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Marc Nathan Wants Comic-Con To Catalyze Comic Books’ Return As Pop Entertainment

By Stephen Michael Snyder | Posted 9/14/2005

The Baltimore Comic-Con runs Sept. 17 and 18 at the Baltimore Convention Center. For more information call (410) 526-7410 or visit www.comicon.con/baltimore.

SPX runs Sept. 23 and 24 at the Holiday Inn-Select in Bethesda. For more information visit www.spxpo.com.

Comic books and Baltimore have always gone hand in hand for Marc Nathan. “It’s a comic-book town,” Nathan says from his shop, Cards, Comics, and Collectibles in Reisterstown, which he opened at age 19 in 1984. “It always has been.”

Nathan’s faith in the local comic-book scene led him to start the Baltimore Comic-Con six years ago. At the time, having a comic-book show in Baltimore was a no-brainer. The Mid-Atlantic region didn’t have a big convention despite a wealth of artists such as Steve Conley and John Gallagher in Arlington, Va., Pop Mhan and the Luna Brothers near Washington, Jimmy Gownley in Harrisburg, Pa., and Frank Cho in Elkridge. The fact that the world’s largest distributor of English-language comics, Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., sits just to the city’s north in Timonium didn’t hurt either.

“Baltimore gives us a home-field advantage,” Nathan says.

In his own small way, Nathan hopes to change the course of the comics industry. Despite a recent rush of hit movies—both superhero flicks and those based on more indie fare such as Ghost World and Road to Perdition—comics are still very much underground, with the hottest titles selling less than a quarter of what they sold in the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, when comics were a mass media.

Today you can’t even find comics on newsstands at your local pharmacy or at corner stores. Instead, they have become a niche market, purchased mostly by grown men at specialty stores—even the mainstream titles that Diamond distributes. But Nathan believes that comics are a true entertainment that can appeal to every demographic and cross every genre, from romance and humor to science fiction and drama. The trick is making everyone else realize that.

Since its humble beginnings in 1999, the Baltimore Comic-Con has grown considerably into a full-fledged event that attracts thousands of attendees and a roster of mainstream artists and publishers such as DC Comics and Image. And this year Nathan hopes to make an even bigger impact by teaming up with Diamond and SPX, a well-known small-press comics festival held annually in Bethesda.

After the Baltimore Comic-Con, Diamond holds a retailers summit, where comic-shop owners from all over the region can hear publishers such as DC and Marvel pitch their upcoming projects. Then SPX, which this year features American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar as special guest, begins four days later.

Nathan and SPX executive director Steve Conley decided to hold their shows on adjoining weekends in order to lure retailers, artists, and publishers to the area and keep them here. “This is all part of the plan between Steve and I,” Nathan says.

Their ultimate goal is even grander: to get every man, woman, and child reading comic books.

When Marc Nathan started the Baltimore Comic-Con, the industry was just beginning to recover from a market bust a few years earlier, culminating in Marvel—home of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four—going bankrupt in 1996.

In the early ’90s, comic books had looked like they might finally go mainstream, with single issues selling millions of copies for the first time since the 1940s. A new X-Men No. 1, which Marvel Comics released in 1991 with five different covers, sold 7.5 million copies.

But the boom was mainly fueled by speculators, people who bought multiple copies of “hot” titles hoping they would shoot up in value. “It’s very clear that a lot of speculators in trading cards came over to our industry,” says Jeff Vaughn, executive editor of Gemstone, a division of Diamond that publishes the Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.

To feed the interest, publishers kept coming out with more and more outlandish marketing ploys, such as publishing comics with foil covers or packaging them with collectible trading cards. In a move that grabbed media coverage all over the world, DC Comics killed off Superman in 1993, only to bring him back a short time later.

But with so many comics glutting the market, they failed to appreciate in value. Investors were left with boxes of books they couldn’t sell, and longtime readers, disgusted with the gimmicky stories, stopped collecting as well. The comics bubble popped.

“What happened with the dot-coms four years [prior] was happening in comics,” Conley says.

It wasn’t the first time that comics had died. In the 1950s, Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent, which charged that comics contributed to juvenile delinquency, nearly wiped out the industry. But like punk rock, comics always flirt with mainstream success before “dying” and being reinvented for a new generation.

