COMICS' HIGH-TECH WEAPONS SUPERHEROES ARE POPPING UP TO SAVE THE DAY IN ONLINE, CD-ROM VENUES

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Comic books used to be simple. Adolescent boys would race to the local drugstore and plop down 10 cents for four-color fantasies on newsprint. The heroes fought Nazis and mad scientists, and even though they tended to wear masks and tights and were sometimes screwed up in the head, they were generally cool and noble, the kind of Supermen most alienated young boys wanted to immediately grow up and become.

Today, comic books are still being sold over the counter, albeit for a bit more than a dime.

But times are changing. Publishers are building online domains and are allowing their comics to be downloaded onto discs and printed at home. Others have produced CD-ROM versions of their paper products or are developing titles specifically for new media.

Even the heroes have changed. Dark Horse Comics, for example, is about to launch a new title, The Machine, that tells the tale of a troubled young cyborg-he's more machine than young man-who has the ability to plug into the Internet and traverse the highways of cyberspace.

From the big boys like DC and Marvel to upstarts like Dark Horse and Malibu, comic book publishers are boldly moving into the interactive world. And despite talk of high-tech media, publishers say comics are still for the kids-'90s kids raised on interactive technologies.

"When a new medium rears its head, there's an opportunity," said Greg Ross, editor of multimedia publishing at DC Comics. "Here we have a chance to be there on the ground floor, ahead of the learning curve, and help form its evolution."

Marvel Comics, New York, the industry leader, earlier this month offered a sneak preview of Generation X, the latest spinoff of its mega-successful X-Men franchise, on CompuServe, America Online, Genie and the Internet. The characters in Generation X are media-hip and techno-savvy slackers with strange mutant powers.

"Going onto [online services] was a great way to market this title because so many of our X-Men readers-kids, teens and, hopefully with this title, Xers-live and were even raised in cyberspace," said Terry Stewart, president of Marvel Comics. More than 44,000 files were downloaded from the Internet alone as of late last week, he said.

CompuServe offers a comics/animators forum, where users can chat with each other about comics, and a comic book publishers forum, which Dark Horse, Malibu and Marvel have used for more than a year to talk with fans and promote their products.

"It's like a comic book convention online, with people circulating about, schmoozing and exchanging information," said John Dennett, brand manager for Dark Horse, Milwaukie, Ore. Currently, Dark Horse is offering a preview of The Machine on America Online, CompuServe and the Internet.

But it's DC Comics, New York, that has made the most ambitious move into cyberspace. Earlier this month the No. 2 comic book publisher opened up its own space on America Online.

The DC domain consists of five separate "playgrounds" for each of its five imprints: DC Universe, MAD magazine, Milestone Media, Paradox Press and Vertigo.

Each area offers the same features: a "What's Hot" section on upcoming releases; a forum to send letters to the editor; a message board to ask questions; a library to access and download images; and a "Who's Who" encyclopedia of DC characters. Conference rooms are often used for informal chats with DC editors and creators.

"We looked at every single nook and cranny America Online had to offer and tried to fill it," said DC's Mr. Ross. He said DC went with America Online because of its ability to offer text and pictures on screen at the same time.

DC's competitors have been wary of setting up shop on America Online because they don't want to alienate fans who use other services.

Instead, Dark Horse and Marvel are considering setting up areas on the Internet, which can be accessed through several online services; they plan to be there within a year.

"That way, we'll be able to catch some of those Internet surfers who don't read our comics and get them to sample our product," said Marvel's Mr. Stewart.

However, online services can sometimes leave publishers in awkward positions. Some recent users of DC Comics Online have voiced their displeasure and confusion over a recent storyline called "Zero Hour."

Observed Dark Horse's Mr. Dennett: "The definition of advertising and marketing is thrown out the window because consumers now have the ability to talk back. It's like a one-on-one sales pitch."

While some publishers will use online services to market their products, CD-ROM is being eyed as a new medium to tell stories. And while big boys DC and Marvel are still carefully plotting their entry into this arena, Malibu Comics Entertainment, Calabasas, Calif., is already there.

Last February, Malibu introduced its first line of CD-Romix, CD-ROM versions of three Malibu comic book titles-Freex, Hard Case and Prime. CD-Romix play like movies, with special effects, original sound tracks and real-life character voices.

The first titles were developed with multimedia company Davidson & Associates, Torrance, Calif. Malibu will develop the next generation of CD-Romix itself, however, through its Malibu Interactive division.

Malibu also is working with Sony Imagesoft to create interactive Sega CD videogames based on Malibu characters. The first games will come out in December.

"The comic book demo matches up perfectly with the CD-ROM demo," said Scott Rosenberg, Malibu's CEO. In fact, Malibu's CD-Romix and comic books are often sold at the same retail outlets. "We sold enough to warrant an expanded line," which will hit stores next year, said Mr. Rosenberg, adding that sales will increase as the young CD-ROM market grows.

That's not stopping Dark Horse from releasing in November a CD-ROM version of the original comic book series that spawned the hit film "The Mask." More "Mask" CD-ROMs will hit next year from Dark Horse partner Cyber Comics, Venice, Calif.

Where ads fit into all this activity has yet to be determined. Although nearly all comic books carry ads-from videogame, candy and other marketers-none of the interactive products will have ads initially. Comic book publishers say they want to test the waters before bringing ads into the picture.

In addition, there's the inevitable question: Will CD-ROMs and other electronic publishing venues eventually lead to the extinction of the paper comic book? The answer is no. Or at least, that's what they say.

"Did TV kill radio? Nope," said Marvel's Mr. Stewart. "Fans like comics for reasons that these media can't replace. They like to collect them. They like to look at them up close and inspect them. They even like the smell of a comic book."

Added Milton Griepp, president and co-founder of Capital City Distribution, a leading comic book distributor: "The demographics of the users of online services are similar to those of comic buyers, so the advent of online comics is creating the potential for a whole new group of people to be introduced to comics ... But don't look for online comics to replace the traditional comic book. Rather, look at this as another way of marketing the actual paper product."

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