Pain & Ink

Creatively, comic books are healthier than they've ever been. So why is everyone rushing to bury the industry?

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 as a film starring Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi next year, 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.

Dan Clowes' popular Eightball will appear in bookstores as a hardcover collection in October.
Dan Clowes' popular Eightball will appear in bookstores as a hardcover collection in October.
Something for the kids, if that: DC Comics, which is owned by Time-Warner, tries a little cross-promotion, teaming the Justice League of America with...Looney Tunes?
Something for the kids, if that: DC Comics, which is owned by Time-Warner, tries a little cross-promotion, teaming the Justice League of America with...Looney Tunes?

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.

"There's not that many interesting characters that people want to read about, and there's not that many talented creators," says Paul Rosmann, Marvel's assistant manager of retail sales. "We bring the best creators to our books, and if you have 100 books, that's a lot of books that may not be the best...People are unhappy when we cancel titles, but it's about economics: If we're not making money on a comic, we can't publish it. We're not like some companies that are backed by a huge conglomerate and don't need to make money." (Rosmann's taking a shot at DC, which is owned by the multinational Time-Warner.)

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.

But when the 42-year-old Jemas refers to Marvel's "biggest initiative in years," he's talking about a comic book -- or, more specifically, 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.

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