Ink-Stained Wretches

Can fresh talent and new titles save the crumbling comic-book industry?

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"Hey, lookit -- Superman's got a boner," says The Joker, giggling beneath his white makeup. "Hey, Superman! Is that kryptonite in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?" The Joker keeps laughing, and suddenly, beneath the green hair and purple suit, he sounds like a 12-year-old girl, perhaps because he is a 12-year-old girl, as are her pals, the Catwoman and Harley Quinn, each looking like a Shrinky-Dink come to life.

But Superman can't be bothered right now. The Man of Steel is too busy talking to Obi-Wan Kenobi or entertaining the five- and six-year-olds wandering through the crowd with Mom and Dad and a sackful of comics and action figures. Then he's up, up, and away to the snack bar for a hot dog and Diet Coke, disappearing into the crowd of thousands who have descended upon San Diego in the middle of summer to talk, shop, swap, and luxuriate in all things comic book.

If comic books are dead -- if the industry is wheezing its last gasps on a deathbed made of bad business deals and a dwindling audience and faded superhero spandex -- what the hell were 45,000 people doing in San Diego at Comic-Con International, the world's largest comic-book convention? Why were they lined up around publishers' booths, getting their comic books signed by the men and women who draw and write them? What were they doing waiting to meet Kevin Smith, the Dogma and Chasing Amy writer-director, and Will Eisner, whose hero, The Spirit, debuted in the 1940s, long before their own parents were born?

"This is astonishing," Eisner said between signings, his wrist sore from an hour of scribbling his famous autograph inside book jackets and on comic covers. "It's like being born again," he said, referring to the adulation and the fact that DC Comics has begun reissuing his classic work in hardcover. Waiting in line was a man dressed like Eisner's creation: brown fedora, leather gloves, coat and tie, a rubber mask obscuring his eyes. Eisner was flattered: Sixty years later, and he has not been tossed into the trash can like so many other pioneers and their two-dimensional creations.

Only seven years ago, the comic-book industry was a $1 billion business; today, it's half that, with numbers decreasing each year. Hit titles sell in numbers so low that a decade ago they would have been canceled; any book that sells in the 100,000 to 120,000 range each month is considered a blockbuster -- a far cry from the good ol' days, when DC's and Marvel's biggest titles, such as Action Comics and The Uncanny X-Men, sold in the millions each month.

According to the trade publication Comics Retailer, in 1997 the comics industry took in a monthly average of $20 million, not counting paperback-bound reprints; last year, that number fell below $17 million. But, even more troubling for the industry, the number of specialty stores has been dwindling for years. A decade ago, Diamond Comics Distributors, which handles almost 99 percent of all comics and trade-paperback anthologies sold in the U.S., dealt with more than 8,500 accounts. Today, that number has slipped to 3,400 -- though, as Diamond Vice President of Marketing Roger Fletcher remarks, that doesn't mean 5,000 comic shops have closed. After all, he says, "At the height of its peak in the early '90s, gas stations and Laundromats -- everyone -- wanted comics, and we sold to them too."

But the peak is now a barren valley, and the sad fact is, few people outside the confines of the San Diego Convention Center care about the fate of comics. When comics went underground, to the specialty stores, they might as well have been buried six feet under. Trying to get all but the most die-hard fetishists into stores, so many of which reek of fanboy sweat and condescension, has proven nearly impossible since the early 1990s.

The tiny boom of the early 1990s, when DC killed off Superman and collectors snapped up unopened cartons of books, hoping they'd one day put Junior through college, has turned into the last gasp of 2000. You could not find a single person on the floor of the San Diego Convention Center who wasn't fretting about the future of the industry. They bandied about phrases like "digital distribution" and the "dot-comic book"; they talked of going after children, about bringing in "lapsed readers" who long ago sold their comics for spare change. And they feared that, come tomorrow or the day after that, no one will be left to listen.

"I don't expect this business to survive at all, actually," says Chris Ware, who began drawing such characters as Quimby the Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth, at the University of Texas in 1987, before becoming one of the most acclaimed comic creators of the past decade. "I think it's hopeless, and it has been for 20 years. It will either turn into a craft or a pastime. You can call it an industry or a trade, but it's more like a racket in a way, as my friend Ben Katchor has said. Why should it survive? As a medium, I don't think it has the hold that it used to. It's not computer games. It's much more removed, a far more distant medium than it used to be -- which is good, because you can tell quieter stories now. But as far as the industry goes, I just don't know."

