From the LA Times, 7/17/01:
The Disappearing Comic Book
Superheroes reign on screen, but in print they face a mighty foe: apathy.
BY GLENN GASLIN, Special to The Times
Maybe once a week, a man who has never before set foot inside Ground Zero Cards Comics & Computers in Lancaster, Calif., steps into the shop way out near the edge of the desert, away from everything. This man wants to look at the comic books. He didn't know they were here, that this place was here, so far out of the way, and that these stacks of "Sandman" back issues and this new Spider-Man series, that all of this was here. He didn't know.
"Last year, a few guys came in looking for 'X-Men,' but they weren't going crazy for it," says shop owner Gary Haviland, frustrated, melancholy. "As a matter of fact, I'm getting out of comics. They don't sell." He's going to concentrate on card and computer games—things his regulars want to play, things they don't have to go out of their way to find.
Which is amazing.
Which is astounding and uncanny and weird, really, that an art form as seemingly common and universal as comic books should remain so obscure, so out of the way, especially at a time when big-money media want nothing more than to don red tights and fight crime. Comic books, or at least the idea of comic books, couldn't be more in demand, with Hollywood, literature and even journalism evoking the aesthetic of stories told with sequential pictures and voice bubbles. This is the year that Tobey Maguire climbs walls while filming "Spider-Man," surely one of the big movies of 2002.
This is the year director Ang Lee announces he'll follow up "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with his take on "The Incredible Hulk." This is the year novelist Michael Chabon wins the Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," a thinly veiled story about the guys who created Superman. This, too, is the year the Man of Steel gets another prime-time TV show ("Smallville," on the WB) and "Requiem for a Dream" director Darren Aronofsky teams with comics god Frank Miller to cook up the next big Batman film.
And this, now, is the week when roughly 50,000 people will cluster in San Diego for Comic-Con International, the country's largest comics convention, the Academy Awards of geek-culture gatherings. The show may draw hordes, but it, too, has shifted focus, now a multimedia bazaar of sci-fi movies, action figures and 'zines. And with comic book circulation a fraction of what it was a decade ago, few outside the convention center will notice that the stories, artwork and even quality of the paper may be better than ever.
"OK, go see 20 movies and tell me how many of those are good, and then go read 20 comic books and tell me how many of those are good," dares Joe Quesada, the recently installed editor in chief of Marvel Comics, the financially troubled industry leader. "I guarantee you that we do better."
A Victim of the Public's Misconceptions
Why, then, in the face of such interest and quality, don't more people read the Great American Comic Book?
Those close to the issue can only guess: The distribution network is flawed, the story lines are too muddled, the medium creaks with age, and on and on. A common idea comes from director Kevin Smith, perhaps the medium's most visible, vocal proponent. He owns a comics shop, writes superhero stories for Marvel and DC and casts Ben Affleck as a comics artist. He tells me that most folks think comics are kids' stuff, bad guys versus good guys, tights and capes.
"But there's plenty of comics that don't have people in costumes, no superhero," he says from the set of his new film, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," about drug dealers who become the subject of a comic book, which then becomes a mega-budget movie. "A lot of what people call underground comics or indie comics aren't either underground or indie. They're just stories that have nothing to do with traditional comic book stories."
Take, for example, "Ghost World." Written and drawn by Oakland's Daniel Clowes (best known for the occasionally published, usually brilliant comic "Eightball"), the 80-page graphic novel tells of two girls facing life after high school. It's funny and true and ironic, and it, too, will be a movie this summer, directed by Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb") and starring Thora Birch ("American Beauty"). And anyone who still thinks comics are for kids hasn't read "Preacher," the bloody tale of a small-town minister who's half-demon, half-angel and hunting down God, or "Transmetropolitan," about a very grumpy newspaper columnist in a nightmarish, right-around-the-corner future.
Both are published by an imprint of DC Comics called Vertigo, both are evocative and eloquent, both are closer to R than PG-13. Marvel plans to launch its own grown-up imprint called MAX, and even the old-school superheroes have become more mature and engaging, as seen in Grant Morrison's recent take on "The Uncanny X-Men" or Smith's "Green Arrow." The average reader, a 12-year-old in the '50s and a 20-year-old in the early '90s, is now 25.
"A lot of folks are going to tell you that adults don't want to be seen reading a funny book. I'm not convinced," says Brad Munson, a Pasadena-based consultant who once ran a comics biz gossip 'zine called WAP! "Most adults don't know comics still exist."
Still, about 6 million or 7 million books are sold every month, but their numbers, their momentum and purpose are not what they used to be. A decade ago, during a brief boom, 48 million books moved in a month. During the last 30 years, comics have become ghettoized, Munson says, turned into specialty items sold in persnickety little shops, located one per town, if that, and sold only to those who know the secret word. (Los Angeles, with dozens of shops and some of the best, is an exception.) A few popular titles are available at chain bookstores, but I had to squat and look beneath the bottom shelf on a Barnes & Noble magazine rack to find a copy of "Wolverine."
