- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Baby boomers and their parents grew up during the two heydays of comic books, when millions of Americans mostly males devoured the tales of superheroes, cowboys, cartoon characters and weird scientists.

Today, the comic-book industry is but a shadow of itself, shunted aside by consumer preferences for television shows, video games and computers.

Boys' reading scores have also dropped senior high school girls of today have average reading scores that are 15 points higher than senior high school boys.

One Washington-area father sees a connection between the decline of comic books and the decline in boys' reading.

"One of the entrees to reading was comic books," said Don Bieniewicz of Vienna, Va., a 50-something who has a teen-age son and two young daughters.

"When I was a kid, you could buy comic books everywhere," said Mr. Bieniewicz, who still collects comics. "But now they're mostly in specialty stores … and they're not even aimed at kids. They're aimed at older teens and adults."

Mr. Bieniewicz and other parents say they have trouble finding good comics for their sons ones with simple morality messages or the kind of heroism that once entranced boys aged 9 to 12.

Instead, comics are filled with "severe violence" and "action babes," making them unsuitable for children, he said.

"I don't want to put down what other people want to read, and obviously, [the industry] is feeding a market here," said Mr. Bieniewicz.

"But are they missing part of the market, too?" he asks. "What about developing new readers? Why aren't there comic books for young kids?"

"Where have the comic books gone?" said Joe Little, a spokesman for the American Literacy Council in New York City.

"They've been on TV," where children can watch them "instead of doing the hard, dirty work of reading," he said.

Others echo Mr. Little's observation.

"Kids like videos, especially ones with sophisticated animation," said Amy Gardner, who works at Alliance Comics, the only comic-book specialty store in Bowie, Md.

According to historical accounts, comic books began losing readers in the late 1940s with the advent of TV.

The industry also suffered a near-fatal blow in the early 1950s when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote "Seduction of the Innocent," which said that violent and salacious comic books were corrupting American youth. A Senate committee hearing on comic books and juvenile delinquency fueled the outcry.

The industry wrote a code of conduct for itself, but parents and teachers turned against comic books and sales slipped far below their 25 million-copies-a-month heyday levels.

Comic books enjoyed a revival in the late 1950s and 1960s known as the "Silver Age" to fans but today's industry has been described as a "remnant" of itself.

Reviving comic books for young readers would be a Herculean effort, say those in the industry.

Alliance Comics, located in Bowie's Hilltop Plaza, sells comics to young readers popular titles include "Young Justice" "Spidergirl" and "Nightwing" but Miss Gardner and store owner Jerry McNeal agree that the bulk of their readership are older teens and adults.

Just a year or two ago, added Miss Gardner, the publisher of Disney-character comic books stopped printing them.

"They said it just wasn't worth it," she said.

"They don't make many comics for kids," said Edwin Gumel, owner of EG Comics in Vienna. " 'Archie' still plugs along and there's 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' but even 'Batman' and 'Superman' are geared toward college-age or better. And that's a reflection on who's buying them."

He added that young readers make up around 10 percent of his sales.

Education experts aren't sure that comics ever played a major role in children's reading.

More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level, said the National Institute for Literacy. Although a "lack of comic books" has been heard before as a partial explanation for this problem, literacy experts said today's literacy efforts include teaching phonics, teaching families to read and using libraries not reviving comic books.

But more needs to be done to encourage boys to read, some experts say.

Girls outperform boys in reading beginning with a 6-point difference in average scores in the fourth grade, said Kim Schuld, education expert at the Independent Women's Forum (IWF).

Meanwhile, a final obstacle to a comic-book revival among children may be cost. Baby boomers and their parents will fondly remember getting a comic book for a quarter or a dime, but today's average comic book costs $2.50 and kid-friendly comics like "Robin" and "Sabrina" go for just under $2 each.

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