The Great Comic Book Crash

America has produced two outstanding and unique art forms, jazz and comics, both of which had to endure decades of opprobrium from our moral betters.It has taken comics even longer to find respectability than jazz, but now that they've found it, bizarre forces threaten to shatter the once powerful growth industry into piecemeal publishers, each trying to survive in some highly specialized market, using their own unique methods of distribution.Spiderman's diving sales even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago when disgruntled fans, driven to the edge by endless crossover stories and cover gimmicks, finally organized to boycott Marvel's "Spider-Clone" story line, which alleged that every Spiderman since Stan Lee created the character was part of a "dream sequence" involving clones.Marvel, which is largely responsible for the industry's recent nosedive, has paid a heavy price for its arrogance. Several weeks ago it laid off 275 employees and cut its line virtually in half. It farmed out Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Avengers and Hulk to Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, the two Image stalwarts who left Marvel two years ago to start their own companies. Marvel kept the Spider titles and the X-books, and that's it. No Conan, no Captain Marvel; even Daredevil has been cut from the schedule.Industry sales are half of what they were a year ago, a third of what they were two years ago. Image, whose every number one could be counted on for at least a hundred thou, is canceling books in the high 70s. Mighty Dark Horse, home to my own Nexus, is not soliciting more product. What happened? And why should you care?Comics are an important part of our culture. They have been a vital source of fashion and, most important, they teach children to read, contrary to what such notable nutcases as Frederic Wertham or Tipper Gore have told us. But the type of comics I'm discussing, comic books in the tradition of the Adventures of Superman or Spiderman, are in danger.Capital City Distribution, based in Madison, Wiscon., used to be the second largest distributor of comics in the world with over 25 warehouses nationwide. They now have one. One reason comics are having a bad time is the distributor wars that have waged during the past year. It used to be there were dozens of distributors in the U.S., dominated by Capital and Diamond, the Big Two. But there were also Hero's World and Andromeda and numerous others coexisting because the market was big enough to feed all, particularly about two years ago when sales reached an unrealistic height.Before you can understand the distributor wars, you have to know how the market was inflated. Those were giddy times, when new number ones routinely sold over a million or more. The junk-bond-like inflation of the comics market was greatly aided by card collectors, who discovered the comic-book back-issue market in 1990. Certain sales gimmicks, like the multiple covers of "Death of Superman," tossed these titles into the stratosphere. So gimmick marketers took over -- every comic book now came with multiple covers, hologram covers and chromium covers. During one week in July 1994, there was a nationwide shortage of aluminum foil because Marvel had sucked it all up to do chrome-plated gimmick titles.Retailers, hoping to make a bundle, invested more and more heavily in the next "sure thing," increasing the print run and reducing the chances the book would ever be more valuable than the cover price. People seemed to be buying everything -- the market was so heady it gave birth to dozens of publishers, including a couple that are with us today. The most notable are Image, formed by the Marvel dissidents, and Malibu, which was later bought by Marvel.With all this competition, Marvel didn't think their distributors were doing them right. They were the 800-pound gorilla who deserved the best treatment. But the distributors had to contend with other heavy hitters -- Dark Horse, DC, Image, Valiant, etc. So Marvel bought Hero's World and turned it exclusively Marvel. Overnight, Marvel went from being serviced by two worldwide networks with warehouses all over the globe to a smallish New Jersey company that only had experience with UPS.The result was every type of screwup you can imagine. Regardless of what a retailer ordered, he got a mystery package, or no package at all. In retaliation for this final insult -- on top of all the hideous, useless books they'd been forced to purchase in the past -- retailers rebelled, greatly, reducing Marvel's orders. Revenge of the Spider Clones!For decades, DC had aped Marvel. Once Marvel set the tone with new-age sensitive heroes like Spiderman, DC followed, turning their own characters three-dimensional. (Artistically, DC has enough triumphs of its own, including the celebrated Vertigo line, which Marvel attempted to ape with their Clive Barker horror comics.) And DC must be credited with ushering in the age of Gritty, with Frank Miller's groundbreaking Dark Knight. So when Marvel acquired their own distributor, DC simply had to have one too -- and this led to a whole new round of warring.The result of these battles is that a once efficient, competitive distribution system has been reduced to a shambles. Customers are unhappy and retailers are going out of business faster than middle management. At the peak of the craze, during 1993, there were 10,000 retail comic shops. Today, Capital City CEO Milton Griepp estimates there are about 4,500, and they haven't stopped disappearing. No one is happy with the present situation, which is inherently unstable. Nor can it last. But comic people, who don't like change in real life, don't know what to do about it. Customers, retailers, even publishers are sitting back to see what happens next.Beyond the distributor wars there's an artistic problem. Despite unprecedented good publicity from the other