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Plugged In: Can the Internet Save Comics?

Added: (Wed Nov 24 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By Scott Hillis

Step aside, Superman. Move over, Wonder Woman. The Streak and Imitatia are some of the new names in town. And they're not just any old superheroes -- they're wired, too.

Faced with falling sales and waning interest, the industry that gave the world the superhero is struggling to hold its ground against the encroachment of television, computers and video games.

But rather than waiting for a muscle-bound hero in colorful tights to leap to the rescue, the creators and sellers of comics are fighting back themselves, using the Internet to reassert their relevance and win over new legions of fans.

Take Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Lee, also honorary chairman of Marvel Comics, is behind StanLee.Net, a comics Web site that will marry original stories and characters with Web animation tricks to draw the latest battleground for good and evil to duke it out.

Set to launch in January, the site's showcase will be 'The Seventh Portal', in which seven heroes from different countries (The Streak hails from Japan, Imitatia from India) combat seven villains in another dimension accessible through the Internet.

Superhero Mini-Movies

"When we launch, we will establish at that moment that the Internet is a viable, stand-alone entertainment medium," Lee told Reuters in an interview.

Apart from 'The Seventh Portal', several other characters are being developed for stories that will be updated weekly, Lee said.

"What we're attempting to do is to see to it that every day on the Web site there will be some superhero strip, some fantasy strip, so that every day people will have good reason to tune into our site," he said.

Based in a former bank in Encino, Calif., the company has recruited more than 50 employees -- from writing and drawing talent to programmers proficient with computer animation tools that will breathe life into Lee's creations. Macromedia Inc. (NasdaqNM:MACR - news), the company that develops Flash animation software, is an investor.

"These are all going to involve a tremendous amount of animation. These are not going to be still pictures. They're animated superhero mini-movies, really," Lee said.

Unknown artists are also using the Internet to display their works, demonstrating that -- like garage musicians gaining exposure via MP3 music downloads and armchair stock analysts holding forth on message boards -- you don't have to be a professional to get your name out there.

Stephen Rice, an accountant in San Francisco, produces an online graphic novel called 'The Gifted', at http://www.thegifted.com. Other sites, like B-Radical.com of Ottawa, Ontario, and WebComix.com, run ongoing stories or daily comic strips that may never have seen the light of day given the way the industry works.

THE AMAZON.COM OF COMICS?

Once upon a time, North America boasted 8,000 comic book stores. Falling readership and tight margins have slashed that to about 4,000.

Some 40 percent of a brick-and-mortar comic store's floor space is unprofitable. Titles that are not sold cannot be returned, so owners are unlikely to gamble on an unknown title or artist.

Dave Scott, founder of NextPlanetOver.com, the biggest online comics retailer, hopes the Internet can skirt the tough economics of the industry.

"You're seeing an undersaturation of comic books and products," Scott said in a recent interview.

Scott's original plan was to open a national chain of comic stores capable of reaching millions of customers. But then the World Wide Web took off, with Amazon.com leading the way for retailers.

"Offline, the category is very fragmented. There are no national chains. Online allows a single merchant to reach the entire nation, including geographies not well served, so there's an opportunity to grow the market as a whole," said Mike May, a digital commerce analyst with Jupiter Communications.

Moreover, comics fans also tend to be Internet fans.

"What we found was that the particular customer that consumes comic books was twice as likely to be online than other consumers. They also tend to be high-technology early adopters," Scott said.

NextPlanetOver stocks some 8,000 products, including nearly 5,000 comics titles, as well as toys, clothing, videos, art and trading cards. It is the e-commerce partner for Stan Lee's Web site, too.

By weaving goodies such as chats and interviews with artists and writers into the site, Scott says NextPlanetOver visitors linger about four times longer than they do at other online retailers.

"Consumers are coming back every single day to take advantage of the content," Scott said.

The Story's The Thing

Lee, however, reads more into the decline of comics than just poor business practices.

"What happened with the comics industry is they began to make the stories too inaccessible," Lee said.

Apart from reaching out to the world's youth through the Internet, Lee aims to resurrect the lost art of basic story-telling.

"The stories have lost a certain simplicity and ease of access, and for that reason they have lost many younger readers," Lee said.

Others seem to be placing their faith in Lee, too.

DC Comics, now owned by Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE:TWX - news), wants him to write stories for its Superman and Batman comics -- business world rivals of Lee's Marvel characters.

And Viacom Inc. (NYSE:VIA - news) may be interested in having Lee revamp its Mighty Mouse cartoon character with a new Web-based look and persona.

"We will join with other brands to revive elements of their franchises on the Internet, with Stan giving new meaning to the franchise," said Peter Paul, chief executive of Stan Lee Media.

But few expect the demise of the old-fashioned comic book, despite the migration of the industry to cyberspace.

Lee envisions leading his army of Internet characters out of the world of bits and bytes and into that of television cartoons, screen adaptations, and yes, old fashioned pulp and ink.

"There will always be a place for a story printed on paper," Lee said.

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