Cover Story

Comeback comics

With industry revival at hand, thanks to Hollywood and loyal fans, comic-book makers have yet to defeat their own evil villains

Roofed in white sails and draped with arcs of gleaming glass, San Diego's Convention Center perches coolly on the edge of a bright blue harbor. This month the venue throbbed with impossibly busty vixens shoehorned into spike heels and latex, a blow-up Pikachu Pokemon the size of a tour bus, superheroes with blue faces and hair like flames, a sour-faced little guy named "Bob the Angry Flower," and a disconcerting number of 40-year-old men wearing capes and tights.

This is no get-a-life fan convention but a dead-serious business exhibition: Comic-Con International 2005. Almost 100,000 people attended-nearly as many as attended this year's world-record-setting Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and three times the attendees at the MacWorld conference. Underscoring the indications that comics are on a comeback, many of the non-costumed Comic-Con attendees were Hollywood players scouting for new comic-book characters and looking to make deals.

The American comic strip debuted in the 19th century with the overnight popularity of a single character, the Yellow Kid. By the mid-20th century comic books had become a staple of growing up in America. Funny animals, romance, and Westerns all were popular, but action superheroes dominated the form, according to Richard Marschall, author of America's Great Comic-Strip Artists, a former editor of Marvel Comics, and recipient of the industry's Yellow Kid Award.

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Comic books then changed with the culture (not always for the better), but now the comic-book aesthetic is back, providing Hollywood with material for blockbuster movies-this summer's Fantastic Four, along with Spider-Man, The X-Men, and the Superman and Batman franchises.

Movie producers are grabbing up even lesser-known comics, such as Hellboy, Daredevil, and Sin City. Comic-book companies are cashing in on video games, action figures, and an array of toys and trinkets that now bring in more money than the books themselves. The sale of comic books represents only 17 percent of a typical comic publisher's revenue. The rest comes from licensing, with hundreds of millions of dollars from game makers, toy companies, apparel manufacturers, movie producers, and foreign rights.

Meanwhile, comic books, like the X-Men, have mutated into strange new forms, some of which are monstrous and evil. Too often that means imagery of utter depravity-sexual perversion, gruesome violence, the darkest occultism. Except for a few titles, today's comic books aren't for children anymore.

At the same time, the moral clarity of some classic comics is back in vogue. And more Christians are entering the comic-book universe, both as artists and writers with mainstream publishers, and in launching new titles of their own. "They are a struggling minority within a minority," Mr. Marschall said.

On the floor at Comic-Con, amid the dark, the erotic, and the just plain weird, a few booths tried to function as cities on hills. The Christian Comics Arts Society (CCAS) had for the ninth year set up a small table that displayed mostly evangelical-style comics. A book rack held titles like Eric Jansen's The Christ of Prophecy; Robert Flores' The Graphical Epistle of John, James & Jude; and Proverbs & Parables, a thick compilation of illustrated Bible stories by Christian artists, some of whom have worked for secular comic publishers like DC and Marvel.

Formed in 1984, CCAS locates and links Christians who are interested or active in the comic-book and comic-strip medium and functions as a loose fellowship for writers and illustrators, both accomplished and aspiring, working in mainstream or niche comic publishing. Over the years it has gained better convention-hall placement and overcome some industry skepticism. But one table over, writer/illustrator Harris O'Malley of Austin, Texas, propped up a couple of issues of Smut Peddler, a collection of erotic comics. "They're intended to be positive, female-friendly, and funny adult comics," Mr. O'Malley told WORLD, "as opposed to your reading them and thinking, OK, my brain is soiled forever now."

Right.

A few aisles away, Cross-Culture is doing better than that. An imprint of Alias, a San Diego--based secular company, Cross-Culture publishes "comics for all ages," including sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, Christian-themed books of the Community Comics studio. ArmorQuest by writer Ben Avery and artist Sherwin Schwartzrock is based on the "whole armor of God" passages from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, but it's not Sunday school "nice." The book delivers mythical creatures, blazing battles, and the triumph of good over evil in adventure-filled storylines and sharply-drawn color graphics.

"We're finding that when a kid pays three bucks for a comic, he has to be entertained," said Mr. Schwartzrock. "And with our content, parents can feel good about it." Community Comics produces other virtue-themed titles like HeroTV, a comic book about a TV show starring crime-busting superheroes.

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