By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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 such low numbers 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 to below $17 million. What's even more troubling for the industry is that 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 United States, dealt with more than 8,500 accounts. Today, that number has slipped to 3,400 -- though, as Diamond vice president of marketing Roger Fletcher reminds, 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 6 feet under as far as most are concerned. 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 will not find a single person on the floor of the San Diego Convention Center who doesn't fret about the future of the industry. They bandy about phrases like "digital distribution" and the "dot-comic book"; they talk of going after children, about bringing in "lapsed readers" who long ago sold their comics for spare change. And they fear 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."
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 in the closet, stored like caskets.
In the end, the comics business has no one to blame but itself for its current situation: "an unfailingly bleak picture," in the words of Scott McCloud, author of the just-published illustrated book Reinventing Comics, in which McCloud prophesies a move to the Internet sooner rather than later. 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 their own 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 half a 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 mini-series. 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.