Silicon Surfer
Comic books abandon the real world for the Web

SAN DIEGO -- At a glittering party at Planet Hollywood, the factory gates of a once mighty comix empire were thrown open to reveal an old magic man with his fast talk and fairy dust still intact. The second coming (or fifth, who's counting?) of Stan Lee was underway with an IPO giveaway. Even by Silicon Valley standards, this was audacious -- Stan the Man was taking his product to market without so much as a proof-of-concept in hand.

See also...
... by Paul McEnery
... in the Scope section
... from September 23, 1999

In true Hollywood style, functionary after functionary ascended the stand to introduce each other, and even Lee's right hand man, Peter Paul, rated the Zarathustra-like announcement: "2000 years ago, the world's greatest storyteller found himself two disciples, Peter and Paul. Now at the end of the millennium, the greatest storyteller of our time has a disciple..."

Eventually, the man himself, Stan Lee, walked on to warn us that an alien force is about to invade the Internet and attack the world's financial institutions. He refers, of course, to himself. Everyone at the party walked home with ten shares of Excelsior Productions, which may actually be worth something if the plan comes off -- and it may.

It's just as well, because the traditional comix medium is in trouble. On the floor of the San Diego ComicCon (not half a mile from Stan Lee's party), the good news this year was that sales only dropped five percent last year. While some store owners recite the mantra "It's only thinning out the bad retailers, it'll never happen to me," this is wishful thinking. As Ron Turner of Last Gasp Distribution told me, the industry has shrunk from 10,000 stores to 2,000 stores over the last five years, and that's more than a slight weight loss. What we're watching here is the last twitch of a body of work as it gives up the ghost...

... and becomes virtual. The collectibles trade has been given the coup de grace by eBay (which had a cheeky display front and center), while the retail side is becoming an Amazon with a magic lasso. Comics and Comix owner Ross Rojak smartly opened TheComicStore online. He was instantly joined by other retailers like online only NextPlanetOver, which has cut sales deals with both Marvel and Stan Lee.

Sharp artists like Peter Kuper and Scott McCloud have figured out how to make electronic doodads. Eruptor has signed up hot studio Top Cow and their Tomb Raider comics to shill for their site, while running a QVC operation on the back end. Meanwhile, the most insightful writing on the medium is no longer found at venerable institutions like The Comics Journal, but rather at Comic Book Resources.

No doubt that's why Time Warner is shelling out the big bucks to support Stan Lee's vision, threatening to turn the industry's business model on its head. Instead of using comics as a way to create concepts for dumb movies, StanLeeMedia is going to create online concepts and spin them off across all media. Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn) enthused to me about all the talent that is signing up for the Warner bucks, and no less a light than Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck) is supposed to be editing an (on)line of comics for them.

Even so, it's all words and no pictures for the moment. Peek under the hyperbole, and you'll see that everyone's favorite Jewish Republican really does understand the web -- hyperbole triumphs over substance and, in the end, it all boils down to the art of the deal.

See also: Spider-Man's Creator Spins the Web

Paul McEnery is a big geek who dresses in promotional t-shirts.