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Everyone, it seems, loves comics. Literary critics raved over the comic-book themed Michael Chabon novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Smallville, the current television series depicting Superman’s early years, is a cult success. Alternative-comics writer Daniel Clowes won an Oscar nomination for Ghost World. The comic book-inflected Freedom Force is one of the hottest new games on the market. And there’s been a steady stream of creatives from other media industries crossing over to write comics-ranging from filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) to television scribes Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) to bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer (The Millionaires). Longtime DC Comics editor Dennis O’Neil calls comics the “R&D division of the entertainment industry.”

Comics publishers are doing everything right-expanding creative rights for artists, tapping new global markets, reworking old genres to keep franchises alive and vital. Throughout much of Europe and Asia, comics have large readerships, are the subject of major arts exhibitions and even have their own museums, and attract lively critical debate.

The problem is that almost nobody in this country actually reads them. By some estimates, there may be as few as 500,000 comics readers in the United States today while the blockbuster new Spiderman movie is apt to attract ten to twenty times that many viewers on its opening weekend. On May 4, selected comics merchants will be giving away comics for free, trying to coax “newbies” into their dank, dark, subterranean hideouts. In their heyday, comics were distributed like magazines to newstands and drug stores. Some years ago, they went independent, developing their own retail outlets and systems of distribution; this move to a niche marketplace enabled publishers to distribute a broader range of titles, but it might have been a fatal mistake in cultivating a readership. What would it even mean to be a casual reader in a world where you have to consciously choose to go into a forbidding comics shop before you have any clue what is available?

In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud argues that digital media may be the best-and perhaps last-hope for comics to find a larger public. McCloud imagines a world where independent comic artists sell their product directly to the consumer without confronting any middle men or gatekeepers, where more diverse comics content can find audiences well beyond the hardcore comics readers who rule the local comic shops, and where the formal vocabulary of comics can expand, freed from the limitations of the printed page.

McCloud’s vision may seem utopian-especially in light of the dotcom meltdown-yet some of his predictions are already coming true. Many independent comics artists are choosing to lower printing costs and release their first efforts via the Web. Even mainstream comics companies see the Web as an escape route from their current ghetto. For example, Crossgen is trying to lure more readers by placing their entire archive of back issues on the Web for a minimal subscription fee and Marvel gives free access to digital versions of several of their top selling titles.

One can understand these Web comics as a reflection of the experimental atmosphere that has gripped the comics world, as desperation has set in over the long-term viability of traditional print media.

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