A high-stakes battle for survival is underway in the comic book universe, and superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Wolverine have been enlisted in the fight. Even President-elect Barack Obama -- and an impostor -- have been recruited to help Spider-Man.
With mixed results, the nation’s comic book publishers and hundreds of neighborhood shops are fighting off a deteriorating economy, online piracy, rising costs and changing consumer tastes.
Comic book sales were down for most of 2008, even at behemoth publisher Marvel Comics. And many small comic stores are closing one by one.
Just last week, Marvel released a special edition of Spider-Man in which the superhero notices two identical Obamas at today’s presidential inauguration, uses basketball to weed out the phony and is thanked with a fist-bump from the new president himself.
But times are stark, and it may take more than Obama and his illustrated posse to revive business, as the industry nervously trains its spider sense on the notoriously feeble January sales month.
“Because comics are an escape, they’re a little more protected from the economy,” said Jonah Weiland, executive producer of website Comic Book Resources. “But I wouldn’t say they’re recession-proof. Everyone is preparing for a slump.”
There’s still an appetite for fantasy -- experts said the comics market has been resilient, weathering the wilting economy better than other forms of media. At the Los Angeles Public Library, thrifty fans turned comics into a hot item at the checkout counter last summer.
“If you want to read a series, there could be anywhere from three titles to 50, so it could be a very expensive experience,” said Albert Johnson, a collection development manager at the library. “That’s a big reason why we’re seeing more traffic.”
But even after a year stuffed with blockbuster films based on comic books, growth in all sectors is stalling.
There are no statistics available for comic books sold to customers. But the number sold to merchants is dropping. For February through November of 2008, the amount of top comic books sold to shops was lower than the same period in 2007, according to online research group Comics Chronicles.
Sales figures in broader comics categories, including magazines and trade paperbacks, nonetheless increased in the January-through-November period, though just 0.5% more than a year earlier, said John Jackson Miller, a Comics Chronicles researcher.
At Marvel, for example, the publishing sector said its sales and earnings were below year-earlier levels in each quarter of 2008, dragged down by higher artist and writer expenses and the rising cost of paper. In November, Marvel Chairman Morton Handel cited the beleaguered economy when he predicted only lackluster performance this year.
Some publishers, facing a rise in returns and a glut of competitors, are trimming their release schedules. Dark Horse Comics Inc. of Milwaukie, Ore., is hunkering down as a precaution, scaling back its budget, hiring, travel and trade show plans, Publisher Mike Richardson said.
“We’ve pulled the string tight all around,” he said.
Elsewhere, there were layoffs at Devil’s Due Publishing Inc., based in Chicago and Los Angeles, and the failure of Virgin Comics.
In Richmond, Va., Young American Comics -- battered by high printing and shipping costs -- announced last week that it would close.
Booming gas and airfare expenses also kept owners Tod and Corey Marie Parkhill from attending conventions to woo buyers.
“Small businesses have been especially at risk, and YAC was no exception,” they wrote in a letter to fans. “We would much rather you spend your money on food and rent than comics, though, so no hurt feelings.”
Comics are also getting more expensive. Marvel has been testing $3.99 issues, up from $2.99, managers said, and at those prices, they fear losing casual customers to video games or movie rentals.
Fans are skipping special editions for more economical softcovers at Meltdown Comics & Collectibles in Hollywood, manager Chris Rosa said. One weak story line can now spark a sales slide for an entire series.
Meltdown and other stores are ordering less inventory to avoid being stranded with books they can’t sell.
“A comic book now costs more than a gallon of gas -- it’s phenomenal,” said David Ryan, 43, a graphic novelist from the Miracle Mile area, while shopping at Golden Apple in Hollywood. “There are a lot less fanatic buyers now.”
Programs including comic book readers from IVerse Media and UClick or websites such as Wowio are increasingly making comic books readable on laptops and iPhones, often at a discount.
Although some people dismissed digital comics as too new to be a threat, others said the applications were already siphoning away fans.
To compete, publishers also have gone online. Marvel and DC Comics have launched Web-comics divisions, while Dark Horse Comics teamed with MySpace to showcase their online comics.
Most retailers also predicted that illegal uploading could increase.
But Hollywood might be able to inject some magic back into the market, several retailers said.
Last year, hit films like “The Dark Knight” helped attract casual readers. When the trailer for the movie adaptation of “Watchmen” debuted in July, DC Comics had to print 900,000 more copies of the graphic novel. Store managers are hoping the boost continues with upcoming movies like “Wolverine.”
Otherwise, the sales skid could continue.
Fans such as Aaron Biscombe, 25, an animator from Koreatown, are already cutting.
“I stopped branching out,” he said while browsing at Golden Apple.
Instead of visiting the store once a week and buying five books per trip, he now stops in just twice a month and buys fewer expensive back issues.
In the early 1990s amid the industry’s largest boom, comics stores tripled over three years but slipped back after the industry collapsed into a downturn in 1994.
Around 1,100 stores closed that January, according to Comics Chronicles.
Blaming “the current economic climate,” Wizard Entertainment recently canceled the Texas leg of its 2009 Wizard World convention.
Dreary sales forced Third Planet Games & Comics in Torrance to shut its doors in early January.
But in true superhero fashion, a longtime customer saved the day by buying the business.
The store will reopen with a smaller staff and stricter standards for ordering, manager Scott Grunewald said.
“Hopefully we have a happy ending,” he said. “Because now, we’re starting from scratch.”