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.
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."
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.
Urban Ministries, Inc., a Chicago-based publisher of Sunday school materials for African-American churches, is launching a new line of Christian comics called The Guardians. The books have edgy, urban-themed graphics and a mysterious Bible-savvy hero named "Code." Picture Matrix star Laurence Fishburne in a fedora pulled low, GQ overcoat, and shades.
Many Christians also work for secular companies. Jim Owsley worked his way up from Marvel intern to editor and writer. Phil Ortiz directs the Bongo line of Simpsons comic books. Some Christians are also riding the tide of Japanese manga (pronounced "mahn-ga") that includes realistically drawn samurai fantasy permeated with Japanese mythology, along with the big-eyed, tornado-haired teens who populate animé. Though it has its violent and sexual "adult" versions, manga is popular with teen and 'tween girls.
Christian publisher Barbour will publish "Christian manga" in the graphic novel series Serenity, featuring a troubled teen who has moved to a new school and feels that "my life's a joke that I'm not in." Packaged by RealBuzz Studios, the stories will "talk to teens at their level," said series co-creator Buzz Dixon, a comic-book veteran who has worked on projects ranging from Tiny Toons to G.I. Joe. For example, after Serenity visits a church youth group, the adult leader asks if she'll be back next week. "Yeah, maybe," Serenity says: "Maybe I'll go just to bug my mother!"
Comic books have bugged parents and teachers for a long time, but educational experiments gone awry in part gave them an initial boost. John Dewey's educational theories argued that reading primers should depict only realities within a child's experiences. That meant dull "See the dog chase the ball!" primers. Give that child a Superman comic book, and his imagination could soar along with the hero-"faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."
They may have acquired a lowbrow reputation, but superhero comics had far more sophisticated vocabulary than the schoolbooks, using long, Latinate words like "invulnerable" and "invincible" that encouraged young readers to learn how to use a dictionary. Classic comics also instilled moral idealism, as young readers yearned to emulate the heroes who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way."
Baby boomers looking to reconnect with the comic books of their youth will notice some dramatic changes. Not only are they not 12 cents anymore (more likely to be $2.25), today the issue that comes out each month gives only one episode in an unfolding, soap-opera like story line that can take half a year to complete. Comic-book buyers may instead turn to "graphic novels," book-length, multi-layered illustrated stories-somewhere between picture-novels and movies-on-paper.
Europeans have adapted Shakespeare and Ibsen to comics, and they made the characters Tintin and Asterix into cultural icons. Though the 300-page Maus by Art Spiegelman, an Aesopian fable about the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize and turned the genre into a respectable literary form, most American-made graphic novels are simply collections from regular monthly titles.
"Most of my customers are between 18 and 24," Matt Lechner, a comic-book shop owner in Thiensville, Wis., told WORLD. Until recently, he said, young people between 10 and 18-the classic comic-book-reading age-showed no interest in comics: "You couldn't give them away," Mr. Lechner said, but thanks to the Harry Potter craze, he believes, young people have a new interest in both reading and in the fantasy genre that dominates the comic-book market.
The standard superhero series-still the bestsellers, according to Mr. Lechner-run in two separate product lines: DC's "Batman (or Superman, Justice League, etc.) Adventure" line, for younger readers; and Marvel's "Marvel Age Spiderman (or Fantastic Four, etc.)" for teens. In the old days, Marvel set itself off from DC by featuring heroes with cool powers but also personal insecurities, neuroses, and identity problems that mirrored the angst of teenaged readers. Today, that Marvel approach goes for DC comics as well: Superman experiences super-troubles, guilt, and inner conflicts, and Lex Luthor has been elected president.
Adult versions of the superhero comics have rough elements, including mild profanity, intense violence, and sexual suggestiveness. Mr. Lechner says he tries to keep those titles away from young customers, but no industry-wide rating system helps out.
Comic books used to be bought and sold at every newsstand and grocery store. But in the 1980s, Marvel adopted a "sell through" policy, which meant that dealers could not return unsold issues, as is the usual practice with books and magazines. When DC and other publishers followed suit, comics started to be sold mostly in specialty stores. These cater to hard-core fans rather than casual readers, and often to ever narrower-and more degenerate-tastes.
Nor can you tell a comic book by its cover. Preacher looks pious, with a hero wearing a clerical collar and his power described as "the Word of God." Yet this comic from DC's "adult" imprint Vertigo is a noxious mix of profanity, sex, perversion, and gore.
Despite the industry's dark side, comic-book writer and artist Leo Partible, a contributor to The Gospel According to Superheroes by B.J. Oropeza (Peter Lang, 2005), argues that there is a shift in the popular imagination, signaled by the popularity of superhero movies and going back to the early Star Wars movies. "People began to want more clear-cut characters, and they didn't want any abstracts or relativism."
When Spider-Man debuted onscreen in May 2002, less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, "the public was ready for the return of the old-fashioned hero," Mr. Partible said. Spider-Man is a resolute moral hero despite his angst, and even Batman at his darkest is not so dark as the new, adult comic book Dark Avenger.
That shift, notes Mr. Marschall, hasn't caught up with the industry. "Traditionalists and nostalgists would do better to stop living in hope, and just live in the past," he said. "Buy the vintage comic books, because that's the only place where vintage standards and moralities exist."
After attending Comic-Con and its European counterpart, the annual RomaCartoon in Italy, Mr. Marschall noted that the only comic fantasy he could indulge was to "time-travel myself to the earlier days of comic fandom" when strips had wholesome ends and real superheroes. "Imagine a Comic-Con stacked with 100,000 fans like that," he said. Shazam!