Pain & Ink

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

"The fact is, the market share for independent comics vis a vis superhero comics is the same as it was prior to Marvel acquiring Heroes World and Diamond getting exclusive arrangements with DC and the rest," Fletcher says. "I don't think the placement in Previews has to do with sales."

Says Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds: "The conventional wisdom has been that Diamond is more stupid than evil, which is not to say the people at the top are stupid. 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.

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.

"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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