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SPLAAAAAAAT! : Comic Books No Longer Reaping Big Sales in Single Bound

TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHOOSH! ABC’s “Lois and Clark” has flown to the top of its Sunday evening TV time slot.

BAM! “Batman Forever” rakes in $184 million at the box office.

POW! Millions of children tune in “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” cartoons each Saturday morning.

ZAP! Coming soon to a freezer section near you: Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica on packages of Ore-Ida Tater Tots.

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CRAASSHHHH! Even as comic book characters today pop up in more places more often than ever, the comic book market itself has dived into a ditch.

Since 1993, sales have dropped by a fourth, maybe more. One out of six comic book stores has shuttered. Video games and other high-tech toys are luring away the primary audience: preteen and teen boys. And in January, the king of the comic book hill, Marvel Comics, announced layoffs and deep slashes in its publishing output.

“The entire comic book industry is in a bad state of depression,” Marvel Comics President Jerry Calabrese said.

Just two years ago, comics were on a joyous upward jaunt. By some estimates, 1993 sales broke through the $1-billion mark for the first and only time.

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During this period, Marvel promised a “Marvelution,” launching no less than three new comic lines and buying upstart Malibu Comics and its then-successful Ultraverse titles. Marvel also licensed other characters, ranging from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to Barbie, for yet more titles.

Four days into 1996 came what some have sarcastically called the “Marvelcution.” Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., which also includes the Fleer and Skybox trading card companies, Panini sports stickers and Toy Biz toys, cut loose 275 employees. Over the next few months, three out of every 10 Marvel Comics titles will disappear. Barbie and the Power Rangers are gone. Malibu is gone. All but a handful of the books Marvel launched during the boom have been canceled.

“Marvel’s fine,” said Calabrese, noting the company shipped about 8 million comics in a recent month and still owns the largest chunk of the market. “It’s just not fine compared to the boom years. The big mistake we made was when the market turned, we didn’t respond by shrinking those lines fast enough.”

A $25-million restructuring charge nudged Marvel’s fourth-quarter performance into the red. For 1995, even before the charge, Marvel earned just 5 cents a share, well below the 26 cents a share that Wall Street analysts had expected, according to a survey by IBES International Inc. A year earlier, Marvel earned $2.49 a share. Marvel stock closed at $11.75 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, up 25 cents.

Estimates of last year’s comic book sales range between $400 million and $700 million, far less than the 1993 high watermark. (Marvel last year decided to distribute its own comics, creating some behind-the-scenes tumult that makes it harder to pin down total comics sales.) The number of comic book stores in North America has fallen from more than 6,000 to roughly 5,000.

“There’s more competition for the entertainment dollar,” said Bill Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics stores. Last year, Liebowitz shut down the smallest of his three locations, the one in West Los Angeles. “It just seemed like the weekly buying habits had changed so much,” he said.

Comics are no longer even cheap entertainment. Although comics could be had for a dime a pop a few decades ago, soaring paper prices have pushed today’s average cover price close to $2.

Beneath the gloom are nuggets of good news. The worst may be past. Publishers are promising better stories and art rather than gimmicks. Even as the industry shrinks, it is drawing in more female and older readers. Superheroes still dominate comics, but comics are no longer just superheroes. In absolute terms, the market may be roughly the same size it was in 1990 before the up-and-down gyrations.

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“It’s been a rocky time lately, but it seems to have settled,” said Mark Hennessey, one of the owners of Hi De Ho Comics & Fantasy, a comics retailer in Santa Monica. “It was painful, but the industry is much healthier now.”

In the early 1990s, a comic book was not merely 20-odd pages of brightly hued pictures and word balloons printed on flimsy paper, but also a get-rich-quick scheme. A “hot” comic book with a $1.50 price tag often jumped in value to $100 or more in a couple of years. Many people bought 10 copies or more and sealed them unread into plastic bags.

Fueling the trend, comics publishers tacked on “enhanced” covaers--holograms, fancy die-cuts, multiple covers--to increase their value and thus their sales. More and more publishers pushed out more and more new titles, because first issues sold more copies.

“We and everyone’s uncle got in the arms race of enhanced covers,” said Marvel’s Calabrese. In retrospect, publishers including Marvel were “too willing to cater” to speculators, Calabrese said. “It wasn’t building readership.”

