On the eve of the U.S.'s largest comic festival, with some 50,000 fans and industry types set to descend on San Diego for Comic-Con International this coming weekend, the L.A. Times published a lengthy feature article by Glenn Gaslin; appropriately for tinseltown, the theme was that comic books may now rule on the screen, but in printed form they're in danger of disappearing.  While the dichotomy between the increasingly torrid love affair between Hollywood and comics-based material on the one hand and the declining circulations of periodical comics on the other makes a strong thematic statement, it ignores the recent signs of life at industry leader Marvel and the increasing prevalence and importance of trade paperback collections, of which DC and Dark Horse are the largest publishers.  It is as if someone analyzed the last few years of Hollywood box office numbers and said that movies were in decline because the number of admissions is going down each year (it is -- the decline is masked by higher admission prices), while ignoring the tremendous growth in video and DVD sales and rental, which now cumulatively dwarf box office totals.


The L.A. Times article is correct in noting the growing influence of comics in other forms of popular culture, especially in the movies where the Spider-Man movie will 'surely (be) one of the big movies of 2002,' where superstar director Ang Lee is preparing an Incredible Hulk film, where the Daniel Clowes/Terry Zwigoff Ghost World movie is likely to be the arthouse hit of this summer season, and where cutting edge director Darren Aronofsky and 'comics god' Frank Miller are preparing to revitalize the Batman franchise.  Lowly comic books have even worked their magic on the literary world with Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (a novel that evokes the yeasty, pioneering days of comic books, but is not merely, as the Times suggests, 'a thinly veiled story about the guys who created Superman') winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature.  


The Times article is also right in noting that comics suffer from the public perception that these so-called 'funny books' are just for children. But the argument expressed in the article that comic publishers sabotaged themselves by pulling out of the newsstand market in the 1970s to exploit the higher profit, non-returnable direct market is ludicrous to anyone who really remembers what was happening in the 1970s, when magazine wholesalers generally had little interest in comics.  That lack of interest led to distribution practices like strapping bundles of comics without boxes to save money (effectively ruining about half the copies), waiting for the third issue of a new series before distributing it to make sure it wasn't a flash in the pan, taking credit for 'affadavit' returns from the publisher and then selling the same comics out the back door, or just forgetting to distribute issues from time to time because it was too much trouble.  Needless to say, comics were viewed as poor performers on the newsstand in that period. 


Equally wrongheaded, and insulting to boot, is the statement that comics have 'turned into specialty items sold in persnickety little shops, located one per town, and sold only to those who know the secret word.' Finally the article's conclusion, which appears to indicate that comics will morph into higher priced magazines, ignores the continuing downturn in the magazine market.  The format of American comics may indeed be changing slowly, but if so, it is in the direction of trade paperbacks rather than magazines.


Had 'The Disappearing Comic Book' been written for last year's Comic-Con it would have been harder to disagree with its conclusions.  But we have seen a definite up-tick in top comic sales in recent months, and we have also seen a changing attitude toward comic books within the literary establishment and increasing acceptance of comic material in mainstream bookstores.  It is unlikely that comics will become a mass medium again like they were in the 1940s, or that we will see another speculative boom like we experienced in the early 1990s, but it's way too early to write any obituaries of this 'creaky old medium,' especially when there are more different types of comics of higher quality published today than at any time since the 1940s.  As Marvel's editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, the only industry voice quoted in the article who actually defended the medium, said: '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.  I guarantee you that we do better.'