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During World War II Superman regularly outsold Time magazine. Today New X-Men barely has half the circulation of Horse Illustrated.

And that's a damn shame. Especially since there are more good comics being produced right now than at any other time in the history of the medium. Not to mention the fact that the comic industry's "Q" rating is at its highest level in a decade thanks to mainstream media crossover successes like the Spider-Man movie and Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Yet comics remain the red-headed stepchild of pop culture and sales, while improving, are still marginal at best.

What can comic companies do to rectify this gross injustice? First, they can get comics out of the direct market ghetto and back into mass market venues. Then they can finally offer a viable alternative to the flimsy and overpriced monthly pamphlet.

Thanks to The Simpsons, the general public's perception of comic book stores is largely negative. Though to be honest, the Comic Book Guy is a fairly accurate (if much more erudite) representation of a large percentage of comic shop owners. The stores guys like these run - dirty, cramped and inhospitable to women and children customers - are an impassible barrier to most fair-weather comic fans. But even the comic stores that do everything right are facing the prospect of ever-dwindling sales.

Why? Because comic stores, like all specialty shops, require a motivated customer base. The customer has to want to buy a comic before he ever steps foot in the store. There is no such thing as the casual comic book store customer. The general public simply has no reason to go inside a comic store - especially on a regular basis. Which means that if the direct market and the comic industry as a whole is going to survive then comics must return to mass market venues in a big way.

The first tentative steps in this direction have already been taken in chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Both devote prime shelf space to a large selection of graphic novels. Borders has recently begun stocking monthly comics as well. This is a good first step, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.

In order to again break through as a mass medium, comics have to return to the checkout lines at department stores like Wal-mart (yes, I know Marvel has a deal for the Ultimate line to be distributed there but that's a baby step at best). They need to be stocked along with magazines and paperbacks at the local Walgreens. There needs to be a section devoted to them at Toys R' Us. Then and only then will comic industry have the proper environment in which to recapture the youth market and ensnare older causal buyers as well.

Distribution is the primary hurdle the industry must overcome, but there is also the matter of format. Right now the industry is embracing the trade paperback in a big way. This is a very good thing, especially in terms of the book trade. It's easier for media outlets to review trades and their higher price point makes book stores willing to devote more shelf space to them. The process of binding also grants a certain degree of legitimacy. Grown-ups can read it without feeling self-conscious. It's a book, not a comic, don't you know.

Wonderful as they may be, trade paperbacks are still ill-suited for sale outside bookstores. A mom shopping for detergent at K-Mart is not going to buy a $15.95 Batman trade for her kid no matter how much he begs her to. Nor she will be inclined to spend $2.50 on a flimsy 22 page comic that little Johnny can finish reading before they're done checking out.

Enter the digest. The perfect marriage of the trade paperback and the monthly pamphlet, digests are the perfect format for mass consumption. Priced competitively with mass market paperbacks, these mini-trades are cheap enough to be considered a bargain and substantial enough to provide at least an hour-and-a-half of solid reading. Not to mention that they're bound and therefore have much more cultural cachet than a comic. Archie Comics and various Manga publishers pioneered this format years ago, but Crossgen has perfected it. Their digest-sized Edge and Forge compendia weigh in at a hefty192 pages - the equivalent of eight 22-page comics - but only cost $7.95 apiece. The reduction in size hasn't affected the quality of the art, either. The pages don't feel cramped, the lettering is completely legible and the colors are just as vibrant as in the full-size editions.

Digests are the future of mass market distribution and the Big Two comic companies are woefully behind the curve. The key is building compendia around the franchise characters: Spider-Man, Batman, the X-Men, etc. Each of these franchises has at least two core titles and several ancillary "family" titles that could form the core of each digest. Mini-series, crossovers or reprints of classic stories could be used to fill out the remaining pages. What fan of the Spider-Man movie could resist a book promising 192 pages of material about ol' webhead for around half the cost of a CD? Not many, I would think. And these digests are the perfect "gateway" books. A well-placed guest appearance or crossover could get a Spider-Man fan interested in what's happening over in the X-Men titles or vice-versa. It's cross-marketing at its best.

Spider-Man was the most successful film of the year and Road to Perdition is a serious contender for Best Picture. Smallville is a huge ratings hit for the WB. Graphic novels like Jimmy Corrigan and Maus have been embraced by the literati and given the whole medium a much needed injection of cultural legitimacy. The public wants what comics have to offer. All the industry has to do is find a better way to give it to them.

Joshua Elder

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