Over the next three days, a few hundred thousand Americans are expected to show up at theaters for the premiere weekend of Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics character. If only the country's 3,000 comics stores could entice even a small percentage of them into their shops.
"There might be a few people who come in for their kids, but it won't be as many people as you'd think, as far as the person who's not into comics," says John "Bumper" Moyer, owner of Glen Burnie's Twilite Zone Comics. "Nonreaders of this medium are not going to become readers of this medium because of Iron Man."
Still, store owners can hope. Many have scheduled promotions tied to the film. And almost all are participating in tomorrow's Free Comic Book Day, a seven-year-old tradition that delivers exactly what it promises: Walk into participating comic-book stores tomorrow, and walk out with copies of a handful of free comics published especially for the occasion. Marvel's offering, for instance, features both Iron Man and The Hulk - who, not coincidentally, is also featured in a big-budget movie slated for release this summer. Rival DC Comics' is Tiny Titans, a pre-adolescent version of the popular Teen Titans.
Historically, film releases featuring comic-book characters have not translated into huge gains for comic-book retailers. Even when the movies prove super-heroically popular, as when last summer's Spider-Man 3 brought in a record $151.1 million its opening weekend, comics retailers say their business hasn't always increased proportionately.
In 1989, "way back when, when the first Batman movie came out, everything went bananas," says Mike McKenzie, owner of Alternate Worlds in Cockeysville. "That created a huge groundswell of interest in comics and all things Batman. Since that time, comic-book movies have become more prolific, and they just don't have that kind of direct impact anymore."
Comics retailers point to all sorts of reasons for their inability to ride a successful movie's coattails. Not only has the novelty of such movies worn off, but most of the franchise superheroes - Superman, the X-Men, Batman - have been taken. Iron Man, although he's been around since 1963, belongs firmly in Marvel's second tier of superheroes, far eclipsed in popularity by Spider-Man and even the Fantastic Four. Also, comics, which have been targeted at teens and young adults for years, are having trouble attracting new blood. At an average of $3 a pop, comics aren't the cheap entertainment they used to be. And people simply don't read as much as they used to.
Some of those problems are reflected in the comic-retail industry itself. The number of comic-book stores nationwide has declined from a high of about 8,000 in the early 1990s to some 3,000 now, says Joe Field, president of ComicsPro, an industry group representing comic-book retailers.
All of this has proven especially frustrating to retailers, who say their medium is as vibrant and creative as ever. Events like Free Comics Day, says Field, "put the spotlight on the source material for pretty much all of today's visual entertainment."
Anyone whose experience with Spider-Man is limited solely to the three movies released between 2002 and 2007, comics enthusiasts say, is only getting a fraction of the Spidey experience.
"The comics genre is the best way to tell virtually any story. You can do anything you want," says Rusty Simonetta, owner of Cosmic Comix & Toys in Catonsville. "Movies are limiting; you can only do so much. You have to spend a hundred million dollars to make a movie, but in comics, you can just draw it.
"Sometimes, it takes them 30, 40 minutes to do something in a movie," he adds, "that you can do in two panels in a comic."