The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Here's how comics can compete with movies and video games

August 3, 2000
By Franklin Harris

Including sales tax, the typical comic book costs more than $3. For your money, you get about 32 pages of words and pictures, including advertisements. That's enough to keep the average reader entertained for about 15 minutes.

For the same money, you can rent a two-hour movie from the corner video store. It can be a big-budget summer blockbuster or an Academy Award winner, whichever you prefer.

The same money will also get you a video-game rental and hours of action-packed diversion.

And people wonder why the comic-book industry has fallen on hard times?

Compared to other forms of entertainment, comics are a bad buy. Unless you really like comics -- or you like some genre of fiction comics specialize in, like superheroes -- you're not going to go to the trouble and expense to read them.

This isn't a matter of quality; it's just a matter of more entertainment options competing for the same number of dollars. Yes, there are lots of bad comic books out there, but most comics have always been bad. Similarly, most movies and video games are bad. It's Sturgeon's Law, as coined by science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: "90 percent of everything is crap."

Actually, you can make a good argument that comics are better today, in terms of quality, than at any other time except for the mid '80s, when writer Alan Moore and writer/artist Frank Miller -- not to mention a host of independent writers and artists -- redefined comic books as a medium capable of serious artistic output.

But this leads to the other problem the comic-book industry faces.

Say someone tells me that the new Anne Rice novel is great -- unlikely, but assume it's true for the sake of argument -- and that I simply must read it. Well, that's no problem. I just go to any bookstore and pick up a copy.

On the other hand, let's suppose that someone tells me that David Mack's writing on the "Daredevil" comic book is even better than Kevin Smith's and that I simply must read it.

Now I have a problem. Assuming I can track down the latest issue of "Daredevil" -- a tough enough task given the low print runs of most comics these days -- I may have to scour the back-issue bins at three or four comic-book shops before I can find the other two or three issues I've missed.

Comic books are here today and gone tomorrow, and that may be a good thing for collectors, but it's a rotten thing for readers.

Imagine if the Harry Potter books were published that way. They never would have become bestsellers because the first novel's minuscule first printing would have prevented most people from discovering it.

Fortunately, most comic-book publishers are coming to realize that comics need not come packaged as flimsy mini-magazines that go out of print as soon as they hit the newsstands. There are more economical and more permanent ways to publish comics.

For instance, all 75 issues of "The Sandman," written by World Fantasy Award-winning author Neil Gaiman, are collected and in print as a collection of 10 attractively packaged trade paperbacks. The collections are available in most all bookstores.

The same can also be said of such seminal comic-book works as Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Moore and Dave Gibbon's "Watchmen."

What all those collections have in common is that DC Comics published them. DC's rival, Marvel Comics, hasn't had quite as good a record of keeping its classic stories in print.

Marvel recently published a collection of Jim Steranko's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." stories, but the collection's print run was so pitifully low that it sold out immediately. A second printing won't be available until October.

Of course, that's not to say that DC hasn't had the occasional oversight, too. It's only this month, after all, that DC's Vertigo imprint put the first few issues of Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing" back into print. A second volume is scheduled for release next week.

Stan Lee
Stan Lee
There are lots of people with lots of ideas for saving the comic-book industry. The latest idea is Web comics, with former Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee leading the way with his StanLee.net Web site.

Of course, why people are going to want to read still comics on the Internet when they'll soon be able to watch full animation on the 'net instead is beyond me.

No, the best way to save comics is to forget the magazine model of comics publishing and treat comic books like all the other books on the shelves.

When "Batman" comics are published every few months instead of monthly and are shelved with the science fiction novels instead of with the role-playing-game rulebooks, comics will have a chance at competing with all the other ways we have to spend our time.

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