By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
If comic books are dead -- if the industry is wheezing its last gasps on a death bed made of bad business deals and a dwindling audience and faded superhero spandex -- then what the hell are 45,000 people doing in San Diego at Comic-Con International, the world's largest comic-book convention? Why are they lined up around publishers' booths, getting their comic books signed by the men and women who draw and write them? What are they doing waiting to meet Kevin Smith, the Dogma and Chasing Amy writer-director, and Will Eisner, whose hero, The Spirit, debuted in the 1940s, long before their own parents were born?
"This is astonishing," Eisner says between signings, his wrist sore from an hour of scribbling his famous autograph inside book jackets and on comic covers. "It's like being born again," he says, referring to the adulation and the fact that DC Comics has begun reissuing his classic work in hardcover. Waiting in line is a man dressed like Eisner's creation: brown fedora, leather gloves, coat and tie, a rubber mask obscuring his eyes. Eisner is flattered: Sixty years later, and he has not been tossed into the trash can like so many other pioneers and their two-dimensional creations.
The first Comic-Con International: San Diego took place in 1970, with 300 fans in attendance; three decades later, it's impossible for the straggler to get a hotel room within miles of the convention center from July 20 to July 23. From 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, the convention center's two dozen meeting rooms are filled to capacity, whether they hold 200 or 2,000. Fans and would-be creators crane their necks to listen to lectures on such subjects as "Online Comics: Is the Future of Comics on the Internet?" and "Using eBay to Grow Your Business" and "Golden Age Greats: Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman" and "Comic Books and AIDS: What's the Story?" In an enormous hall adjacent to the upstairs meeting rooms, fans snake around tables and barricades to get photos signed by actors and sci-fi celebs, among them Lost in Space mother June Lockhart and Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno.
But the real action takes place downstairs, where hundreds of vendors, dealers, and publishers hawk their back issues and action figures and bootleg videos of obscure TV shows and other comics-related errata. Everything swirls around the enormous booths located in the middle of the floor, where giants DC and Marvel and their closest competitors, Dark Horse and Image and CrossGen and Oni Press (which publishes Kevin Smith's comics), hold court throughout the weekend. DC's booth, which shines an enormous Batsignal on the convention center's ceiling, is packed every second of the con, with writers and artists signing books and sketching quickie illustrations for eager fanboys.
Across the aisle, Marvel's Tinkertoys-on-steroids booth looks like an enormous poster for the X-Men movie, which opened the previous weekend to a record box-office take of $54.5 million, the largest opening for a non-sequel film (it has since grossed more than $120 million, despite quickly dwindling attendance). Marvel's higher-ups insist throughout the weekend that the first-week success of X-Men offers proof enough that people haven't given up on their comic-book heroes, despite sales figures that remain fallow.
"The comic-book publishing industry has to survive and succeed on our own terms, not in terms of the movie," says Chris Claremont, longtime writer of The Uncanny X-Men comic book. Claremont, a round bald man with a white beard, is the most unlikely of stars, but that does not stop grown men from begging for autographs. "What the movie will do," Claremont continues, "is make it easier to make other comic-book movies, and hopefully they will be good; hopefully they will be interesting. They will help the corporate bottom line, and that's good for us, because if the company is healthy, then the publishing is healthy. But, at the same time, we have to sell ourselves as books every issue every month, regardless of what the movie does."
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most publishers, from DC and Marvel to smaller independent presses such as Fantagraphics and Oni, use a single distributor, Diamond, to sell their titles to comics retailers. They do so simply because they have no other option: The Maryland-based company is the last man standing in the distributor wars of the 1980s and '90s. It's such a monopoly that, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice looked into Diamond's sales practices and, according to Diamond's Roger Fletcher, came up empty.
The practice of selling directly to comics retailers began in 1972, when a New York schoolteacher named Phil Seuling approached DC Comics with a way of bailing out the sinking comics industry. Seuling, a fanboy who held conventions in New York, told DC he would buy the comics directly from the publishers at a hefty discount, then he would take the orders from retailers. As Steve Duin and Mike Richardson recount in their 1998 encyclopedia Comics Between the Panels, Seuling told DC he would assume the risk for selling the books, while DC would make 100 percent profit, since under his plan, retailers wouldn't be allowed to return unsold product, because they were receiving an enormous discount (35-50 percent off cover price, a practice that still exists).
Within seven years, Seuling had created a distribution behemoth called Seagate, which briefly resuscitated business. But his actions infuriated retailers and prompted lawsuits that eventually broke up Seagate's monopoly, but didn't stop hemorrhaging circulation.
Diamond is not the only distributor -- there are others, such as Coldcut and the aptly named Last Gasp -- but it wields by far the most power; it's the industry's Superman and kryptonite. Stephen Geppi, then a small Baltimore retailer, founded Diamond in 1982; by 1995, he had exclusive deals to distribute the biggest companies in the country, including DC and Dark Horse and Image -- and, when Heroes World collapsed, Marvel. As Roger Fletcher explains, Diamond is the exclusive retail agent for those four companies, meaning they sell directly to retailers but pay a fee to Diamond to get their books in stores. The other publishers use Diamond as the middleman.
Retailers place their monthly orders through Diamond's Previews magazine, a hefty catalog released at the first of each month that highlights titles two or three months before their release dates. DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse receive, in Fletcher's words, "the lion's share of coverage" in Previews because of their exclusive deals with Diamond; each receives its own multi-page section every month -- complete with staff-written "reviews" that tout the coming months' "gems" and "stars." The other publishers are left to fend for themselves in the general "comics" section, which irritates the small houses trying to get retailers to notice their product. Fletcher shrugs off the criticisms, which he's heard often during his 12 years with the company. Hey, a deal's a deal.
"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.
"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.
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."