Then, on Nov. 17, 1992, DC Comics, the No. 2 publisher behind Marvel, killed Superman.

According to the trade publication Comic Buyer’s Guide, DC shipped between 2.5 million and 3 million copies of the comic detailing the demise of the Man of Steel. In some places, the price leaped to $30 that same day.

The Death of Superman story line drew in one last wave of speculators, one last binge of gimmicks, one last boom year. (And yes, Superman came back.) “It was a house of cards,” Hennessey said.

It tumbled apart in 1994. Mirroring the industry’s wider misfortunes, sales at Hi De Ho fell by a third, Hennessey said, though they have since recovered somewhat. But the customers who stayed are readers, not the speculators. Rarely does anyone buy more than one copy of an issue now, Hennessey said. “It’s not a stock market anymore.”

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In the contracting market, Marvel will now concentrate on its “core titles” such as X-Men, Captain America and Spider-Man, Calabrese said.

Characters that had been spun out to their own titles will be spun back in. “It’s a hell of a lot more exciting palette to paint a comic if you have all the characters in the trunk comic,” he said.

Marvel also hopes to leverage off the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man animated series on the Fox network, currently No. 1 and 2 in the Saturday morning ratings among 2- to 11-year-olds. Although traditional superhero comic books generally aim at boys in their “tweens, teens, not young kids,” Marvel is introducing a line of “activity books” that will try to tap into the younger audience, Calabrese said. “That’s our big move for ’96.”

As Marvel redoubles its efforts on its superheroes, DC--part of the Time-Warner empire--has taken a somewhat different tack. Although Batman and Superman remain its bestsellers, DC has diversified. This year, DC will add two new lines: Verity will offer realistic, slice-of-life stories, while Matrix will delve into science fiction.

“There’s no reason you can’t tell crime stories, westerns, romance” using comics, said Lou Bank, vice president of sales and marketing at Dark Horse Comics, the No. 4 comics publisher.

Indeed, the decline of the superhero has opened the door for other genres. “Books that may not have worked in ’92 and ’93--because everyone was focused on superheroes--are working now,” Bank said.

One example of the migration out of superherodom is Frank Miller. Miller, who started out as a writer at Marvel in the late 1970s, now devotes most of his time to Sin City, a stark, black-and-white Mickey Spillane-style crime story published by Dark Horse. Even in the current downturn, the title has steadily sold nearly 100,000 copies an issue, Miller said.

“This is the best of times for people like me,” Miller said. “When I got into comics, there was quite literally nothing [other than superheroes] being published. As much as I love superheroes, it seemed silly that an entire story form should be trapped in one genre.”

With readers now older and more discerning, “the stranglehold of the brand names and the companies on the market has been broken,” he said. “I think there’s a great number of brand-new, different comics now.”

Still, the major growth area for comics has been practically everything other than comics.

For instance, Dark Horse’s revenue has been flat the last couple of years, “unless you count the Hollywood money,” Bank said. Dark Horse scored big with “The Mask,” the tale of a mild-mannered bank teller transformed to green-faced party man, which grossed more than $110 million in 1994.

What remains unclear is whether the popularity of comic book characters in other media will eventually circle back to comic books. But comic book companies are trying.

In March, packages of Ore-Ida Tater Tots will carry coupons offering savings on Archie Comics subscriptions (and raise money for United Cerebral Palsy). Marvel and Subway sandwich shops are putting together a marketing campaign where a sandwich purchase is accompanied by a coupon to redeem at a local comic book store.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Comical Market

The market for comic books has fluctuated wildly in the last five years, peaking in 1993. Because the major comic book companies don’t report sales figures, there is no accurate measure of the exact size of the market. The following figures are estimates prepared by the Comic Buyer’s Guide, an industry publication, based primarily on reports from distributors.

SALES

Estimate of North American sales, in millions:

(see newspaper for chart)

1995: $650 MARKET SHARE*

Figures for North America:

Marvel: 28.8%

DC: 22.6%

Image: 18.4%

Dark Horse: 6.2%

Other: 24.1%

Note: Numbers do not add up to 100% because of rounding.

*For May 1995, based on direct-market sales, which is primarily comic book stores. Figures don’t include most newsstand, bookstore and supermarket sales.

Source: Comic Buyer’s Guide


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