People Turned Off by Complex Story Lines
At a time when everyone and everything is available everywhere at once, why aren't comics part of the great big machinery of mass culture? Why don't they come with our coffee or our DVDs? Even when comics stand up and make noise, as when Marvel handed out millions of books to moviegoers seeing last summer's "The X-Men," the insular world within makes little sense to outsiders. With half a dozen X-Men-related stories taking place in different universes at different times, no wonder few newcomers went out of their way to buy more.
"Here was this $400-million movie, and we failed to capitalize on it, making our books more complicated than they ever have been," says Quesada, who insists that Marvel has already "fixed" the Spider-Man books, notably launching "Ultimate Spider-Man," the Peter Parker story rebooted and geared toward kids now graduating from Pokémon.
Overcrowded story lines, seclusion from mass culture and modern comics' other miseries began decades ago, explains John Jackson Miller, editor of trade magazine Comics & Games Retailer, based in Iola, Wis. In the 1940s, in the days when comic books were basically television, cheap, ubiquitous and able to keep a kid busy for hours, they were sold in supermarkets and on newsstands. By the 1970s, collectors demanded back issues, and stores opened to cater to them. Publishers see a larger profit selling at comic shops (they don't pay for unsold copies), so most pulled from newsstands (like magazine publishers, they're charged for whatever doesn't move from a newsstand). Thus comics hunkered and survived, alone, for decades.
The late 1980s saw a sort of artistic renaissance as Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" did for old notions of The Superhero what Freud did for everybody's mother. Add to this a blockbuster "Batman" film and, to oversimplify and draw in fat black pen, a massive collecting boom followed, a time when comics became commodities, sealed in plastic bags, unread. The industry experienced a rapid tripling in size during the early 1990s, and, within three years, the number of comics shops swelled from 3,500 to 12,000.
Superstar writers broke from traditional houses and formed their own, including Orange County's Image Comics, home to the era's most notorious hero, Spawn. Before the boom, the bestselling book—it was, as it still is, "The Uncanny X-Men"—was selling 400,000 copies.
In 1991, at the height of the craze, one particular issue sold 7.1 million. Miller bought 25, thinking they'd be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars in only a few years. They are now virtually worthless, as is most of what people bought back then. The boom ended as quickly as it began, forcing Marvel into bankruptcy, collectors into debt and fans out of the shops.
"The last seven years, it's been like living in a post-nuclear holocaust," says Miller, who says shops now number just 3,000 and "The X-Men" sells 150,000 in a good month. Things have leveled off. But those who grew up in the boom, who still have a box full of books in their garage, are making movies and programming video games and running television networks. It's no surprise, then, that superheroes are lurking around every corner of modern media. "Comics are like herpes," says Munson. "Once you're exposed to them, you're open to them forever." Most of us, however, just stopped buying them.
A Trend Toward Hipper Magazines
And maybe, just maybe, we don't read illustrated ink-and-paper stories because we no longer need them. Shannon Wheeler, artist-creator of the overtly political, underground-y book "Too Much Coffee Man," explains. He, too, is getting out of the medium. It's old-fashioned. Outdated. Unmarketable. He's turning his comic book into Too Much Coffee Man Magazine, adding articles, spoofs, interviews and advertising, all of it along the same sociopolitical wavelength as his hero.
"On a spiritual level, the change is profound," he says. "It becomes this item that is acceptable to the mainstream public. Joe Public will pick up a magazine and not pick up a comic book." He hopes to double his circulation to 20,000 by infiltrating coffeehouses and bookstores, finding young people who'll drop $4 on a cappuccino and $4.95 on a magazine.
It's time, anyway, Wheeler says, for comic books to evolve. His and other commentary-heavy books might make more sense as magazines. More traditional characters have already found a home in the proliferation of comic-style storytelling and adventure, the Pow! starburst around every corner of our culture, the casting of Kirsten Dunst as Spider-Man's squeeze Mary Jane. The stories may have outgrown the very paper on which they're printed.
Before science fiction and fantasy became blockbuster fodder, before grown men started camping on sidewalks to see a movie or buy a video game system, comic books had an exclusive grip on what Wheeler calls "magical surrealism," that escape into a world where the weak become powerful, where we are all superhuman.
Today, billion-dollar industries now revolve around turning this alternate reality into something tangible, and "The Matrix" and "Ultima Online" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" portray this universe faster and crisper for the young minds growing up in the 21st century. Comics and their fans, Wheeler suggests, need not feel so far away from everything. They, or at least what's been at their core for so many decades, have already taken over.
"We fought for this surrealism to enter our culture, and it has," he says. "Comic books won the battle."
To which I can only add, amen.
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
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