NEW YORK -- While much of publishing is in the doldrums, comic books are booming, in large part because companies have discovered that they can raise prices without driving away many buyers.
Now, the owner of Marvel Comics, the largest comics operation, is trying to sell a minority stake in Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and all its other superheroes to the public.
Investors seem to be lining up to buy shares in the company, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., and late last week the company increased both the number of shares being offered and the price being asked.
The sale, expected to be completed this week, was marked by a visit of Spider-Man to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange yesterday, when trading in the shares began. The offering was popular: Marvel was one of the most active issues and climbed from the initial price of $16.50 a share to close at $18.625.
The sale will enable Ronald O. Perelman, who has controlled Marvel since early 1989, to get back as much as five times the $10.5 million he invested in the company, while still maintaining firm control.
The success of the comic book industry has been increased by a new channel of sales -- the comic book specialty store -- and through the discovery that "price increases have not resulted in significant reductions in unit sales," as Marvel put it in documents distributed to prospective investors.
The company said that it had a plan for price increases for three years and expects the cover price of a basic comic book, which rose from 75 cents to $1 in 1989, to rise again next year to $1.25. Marvel charges as much as $34.95 for hardcover collections of old comics.
Figures provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulation show that Marvel's comics sold an average of 8.7 million copies a month in the last half of 1990, up 31.2 percent from 6.6 million in the corresponding period in 1989.
Figures for the first half of this year will not be out for several weeks, but they are not expected to match the late-1990 level. Comic book sales peak during the summer, when the prime readers -- those 6 to 18 years old -- are out of school.
Sales were 6.3 million a month in early 1990.