CHASING GLORY: FILMMAKER TRIES HAND AT COMICS: KEVIN SMITH MOONLIGHTS AS WRITER, BOOSTS PUBLISHER'S SALES TO YOUNG MALES

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Acclaimed filmmaker Kevin Smith last scored with a provocative romantic comedy set in the cavernous subculture of comic creators and fanboys. Now the director of "Chasing Amy" is writing comics himself.

In fact, he's being hailed as a superhero for helping to reverse the comics industry's recent slide.

Marvel Comics last month relaunched its struggling "Daredevil" with Mr. Smith as the writer. The title was selling under 50,000 copies per month last year; industry estimates have Mr. Smith's debut moving more than 90,000 issues.

This follows the unexpected success of "Bluntman & Chronic," a comic written by Mr. Smith and based on two wacky and whacked-out characters that have appeared in each of his three films. Published by Oni Press, the comic is in its sixth printing.

MARVEL KNIGHTS

Mr. Smith was lured to "Daredevil" by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, a popular art team hired by Marvel to revamp four titles now gathered under a new imprint, Marvel Knights.

Messrs. Quesada, Palmiotti and Smith tell a similar story, of rediscovering comics in college following a mid-to-late-1980s creative renaissance driven by independent publishers and more sophisticated approaches to superheroes.

"Before I became a filmmaker, I wanted to write comics but was told it was too tough a market to crack, so I went into films, which oddly enough proved more accessible," said Mr. Smith, who owns a comic-book store in Red Bark, N.J.

COMICS CORRECTION

Mr. Smith's celebrity has given the business a much needed spark. In the early '90s, the industry was booming, fueled by speculators looking to invest money in collectibles. Publishers old and new fed the market with products tricked out with gimmicks ranging from reflective covers to sensationalistic story lines. The zenith was reached in November 1992, with D.C. Comics' "Death of Superman."

But the deluge cheapened comics' investment value, forcing prospectors out. And lesser quality products quickly turned off new readers. Combined with increased paper costs and other factors that drove up pricing, the comics market took a nosedive.

From a decadelong high of $850 million, the industry stabilized last year at $400 million, said John Jackson Miller, managing editor of Comic Buyer's Guide. Since 1993, he said, the number of comics stores has dropped by more than half, from 9,000 to 4,200.

Still, the stabilization of the market and the excitement generated by Mr. Smith's appointment are among the reasons Mr. Miller is encouraged.

"We may be at the end of the industry's recession," he said.

HOLLYWOOD TRIES COMICS

It's not unusual for Hollywood talent to try their hand at comics. In the past, though, their interest has been short-lived, motivated by novelty or youthful nostalgia. But Mr. Smith is among a group of unabashed fans who can talk trivia and trash with the best fanboy, as comics followers are known.

And it appears more of them are giving comics a long-term shot.

Mr. Smith will write the first seven issues of "Daredevil" and has pledged to write another story line next year. In between those ventures, he will be the writer on D.C. Comics' relaunch of "Green Arrow."

"I hope to keep doing it," Mr. Smith said. "My only problem is my day job. Writing comics takes a lot of time to do it right, and I don't like to rush things."

At D.C. Comics, the editors of the company's cash cow Batman titles have made the unprecedented move of hiring a team of non-comics writers to execute a major yearlong story line next year.

Bob Gale, who co-wrote the "Back to the Future" films, is on that team.

Each writer will develop a story line encompassing four to five issues.

POSSIBLE BACKLASH

But hiring talent such as Mr. Gale doesn't assure sales success. There is the potential for backlash, said D.C.'s Batman editor, Dennis O'Neil.

"Traditionally, the core fans prefer one constant creative team," Mr. O'Neil said. "But these new creators grew up reading comics, know the medium and see it as a legitimate art form. We're in good hands."

Although there are fewer comics reaching fewer kids than in 1993, they do reach a high concentration of teen-age and twentysomething males. And advertisers have taken note.

D.C. MAKING AD SPACE

D.C. Comics said ad sales have increased sharply since 1996. The company will soon eliminate the letters page of its adult-targeted Vertigo line to make room for more ad space.

Marvel's first issue of "Daredevil" had ads from Levi Strauss & Co., a "Got milk?" ad from the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board and ads from a host of movie studios and top toy brands.

"You don't see as many sea-monkey ads anymore," said Steve Bobowski, exec VP-sales and marketing at Marvel, noting Mr. Smith's "Daredevil" "is going to make our sales job much easier. When you have a hot property, it creates a glow for our entire line."

Hot titles create ad sales opportunities, but not necessarily hot creators, said Paul Levitz, exec VP-publisher of D.C. Comics.

DELIVERING AUDIENCE

"Advertisers don't usually buy because of one ingredient in a comic book but because of the delivered audience we are reaching," Mr. Levitz said. "Now, if Tina Brown was editing the magazine, maybe the masthead brings in advertisers."

Ad sales growth hinges on strategies that can boost readership. Time will tell if name-brand Hollywood writers will be among them.

But industry observers note that names such as Mr. Smith's also have brought new faces into stores.

"A lot of my film audience doesn't read comics," Mr. Smith said. "The smart retailers should merchandise the hot products with other good stuff that my film audience would like. Once they're in the door, it's up to the retailers to keep them coming back."

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