Comic books get a new makeover -- EW examines the state of the comics biz and what DC, Marvel, and more are doing to change it

In the new DC Comics min-series Infinite Crisis, sinister forces threaten to unravel the fabric of reality itself. Nobody knows what to do — not even Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. One thing is certain: When it’s all over…nothing will be the same again!!! (Cue dramatic music.)

It’s the kind of plot that sells comics — and, alas, not a bad way to sum up the comics biz itself. For at a time when Hollywood is Flame On! hot for superheroes, the niche that spawned them — the monthly periodical (an estimated $290 million business) — is battling for a future due to escalating costs and graying consumers. ”I’m not predicting the imminent disappearance of comics,” says Mike Richardson, publisher for Dark Horse (Sin City). ”But I believe we’ll see less and less as time goes on.”

For some, it’s already a matter of evolve or die. Noted alternative publishers Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly are aggressively shifting their focus from traditional comics to graphic novels — a promising yet rarefied format embraced by mainstream booksellers. Even superhero titans Marvel and DC (combined market share: 80 percent) have reason to sweat. Marvel recently discovered through focus-group research that most kids don’t know where to buy comics — thanks, in part, to a crippling mid-’90s market crash that reduced the number of retailers from 8,000-plus to about 3,000. Says Marvel publisher Dan Buckley: ”The logical conclusion is, if [turning kids into customers] doesn’t work, we’re screwed.”

To that end, Marvel and DC are launching ambitious efforts to reenergize their periodicals. Marvel is recruiting celebrity talent to pen projects, like a Dark Tower spin-off from Stephen King and a Hulk/Wolverine matchup (pictured above) by Lost cocreator Damon Lindelof. DC’s Infinite Crisis is essentially epic-scale housecleaning: When it’s over, nearly every DC title will be rebooted with new creative directions or new creative teams. Marvel just wrapped its own shake-up, House of M, which dramatically tuned up its popular X-Men. Both publishers are hoping to recapture lapsed fans as well as casual readers who have given up periodicals for paperback collections. ”We’ve lost [a] sense of urgency,” says DC editorial director Dan DiDio. ”The goal is to create such an exciting experience, you’d rather buy the comic as soon as it comes out.”

And by ”you,” he means men and women. Though Marvel and DC are experimenting with new kid-friendly products and working to get comics back into convenience stores, the strategy is to sow seeds and reap later: Both publishers are squarely targeting young adults — a big shift in the way fandom has historically replenished itself. ”We’re bringing them in older but keeping them longer,” says DC president Paul Levitz. Marvel’s Buckley hopes new formats and outlets portend a vibrant future: ”We’re making the right steps. I had the ‘Rome is burning’ feeling in the ’90s. Now I feel something big is going to happen.”