Superhero Worship

Armed only with their pens and their pit-bull protagonist, Rolando and Josue Matos sic Lycanthrope on Miami and the comic book world

The initial logjam soon trails off into a steady trickle. A thirtysomething woman and her ten-year-old son eye Matos cautiously from the front of the store, unable to decide whether to approach. Boyette intervenes, offering a capsule summary of the Lycanthrope plot line, emphasizing Black Tiger's local roots, playing up the free autograph angle. The boy purchases a copy and the two somewhat warily make their way to Matos's display.

"Did you do the shirt?" the woman blurts, referring to the silk-screened pit bull on Matos's T-shirt. (He didn't.) She blushes. The artist smiles reassuringly.

Autograph secured, mother and son make their way out of the store, pausing briefly to ask Boyette one final question. "Should he keep it in the plastic?" Mom asks, referring to the clear bag in which the book is enclosed.

"I would just not read this one," advises Boyette. "Put it away."
At 3:00 p.m. Veloz and Matos fold up their display and head home, Matos to Kendall, Veloz to Miami Lakes. A dozen customers show up after Black Tiger has departed and drop off their copies with Boyette. Matos has agreed to a return visit during the week to autograph the latecomers' books.

Boyette is pleased with the response Black Tiger has generated on the strength of the debut issue. "Meeting someone who's done something like this is real exciting for the kids," he says. "Roly's great with kids. A lot of them went back there and talked to him and came out waiting to buy the second issue. To have something done about Miami, produced in Miami -- that's really original. The books that have sold well have been the ones with a solid grounding in reality to match the fantasy element. Lycanthrope has that going for it. They're gonna do well, especially if they pay more attention to the details of the writing."

"Most people have no idea what a huge business comic books have become," says Greg Loescher, a member of the comic book cognoscenti. "Last year Marvel's newsstand titles grossed $133 million. That's more than TV Guide, People, or the National Enquirer. When I was a kid, you could go out and buy one copy of every comic book on the shelf for a couple bucks. Today it would cost you more than $1200."

Loescher, who is publisher of Comics Buyer's Guide, a catalogue and retailer's source book widely regarded as the marketplace bible, estimates that more than $700 million worth of comic books was sold last year. That figure does not include licensing, movie rights, or corporate sponsorship, which would push the total well into the one- to two-billion-dollar range. A severe case of sticker shock awaits old fogies who can remember trundling off to the corner drugstore and plunking down twelve cents to catch up on the latest exploits of Sgt. Rock, Captain America, or Archie, Betty, and Veronica. Today's comic book commonly retails for $2.95.

Like any billion-dollar industry, it's a tough market for a little guy to crack. The two traditional giants of comic book publishing, DC and Marvel, account for roughly two-thirds of the product on retailers' shelves. Four other large independents (i.e., any comic book publisher besides DC and Marvel) share another quarter. That leaves about one-fourth of the overall marketplace for the hundreds of small books published nationwide. James Eisele of Capital City receives twenty or more submissions per month from small independents seeking national distribution. "It's real tough for the independents right now," he empathizes. "There are a lot of kids out there with very little talent putting out books. If you're just starting out, have nobody famous working for you, with no money for publicity or promotions, the odds are bad."

As if that weren't discouraging enough, the comic book industry as a whole has been undergoing something of a correction in the past two-and-a-half years. (Purists can be forgiven for wincing at the appearance of the words "comic book," "industry," and "correction" in the same sentence.) As Leibow of Key Biscayne Comics explains it, after the stock market crashes of 1987 and 1989, many investors pulled their money out of equities and began putting it into a variety of collectibles. Comic books were an early beneficiary of these skittish yuppie dollars. There was an explosive proliferation of interest, and new stores popped up in every strip mall from Key West to Spokane. Big publishers offered incentives to dealers -- limited-edition runs featuring special covers with gimmicks such as gold print or holograms -- to stock as many copies of their books as possible. Initially the collector demand for these limited editions reached such a pitch that a dealer could sell the limited edition for enough money to pay for the 200 or 300 extra copies of the issue he was ordering. The cycle peaked in late 1991. Inevitably, though, oversupply led to dumping. Retailers attending conventions and offering their books at ten cents on the dollar became a common phenomenon. The dumping cast a pall over the previously go-go market. Retailers who thought they could ride the gravy train forever were rudely awakened to the realities of supply and demand. Stores went under. Collector interest waned. Production runs dropped. It became harder than ever for a new comic -- especially from a small independent publisher -- to break in.

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