Ad Space: When DC Comics Could Afford a TV Commercial

You are now entering Ad Space, a realm of commercials, brought before us so we might examine how they work, and discuss why we both love and hate them so. So it is written …

The Product:
DC Comics

The Promotion: (video also includes an ad for X-Men comics)

The Pitch:
It’s the 90’s! Comics are hip and edgy now!

This ad from the mid-90’s is so astoundingly of-its-time, it’s glorious. In 30 seconds, it embodies the phase comic books were going through in that decade so well, all it’s missing is a use of the word “EXTREME!!!”.

This was the era when comic books were trying desperately to rebrand themselves as not just for kids, but as being dark, edgy stories, full of mature content meant for an adult audience (or at least teenagers who liked being perceived as an adult audience). So despite featuring many of DC’s more colorful superheroes, the ad presents them all against a darkly lit urban environment; an appropriate backdrop for Batman, but makes an odd juxtaposition with some characters, like Supergirl.

Then you’ve got the supervillains, boasting that they’re “Too tough for TV!”, promising that what they get up to in the comics will be far more brutal than what the cartoon adaptation of the day could provide. Which, yeah, is truth in advertising. Batman: The Animated Series may have had a creepy take on the Joker, but did he ever take nude photos of Batgirl after shooting her in the spine? … Thought not.

And, of course, the cherry on the sundae is that, while most heroes and villains only flash by briefly on the screen, who gets the spotlight appearance? Lobo: a character who see-saws between being a parody of the hyper-violent, ultra-macho antiheroes popular in 90’s comic books … and being an unironic example of that very thing. And his line, “These ain’t your daddy’s comic books, fanboy”, is just everything comics were trying to sell themselves as back then.

But wait, there’s more! There’s also that bit of narration telling us DC has “the coolest heroes – the hottest heroines”. Now, sexualization of female superheroes has been a thing in comics since, well, forever, and it’s still going strong today. But for most of their history, they’ve at least been ashamed of that fact.

In the early eras of comics, when they were still primarily aimed at children, and had the Comics Code censoring them, they’d deny there was anything prurient about their content. And in the modern era, they’d be mindful about offending female consumers, not wanting to suggest that women in comics are only valuable for how hot they are. But the 90’s … they were all about that horny teenage boy demographic, and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought.

But wait, there’s more! Beyond the content of the ad, one other thing marks this as the product of a bygone era: the existence of the ad itself.

This commercial aired on television! Someone at DC decided that paying for ad space on TV stations (with some of the cost covered by local comic book shops, who could insert their own bumper at the end) was a viable investment. The 90’s were (for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here) the last time comic books sold well enough for that to make any sort of economic sense.

I wasn’t even reading comic books in the 90’s, yet this commercial is such a time capsule of the era, I feel like I’m getting nostalgia by osmosis!