Jeremy Adams has two parties planned for his Federal Hill comics store this month. One will celebrate this weekend's annual convergence of the comics world on Charm City. The other will anticipate a risky, game-changing strategy that could determine the shape — and vitality — of that world for years to come.
On Friday, Adams' Alliance Comics will be the scene of a party in honor of the 12th Baltimore Comic Con, a two-day comics bacchanal held this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, where thousands of retailers, artists and fans get to immerse themselves in everything having to do with the medium they adore.
Then, on the evening of Aug. 30, the Light Street store will host a late-night gathering to coincide with the "New 52," a re-launch and re-imagining of the entire DC Comics line. In the works are new costumes, new origins and new attitudes for superheroes — like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — that have been pop-culture touchstones for some eight decades.
"I think this is the boldest attempt at capturing new readers that there's been in a long time," says Adams, who opened his store in 2009. "They're taking these characters that are, in some cases, 70-80 years old and putting a fresh coat of paint on them, so to speak. The idea is to make them seem more accessible, more relevant. It feels fresh and exciting."
About a dozen "New 52" creators will be on hand at Baltimore Comic-Con this weekend to discuss and possibly even give sneak previews of the re-launched DC Comics series, according to Baltimore Comic-Con founder Marc Nathan. And the weekend-long event will also host a panel to discuss the re-imagined characters.
By tinkering with characters and stories that have been around for generations, the brain trust at DC risks alienating the fans they already have. But the potential reward — attracting new readers and resuscitating an industry many fear has grown stagnant — makes the up side too tantalizing to resist.
"If it works, if they find the readers and the sales they are looking for, then we're back to where we were in the '90s," Nathan says, invoking the days when comic book sales were at their peak and stores seemed to be popping up everywhere.
Recent years have been tough for comic book stores. While their numbers peaked at between 4,000 and 5,000, according to figures cited the industry group Comics PRO (Professional Retailers Organization), a steady winnowing has brought the number down to about 2,400 in North America.
Comic book sales have likewise dropped; long gone are the days when titles like 1992's first issue of "X-Men" could have a combined print run of some eight million.
What makes that decline especially hard to take for comics retailers is that it comes at a time when superheroes are more popular than ever. In Hollywood, their exploits have become the cash-cow that has kept the movie industry prospering.
In 2008, for example, "The Dark Knight," starring Christian Bale as Batman, reaped more than half-a-billion dollars at the U.S. box office. That same summer, "Iron Man" brought in $318.4 million.
"We live in a culture in which all things comics have really soaked into the entire culture, except for the actual reading of comics," said Joe Field, president of Comics PRO.
Still, the industry is not standing pat — that's where the "New 52" comes in. Beginning with the Aug. 31 release of "Justice League" number 1, every title published by DC, 52 in all, will revert to number 1. Even a revered title like Action Comics, where Superman debuted in 1938 and which recently passed the 900-issue mark, will be starting all over. Many characters are being dramatically re-imagined, complete with new costumes, new origin stories and new attitudes.
Retooling its superhero universe isn't the only change DC is planning. Concurrently with the launch of the new 52, the company will be offering its comics for download online on the same day they become available in print. DC officials argue the move will increase interest in the books and, ultimately, increase traffic to the stores. But some shop owners are un-swayed, seeing the change as yet another excuse for customers to stop coming in.
Alliance's Adams is ready to give DC's innovations the chance to work themselves out, one way or the other. At the very least, he notes, the "New 52" is generating excitement in the comics community, and that's never a bad thing.
"Anything that's going to encourage new readership, I will do anything to support it," he says. "Besides, no one opens a comic shop to make money. There's a million other things you can do that are much more profitable. You do it because you love doing it."