Comic Books Fight a New Arch Villain: The Economy

Superman and Spider-Man have not shown any signs of weakness - yet. But they are facing one of the biggest foes in their comic books histories: a bad economy.

"We are seeing a little bit of a backlash to the bad economy," says Dave Allread, owner of Heroes Comics. "We will know a little better in a few months whether a person who was buying eight to 10 comics each week drops down to five or six."

Roy Gallagher, owner of Visalia's Collectors Choice, has seen a small dip as sales are down about 4-5% from a year ago.

One reason for concern is the rising price of comic books. The average price of a comic book is $2.99. But Marvel Comics, the publishing company behind such costumed comic characters as Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man, will raise the price of six of its monthly titles to $3.99. That is an increase in the price of 33%.

No such price increases have been announced at DC Comics for its main line of comic books, such as those featuring Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman.

Top Cow Productions, the comic book company that produces such titles as Witchblade and The Darkness, has a plan it hopes will lure comic book readers to their titles.

"I think almost all comic publishers are looking at how we can bring new readers in" says Filip Sablik, publisher of Top Cow Productions Inc. during a telephone interview from the company's Los Angeles office. First, the company plans to give away thousands of comic books for free over the course of the year at participating retailers in the U.S. and Canada.

Each month, 25 stores in both countries will get 200 free comics. Comic book readers locally should be able to take advantage of the free offer in the next few months.

These free comics will not be special slimmed-down versions of their regular line. Sablik says consumers will be able to pick up free copies of the same editions of its comic books Witchblade and The Darkness that also will be sold to consumers.

Top Cow also plans to keep the price of its regular-size books at $2.99 in 2009.

"We looked around and saw a number of companies were raising prices and taking steps obviously to safeguard against a recession. We hope this will be an opportunity for readers to branch out and try new stuff," Sablik says.

Allread applauds the moves by Top Cow. But he remains skeptical about persuading comic buyers to leave longtime favorites such as Batman or the Fantastic Four that they have been buying for years just to buy a different title.

"We understand we are fighting against inertia. Comic readers tend to be creatures of habit. It is going to be hard to sell to a guy who has been collecting Spider-Man that maybe he would enjoy this [other comic] more. That's one of the main reasons for doing this. It is a calculated risk," Sablik says.

Other efforts to keep consumers happy are to get comic books out on schedule. Allread says it is frustrating for some readers to start a six-part series and after only two monthly editions, face a three- or four-month gap for the rest of the series.

And it is not just short series that get delayed. Main titles also fall behind.

Giving away comics, holding the price levels and better delivery schedules are necessary moves to help foster the next wave of comic book fans. Children younger than 8 are reading comics because their parents are buying the books. Parents will often bring their children into the store and introduce them to comic book reading.

Gallagher says most of his comic book shoppers are those who have been collecting for years. But he and other retailers see a big gap of buyers among the ages of 8-15 because they are playing video games or are using on their computers.

Artist Dave Gibbons has seen the comic book world change dramatically during his 35 years in the business. The British artist, who has worked as an illustrator on comic books from "Green Lantern" to "Captain America Lives Again," is best known for his work for the much-heralded "Watchmen" series.

During an interview to talk about the film version of the comic book series that is scheduled to come to theaters March 6, Gibbons talked about what he sees as the future for comic books.

"I saw the other day there were going to be $4 comics. That is a lot of money for a person who buys 10 titles a week," Gibbons says.

"What I think is going to happen is that comic readers will buy the first book in a series. Then, if they like it, they will wait until all of the books in the series are combined into a graphic novel."

Graphic novels generally are bound collections of an entire comic book series, such as "Watchmen." There were only 12 comics released in that series. Or they are collections of certain story lines or years of a publication. The idea behind graphic novels is that they are a way for readers to get caught up on a comic book if they missed any or all of the individual comics. They are often cheaper than the cost of buying each individual comic book in the series.

Gibbons is certain there will always be a place for graphic novels even if the traditional comic book format goes away.

He believes there is a real probability that a day will come when new comic books first will be released only in an online version. Then, a bound copy of the series would be released as a graphic novel.

"There will always be people who want to hold something when they read it," Gibbons says.

The question will be how many different comic book titles will consumers want to hold as prices rise and the economy slumps like Superman after a Kryptonite cocktail.

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