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Pic hits goose comics biz

Sales have rebounded; medium achieves 'cool' factor

Once an insular backwater of the publishing and entertainment worlds, comicbooks have moved into the mainstream thanks in no small part to movies and TV shows derived from comics’ inky pages.

Since few things generate as much press or space in the collective consciousness as a major movie release, the attention comicbook-based pics have generated has been most welcome in the comics world, which was as recently as 10 years ago in such severe financial straits that the future of the business was in doubt.

Comicbook sales in the past five years have rebounded and the medium has achieved an unprecedented level of coolness and prestige, fueled by the success of graphic novels in bookstores, the manga explosion and the success of movies from “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” to “Ghost World,” “American Splendor,” “Hellboy,” “Sin City,” “Batman Begins” and “Fantastic Four.”

As sales and profits grow for publishers from Dark Horse to DC and Marvel, there’s little doubt that Hollywood has given the comics biz a boost. But the ways in which publishers see and exploit those benefits vary widely.

The most obvious effect of these movies would seem to be on sales. Traditional periodical comics once sold on drugstore spinner racks are now sold mostly through specialty shops to die-hard fans, and rarely see more than a minor, temporary bump in sales no matter how successful a movie adaptation is. But in bookstores, where graphic novels and book collections of periodical comics have been rising, it’s a different story.

“One week, we sold 180,000 ‘Sin City’ books, which is a big number,” says Mike Richardson, president of Dark Horse Comics, home of “Hellboy” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City.” I feel like a lot of people discovered Frank’s work because of the movie.”

There are also creative lessons to be learned from the way filmmakers handle long-running comicbook properties. Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics, says the first “X-Men” film helped put the unwieldy franchise in perspective. “It reminded us of stuff that we had started a long time ago that we had forgotten.”

Paring back often convoluted franchises to their essential core is something Quesada and DC exec editor Dan Didio say is essential to keeping superhero characters fresh.

“The goal is not to discount those characters’ histories, but really identify the things that resonate most with our readers, the things that our fans react to the strongest, and build stories around those aspects of the character so we have a very strong foundation,” says Didio.

Holding on to fans who pick up comics because of a movie or TV show is another challenge. The comicbook versions of characters like Batman or Spider-Man need to be close in tone and content to what the reader expects and friendly to new readers, which means telling clear stories that stand on their own and don’t rely on an extensive knowledge of continuity to be fully enjoyed.

That’s aided by faithful translations of comics to the bigscreen. “So much about Batman in the new movie is what our comics are about,” says Didio. “So if they’re seeing things they love about Batman in that movie and they come to our comics, they’ll get that same level of enjoyment from our characters because they’re represented in a very similar light.”

Both publishers have put more muscle into their film and TV development efforts in recent years. DC, a division of Warner Bros., is undergoing something of a creative and business make-over, devoting more resources to TV and movie development and creating a new logo that now appears on all the company’s products including a short trailer logo on “Batman Begins.”

Most publishers don’t think much about movie or TV potential and try to make quality comics their top priority. “Most publishers see movie development as really running along a separate path,” says Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, prexy of comics publisher and film-TV producer Platinum Studios.

“Another thing publishers have learned is it takes a really long, long, long time to develop a movie,” says Rosenberg, who helped turn indie comic “Men in Black” into a bigscreen hit. “They don’t drive themselves as nuts trying to tie storylines together because you can’t time it.”

One time element that can be controlled is the point at which comics publishers reach out to Hollywood. Steve Galloway, VP of film and TV at manga house Tokyopop, says early is better than later. Tokyopop is collaborating with producer Michael Uslan and director Chuck Russell on “Mysterians,” with manga publication the first step toward turning the idea into a feature.

Smaller publishers who don’t have iconic superhero properties also have learned from Hollywood. Larry Young, founder of indie publisher AiT-PlanetLar, says filmmaking conventions such as high concepts or covers that look like film posters is an effective way of communicating the content of his books to readers.

“There’s a shorthand I can do in terms of pitching it or marketing it or promoting it in terms of movies that I don’t have to fill anything in,” Young says. “Everybody gets it instantly, and that’s because Hollywood’s already done all the heavy lifting for me.”

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