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Weekend Cover Story: Comicon showcases industry that's recovered from attack of 'locusts'

Friday, April 27, 2001

By Scott Mervis Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Julius Schwartz, an editor at DC Comics for more than 40 years and a legend in the industry, wistfully recalls that back in the old days comic books were actually for kids.

"You go to a comic book convention now," he says, "and you see very few children there. The only ones are dragged by their parents. They have other things to do."

Like perhaps, go to the video game store.

As Jeff Yandora, owner of Phantom of the Attic comic book store in Oakland, will tell you, to a lot of kids it's a matter of "Why read the X-Men comic book when you can play the computer game?"

As a matter of fact, not even the X-Men, the Justice League of America and the Avengers together would have been able to hold back the forces against the comic book industry during the last decade.

First, there was a boom. It was the biggest boom in the history of comics, beginning in 1989 when the "Batman" movie created a new nostalgia for comic books.

April of '93, when Superman returned from the dead (yeah, right), was the biggest month in history, with orders of 45 million comic books. Fueled by the lure of collectors, publishers were issuing shiny, tinfoil editions and hologram covers that looked like they were sure to be valuable. Meanwhile, Batman and X-Men cartoons got the echoboomers into the comics stores. Over the course of three years, the comics market tripled, with sales hitting $850 million in 1993, according to John Miller, editorial director of the Comic Buyer's Guide.

"The major factor was the introduction of a lot of speculators into the market," Miller says, "people who were interested in short-term gain. Many of these people came from sports cards hobby. We look at the collector class as locusts, they go from hobby to hobby."

The locusts realized they'd better have Superman dying and Superman coming back. But then they realized something else.


Squirrel Hill native works the mainstream and the underground

Schwartz: Keeper of the Universe


"[People] that got into collecting comics for investment realized they weren't going to finance their college education with them," Miller says. "Comics are collectibles, but it's almost entirely the ones that come from the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s, particularly the early ones because people didn't know to save them. Comics that came out six months ago, every single one still exists in perfect shape. Once people fond that out, the whole market collapsed."

This was the bust. Sales plummeted and the number of comic book stores nationally quickly went from 10,000 to 3,000.

3,000. The remaining ones survived by selling Magic: The Gathering and then Pokemon cards to fans and locusts. The effects were felt all the way to the top, as Marvel -- the king of comics -- ended up in bankruptcy court.

But as Miller says, superheroes never die, even when you see the body. And so the market has rebounded and recovered to where it was in the pre-boom era, about $260 million. (Of course, with the price of comics rising to an average of $2.75, that sales figure represents a pretty big drop in volume.)

And it looks like there's room for growth again. Marvel and DC just announced a long-awaited meeting of their rival Justice League and Avengers. Upcoming movies about Spider-Man, "Lord of the Rings" and "Planet of the Apes" promise to give the industry a boost. Alternative publishers have elevated the level of artistry and made comics big on college campuses.

And, locally, we have the Pittsburgh Comicon, opening this weekend at the Expo Mart in Monroeville. In its eighth year, the Comicon has become one of the premiere shows on the East Coast. Last year, it added the industry's prestigious Harvey Awards, which had previously been at the Wondercom in California.

Michael George, owner of Comics World in Windber, Cambria County, runs the Comicon with his wife, Renee. He says, "These are the only awards in the entire country that are voted on by their peers. This isn't a fan-based or company-based award. It is voted on entirely by professionals."

Appearing this weekend to receive the Harvey's Defender of Liberty Award and give the keynote address is a real-life comic superhero, Frank Miller. Miller is known for revolutionizing the comics world with his Batman makeover in "Return of the Dark Knight." He's also responsible for the black vigilante character Martha Washington, the violent Sin City series and the scripts for the second and third "Robocop" movies.

Elsewhere, the Comicon is all over the pop culture universe. There will be a zombie homecoming for Tom Savini and stars of "Dawn of the Dead"; appearances by WWF women's champion Chyna, who has her own comic book; from "Star Wars," bounty hunters Aurra Sing (Michonne Bourriague) and Greedo (Paul Blake), among others; coming from "Xena, Warrior Princess" will be Alti (Claire Stansfield) and Alti (Alexandra Tydings); and Frank Cho will be there to sign his syndicated strip, "Liberty Meadows."


WHERE: Pittsburgh ExpoMart, Monroeville.

WHEN: Fri. 2-7 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

ADMISSION: $15 per day; $35 for 3-day pass; under 8 free.



Make-A-Wish Foundation Casino Night, 8-11 p.m. ($5).

Harvey Awards at 8 p.m. ($40).


"Dawn of the Dead" panel, noon-2 p.m.

"Xena: Warrior Princess" panel, 2-4 p.m.

"Star Wars" panel, 4-6 p.m.

Make-A-Wish charity auction, 7-10 p.m.

Mardi Gras Party, 10 p.m.-midnight ($50).


Last Chance Charity Auction, 2 p.m.

Costume Contest, 3 p.m.

Small press panel, 3-5 p.m.


Fans of cutting-edge comics will be gathered around the crew from Fantagraphics, the hip Seattle publishing company responsible for such titles as "Eightball," "Love & Rockets" and "The Acme Novelty Library." The company, one of the leaders in Harvey Award nominations, recently revamped "Love & Rockets" after a five-year absence.

"We thought it was a good time to bring it back," says Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson. "As much as people loved 'Love & Rockets,' there just wasn't the same level of enthusiasm for the side projects."

Appearing at the Comicon will be the "Love & Rockets" series' famed Los Bros, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez.

"This is the first time the Hernandez Brothers have been together on the East Coast for 10 years," says George. "If that Fantagraphics crew that we have coming went overseas, they would draw 10,000 people just by themselves. In France, for instance, this is such a high culture you are given such a high status. The Fantagraphics people are huge."

The Comicon will also feature more than 200 exhibitor booths offering toys, cards, original artwork, T-shirts and comics, ranging from vintage books from the '20s to titles that came out last week.

George says that getting local support was crucial.

"Before we ever started this show, we went around and asked the dealers if they would cooperate. We knew we could not do it without the dealers of Pittsburgh."

As for the demographics, George says that while he agrees with DC's Schwartz about the age of readers and conventioneers going up, he has a way of keeping the Comicon young.

"He's right for the most part when you go to the shows in New York or San Diego," he says. "But when you come to ours you do see a lot of children, because we tie in with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We'll bring in anywhere from 150 to 200 families from Make-A-Wish alone."

A lot of the young readers are coming back to the fold, thanks to new lines like Marvel's Ultimate.

"It's not easy for a kid to relate to Peter Parker who is Spiderman, who is 30 years old and married," Miller says. "The Ultimate line restarts the characters in a somewhat more teen-friendly way that's not dumbed down."

Yandora, at Phantom of the Attic, likes to see comics back in the hands of people who read them.

"When DC had their surprise hit smash with Superman, it was like the stock market. People saw dollar signs. Now, it's not necessarily the case. But we've always had a super-strong readership here, people who follow the storylines and aren't that much interested in anything else."

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