Comic relief

Why are comic book sales down?

Superman Returns, X-Men:The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3, V for Vendetta. Hollywood, it often seems, has no ideas for movies other than old comic book titles. And the graphic novel, that pretentious name for book-length comics, has earned itself literary legitimacy due to the works of Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller and Canada's Chester Brown. Comics have never had so much influence over North American culture. So why are comic book sales down from a decade ago?

Between 1997 and 2000, comic sales in North America fell with a Kaboom! from nine million a month to four million; the bursting of the speculative comic investment bubble and bankruptcy of industry icon Marvel Comics in 1996 were largely to blame. Sales are slowly returning (currently six million a month), but winning over a new generation of fans remains a challenge.

“We need help getting comic books into the hands of children,” admits John Jackson Miller, the writer of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic comic series and editorial director for the publisher of the Wisconsin-based Comics Buyer's Guide. “Comics used to be everywhere: grocery stores, drugstores, shoe stores. Now the market is dominated by comic book shops. Kids have to convince their parents to take them there.”

Striking a blow against parental lethargy, the industry will be holding its fifth annual Free Comic Book Day this May 6. It's a collaboration between Diamond Comic Distributors (North America's largest comic distributor), various publishers and retailers, including 181 stores in Canada. Last year two million free comics were handed out worldwide.

Jay Bardyla, the owner of Edmonton's Happy Harbor Comics, spent last year's Free Comic Book Day dressed as Captain Marvel, handing out comics to passersby. “Bringing kids back into the fold is our main focus,” says Bardyla. He promises to have Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man on hand this year and wants to give away 2,000 comics. “This is the single biggest day of the year for us. We put more emphasis on Free Comic Book Day than we do on Christmas.”