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The Disappearing Comic Book

Superheroes reign on screen, but in print they face a mighty foe: apathy.

July 17, 2001|GLENN GASLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe once a week, a man who has never before set foot inside Ground Zero Cards Comics & Computers in Lancaster, Calif., steps into the shop way out near the edge of the desert, away from everything. This man wants to look at the comic books. He didn't know they were here, that this place was here, so far out of the way, and that these stacks of "Sandman" back issues and this new Spider-Man series, that all of this was here. He didn't know.

"Last year, a few guys came in looking for 'X-Men,' but they weren't going crazy for it," says shop owner Gary Haviland, frustrated, melancholy. "As a matter of fact, I'm getting out of comics. They don't sell." He's going to concentrate on card and computer games--things his regulars want to play, things they don't have to go out of their way to find.

Which is amazing.

Which is astounding and uncanny and weird, really, that an art form as seemingly common and universal as comic books should remain so obscure, so out of the way, especially at a time when big-money media want nothing more than to don red tights and fight crime. Comic books, or at least the idea of comic books, couldn't be more in demand, with Hollywood, literature and even journalism evoking the aesthetic of stories told with sequential pictures and voice bubbles. This is the year that Tobey Maguire climbs walls while filming "Spider-Man," surely one of the big movies of 2002.

This is the year director Ang Lee announces he'll follow up "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with his take on "The Incredible Hulk." This is the year novelist Michael Chabon wins the Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," a thinly veiled story about the guys who created Superman. This, too, is the year the Man of Steel gets another prime-time TV show ("Smallville," on the WB) and "Requiem for a Dream" director Darren Aronofsky teams with comics god Frank Miller to cook up the next big Batman film.

And this, now, is the week when roughly 50,000 people will cluster in San Diego for Comic-Con International, the country's largest comics convention, the Academy Awards of geek-culture gatherings. The show may draw hordes, but it, too, has shifted focus, now a multimedia bazaar of sci-fi movies, action figures and 'zines. And with comic book circulation a fraction of what it was a decade ago, few outside the convention center will notice that the stories, artwork and even quality of the paper may be better than ever.

"OK, go see 20 movies and tell me how many of those are good, and then go read 20 comic books and tell me how many of those are good," dares Joe Quesada, the recently installed editor in chief of Marvel Comics, the financially troubled industry leader. "I guarantee you that we do better."

A Victim of the Public's Misconceptions

Why, then, in the face of such interest and quality, don't more people read the Great American Comic Book?

Those close to the issue can only guess: The distribution network is flawed, the story lines are too muddled, the medium creaks with age, and on and on. A common idea comes from director Kevin Smith, perhaps the medium's most visible, vocal proponent. He owns a comics shop, writes superhero stories for Marvel and DC and casts Ben Affleck as a comics artist. He tells me that most folks think comics are kids' stuff, bad guys versus good guys, tights and capes.

"But there's plenty of comics that don't have people in costumes, no superhero," he says from the set of his new film, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," about drug dealers who become the subject of a comic book, which then becomes a mega-budget movie. "A lot of what people call underground comics or indie comics aren't either underground or indie. They're just stories that have nothing to do with traditional comic book stories."

Take, for example, "Ghost World." Written and drawn by Oakland's Daniel Clowes (best known for the occasionally published, usually brilliant comic "Eightball"), the 80-page graphic novel tells of two girls facing life after high school. It's funny and true and ironic, and it, too, will be a movie this summer, directed by Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb") and starring Thora Birch ("American Beauty"). And anyone who still thinks comics are for kids hasn't read "Preacher," the bloody tale of a small-town minister who's half-demon, half-angel and hunting down God, or "Transmetropolitan," about a very grumpy newspaper columnist in a nightmarish, right-around-the-corner future.

Both are published by an imprint of DC Comics called Vertigo, both are evocative and eloquent, both are closer to R than PG-13. Marvel plans to launch its own grown-up imprint called MAX, and even the old-school superheroes have become more mature and engaging, as seen in Grant Morrison's recent take on "The Uncanny X-Men" or Smith's "Green Arrow." The average reader, a 12-year-old in the '50s and a 20-year-old in the early '90s, is now 25.

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