Kryptonite for comic pix?

Marvel, DC running out of top-tier characters

Are superheroes losing their might in Hollywood?

Though the “Fantastic Four” had a strong December on DVD, the country’s two biggest comics purveyors are looking far from invincible.

Marvel (“Spider-Man,” “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four”) and DC (“Batman,” “Superman,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) are running out of top-tier characters and face greater competition from non-superhero graphic novels and anime.

Marvel posted dismal earnings this past quarter and projected a revenue decline of up to 30% next year. Its “Ghost Rider” pic was just postponed from summer ’06 to February ’07 .

Superhero licensing has become big business, much bigger than it was when DC began selling Superman and Batman to Hollywood more than two decades ago. Buoyed by the prospect of tie-ins and new auds, the two firms pushed many properties into development.

But revenue hasn’t automatically followed.

For one thing, tie-ins don’t always work; Marvel vice chairman Peter Cuneo recently acknowledged that “Fantastic Four” merchandise flopped.

And as the companies dig deeper into their character vaults, prospects get dicier –as evidenced by the lackluster perfs of Marvel’s Jennifer Garner starrer “Elektra” ($24 million domestic B.O.) and “The Punisher” ($34 million).

“Marvel and DC talk about all these characters they have, but some of them are so old they have no built-in audience,” says one comics insider.

Meanwhile, with the success of bigscreen adaptations like “American Splendor,” “Ghost World” and “Sin City,” non-superhero comics are piquing producers’ interest as never before. “Sin City” grossed $74 million domestic, half the B.O. of “Fantastic Four,” on a fraction of the budget. “Hellboy,” also from indie comics firm Dark Horse, took in $59 million.

“Marvel and DC have their niches, and they’re good at it,” says producer Eric Gitter, who runs the production arm of tiny comics outfit Oni Press and will produce the company’s “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life” for Universal. “But I don’t know if they have the infrastructure to do many other kinds of movies.”

The Japanese style of animation known as anime also has captured Hollywood — at the possible expense of DC and Marvel.

Last summer, Disney distributed “Howl’s Moving Castle,” from helmer Hayao Miyazaki. L.A.-based manga firm TokyoPop recently pacted with Focus to develop TokyoPop’s “Pet Shop of Horrors” series. And Japanese-owned Viz Media has had success with its own DVD line as well as in licensing anime to the Cartoon Network.

Studios like indie comics because rights are less expensive, and indie comic firms like Hollywood because of the promotional benefits . Dark Horse, for example, touted “Sin City’s” cult fanbase to attract Dimension, and used the resulting pic to sell hundreds of thousands of comics.

Marvel and DC aren’t going away anytime soon. Collectively they still control about two-thirds of the comicbook market, and both are working to reinvigorate their lines.

And DC, at least, is partly reinventing itself with its indie line, Vertigo.

But much of the two companies’ biz is still based on decades-old brands. And superheroes, like box office trends, ebb and flow.

“It’s a fair question to ask: ‘Where are the next DC and Marvel characters coming from?’ ” says comicbook biz guru Milton Griepp.

Without enough new ideas, Marvel and DC may be drawing their own unhappy endings.

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