Trying to convince anyone other than a rabid fan that comic books still matter is like trying to convince an Orthodox Jew that ham is good for you. The medium received little respect, even during its so-called heyday of the 1940s and '50s, before the Senate investigated comic books for contributing to juvenile delinquency and instigated the creation of the Comics Code Authority to regulate content. The comic book, in the year 2000, has become a ghost.

"I can't believe anyone outside the industry even cares about 'the state of the industry,'" says Gary Groth, who has edited The Comics Journal since its inception in 1976. "Ours is a dwindling, dying readership."

Even the most revered figures in the industry -- men such as Jack Kirby, who created or co-created Spider-Man and Captain Marvel and most of Marvel's beloved icons; Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel; Batman's father Bob Kane; Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman; EC Comics boss Bill Gaines -- are relegated to footnotes in the history of pop culture. They are household names only in homes with boxes of comics stored in the closet.

In the end, the comics business has no one to blame but itself for its current situation. In the 1980s and '90s, comics disappeared, then the audience vanished. The industry crawled into bed with monopolistic distributors and then wondered why it hated itself in the morning. If you ever wondered why comic books vanished from grocery stores and pharmacies and newsstands, you need only blame executives at DC and Marvel, who long ago entered into business deals that now threaten to destroy the business.

And the shame of it, says Brian Azzarello -- who pens the crime-revenge tale 100 Bullets for DC's adult-oriented line Vertigo -- is that "some of the best work ever is being done right now among the smaller independent presses and the big ones too. There's still a ton of shit being produced, but there are more good things now than there have ever been."

Indeed, the comics business is in the midst of an artistic renaissance, the likes of which it hasn't seen since the glory days of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's Watchmen, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Howard Chaykin's American Flagg, and a half-dozen other titles that, for a brief moment during the early 1980s to early '90s, gained notoriety outside the incestuous comics press. Crime novelist Greg Rucka writes for both DC (authoring Batman tales) and Oni (his Whiteout just won an Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics biz). Screenwriter Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale have penned touching, thrilling Superman and Batman miniseries. Filmmaker Kevin Smith recently completed a stint writing Daredevil for Marvel and is preparing Green Arrow for DC, and Alan Moore continues writing both Tom Strong and Top 10 for his own America's Best Comics, released through DC.

But the best work -- the quieter stories, as Chris Ware calls them -- takes place outside the superhero realm; they are often stories about neurotic, lonely people seeking to make a connection with the outside world. The artwork is deceptively simple, except in Ware's case; his is a brilliant mishmash of styles, the 1930s as rendered through a postmodernist's bespectacled eyes. These indies are, in some ways, the future of comics: They appeal to those who long ago grew up and threw their capes and cowls into the closet and began searching for something a little more . . . human.

Dan Clowes, whose graphic novel Ghost World will be released next year as a film starring Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, continues to write the poignant Eightball for Seattle-based Fantagraphics, which also publishes Chris Ware. Chester Brown's work for the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly is both hilarious and touching; his panels are line-drawn snapshots dealing with homophobia and fantasy, schizophrenia and racism -- and a Canadian cartoonist who likes to draw himself naked. Another Canadian, named only Seth, compiled his wistful first-person narrative in the "picture novella" It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken; his is a tale about memory and longing and a cartoonist's search for an obscure illustrator from the 1950s. And in September, Fantagraphics will publish a softcover version of Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, in which the author uses "comics journalism" to tell the story of how a small village survived attacks from the Serbs.

As sales dwindle, the talent base explodes -- which is surprising, if only because the industry has long treated comic-book writers and artists as work-for-hire, meaning they rarely retain the rights to their stories, artwork -- even their own creations. Such longstanding practices forced many talented men and women from the business. They simply couldn't afford to work for freelance wages.

Still, because comics companies have been forced to scale back the number of titles in recent years, there is no longer the dilution of talent there once was. In 1995, Marvel published as many as 100 titles; that number is now a blessedly small 40.

Just four years ago, the once-mighty Marvel -- the house built by Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four -- found itself on the brink of extinction. On December 27, 1996, Marvel declared bankruptcy and filed for reorganization, after decades of accrued arrogance, apathy, and finally, reckless mismanagement. In 1989, media investor Ron Perelman bought Marvel Comics for $83 million -- five times what it had been sold for in 1984. Perelman began licensing the company's best-known heroes to the highest bidder, from toy manufacturers to film companies, and decided to take the company public, just as revenues were approaching $415 million in 1993. For a moment, the stock rose as high as $53 a share.