“Comics have a track record of having been pronounced dead five times in their history,” Vaughn says.

Around the same time that comics bubble burst, however, Diamond—founded in 1982 by Steve Geppi, the company’s president, who didn’t respond to phone calls for this article—was solidifying itself as a major force in the industry. In the early 1990s, Diamond was one of a handful of national comic-book distributors. But when Marvel decided to distribute its own comics in 1994, many of Diamond’s competitors, now lacking their biggest publisher, folded. Diamond survived by signing the other big three publishers—DC, Dark Horse, and Image—to exclusive contracts. After Marvel’s experiment with self-distribution failed, it too signed an exclusive contract, making Diamond ipso facto the distributor most comic stores depend on for their merchandise. It became comics’ Clear Channel, its Universal Music Group. “Diamond really was the only game in town,” Conley says.

SPX formed in 1994 partially as a response to consolidation in the industry. Independent creators were worried that with only one major distributor their work had less chance of getting noticed. They now had to be accepted into Diamond’s enormous catalog, dominated mostly by big companies such as DC and Marvel, to have any chance of getting into comic stores. Suddenly, Diamond’s vice president was giving the state of the industry speech at SPX.

“That gave you a sense of the kind of authority they had,” Conley says. “Diamond was ‘the man.’”

Over the years, though, Diamond has earned the respect of cartoonists and retailers. Conley says the company does everything possible to help small creators get into its catalog, including setting up a panel of retailers to evaluate new submissions.

“Diamond is one of the best distributors in any industry I’ve ever seen,” says Chris Staros, co-publisher of Marietta, Ga.-based Top Shelf Productions, which puts out critically acclaimed graphic novels like From Hell—made into a 2001 motion picture staring Johnny Depp—Blankets, and Owly.

Staros formed Top Shelf with his partner, Brett Warnock, at SPX in 1997. He has also attended the Baltimore Comic-Con since the beginning, when it was a small, one-day show at the Towson Sheraton. Starting out, Staros and Warnock decided to focus on graphic novels, which they saw as the future of the industry.

“Graphic novels are kind of the hip thing right now,” Staros says. “They’ve helped redefine what comics are. They’re not just superhero oriented.”

While the Baltimore Comic-Con retains a more mainstream feel, SPX is dedicated to the independent creators and publishers. The small convention doesn’t allow retailers to set up tables, focusing the spotlight squarely on the cartoonists.

“It’s a great show,” says Eric Reynolds, spokesman for Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, which puts out work by underground cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes and R. Crumb. “It’s one of the few shows in North America that’s more focused on the art form.”

At one point, the two conventions considered merging, but in the end decided against it. “I think that would have diluted the value of SPX,” Reynolds says. “I’m glad to see them coexist.”

Though comics started to bounce back in 2000, graphic novels have experienced double-digit growth the past three years running. Graphic novels are so popular in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders that Publishers Weekly has included them in its regular coverage. “This is the growth area in mainstream bookstores,” Vaughn says.

And with the help of hit movies such as Spider-Man and Batman Begins, the public has a renewed interest in comics. Shelley Myers, executive director of marketing at Diamond, says comic shops sold more than 90 million comic books and graphic novels last year at a retail value of approximately $325 million, a 10 percent increase over 2003.

But despite these gains, circulation on individual titles is nowhere near the level of the early ’90s. The best-selling title this year, All Star Batman and Robin, sold just over 260,000 copies. All of which begs the question: If 40 million people see Spider-Man the movie, why won’t 1 million pick up Spider-Man the comic? Staros thinks people still view comic books as mostly for geeks and fan boys, something that doesn’t happen in Japan, where manga is huge.

“In France and Japan, comics are read by everyone and there’s no stigma,” Staros says.

One way to get rid of the stigma is to get more people reading comic books when they’re young. Today, though the medium is historically considered children’s entertainment, the average comic-book reader is well over 21.

Nathan hopes to reach children by allowing students into the Baltimore Comic-Con on Sunday for free with a paying adult. He’s also running a series of how-to workshops to teach kids everything from drawing to inking. To get the word out, Nathan put posters and fliers in Baltimore-area libraries.

“We’re not just here for a day,” Nathan says. “We’re trying to do something that’s much more long term.”

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