My G.I. Joes Can Whup Your Bored Apes: Risks of NFTs & Comics

Pop culture trends from the 1980s laid out warnings and regulatory concerns relevant to current discussions of digital currency and data privacy.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

January 19, 2023

9 Min Read
pile of comic books with colorful covers, including the Sensational She-Hulk
Comic books from the 1990s included gimmicks such as metallic covers, driving overspeculation on value.Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Organizations that want to leverage NFTs or data collection might want to take a glimpse into some comparable trends from the past that could inform the days ahead.

From the mid-1980s to early-1990s, the comic book publishing industry saw rampant speculation about the value of its graphics-based content, much the way value ebbs and flows with NFTs now. Meanwhile, the animated television sector had to contend with alleged manipulations of public behavior via content fed to an apparently unassuming audience, which is one of the concerns heard now about data collection.

Long before NFTs were collected for their assumed value, comic book collecting pushed a cycle of overspeculation and overproduction in the market that led to an implosion in the 1990s when even Marvel did a stint of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, watchdogs of the television industry of that era asked if animated shows served primarily to market toys to kids as lines blurred between advertisements and actual content.

As someone who grew up in those times, the current discourse about the worth of NFTs and data-driven technology’s influence on the public rings rather familiar.

Who Watches the Watchers?

The regulations being dished out of late for data collection, privacy, and protection of the public speak to comparable concerns raised in the late 1980s about the influence television had on consumer behavior.

Companies such as Meta have been hit with fines for their approaches to data collection and use, in particular requiring users share access to their data in order to access apps. In some instances, companies such as Sephora faced fines for allegedly not informing consumers their data would be sold to other parties, despite notices on the company’s website that it would not engage in such dealings.

Personal data can be used to target advertising to consumers, steer media content, and raises questions of questionable, if not malicious intent. What if personal data is used to position political messaging, leveraging profiles created without the individual’s knowledge?

Oh, right -- Cambridge Analytica happened.

Companies are always going to refine how they engage with the public. Part of what is being asked now is how much awareness and control does the public have over the messaging they receive and what is known about them? Is it ethical for companies to use data behind the scenes to influence behavior?

Is that just shameless manipulation?

Questions of marketing sneaking up on the public surrounded animated TV shows of the 1980s and 1990s; in particular, whether they were essentially just 30-minute-long commercials for toys. Programs such as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” “The Transformers,” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” were huge hits for viewership and toy sales.

How deeply did these shows affect the public? It is not much of an exaggeration to say there is a generation of Americans who will instinctively respond, “And knowing is half the battle,” when prompted by a certain phrase -- all thanks to watching cartoons every day after school.

There was some self-awareness in the industry of the influence these shows could have on kids. There were efforts by some programs to include public service announcements at the end of episodes, sometimes to warn kids about potential safety risks or offer guidance on good behavior. He-Man might literally chuck mountains at his enemies, but he also reminded the viewers he was never a bully to Skeletor and his hapless crew. (Seriously, Evil-Lyn was the only competent member of the Snake Mountain gang. She should have left Skeletor years ago.)

Legislation did aim to address how the public, children in particular, were spoken to by such media. For example, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 was meant to enforce obligations on broadcasters to better meet the educational needs of children. It also reinstated restrictions on advertising during kids’ shows.

There are prohibitions on host-selling during shows, which prevents characters who appear in a show from then appearing in advertisements that run during the same show. The goal was to draw clear lines between the show's entertainment and being sold a product. That way He-Man could not sell the Castle Grayskull playset to kids in the midst of his TV adventures.

Such law continues to evolve in light of digital platforms and changing media formats. Those who wonder how much more proactive regulators might become regarding data collection, privacy, and usage might want to revisit how television broadcasting and advertising were shaped in response to similar queries.

It should come as little surprise that laws comparable to Europe's GDPR are proliferating, calling on companies that engage in data collection to not only be more transparent, but to give the public greater control over their data privacy, how their activity might be monitored, and ways they could be influenced by the media they consume.

A collection of G.I. Joe comic books from the 1990s.

Tales of NFTs and the 1990s Comic Book Collapse

Now let’s look at NFTs, those digital tokens on the blockchain whose value is largely determined by the community. It's easy to compare them with collectibles such as trading cards and comic books, though not a perfect match. NFTs, designated with digital uniqueness, might be sold as “perks” offered by companies as companions to their main products. Video game companies, for example, have offered NFTs related to their games, which could include unique in-game items the owner/player might use.