But the company, says one insider, started to quake on a foundation built on "greed and gimmicks." In 1993, Marvel bought its own distributor, Heroes World, and in March 1995, it cut DC Comics and Marvel's other competitors entirely out of the picture. It was a bold but ultimately misguided move, causing so much turmoil in the distribution business that the comics industry has yet to recover -- especially when Heroes World went out of business, leaving only one distributor, Diamond, to handle a majority of the publishers. By 1996, Marvel's stock was worth $1.75 a share. A comic book cost more.

Bill Jemas, the new president of publishing and new media at Marvel Enterprises Inc., likes to remind people that he is part of the company's new regime, which took over last year. Jemas had been in charge of Marvel's Fleer trading-card line from 1992 to '96 before going off to manage Madison Square Garden's sporting events -- two jobs that make him an unlikely candidate to run a comic-book company. He came back to Marvel in February to oversee the company's brand management and licensing, and to move the company into the future and onto the Internet.

When the 42-year-old Jemas refers to Marvel's "biggest initiative in years," he's talking about a line of titles meant to bring back the 8- to 12-year-olds who forsook comics for video games, the Internet, Harry Potter, Pokémon -- just about everything but comic books. The series, known as Ultimate Marvel, will debut next month with a new Spider-Man book, a start-from-scratch tale featuring a 15-year-old Peter Parker, who works at his high school's Internet newspaper, The eBugle. Following that next year will be Ultimate X-Men, which was due to appear this year, but has been bumped because, as Jemas explains, the story was inadequate and new writers have been brought on board.

"The Ultimate line is such a crucial initiative to the company," Jemas acknowledges. "We've seen our youth readership erode for the past four years. Marvel has been tagged as being for older people, and if you've been around Marvel day to day like I have, you know that's not true. The truth has been borne out by the X-Men movie, with teen viewership. As we sort of entered into a lot of bad business deals that led us to bankruptcy, we stopped producing teen-friendly product, and nothing changed about the X-Men that made them less palatable to teenagers. But as they appear in comics, it has been much more geared to adults, and the Ultimate books for us are a way of rebuilding that prized demographic."

To that end, Marvel's Ultimate line is the most lauded and most loathed project to hit the comics industry in years; either it's "a very cool idea" (in the words of Oni publisher Joe Nozemack) or "it looks so stupid" (Eric Reynolds, a publicist and editor at Fantagraphics, which also publishes The Comics Journal). Jemas couldn't care less, as long as everyone gives a damn one way or the other. But he, like his colleagues and competitors, is desperate to bring back the children who were once comic books' core constituency. They fear that, if the Ultimate series -- not to mention X-Men and the forthcoming Spider-Man movie, due around Thanksgiving 2001, with Tobey Maguire wearing the red-and-blue tights -- doesn't attract children, and even their parents, all is lost.

"This is a very confusing business, because everybody talks about going after the youth audience," Jemas says. "Nobody has tried to go after the teen audience, to do whatever it takes."

Marvel's Ultimate series is, ultimately, not unique. After all, when Spider-Man was born in the August 1962 issue of Amazing Fantasy, Peter Parker was a high-school geek -- he was, in fact, his readers. And the notion of reinventing a superhero is nothing particularly new: In 1986, writer-illustrator John Byrne gave Superman a makeover, complete with a new origin story and familiar characters made to seem less, well, super. The same year, Frank Miller told the story of a 50-year-old Batman struggling to keep peace in a crumbling Gotham City in The Dark Knight Returns; not long after that, Miller began a new series called Batman: Year One, in which Batman was, once more, born again.

Still, the comic-book industry struggles to find a gimmick in its waning days, and new Spider-Man and X-Men and Incredible Hulk stories get ink in family newspapers; they attract attention from those who dismiss comics as the bastard child of art and literature. Marvel will, for a moment, attract the sort of attention it hasn't seen since its name was splashed about the business pages in the 1990s, when its bankruptcy signaled doom for the comic-book industry.

If Bill Jemas is the modern-day warrior, brandishing weapons of synergy and multimedia marketing, then DC Comics Executive Vice President Paul Levitz is the haggard soldier drenched in dried blood from ancient battles. He has been at DC since he was a 16-year-old kid, working as an assistant editor; he has celebrated and mourned his business so often, he can no longer tell the difference. He has no interest in talking to one more reporter about "where we are in the life cycle." Walking down Amnesia Lane is a disquieting prospect.

