Comics keep drawing ’em in

“THE HULK” IS FADING FAST and the next studio tentpole adapted from a comicbook, “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman,” faces tough competition in a crowded market when it opens Friday.

But Hollywood’s cupidity for comics is as high as ever.

Industry talent is traveling in unprecedented numbers to San Diego next week for the huge annual comics convention Comic-Con, which is expected to attract thousands of artists, editors, publishers and tens of thousands of fans.

Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Quentin Tarentino and cast members from his next film, “Kill Bill,” are among the stars scheduled to appear. Many more producers and directors will be speaking on panels, mingling with fans and scouring the floor for new material.

Filmmakers continue to option comics in big numbers. Next year is likely to bring a drove of new movies adapted from graphic fiction, including “Spider-Man 2,” “Hellboy,” “The Punisher,” “Catwoman” and “Iron Man.”

At Cannes in May, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said he used to deride “men in spandex” movies, but not anymore. Miramax is now developing “The Green Hornet” as part of a new strategy to release a tentpole or two each year.

THE COMICS PUBLISHING BUSINESS has had its troubles in the last decade.

Single-issue sales of comicbooks declined from a high of 150 million annually to less than 30 million between the mid 1990s and 2000, according to Marvel prexy/chief operating officer Bill Jemas.

But several companies have bounced back, including Marvel, which emerged from bankruptcy in 1996 and recorded a revenue increase of 53% to 87.4 million in the first quarter this year.

That growth owes something to the fact that comics are such useful blueprints for event movies.

“You have creators who think in pictures, and a massive fan base that takes 40, 50 or 60 years to build up,” said Jemas.

The movie franchises, in turn, have generated increased publishing, licensing and toy sales for comics companies.

And sales of graphic fiction are on the rise. Publishers Weekly recently reported that sales of graphic novels have risen from about $75 million in 2001 to $100 million in 2002.

COMIC PUBLISHERS are also adapting to changing market conditions and trying new initiatives.

Marvel, which has long licensed its characters to other publishers, just released what may be the company’s first self-published work of prose fiction for girls, a “Spider-Man” spinoff called “Mary Jane,” by award-winning romance and young adult novelist Judith O’Brien.

Portland’s Dark Horse Comics, which was founded in 1986 by comic-book retailer Mike Richardson and is now ranked third in size after Marvel and D.C., is also branching into publishing prose fiction and nonfiction.

Dark Horse is launching a new imprint called M Press. Its first release is “Shanghai Diary,” a novel about a girl who fled from Nazi German to the Shanghai ghetto, written by Ursula Bacon.

Richardson created Dark Horse Entertainment in 1992. The division has secured CAA for representation and partnered with studios to produce “The Mask,” “Timecop” and “Hellboy.”

Dark Horse Entertainment also develops material from other sources. It just acquired film and TV rights to “The Boy Who Saved Baseball,” a novel by John H. Ritter, about a smalltown boy who summons a legendary San Diego outfielder to help win a baseball game that will determine the fate of his town.

Deborah Giarratana, who manages new business development for Sony Pictures Imageworks, brought the “Baseball” property to Dark Horse and will produce.

“It’s our contention that if you want to grow the market, it’s not going to be done at comic shops,” said Richardson, citing his company’s efforts to diversify. “Superheros are a very tiny piece of that whole field of interest.”

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