Pain & Ink

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

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.

"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."

In his new book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud bemoans the present and looks toward a digitally distributed future.
racism...and, well, comics.
In his new book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud bemoans the present and looks toward a digitally distributed future. racism...and, well, comics.

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, then 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. The big excuse in the business is that, 'Gee, we lost our youth audience because the distribution system is broke,' and yes, the distribution system is broke, but the simple fact is, any decent-sized publisher, including Marvel and DC, could very easily force distribution into any mass-market outlet that sells to teens, and we've all done it, and guess what? The books haven't sold, because the books aren't accessible to teens. It's not enough just to have content and distribution. You have to market."

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.

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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."
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