane’s in its detail but much, much sloppier. In 1992, Liefeld and McFarlane quit Marvel to start their own comic company and recruited most of the other star talent at Marvel and DC to join them. The new company, Image Comics, promised contributors copyright ownership of their characters and total creative control, which in practice meant that the star artists began writing their own books despite having no demonstrated talent for writing and no training in the discipline other than reading comic books. The results were awful, but the artists’ star power and the type of collector’s-item gimmickry that McFarlane had previously deployed so successfully with his Spider-Man title instantly propelled Image to a market share competitive with Marvel’s and DC’s. It could not have been a coincidence that the total financial collapse of the comic-book business happened so soon after Image saturated the market with so many phony collectibles badly written and badly drawn. The formation of Image is the moment you can freeze and put in a gilded frame to pinpoint the precise moment the mainstream comic-book medium went irretrievably down the toilet.

Bordeaux has become the Image Comics of wine. There is a direct analogy between those artists who learned to draw from comics rather than from life and the contemporary oenologists who model their wines after other highly rated wines rather than fashioning wine for the function it serves in life—spreading joy around a table. Wine critics praised such legendary Bordeaux as the 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc because the exotic vintage took the wine’s usual opulence and exaggerated it; those hoping to curry favor with the critics today thus aim to create a profile reminiscent of what they imagine the ’47 Cheval-Blanc to have been, and exaggerate that, resulting in a wine not one step but two steps removed from the traditional form—and when that wine becomes successful, an array of copycats three steps removed from the traditional form proliferate. The critics don’t want their Bordeaux to taste simply of claret; they want it to taste of lead pencils, scorched earth, pain grillé, coffee, and tobacco smoke, so more toasted new oak and a malolactic fermentation in the barrel will add the requisite point-enhancing features just like all those extraneous lines and cross-hatching that give a badly drawn panel the illusion of detail. And of course every single one of these wines is a must-have collectible, and priced accordingly. I don’t know when that madness will end, but my spider sense is tingling.

For further reading:

  • Jonathan Last’s “The Crash of 1993″ in the Weekly Standard.
  • The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings. It has been ages since I laughed as hard as I did reading this.
  • An opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit written by the illustrious Judge Richard Posner on a copyright dispute between McFarlane and writer Neil Gaiman, Gaiman v. McFarlane, 360 F.3d 644 (7th Cir. 2004). The best part is the understated frankness with which Judge Posner recounts the history of how McFarlane came to retain Gaiman to write a book: “In 1992, shortly after forming his own publishing house, McFarlane began publishing a series of comic books entitled Spawn, which at first he wrote and illustrated himself. . . . The early issues in the series were criticized for bad writing, so McFarlane decided to invite four top writers each to write the script for one issue of Spawn.”
  • Three of the all-time best graphic novels: Dave Sim’s Jaka’s Story (despite its being volume 5 of his Cerebus serial, you actually don’t need to read any of the preceding ones to follow it), Dan Clowes’s Ghost World, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Season of Mists. The reason I mention these is that they were spawned outside the mainstream of the industry at precisely the same time the creative standards at Marvel and then Image were deteriorating into crap. (Clowes’s books were so far outside the mainstream that I couldn’t even get them at the comic-book store. I had to buy them in a coffee shop in the nearest college town, one of those places where none of the furniture or dishes matched and an androgynous folksinger was usually playing in the corner to an inattentive audience engrossed in Noam Chomsky books and body-ink magazines.) The originals of these comics actually turned into genuine collectibles and are rare enough to fetch very high prices, while the phony collectibles Marvel and Image churned out en masse can be bought today for less than their cover prices. I don’t think collectors will be sorry for missing the opportunity to add any of the highly touted Bordeaux made in 10,000-case quantities to their cellars. My bet is that in twenty years, it will be some of the esoteric wines brought in by small importers and sold in specialty shops like Chambers Street Wines that are most likely to be the ones exciting collectors’ passions. If you don’t believe me, ask Al Space.

8 Responses to “Worst Bubble Ever”

  1. Greta post, Keith.

    From my perch, the problems of boom and bust have much to do with the desire not just to be satisfied but to be blown away. Unfortunately, being blown away comes with its risks, not the least of which is to be blown into oblivion.

    Just as bigger isn’t necessarily better, Nirvana isn’t necessarily, well, Nirvana–and that’s true no matter what the cost is to buy in.

  2. Oops, great–not greta…

  3. Nathan Odem said

    Good writing right there. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Paul H said

    Got-dam, it Keith. You are such an exquisite nerd. As I am, as well. Comics, science fiction, and wine-fandom of growers who have never been heard of in polite circles….but skewering the bubble that is bordeaux with the worst of comic art is terrific.

    Great post!

    PS – I read that Gene Colan passed away last week – one of the Marvel greats!

  5. Doug Padgett said

    Absolutely fantastic. I was not a comic book fan as a kid, but in your post script you’ve identified two of my favorite works of fiction. I fell for Clowes and Gaiman in my twenties and not only because I’m infantile; they are superb storytellers. I’ll have to find Sim. I seem to just get nerdier as I get older. And that Progressive Boink bit on Liefeld was truly hilarious.

    As for Bordeaux: yes.

  6. The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings is a priceless link, thank you so much.

  7. Jesse Salazar said

    I’ve enjoyed that Liefeld page in the past, but never in conjunction with a solid analysis of the 2010 Bordeaux en primeur campaign/Super Skrull invasion. Having just returned from Comicon (my first visit since 1991), I was amazed at just how commodified everything has become, and getting close to the hot artists at Marvel/DC/Darkhorse/etc was impossible. Meanwhile, Geof Darrow was hanging with his daughter at a table in the boonies, happy to sketch away for those that stopped by.

    The parallels you describe are spot on, great post.

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