"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 July 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Ink Blot


[zzzzz ... up ... up, and zzzzz ... way

The most compelling serial in

American comic books right now

is the industry's attempt to

save itself from its ongoing

crash and burn. The villains are

the overgrown fanboys who've

poisoned the industry by

pandering to their own

nostalgia. And the heroes? Well,

we're all punching our signal

watches and hoping Licensing Man

shows up in time.


Starting around the time that the

1989 Batman movie was scoring

unholy Bat-merchandising dollars,

the big comics companies were

realizing there was a lot more money

to be made in licensed merchandise

than in little colored

pamphlets. The flashiest comics

byproduct this year is the newly

opened Marvel Super Hero Island

at Universal Studios' massive

theme park in Orlando. Although

Marvel Comics itself doesn't

seem to have come to grips with

the park yet, "The Amazing

Adventures of Spider-Man," its

central attraction, is the most

expensive haunted house ever

built. It's rumored to cost

US$200 million. Just for

reference, that's about 100

times the total cover price of

every copy of every issue of The

Amazing Spider-Man sold in a

year. The ride is surrounded by

the Incredible Hulk Coaster,

Kingpin's Arcade, and the

Captain America Diner —

though maybe the Submariner

would be a bit more relevant to

Marvel's business position.


At the same time, the goofiest

character of all is trying to

leverage whatever's left of his

own brand identity. Marvel has

spent the last 20 years trying

to find a job for company


wannabe Stan Lee where he can do

as little damage as possible.

Packing him off to the West

Coast doesn't seem to have done

much good. So now the Smilin'

One has opened a dot-com of his

own — that "Hello,

Capitalists!" on the front page

is mighty wishful — to

market some new long underwear

types that he owns the rights to

himself. This is roughly the

equivalent of Dave Thomas

starting a new burger chain.


But the old guard of comics is

getting in on the iconic-synergy

thing a little late in the day.

Twenty or 30 years ago,

superheroes' appeal extended

beyond the comic-book cult. As

far as the outside world was

concerned, they were kitsch

icons, with amusing pretensions

to pop art and a huge,

internally generated mythology.

Now they're nostalgia items at

best — think Hard Rock Cafe

without the tunes — and

their cachet is fading like the

Invisible Woman. Everyone has

some vague sense of who Superman

and Batman are, and the fabulous

New Batman/Superman Adventures

has actually caught on (though

the WB recently downsized the

offering into the more

core-competent Batman Beyond).

But the slow sales slide that's

been occurring since World War II

has turned into a plummet: It's

a dead bird! It's a flaming plane!


[No, no, they're not tights, they're

In the '80s, a big hit in the

comics world meant monthly sales

of 500,000 copies. A series that

sold less than 100,000 was due

to be eaten by Galactus. These

days, only two titles (Uncanny

X-Men and X-Men) regularly beat

the 100-grand mark. The sales

cutoff point for canceling a

series is between 12,000 and

35,000, and a few series might

as well be published on the

office copy machine. The

independent publishers of 10

years ago have all collapsed,

and prestige central

Fantagraphics is kept afloat by

its porno line. Writers have

been advised to construct their

monthly titles with trade

paperback collections in mind,

since those are the only print

products that actually break

even. In short: Nobody cares.


Let's recap how our heroes got

into this pickle: American

comics' main means of

perpetuating their market used

to be grabbing hold of kids'

imaginations in the few years

after they learned to read and

before their attention turned to

sex, cars, and crystal meth.

Back in the '80s, though, the

big companies, flush with

unearned sales success, began

selling comics through specialty

stores rather than through

magazine distributors that

accepted returns and served

newsstands. By the end of the

decade, they were marketing

themselves to older speculators

rather than younger readers,

with tricks like multiple covers

and issues that came in sealed

bags along with ridiculous publicity

gimmicks — anybody remember

the death of Superman? And it

worked for a while: This,

remember, was when people

thought that the endlessly

licensed, one-giggle joke

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

were a good idea. For the first

time in 40 years, there were

print runs of more than a

million copies. When Marvel

Comics had its IPO, you almost

believed a dubious business

enterprise could fly.


Well, Superman's a mean drunk.

There weren't more readers

coming in; they were just buying

multiple copies of everything.

Sometime around 1992, even the

dumber speculators realized that

if there were maybe a million

comic collectors in America and

10 million copies of X-Men #1 to

go around, they weren't going to

get rich on their stashes no

matter how carefully they

double-bagged them, which is

why you can now find most of the

"collectible" comics from 10

years ago selling for 50 cents,

negotiable, on pretty much any

street corner.


[Mary Jane Watson or Lois Lane?]

Meanwhile, the big-name artists

who fueled the speculator boom

realized that work-made-for-hire

agreements (which forced them to

forfeit all rights to their

work) were a mug's game. They

took a cue from United Artists

and started their own company,

Image, which instantly

splintered into vanity factions

and factory-style hack work that

was even worse than what they'd

left behind. They also realized

that they, too, could make a lot

more from licensing action

figures, videogames, and bug

juice than from the actual color

leaflets, and they promptly farmed

them out to inept assistants.

These days, Spawn creator Todd

McFarlane, once the biggest star

of the bunch, spends his time

buying overpriced sports

memorabilia and selling Ozzy dolls.


The problem is that the industry

is run by people who actually

care about nothing other than

whether the Hulk or the Thing

is stronger: They're overgrown,

myopic fanboys, who have no

interest in selling comics to

anyone but other fanboys.

Emphasis on boys. The only women

in sight are headed for some

serious back problems. Marvel's

annual business plan a few years

ago had a very short section

headlined "Female Readers," with

a picture of two young women

reading a comic book (in the

likely event that comics store

owners had never seen a woman

before) and descriptions of its

two series aimed at girls:

Barbie and Barbie Fashion. One

company's high muck-a-muck

recently eighty-sixed plans for

a couple of new titles: Who's

gonna read these? Nobody

but teenage girls!


What's left of the American

comics business, then, is almost

entirely a superhero nostalgia

act, tugging up its sagging

Underoos and trying to suck its

gut in. Imagine if the only

shows on TV were Westerns

because network executives liked

them and insisted that nobody

would watch if they programmed

anything else, and you'll get

the idea. Anything that sells is

run into the ground (there are

roughly a dozen Superman-related

titles per month now), and it's

all aimed at two specific kinds

of reader: 13-year-old boys who

need their Oedipal conflicts

spelled out for them and older

guys who like to reminisce about

the days when comics did the

same thing for 12 cents instead

of two-and-a-half bucks. Of

course, the new generation of

13-year-olds has Final Fantasy

VIII to work out its issues, and

every time the business comes up

with some huge event to spark

interest — rebooting the

moribund Spider-Man franchise

into something even duller: X-Men

crossovers that a physicist

couldn't keep track of — its

fans check their watches and

start edging toward the door.


[Reed Richards,  My Life as a Porn Star

The comics industry is hot for

movie tie-ins and licensed

properties not just for the sake

of money but because they're

pretty much the only hope for

selling actual paper-and-ink

funny books these days. But the

only drunk meaner than Superman

is Hollywood, as anyone who's

experienced the not-

even-direct-to-video Fantastic

Four movie can tell you. If

American comics are hoping to

reclaim their glory days,

they'd better have a hell of a

lot of Hostess Fruit Pies.

courtesy of The Cloud of Unknowing

[Purchase the Suck Book here]