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No One Is Laughing Now : Comic Book Sales Have Grown to Half a Billion Dollars a Year


Over here is your basic battered, 15-year-old Superman lunch box selling for $40. Plastic "Star Wars" figures that sold for $2.99 at Sears in the late '70s will run you as much as $75--if they're still in their original packages.

Elsewhere in this former furniture store in Orange, one can find plastic Ronald McDonald miniatures that the hamburger chain used to give away with its cheeseburgers. For you connoisseurs of McDonald's memorabilia--and there are evidently quite a few of them--there's a coffee table book for $24.95.

But all these trinkets are just appetizers. The main course at 21st Century Comics & Toys is the comic books--racks of them: "X-Men" and "Punisher" and "Love and Rockets" and "Death's Head" and "Super Soldiers" and the venerable "Superman" and "Batman."

Half a billion dollars' worth of comics are sold in this country every year--serious money considering most of them are sold a few at a time through little stores, most of them much smaller than 21st Century.

These shops replaced the old mom-and-pop corner stores that used to be where you splurged your allowance. (The mom-and-pops were driven out of business in the 1960s and '70s by 7-Eleven and the other convenience store chains.)

There aren't any huge comic book retail chains--yet. But that's the sort of thing that troubles the sleep of people like Barry Short, who owns 21st Century. He can remember watching Blockbuster Video and the other big chains kill off many small, independent video stores in the 1980s.

But Short's story isn't likely to go the way of those small video stores anytime soon. The store, he says, does nearly $500,000 a year in sales of games, posters, toys, books, comics--an almost unheard-of amount for what's essentially a big comic book shop.

Short, 37, grew up reading comics in Bill and Ted territory--San Dimas. After picking up a degree in communications at Whittier College, he got a job as something called an inventory auditor at 7-Eleven.

"It was a terrible job," Short says, "but I learned a lot about controlling your inventory--something that's helped me a lot here."

That's because comics publishers big and small churn out hundreds of titles a month now. Order too many copies of a dog and you're stuck with them. All this is a far cry from World War II days, when there were just "Green Lantern," "Batman" and a few other titles, and a million servicemen might read a single issue of "Superman."

Nope, comics today aren't the way you remember them if you're approaching middle age. A lot of super-heroes these days tend to have complicated personal lives and a neurosis or two that their "twentysomething" male fans can identify with. And those are the likable characters: Some of the rest are downright psychotic, like the vigilante guy the Punisher, who favors exotic, large-caliber weapons fired at close range for piling up those big body counts. (The Punisher got into this line of work after a street gang killed his family.)

The prices are different, too. Ten years ago, when the comics business was just getting revved up again--it was less than half the size it is now--the gaudy little books cost 75 cents or a dollar. Now the cheapest is $1.25, and many routinely top three bucks.

That's good news for people like Short, because it costs the average shop only about 75 cents to buy a comic that sells for $1.25. That's a nice markup, even considering the rent, salary for the help and other costs of doing business.

Short bought this store in 1986, when it was a teensy place just off the little traffic circle that is downtown Orange's best-known landmark. Not long ago, he took a plunge and moved to this bigger building (with four times the rent of the old place) in a funky neighborhood of muffler shops and Mexican restaurants a few blocks from the circle.

Luckily, his customers seem to have moved with him, including the ones other customers call "the junior stockbrokers." Those are the "twentysomethings" who have been buying up fairly recent back issues of comic books like "Youngbloods," yet another batch of super-heroes, or the "Ren and Stimpy" comic book based on the animated TV show. The idea is to drive the price up and then make a killing, just like on Wall Street.

Yes, there are speculators--albeit mostly on a penny-ante scale--even in comic books. Another mag that draws the junior stockbrokers is "X-Men," a comic started in the '60s about a group of mutants with superpowers; it's probably the shop's single best-selling title year in and year out.

What really sells comic books, though, is bumping off a character like Superman, who got greased last fall. "I ordered 10 times the usual 60 books," Short says wistfully, thinking of all those people lined up right out the door. "I could have sold 6,000."

Now, he says, the publisher plans to resuscitate Superman with not one but four characters, each claiming to be the Man of Steel.

"There must be a Superman," says Short, ringing up a couple of comics for a customer. Is that because Superman is a figure of mythic proportions that millions of us have grown up with? Well, sure, says Short, the comic book fancier.

"Plus," says Short, the businessman, "he's an extremely valuable licensed commodity."

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