Public perception of NFTs can run from white-hot desire to base mockery, chiding the concept as a gimmick.

NFTs can see drastic variations in demand, with some valued in the millions of dollars while others might hold middling value. It was reported that singer Justin Bieber purchased a Bored Ape NFT last January for some $1.3 million in ETH (Ethereum cryptocurrency) but by last November, it was worth around $70,000.

The question of what drives such value beyond community sentiment is not easy to answer. Some might base it on the image or digital object’s uniqueness, history behind the NFT’s ownership, and presumed future value. Pieces of digital art derived from comic books and comic book artists could even become NFTs -- possibly valued much differently than the actual physical art.

Sometimes NFTs are spoken of in the same breath as cryptocurrency -- digital currency that is still enduring its latest crypto winter. While there are some comparable elements, both exist on blockchains, NFTs and cryptocurrencies are not the same. However, it is hard to ignore the cycles of speculation and agreements of value from the community that might influence cryptocurrency.

How does all that compare with the comic book hype and speculation of the 1980s-1990s? The rise in popularity of comic books at that time was connected to dynamic examples emerging on the scene -- as well as some blatant cash grabs. “Maus” (1980), “Akira” (1982), “V for Vendetta” (1982), “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985), “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), and “Watchmen” (1986) made lasting impacts on the comic industry in terms of writing and visual storytelling. Along with the earned attention those examples brought the medium, came the fever of speculation.

Buyers, sellers, and collectors began to wonder and assume the comics produced in modern times might someday be as valuable as comics from the industry’s early days. “Action Comics #1” saw the debut of Superman in 1938, launching the superhero market that continues today (other types of comics predate the superhero genre). A surviving copy of that specific comic book might fetch hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars depending on its condition and verified authenticity.

What comic book speculators in the 1980s - 1990s either ignored or overlooked were the conditions that led to so-called Golden Age comics attaining such value decades later. The rarity of each comic had become real and tangible. Concerted efforts to collect and preserve comic books had not taken hold in the 1930s. They were not published to be collected and build up market value. That demand evolved after the fact, and the demand from collectors eventually caught the attention of comic book publishers.

As comic book collecting surged in the 1980s and 1990s, certain publishers saw opportunities to drive sales of new titles by feeding into that demand. It was not uncommon for a popular character such as Spider-Man or Superman to have multiple, separate simultaneous comic lines feature their adventures.

If you pick the right years, you could find “Spider-Man,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man,” and “Web of Spider-Man” on comic book racks at the same time, each with different stories about the friendly neighborhood webslinger. In addition to multiple ongoing monthly series, comic book companies started to produce variant covers for some of their titles. The contents would be the same, but the art on the covers would be different.

And then things started to get weird -- even for comic books.

Variant covers with different art did not seem to be enough for the industry. Die-cut covers, metallic covers, embossed covers, and glow-in-the-dark covers hit the market all competing for attention -- sometimes regardless of the quality of their contents. Such special covers may still resurface from time to time, but there was a bonfire raging as the industry pushed for buyers’ attention.

Eventually the frothy market could not sustain itself. Buyers started to wake up to being sold piles upon piles of gimmick books. That, along with other issues the industry faced in product costs and distribution, led to the bottom falling out in the mid-1990s.

Overloaded with product that no longer had such high demand, many comic book stores closed.

As mighty as the Marvel brand is today with its characters in blockbuster movies and hit TV shows, the company lapsed into bankruptcy in 1996. Leading up to the bankruptcy filing, the company sold movie rights to characters such as the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man in what has been described as a fire sale. Disney, which now owns Marvel, finally got the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four back in 2019 when it acquired 21st Century Fox. Meanwhile, Spider-Man is still tied to Sony Pictures.

That was a long way of saying, when it comes to NFTs, the messy valuations were not unprecedented. At least with comic books, there was a functional product associated with the value the community assigned. Even then, rampant speculation drove unsustainable expectations and the market had to correct, almost taking down one of the core parts of the industry in the process. Adding blockchain technology to the mix does not change such fundamentals.

Argue about the nature of blockchain and how it can elevate fintech, along with the metaverse -- but keep sight of how speculation can also sour a market as it grows.

What to Read Next:

Q&A: What Meta’s $400M+ EU Fine Means for Data Privacy and Ads

Pivotal Moments In Data Privacy History

Q&A: The Failed Binance -- FTX Deal and the Crypto Winter

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights