Comic Book Industry Looking to Internet

With chain book stores and the Internet drawing comic readers from local vendors, the comic book industry may be forced to look to the web for it's survival. But can the web woo the comic collector and a new generation of fans?

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by Bruce Duncanson

March.21st.2001

The smell of newsprint wafted into my nose as I entered Vintage Phoenix Comics and Collectibles in Bloomington, Ind. Several people perused the latest comics to come into the store, and others periodically entered to check the status of their subscriptions. Although they may not realize it, the customers leafing through Spiderman, X-Men, and other comics may experience a drastic change in their hobby in coming years. Since 1993, comic book sales have sharply declined. Consequently, the numbers of shops stocking comics have dwindled. Vintage Phoenix is the last of its type in Bloomington, a college town with a sizable comic book reading population.

Not surprisingly, the comic book industry has been busy exploring new ways to attract fans. One proposed method planned relies on a web-based delivery system that charges users to view high-quality, web-exclusive comics. However, some fans remain skeptical of this method.

"Personally, I like the stapled, print comics," said Matt Traughber, a Vintage Phoenix employee. "I think it's a part of the art. There's a certain joy in picking up a comic and reading it. I don't think it's wise to depend on the Internet to save comics."

While working on the logistics of web-based comics, the industry is pursuing ways to attract newer, younger readers that will supplement its aging crowd of twentysomething fans.

Marvel Enterprises, Inc., the New York-based comic book publisher that has been active since 1939, plans to introduce new lines of modernized comics. The series started with the recently debuted Ultimate Spiderman. A line of comics entitled Ultimate X-Men debuted in December in a bid to attract younger fans who have been absent from the comic book scene for years.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes [the comic book industry] has made is pulling out of the drugstores and supermarkets," Traughber said. "These stores no longer have the large selections of comic books they once had, and 6- to 8-year-old kids no longer see them on shopping trips with their parents. That's how a lot of kids got into comics."

Another way in which comic book publishers hope to breathe new life into the failing industry is through the use of graphic novels, which have been enjoying greater success than comic books. Graphic novels are books in comic book format, many dealing with more adult subject matter. Some are written in a more personal tone. Still, many graphic novels include traditional superhero stories, but they are longer than an average comic book.

DC Comics, the creator of Superman and Batman, currently is putting out the majority of superhero-oriented graphic novels. Larger chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders -- who may be hesitant to carry comics -- are already carrying superhero graphic novels. Additionally, independent, non-superhero graphic novels, such as Maus -- which in two volumes tells the tale of author Art Spiegelman's father's experiences in a Nazi concentration camp -- have also been thriving in bookstores in recent years.

"I think graphic novels will definitely be a factor in helping the industry to survive," Traughber said. "They're more emotionally oriented. Graphic novelists often worry less about making a profit than regular comic book publishers because the subject matter is more personal, more serious."

It is the next ten or 20 years that will determine whether the comic book industry will sink or swim. For the moment, signs are hopeful, as movies like "X-Men" are met with a degree of success at the box office, the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books have done well, and many publishers maintain successful action figure lines. Still, print comics have a somewhat dubious future, and the face of the comic book industry is changing rapidly, with the smaller, independent comic book shops like Vintage Phoenix disappearing.

"At the moment, I see a fairly steady stream of customers coming in the door," Anita Trivedi, another employee at Vintage Phoenix said. "We're still selling our fair share of comic books and action figures, but we also experience competition from eBay and other online sources. Local stores are no longer the only source for new issues."

Ultimately, the comic book publishers, not small distributors like Vintage Phoenix, must attract a new generation of fans to this once popular American pastime.


This article was previously printed in The Synapse.


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