"When I got in this business 30 years ago, it was exclusively a business that started selling product to kids when they could first spend their own money at a local newsstand," he says, speaking softly, slowly. "We lost those kids when they discovered the opposite sex or sports or something more exciting. We had these wonderful four- or five-year grips on a pretty wide piece of the population and zero material produced for anyone else. There have been a lot of changes since then. We now try to reach out with material to a wider range of readers. I wouldn't categorize them as lapsed readers, but we try to offer things for people who like to read. We have stuff for kids, and it is admittedly hard to get it in front of kids, where they can make that purchase decision for themselves. The candy store that I used to go to doesn't exist anymore."

Unlike Jemas, Levitz has no new "crucial initiatives" to talk about, because DC has, for the most part, excelled where its competitors have failed in recent years. It has several lines of comics aimed at young children, including Cartoon Network tie-ins (The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory) and Looney Tunes; it has titles for teenagers, including Superman Adventures and Batman Beyond, based on the WB Network's cartoons; and it continues to sell such golden oldies as Action Comics and Detective Comics and All-Star Comics, which date to the 1930s and '40s. In 1992, DC Editor Karen Berger also launched the adult-oriented line Vertigo, which is home to some of the best-known and most respected titles and authors in the history of the medium: Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Grant Morrison (The Invisibles), Alan Moore (Swamp Thing), and Garth Ennis (Preacher and Hellblazer).

DC does have its own gimmicks planned for the near future, though Levitz would certainly scoff at the notion that these are mere stunts. At the end of this year, Stan Lee -- who brought angst and ennui to comics during the 1960s, when his X-Men were uncanny, Spider-Man was amazing, and Marvel was indeed mighty -- will "reinvent" Superman, Batman, and other DC icons. And "whenever he's ready," says Levitz, the company will publish Frank Miller's Dark Knight sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which Miller describes as "a celebration" of comic books.

The latter is perhaps the most anticipated of DC's projects: The original book has constantly been among DC's bestsellers in the trade-paperback format, in which part or all of a title's run is collected and sold in bookstores and comic shops and, for the most part, kept in print indefinitely. In fact, DC pioneered the trade paperback (and in some instances, hardback), which not only makes it possible for fans to purchase back issues at a fraction of the price, but also introduces the medium into every Barnes & Noble and Borders in the country. Talk to anyone in the comics business long enough, and he'll tell you the same thing: Mainstream bookstores might yet save the comic book . . . if only they can get the titles out of the -- gads -- humor section.

The notion of collection comics in "respectable" formats continues on October 1, when Pantheon, a division of Manhattan-based Alfred A. Knopf, will publish anthologies by Chris Ware (the 380-page Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth) and Dan Clowes (David Boring). This will be the first time either writer has been able to get into a mainstream bookstore -- which is a good thing because, of the 3,400 comics retailers in the United States, fewer than 700 have preordered the books through distributor Diamond, according to Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds.

One step forward, 10 steps back.

Comic-book fans live in a ghetto they did not create; they became a cult against their will. Not so long ago, purchasing a comic was as simple as buying a stick of gum or filling a prescription. Pharmacies and grocery stores and 7-Elevens sold comics alongside magazines. When they disappeared and went underground, nobody complained -- nobody even noticed. The bastard was banished.

Fanboys have little interest in the business of comics; they tell you how the Green Lantern got his powers, but not how retailers lost theirs, perhaps because the tale of "direct sales" or "direct distribution" is far more complex than any superhero myth. But direct sales is the answer to the question, Where did comics go?

Put simply, a direct distributor sells directly to retailers, which cannot return damaged or unsold comics to the publisher -- the way, say, a bookstore can return unsold novels or a grocery store can return month-old magazines that remain on the racks. Wal-Mart and 7-Elevens and other chains can still order through independent distributors, which take back unsold product -- but few bother anymore, because independent distributors ship their titles weeks late and don't offer the enormous discounts afforded specialty retailers.

Most publishers, from DC and Marvel to smaller independent presses such as Fantagraphics and Oni, use a single distributor, Diamond, to sell their titles to comics retailers. They do so simply because they have no other option: The Maryland-based company is the last man standing in the distributor wars of the 1980s and '90s. It's such a monopoly that, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice looked into Diamond's sales practices and, according to Diamond's Roger Fletcher, came up empty.

