ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF
Mike Reed (left) and Paul Bryant opened JP Comics and Games earlier this year at a time when many other business were closing their doors. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff
All new adventures!
The publishing industry is in a freefall, but comic books are doing fine. You may not recognize them, however.
T wenty years ago Mike Reed was a Florida middle-schooler in thrall to Batman. Today he is a Jamaica Plain husband in thrall to Batman, and the proud co-owner of JP Comics and Games. He and Paul Bryant, a Spider-man devotee, dreamed up the idea in April and opened their doors four months later, during a summer more notable for closings than openings.
They couldn’t find a single financial backer willing to risk a penny on a comic book store, but the pair knows something about their kind: namely, that comic book fans, who number more adults than kids these days, are serious about their reading material. Look no further than the man who posted a comment on the store’s Facebook page praising the recommendations of the “in-house sommelier.’’ Reed has faith that the business, which has seen heady peaks (hello, Stan Lee) and crushing lows (television nearly wiped it out half a century ago), is poised for another revival.
“The writing has gotten so much stronger,’’ Reed says, “and I think people really want these stories again.’’
Film studios and television executives seem to agree. Hollywood movies like “Spider-man,’’ “Iron Man,’’ “X-Men,’’ and “Hellboy,’’ have been catapulting comic book characters into the mainstream cultural consciousness, and the Disney Co. recently snapped up comics behemoth Marvel Entertainment, with its stable of more than 5,000 characters, for a cool $4 billion. This year the FX network began development on a show based on the comic series “Powers’’ and AMC acquired the rights to “The Walking Dead,’’ a monthly black-and-white comic book.
It’s hard to generalize to what extent superheroes on the screen inspire moviegoers to seek out the source material. Henry Scagnoli, co-owner of New England Comics, a chain of eight stores, says there’s always a bump when a new film hits theaters - sales of the graphic novel “Watchmen’’ exploded when the film version came out in March - but that it varies wildly in size and duration. Moreover, the vagaries of the comics business are far more complex than fallout from a film.
“Readership changes but that’s more a function of storytelling. Each comic has its own ebb and flow. It’s like a TV show: If you have poor storytelling the popularity goes down,’’ says Scagnoli, who founded New England Comics in 1983. “To stick around this long you have to ride with the flow.’’
And you have to know your neighbors. Three quarters of the inventory in Scagnoli’s suburban stores is superheroes fare; in Cambridge and Allston, stores are stocked primarily with independent comics and graphic novels, which tend to be longer, narrative works. As the artform has evolved, the range of themes, story lines, and characters has mushroomed - spanning dark, topical, and often morally ambiguous titles like “Road to Perdition’’ and time-tested, light-hearted fare like “Archie.’’ Blockbuster franchises - Spider-man and Batman - now cater to the generations with different titles, some child-friendly and some adult-themed. In the past decade the ranks of female fans have swelled, and with it the popularity of Japanese manga and DC Comics’ edgy, sophisticated Vertigo imprint, which features mystical and fantasy series in the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman’’ and Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta.’’
But according to John Jackson Miller, a longtime industry analyst who runs the website Comichron.com and is himself a comic book writer, it’s the bound volumes of collected stories, called trade paperbacks, that saved the comics industry after a deep depression in the 1990s. They can be found in mainstream bookstores and malls across the country.
“We invented a new way of selling,’’ Miller says. “It’s like a DVD release for a movie, a second life. Publishers realized that it can help finance production, and it also allows Hollywood to see reader-tested stories. We’re up right now by about 1 percent over a year ago. Almost by accident, comic books are the healthiest magazine in the industry.’’
More people are reading comics than at any time during the past two decades, yet readership is split among hard-core customers, who spend an average of $1,000 a year or more on comics, and a larger pool of casual consumers, who routinely spend only a few hundred dollars annually, says Milton Griepp, the publisher of ICV2.com, a website that covers the industry. The spread is bigger, but profits are not. And there are other challenges, especially for independent store owners. Tony Davis, owner of Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square, counts the ways in which a shifting commercial and cultural landscape is eating away at his business.
“We used to sit between Tower Records and WordsWorth Books - it was media city - and with those gone, foot traffic patterns are different,’’ Davis says. “Like any bookstore we’re facing online competition. There’s illegal downloading. And our customer base is graying. There used to be all these 12-year-old boys running around in here, and that’s a rarity now. The male adolescent fantasy has moved from comics to video games.’’
Or maybe it’s less an exodus than an embarrassment of choices. Max McGleughlin, a 14-year-old who lives in Cambridge, enjoys video and computer games, but they haven’t replaced his decade-long passion for comics. One of his favorites is “Fables,’’ a politically driven series (currently in development as an hourlong drama at ABC) that deals with characters from folklore who have been banished from their homelands and form a clandestine community in New York.
“It’s less action and fighting, but it’s really thoughtful,’’ McGleughlin says. “They act like we do. They struggle. When I was younger my mom didn’t think comics should constitute my 20 minutes of reading for school, but I felt like that was an insult to the comics. They’re well done.’’
And they are, increasingly, a prominent feature in today’s multifaceted entertainment network. Miller has been hired to write a comic book (due next year) based on the popular video game Mass Effect, and he also penned the comic book adaptation of the film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.’’ Rather than damaging the comics industry, Miller believes, cross-fertilization may be key to its survival.
“Right now comics have the respect of filmmakers and Wall Street. They’ve proven to be a creative engine. Are there limits? Yes. The niches get smaller and smaller. The audience gets chopped up into smaller pieces. So it’s difficult to predict beyond a couple of years. We always get into trouble,’’ Miller says, “but we always invent ways to get out of it. There have a been a lot of near-death experiences and dramatic escapes.’’
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.