arts, which have fully embraced comics as an art form, there's a paucity of good material to appeal to a wide spectrum of adults. Many intellectually challenging properties seem too odd to gain a mass market, such as Cerebus the Aardvark or Love & Rockets. Nothing has happened to change the average adult's perception of comics as the last repository of male teenage power fantasies. But it will -- it's just a matter of time. With the wealth of talent now working in the comics field (in addition to their day jobs), it will happen.There are many outstanding comics currently available. The Milestone line, a subsidiary of DC, produces outstandingly humanistic superhero material. My favorite titles are Icon, featuring an alien masquerading as a conservative black doctor, and Static, about a streetwise high school kid who has some weird electrical power. Kitchen Sink, formerly of Princeton, Wis., now of Northampton, Mass., still brings us fresh Crumb on a periodic basis and continues to publish provocative, cutting-edge graphic fiction. Outstanding independents such as Billy Tucci's Shi or David Lapham's Stray Bullets have drawn readers from more traditional fare due to the thoughtfulness and depth of their writing.Harvey Pekar publishes an outstanding autobiographical comic called American Splendor. Dark Horse offers the widest range of graphic fiction in the industry, from its own action character Barb Wire (brace for the blitz, folks--it's coming) to numerous exciting Manga projects to fresh presentations of such classic characters as Tarzan and the Shadow to fresh action titles such as Foot Soldiers, by Jim Krueger, and Heartbreakers, a sort of Sgt. Rock meets Thelma & Louise. As the material has come of age, ready to break through to a wider market, however, everything else about comics has conspired to plow them under.The price of paper has literally doubled in the past year, further contributing to publishing woes. But perhaps the biggest problem, and the sure sign that our industry and the nation is in trouble, is that kids don't read anymore. They just don't read. They'd rather slide into the frenzied world of video games where they can set their own pace, where attention spans are marked in nanoseconds, where entertainment is nothing more than electronic cotton candy. How do I know? I ask kids in my neighborhood. I ask kids wherever I go.I also speak to a friend of mine who teaches middle school. Part of the problem is the method by which they teach spelling -- the whole word method. Forget phonics. Forget the joy of discovery in sounding out a written word for yourself and suddenly recognizing it. The schools' decision to stop teaching phonics has been disastrous far beyond the comics industry. But the buck really stops at the parents' feet. If parents don't instill their children with a love of learning, who will?One or the reasons comics have had such a long haul to respectability is that they're basically subversive. The attitudes expressed in editorial cartoons have been intensified a thousand-fold in certain comics, particularly the undergrounds of the late '60s to the present. And mainstream comics are no longer timid about their positions on political issues. True, the overwhelming majority of them express liberal opinions, but that's true wherever artists gather seeking love from their adoring public and each other. At least there's me. (See sidebar.) Comics are a form of cultural kudzu. Anybody with a modicum of talent can produce one in his own home with nothing more than talent, time and ink. They are a cheap, visceral, exciting way to transmit stories, knowledge, propaganda, recipes--you name it. And people love them. When Henry Ford started marketing the Model T, many people predicted that the horse would be extinct within 20 years. Those pundits forgot the most important link a horse has to humans -- the emotional. No technology can replace the visceral impact of image on paper. Comics are here to stay, but whatever form the future takes is anyone's guess.There are now numerous online comics, some with stunning graphics. But I look at them on the screen and it's not the same. It's not the same as holding that flat stack of newsprint in your hand, carefully opening the cover, inhaling the scent of fresh ink, and seeing the two-dimensional miraculously flower into the all-encompassing three-dimensional of a totally involving story. nSIDEBAR I broke into comics when I teamed up with illustrator Steve Rude, to create Nexus, about an executioner of mass-murderers in the 26th century. 1996 marks our 15th year of publication. The release of "Nexus Meets Madman" in June will be followed in July by a grimmer miniseries called "The Executioner's Song." Each story stands by itself and is designed to be a friendly port of entry to the Nexus Universe.I have created numerous comic-book characters that march back and forth across Hollywood looking for visionary producers, including Ginger Fox, Badger, Spyke, Feud and the Butcher. When The Butcher was announced, several dozen self-righteous prigs immediately took finger to keyboard to protest the continuing debasement and pandering to the worst in human instincts. The blood! The agony! The Butcher was about a man who sold candy on a train. I chose to copyright that name as a comic partly because I knew its meaning would be misconstrued by sensitive souls, quick to take offense at any imagined slur against indigenous peoples everywhere.I have also written The Flash and Batman for DC and The Punisher for Marvel. I am currently adapting Timothy Zahn's Star Wars novels Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising for Dark Horse, and working on a new film noir story called Double Cross for Acclaim with artist Paul Gulacy. I'm also working on a bunch of secret projects ranging from the cheap to the suicidal. Look for them at a 90%-off sale near you! -- M.B.

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