- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Seated at a restaurant table, Nate Baxter arranges stacks of brightly colored comic books by nationality: India, Hungary, France, Thailand, Germany, Malaysia, Japan and Croatia.

A passing waitress came to a quick stop, her widening eyes scanning the colorful spreads. One features red-caped Chinese superhero Mark Chen; another cover features Mindy, a zoologist surrounded by Southeast Asian elephants, alligators and monkeys; a third shows a Canadian Indian using his lassoing abilities to save an endangered boat; and a fourth shows a gangsterlike personage with the words "The Fool" in Japanese emblazoned on the front.

"Comics are the most widely read literature in the world," says Mr. Baxter, a New Mexico cartoonist and founder of Rox35 Media Inc. "Every time the Chinese government wants to reach their people, they use comics. When they wanted to discredit the Falun Gong, they used comics. Mao used comics to propagandize in the '40s.

"Now they have a comic-book character, Soccer Boy, who combats Western influences and promotes patriotism."

What started in June 1938, when Action Comics published a 13-page book about a superhero named Superman, has evolved into a mix of art and literature with worldwide appeal. The United States alone has 375 new comic book titles a month, according to the New York City Comic Book Museum.

The 3,500 comic-book shops in the United States generate annual sales of $260 million. The average cost is $2.60, the average reader age is 24, and 95 percent of all comic-book readers are male.

Yet interest in the States is puny compared with Japan, where an entire populace consumes the art form.

"Whereas we produced hundreds of thousands of comics in this country, Japan publishes millions," says David Gabriel, executive director for the Comic Book Museum. "They use them for everything: teaching, subway reading, you name it."

In fact, the "manga" style of Japanese animation, where characters come equipped with spiky hair and larger-than-life eyes somewhat like Precious Moments figurines has taken over much of the world comic style, Mr. Baxter says. He uses comics for missionary purposes and such an art form, he adds, is the only way to reach the Christianity-resistant Japanese.

"Japan has probably more foreign missionaries per capita than any other Asian country, but the lowest rate of return," says Mr. Baxter, holding up a popular inch-thick Japanese comic called "Shownen," meaning "young boy." Mr. Baxter travels the world, training foreign artists how to preach the Gospel through comic-book art and word balloons in their own languages.

"The idea is to reach people with what they are already reading, rather than reinventing the wheel," he says. "Forty percent of all printed material in Japan is comics."

Comic books started out as an American art form, rapidly gaining popularity during World War II, when soldiers took them overseas. In fact, they first caught on in the Philippines because of the discarded copies left by American GIs.

"At first, comics were superhero genre and escapist fantasy," says Lee Dawson of Dark Horse Comics, a Milwaukie, Ore.-based publisher. "Then came romance and Westerns, but the superhero genre still dominates. It's a populist medium. Words and images together have a much more resounding impact."

However, readership is dwindling in the United States, he reports, and the number of mom-and-pop comic shops is fading.

"The reason is competition," he says. "Kids don't want to spend money and go to the shop when they could be on the Internet, renting videos or watching TV. Comic books are $2.50 to $3.50 for 22 pages. When the 'Batman' movie came out, there was a huge surge in popularity. The new 'Spiderman' movie, which comes out this summer, has the potential to spike interest in comics again."

But the long-term industry trends, he reports, are "graphic novels," or book-length comics. J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Rings" and the book-movie combo "Left Behind" have been transformed into such. Since last fall, 358,000 copies of parts one through three of the "Left Behind" series have been sold to retailers, says publicist Beverly Rykerd.

Recent true-life events have the capacity to be transformed into comic-book art, as evidenced by "Heroes Among Us: A Comic Book Art Exhibit in Celebration of the Heroes of 9-11" at the New York City Fire Museum in the Soho district. The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 16, features 100 panels, including artist Igor Kordey's depiction of the frenzied last minutes of the doomed United Airlines Flight 93.

"The only way to know what really went on in that plane was through someone's imagination," Mr. Gabriel says. "We all think about that scene. Our first thought is we don't want to see a movie of this; it's too much to think about. But when you see it in comic book format, it's easier to swallow that pill.

"When people just hear the word 'comic book,' you think of an Archie comic you read as a kid. Someone once said that comic books are the closest art form to the fountain of youth, because it brings you back to how you felt back then."

Peter Rothenberg, curator of the fire museum, says the exhibit has attracted crowds. Other panels show superheroes such as the Incredible Hulk or Superman involved in the rescues or looking forlorn from afar. One shows Superman flying over a ruined World Trade Center with the title "If Only."

"It's been one of our more popular exhibits," he says. "Comics are a friendly medium that appeals."

Mr. Baxter says nearly everyone is sold on the value of comics except for churchgoers.

"A lot of them say the medium is not worth the message, that people won't take a comic book Gospel seriously," he says. "They also say comics are used for pornography and the occult, so we can't use it. But how about movies? They get used for pornographic and occult purposes, too, yet we make the 'Jesus film,'" referring to a popular movie filmed by Campus Crusade for Christ.

"Even airline-safety brochures use cartoons to communicate life-and-death information," he says. "I tell people in the church we have the most important life-and-death information possible. Why don't we use comics to spread that?"

Part of the problem, Mr. Dawson says, is comics' lowbrow reputation.

"In America, there's a huge cultural bias against comic books," he says. "People tend to think of them as a genre, not a medium. Or they think comics are just superheroes and tight costumes on large-breasted women.

"But comics are just a means of delivering a story. They are really art and writing put together. Like TV, they can be about anything."

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