Pain & Ink

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

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, working with a dozen of comicdom's best-known illustrators to refashion them as Lee might have in the 1960s. The venture has been greeted with closed arms by some in the industry: "This is not the future, guys," says Alex Ross, illustrator of such beloved books as Marvels and Kingdom Come. "This is a step backward." But there's no doubt it will boost business among fanboys at least intrigued by the notion of Marvel's big daddy going to work for the once-hated enemy.

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.

Titan Comics, on Marsh Lane and Northwest Highway, 
is the rare comic-book retailer to carry a 
wide selection of mainstream and independent comic books. Such outlets are a dying breed.
Titan Comics, on Marsh Lane and Northwest Highway, is the rare comic-book retailer to carry a wide selection of mainstream and independent comic books. Such outlets are a dying breed.

The latter is perhaps the most anticipated of DC's projects: The original book has constantly been among DC's best-sellers 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 they will 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.

"Stan and Frank's books have the potential to reach out and be things that are read for a long time," says Levitz. "Now, we sell Dark Knight and Watchman every day and every good thing we've done over the years, and that makes it a lot easier to attract new readers. By presenting our material in a book format, we think we're accomplishing several things. First of all, you're presenting it in a way that's more comfortable to someone who reads books and not comics. You're presenting it in a format where people don't have to shop for the material every week to keep up to date. And you're able to introduce that same material into additional distribution that reaches people who read -- bookstores."

The notion of collection comics in "respectable" formats continues on October 1, when Pantheon, a division of the 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 pre-ordered the books through distributor Diamond, according to Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds.

One step forward, 10 steps back.

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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 once 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. It's simply not worth the store's rack space: Kids just don't spend three bucks on a comic that takes 10 minutes to read. Better to stock the latest issue of Maxim than this week's Uncanny X-Men.

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