Diamond is not the only distributor -- there are others, such as Coldcut and the aptly named Last Gasp -- but it wields by far the most power; it's the industry's Superman and kryptonite. Stephen Geppi, then a small Baltimore retailer, founded Diamond in 1982; by 1995, he had exclusive deals to distribute the biggest companies in the country, including DC and Dark Horse and Image -- and when Heroes World collapsed, Marvel. As Roger Fletcher explains, Diamond is the exclusive retail agent for those four companies, meaning they sell directly to retailers but pay a fee to Diamond to get their books in stores. The other publishers use Diamond as the middleman.

Retailers place their monthly orders through Diamond's Previews magazine, a hefty catalog released at the first of each month that highlights titles two or three months before their release dates. DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse receive, in Fletcher's words, "the lion's share of coverage" in Previews because of their exclusive deals with Diamond. The other publishers are left to fend for themselves in the general "comics" section, which irritates the small houses trying to get retailers to notice their product. Fletcher shrugs off the criticisms, which he's heard often during his 12 years with the company. Hey, a deal's a deal.

"The conventional wisdom has been that Diamond is more stupid than evil, which is not to say the people at the top are stupid," says Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds. "At the lower levels, some of the customer-service people and account representatives don't have enough people who read the spectrum of contemporary comics, and they don't know to recommend other things to retailers. Alternative comics are so marginalized, and their staff is the mainstream audience -- superhero fans."

Perhaps it has taken a decade-long slump in sales to wake Diamond from its contented slumber. Even Fletcher says publishers need to begin distributing in more mainstream outlets. The days of the specialty stores might well be numbered, especially with online sales escalating each year (Diamond, in fact, owns two such outlets). And there may even come a time when Diamond will have to reverse its no-return policy, an unfathomable notion only five years ago.

"Never say never, but that's not the business we're in right now," Fletcher says. "Maybe that's in the future for Diamond and the industry."

Assuming, of course, there is one.

Perhaps, as Scott McCloud and many others suggest, comic books will exist only on the Internet. Perhaps they will be sent as ones and zeros to your home, where you can print them out or, better yet, save them to your hard drive. Collecting goes digital; so long, boxes and bags. Maybe they will move to the bookstore, or maybe they will disappear altogether. The sky is falling, and not even Superman can keep it from crashing down around our heads.

Do not tell that to Will Eisner.

Eisner, still creating at the age of 83, recalls when, during the 1930s and '40s, his colleagues sneered at their profession, insisting comic books were where grown men went to kill time before making a living as practitioners of fine art. Whenever he would insist that comic strips and books possessed the ultimate potential -- Think of it! Combining words and pictures to tell a complete story! -- they dismissed him as an uppity kid who ought to shut up and get serious.

"Nobody in the field at the time even dreamed of being just a cartoonist," he says, pronouncing the last word as though it's an epithet. "Most of the guys were there on their way uptown. They wanted to be painters or illustrators -- good artists, fine artists. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. It combined two things I knew I was good at: writing and artwork. And the combination of the two was right there in this medium." Eisner was indeed a true pioneer: He not only created the crime-fighting Spirit, but he retained the copyright to his own creation -- a rarity even now, when corporations own the best-known heroes.

Perhaps because he's never quite fit -- because he's both vestige and trendsetter (in 1978 he created A Contract With God, the first "graphic novel," a comic book sold in paperback-book format) -- Eisner's the rare person to speak with any optimism about the future of comics. Perhaps it takes a man from the past to point -- finally, happily -- toward the future.

"I'm not terrified at all," Eisner says, smiling as always. "I think we're at the beginning, really. Keep in mind that the technology keeps changing. It changed back in the cave days, when a guy had been scratching an image in clay and then a guy came along and said, 'Hey, we're writing on papyrus now.' It doesn't change the fundamental. We're in the business of storytelling, and we tell stories with images. We have learned to arrange images and text in a sequence to tell a story.

"As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that we're at a big new era, because we're in a visual era. Information is being proliferated at such a speed that the transmission of it has to be done more rapidly than text alone. Text is too slow; it's deep, it gives you a great deal of depth, but it's too slow. So now we're using images, and this is what we're all about. We're at the beginning. All these kids wringing their hands are all wrong."

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