The costumed superheroes who have invaded Hollywood are doing more than dominating your local multiplex. For Dallas-area comic book retailers, they're creating a mean, green, incredible bulk of sales. The comic book industry is exploding, partly because of the success of feature films such as Spider-Man, last year's biggest moneymaker; the X-Men series that began in 2000; this month's debut of Hulk; and even the TV show Smallville, the story of Superman when he was a teen, which is the WB's second-highest rated series.
"We saw a spike in sales with Spider-man stuff, and new people are coming in every day," said Karl Lake, 24, manager of the Lone Star Comics shop in Plano. The comics' box office performance has translated into an expected 31 percent jump in comic book sales in the last two years, industry experts say.
"We are really seeing the power of the comic genre," said Bill Jemas, 45, chief operating officer of Marvel Enterprises Inc., which publishes the Spidey, X-Men and Hulk titles. Last year, North American comic book sales reached $300 million, up from $260 million in 2001, according to the trade magazine Comics & Game Retailer. Sales this year are expected to reach $340 million, industry experts say.
That's a super-powered performance compared with the performance of the publishing industry as a whole.
Book sales - which, with $26.8 billion in sales last year, dwarf the comics' results - have been stagnant for several years, up 5.5 percent last year and a paltry 0.6 percent in 2001.
This year might be better for bookstores, with Harry Potter and Hillary Clinton setting records and the revived sales power of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. But even they might not be able to keep pace with the comic book boom.
The reason is popular culture, said John Jackson Miller, editorial director for the comics and games division of Krause Publications Inc., a Wisconsin-based publisher of hobby magazines.
"The movies are helping," he said.
Fans young and old are drawn to both the special effects in the superhero films and story lines where even guys who can crawl up walls or sprout adamantium claws still can't get the girl. "Kids don't identify with cowboys anymore," said Buddy Saunders, owner of the Arlington-based Lone Star Comics chain. "But it's easy for kids to identify with superheroes."
Twelve-year-old James Enochs of Richardson already has his favorites. "Archie and Jughead. That's what I like," said James, who visited Lone Star Comics in Plano on Wednesday with his parents and younger brother. "I've seen the Spider-Man movie. I haven't seen the Hulk yet, but I want too."
James' fascination with comics started after the family saw Spider-Man last year. It was his father, Wes, who suggested that James would like the more humorous Archie and Jughead characters. "We just get him to read the fun stuff, nothing too graphic or complicated," said Mr. Enochs, 45. "When he gets older and if he continues to like comic books, he may become more interested."
The superhero boom is reviving a genre, as all-American as they come, that had been in a slump since 1993. Sales that year totaled $850 million, but every year between 1994 and 2001 saw multimillion-dollar drops.
Analysts say it was greed that almost bought down the comics industry. Beginning the in the early 1990s, comics companies realized they could make a hefty profit off collectors. So they started producing double and triple prints of the same comic book, each with a different cover. They ended up flooding the market and disappointing collectors who stopped buying when they didn't get the huge returns they expected.
"A lot of people will blame video games for the reason why kids stopped reading comics," said David Jay Gabriel, executive director of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "I don't believe that. Our own industry is at fault."
Marvel was even forced into bankruptcy in December 1996. When it emerged two years later, the company's new leaders decided they would mortgage Marvel's future on movies, television shows and toys.
Today, the New York-based company sits atop the comic kingdom with 34.7 percent of the industry's market share. DC Comics, a cog in the AOL-Time Warner machine, follows with 29.2 percent.
The comic book resurgence was ushered in by the first X-Men movie, which brought in more than $150 million at the U.S. box office in 2000. Some experts thought that was a fluke, but Spider-Man proved them wrong two years later when it spun $404 million in ticket sales.
Keith Colvin, owner of Keith's Comics in Dallas and Atomic Age Comics in Carrollton, said Spider-Man inspired many lapsed customers to start reading comics again.
"We've had our ups and downs for the last 14 years," Mr. Colvin said. "For us, it's a solid business."
And a steady diet of superhero films - at least nine between now and 2005 - over the next several years are expected to keep the customers coming in.
The next is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Sean Connery flick based on the America's Best Comics title. It hits theaters July 11.
Marvel is teaming with a variety of studios to release Spider-Man 2 in July 2004, Blade 3 and The Punisher in 2004, plus moves based on the Fantastic Four and Iron Fist.
DC Comics is also getting back into the movie-making action with Catwoman and Constantine in 2004 and Batman: Year One the year after that.
The cliffhanger question is: Can the superheroes keep the interest of their fans and lure in new ones - young and old.
Jeremy Shorr, owner of Titan Comics in Dallas, fears another comics industry bubble.
"So far this year the numbers have been pretty solid," said Mr. Shorr, who said sales are up about 15 percent from last year. "I'm always cautiously optimistic."Advances in computer generated imagery - the technology that creates all those neat special effects - is benefiting the box office but is threatening the industry.
"Twenty years ago, you didn't have game boys, you didn't have play stations, you didn't have PCs. What you had was the comic book," Mr. Shorr said. "Now a these days comic books have a lot compete with."
Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics, also said it's harder for kids to get their hands on a comic book.
"Today, there isn't a retail store that is convenient for an 8-year-old to walk to," said Mr. Levitz, 46. "We're trying our best to change that."
- Ieva Augstums