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But is H'w'd really saving the comicbooks biz?

Even though the movie versions of comicbooks’ costumed crusaders have reaped sizable grosses recently, the die-hard aud that buys comics has shrunk dramatically the last 10 years, turned off as titles became more expensive, more convoluted and harder to find. Where the top-selling series in the early 1990s moved 1 million copies a month, only a handful of today’s comics sell more than 100,000. Convincing today’s kids that their money is better spent on $3 comics than videogames or DVDs is a difficult prospect.

“I don’t think we’re the most skilled businessmen in terms of marketing,” says Todd McFarlane, creator and publisher of Spawn, whose sales have dropped from nearly 2 million copies in 1992 to 43,000 today. “We’ve sort of let it go away without fighting for our turf.”

Graphic novels have seen rapid growth the past three years, led by triple-digit increases in sales of licensed and translated Japanese manga published in black-and-white and in the original right-to-left format by companies like TokyoPop and Viz. Manga surprisingly has proved popular with girls, and these companies are even starting to publish original manga from non-Japanese creators.

While the manga boom has certainly helped them, the largest American comics publishers still depend on the 3,000 or so specialty shops, known as the direct market, for their bread and butter. Few expect the demise of the traditional booklet format, but publishers are increasingly betting on book editions and sales outside specialty shops — as well as more attention from Hollywood — to grow their aud.

Paul Levitz, president and publisher of AOL Time Warner-owned DC Comics, says comicbooks have more competition than ever before. “The cultural territory that comics explore has become more and more part of the wider culture in the last five or seven years. That is both a blessing because we have a lot of opportunity in other media and it’s a little bit of a challenge because there’s a lot of ways people are exploring it.”

Levitz says the most important changes in the business have been the adoption of the book format, new distribution channels such as bookstores and a level of creative opportunity unprecedented in American comics. The book format is especially well suited to DC’s 10-year-old Vertigo imprint, whose readership likes the edgy, more adult-oriented series like “Sandman,” “Preacher” or “100 Bullets” but don’t want to have to collect back issues to read the story.

“The difference is between the intense and the casual reader,” says Levitz. “The graphic novel has created an environment where we’re starting to have a casual customer base which is potentially much larger and is satisfied differently .”

Success for direct-market leader Marvel is determined by how well it pleases the large fan base for its superheroes. “If we do a good to great product about Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, we’ll sell substantially higher numbers than we would comics about any other superheroes,” says Bill Jemas, chief operating officer of Marvel.

He says the company wants to diversify beyond traditional superheroes, but getting the hard-core audience to go along with it requires a bit of PR savvy.

Case in point is a new romance comic about teen pregnancy called Trouble, designed to look like and eventually be sold as a book in the teen girls section of bookstores. But the superhero fans also are buzzing about Marvel’s implication that the child conceived in the story is Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man.

The company also has effectively publicized some of its more outrageous stories in the mainstream press, even earning response of disgust from Buckingham Palace for resurrecting Princess Diana in a satirical X-Men spinoff, X-Statix.

Marvel also is seeing growth in bookstores, especially with Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men. The company has been taking advantage of studios’ movie tie-in merchandising to sell the comics that spawned its movie hits. Jemas says they’ve learned the books must reflect what people see in the movie and tell a good story on their own to be successful, a lesson they learned when the first “X-Men” movie failed to boost sales at all in 2000.

“Every time a movie comes out and you have an event, it’s like, ‘Seize the moment!'” says Avi Arad, CEO of Marvel Studios, the company’s Hollywood arm. “That’s how this comicbook business will grow.”

Most smaller publishers are more interested in the long shelf life and higher price point offered by book editions, though most still publish their material as periodical comics first. They also depend heavily on about 600 superstores that sell the vast majority of nonsuperhero comics in the direct market.

For these publishers, the growth in the book trade is especially encouraging because bookstores don’t have the built-in bias toward superheroes that specialty shops do.

Florida-based CrossGen comics has made particular efforts to operate in a new way and lure back the kid audience. Its trade paperbacks have made inroads not just in bookstores, but in schools where they are being sold by Scholastic and on the Web, where $2 a month lets you read every book the company’s produced in multiple languages with sound and voices. The company also is betting comics on DVD will sell in electronics stores and let kids read comics on their PlayStation 2s.

“We want to be able to deliver the product in any format the viewer wants to view it in,” says CrossGen president-CEO Mark Alessi.

The growth in the bookstore trade also has the potential to revitalize the direct market. DC’s Levitz says the readers turned on to comics they find in bookstores will be drawn to the deeper selection and more diverse material that specialty outlets offer.

Gareb Shamus, chairman of comics news magazine publisher Wizard Entertainment, says with more stores expanding beyond comics to toys and games, the direct market will always offer unusual items that don’t make the shelves at Wal-Mart or Target.

“They’re always going to be on the forefront of the next big thing,” Shamus says.

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