Variety's spicing up comic books' success

Convention: Diverse new titles and genres in the medium are pulling in new readers of all ages.

October 28, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Kids with pocket change, obsessive collectors with air-tight plastic bags and adults with a yen for dark heroes and violent tales have all been considered typical consumers of comic books over the past 60 years.

But now the industry is thriving by brushing off its dusty image and finding ways to sell "comics" to new audiences of readers who could care less about action adventure.

Superman, Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four are still perennial favorites, but they have made room for a preteen girl and her strange friends in Amelia Rules!, three blobby characters on an epic journey in Bone, and Buzzboy, whose title character is a pop-culture referencing, diner-dwelling former teen sidekick.

There are more comic books for children than in previous decades and more comics written by, about and for women. More books focus on personal angles and love stories amid action sequences.

There are also more long-form comics published as trade paperbacks and more effort by distributors to get them in bookstores.

"Comic book is a format, or a medium, not a genre," said Todd Scott, trade show and special events coordinator for Diamond Comic Distributors. The company, based in Timonium, is the largest distributor of English-language comics in the world.

During the weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, Scott and dozens of other exhibitors at the Baltimore Comic-Con comic book show offered a glimpse of the rich variety of comics today.

"Comics have come into their own in the last three years," said Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. His organization offers legal representation in First Amendment cases involving comic books.

"There are more points of entry right now," Brownstein said. The industry "has rebuilt itself as a readership medium."

The comics business turnaround is a feat huge enough to be the work of the most dashing superhero.

Scott said that from the 1930s through the '60s comic books were aimed at kids. Then in the '70s, publishers began focusing on adult readers with more violent and dramatic stories and with collectible editions. But in the '90s, comics hit a popularity low with big publishers aiming most strongly at dedicated collectors.

"It is only in the last six to eight years that editors have begun looking to span all age groups," Scott said.

Libraries as market

Libraries are a growth market for longer, kid-friendly graphic books, said Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Comics in Gainesville, Fla. "Librarians want young adults books that will be checked out a lot," he said.

Mason's company, which he runs in addition to working as a criminal defense lawyer, also offers more real-life topics and autobiographical stories. Its compilation about Sept. 11 sold 30,000 copies and brought in $80,000 for the Red Cross.

Other artists have used comics to write about high finance, international relations and politics, among other things.

On the whole, interest in and purchases of comic books have tripled in the past 10 years, said Bruce Ellsworth, who co-owns Neat Stuff Collectibles, one of the largest sellers of comics at conventions and online.

Movies spark interest

He said movies have reinvigorated interest in traditional comics such as Batman, Spiderman and X-Men, while television has boosted the Superman comics with the series Smallville and the popular animated show Justice League has been a boon to its print titles.

Recently, even lesser-known comic books have been made into movies, like From Hell, Road to Perdition and Ghost World.

But experts believe the film and television versions have enhanced rather then replaced the comic book experience.

"People like to touch it, feel it, smell it," said Ellsworth, energetically sniffing a copy of Commander Battle and the Atomic Sub from 1953. "People like to turn the pages."

Next year, when the characters Daredevil, the X-Men and the Hulk hit the big screen, comic book sellers hope to reap the benefits. Diamond distributors plan their second free comic book day giveaway for the day after X-Men II debuts.

`Something to say'

Matt DeMartino, 16, and his brother, Nick DeMartino, 14, were at the convention with their father "mainly to meet some of our favorite writers and illustrators," Matt said.

It "was not as much hustle and bustle" as some larger conventions they have been to, Matt said, but "I think it's good because its easier to get to meet everyone you want to meet."

And, he said, he and his brother enjoyed meeting some of the small press authors they had not heard of before as they walked around asking people to draw in their sketch books.

Brownstein said the convention showcases a wide variety of work and "it's got something to say, that's the most important thing about all this."

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