The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday December 8th

Local Retailers, Creators Survive In Weak Industry

Mike Weiringo makes a living penciling superhero comics since his creator-owned adventure series, "Tellos," had to fold.

The phrase is so well-known that marketers for an anthology of child-friendly comics once twisted it, stating "comics aren't just for grown-ups anymore."

So it might seem comics are for everyone, young and old alike. Sales figures suggest otherwise. Traditional comics like "Spider-Man" and "Batman" sell fewer copies today than they have in decades. In 1993, total sales of all comics reached $800 million -- that figure had dropped to $250 million six years later.

Comics' visibility continues to shrink, too. As grocery stores and newsstands make room for more profitable products, monthly issues increasingly find space only in specialty shops. Individual comic books sell fewer copies now than 10 years ago, and a smaller number of different titles are published, said Andrew Neal, manager of Second Foundation Bookstore at 136 E. Rosemary St.

"We used to have an ad in the phone book saying there were 500 titles published per month, and now it's something like 250 to 300. And that just means we got at least one copy," he said.

He added the current state of the market makes many artists reluctant to devote their efforts to comics. "I think it's a lot more widely known, even by artists who don't normally know such things, that they're not going to make any money doing comics," Neal said.

The format comics are published in is changing as well. Many now reach stores as graphic novels, which are longer than a regular comic's 24 pages and are bound as books rather than stapled. The changes are more than cosmetic. Since "MAUS," a pioneering graphic novel that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, some comics have earned literary credibility.

Chapel Hill-based painter and writer George Pratt has worked on familiar superhero characters, including Batman and Wolverine. His graphic novel about a World War I pilot, "Enemy Ace," was nominated for industry awards and has been studied as literature at West Point Academy.

The art form has a great attraction for Pratt. "Comics is a really great art form, and it can express so many things that the other media really can't in such a personal way," he said.

The mature approach of many graphic novels gains the support of established publishers like Pantheon Books, which placed "MAUS" and other comics in regular bookstores.

"Graphic novels sell disproportionately well in bookstores," Neal said. "Something like `Ghost World' -- that's not your normal thing, that's been embraced by Time magazine or whatever -- I hate to say it, because we want people to buy it here instead, but being able to get something like that in bookstores helps the whole market."

Comics have expanded their range even as superhero books have lost ground. Now, graphic novels cover all the subject matter of any other artistic medium -- romance, comedy, horror, biography, even treatises on art theory. "There's probably a comic out there for everyone," Neal said. "But not everyone's coming into the store."

This uninviting market has affected the endeavors of local talent. Hillsborough artist Mike Weiringo currently pencils the art for DC Comics' monthly title "Adventures of Superman." Prior to that, he had worked on "Tellos," an independently published fantasy adventure book he helped create.

That comic was a labor of love for Weiringo and writer Todd Dezago. Its first publisher, a small company called Gorilla Comics, folded in March. All 10 issues of "Tellos" were produced at the creators' risk, meaning if the issue didn't sell well enough, the talent could owe the publisher money.

When issues eight and nine lost money, the creators realized they couldn't keep publishing "Tellos" indefinitely. "We love comics, but we're not great businessmen," Dezago said. "It's so liberating and free to go in your own direction, but we're still trying to figure out the business end of it."

Though he said he hopes to return someday to "Tellos," Weiringo said the poor state of the comics industry makes self-publishing too risky. "I didn't want to get into comics to be a hard-core superhero penciler-for-hire. I wanted to have an independent comic that would have a small but loyal following. And that's what I wanted `Tellos' to be," he said.

Compared with many other artists, Pratt hasn't been hurt too badly by the industry's woes as his income doesn't rely solely on comics. Pratt's work has graced covers of books by major authors, such as Harry Turtledove and Joe Landsdale, and he's currently teaching a 10-week seminar on comic books in Savannah, Ga.

"I get paid pretty well for what I do, and if I worked a little faster I could make pretty good dough," Pratt said. "But I have a little boy and I'm looking a lot more toward security now."

Pratt said the current slump is largely a result of the early 1990s collectors' market, which foisted poor product on fans who paid in hopes of making a buck or keeping their collections complete. He said he believes the industry will rebound.

"It comes in cycles. It always did this. Maybe it didn't dip so steeply as it did this time, but that was also a crazy time. People were throwing a lot of money at a lot of crap."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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