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Spider-Man, Superman conquer the Internet

Ever notice that kids these days just aren’t into ol’ fashioned, ink-and-paper comic books? Well, apparently comics publishers have, and they’re worried that new fangled technologies like the Web and video games are diverting kids from the wholesome pleasure of printed matter. Here’s a Marvel Publishing bigwig – as reported by AP, among other news sources – waxing nostalgic for the golden age of comics readership:

“You don’t have that spinner rack of comic books sitting in the local five-and-dime any more,” said Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Publishing. “We don’t have our product intersecting kids in their lifestyle space as much as we used to.”

In an attempt to appeal to young readers on their own turf (or “lifestyle space”), Marvel is releasing part of its backlist – about 2,500 titles in total – online, where subscribers can browse, for example, the first 100 issues of Stan Lee’s Amazing Spider-Man for $9.99 a month – or for $4.99 a month for annual subscribers.

The move is the most aggressive Web push yet for comics publishers, reports AP, but still, their embrace of the Web has been tentative at best. Marvel, for example, won’t be releasing new titles online until they’ve spent at least six months on newsstands. For its part, DC Comics – which releases “teasers” of new titles for free on Myspace – is rumored to have shut down one of the most popular Superman fansites for alleged copyright infringement.

That dovetails well with a recent feature article in Wired, in which Daniel H. Pink explores the blossoming culture of dojinshi in Japan. An increasingly popular subgenre, dojinshi is essentially fan fiction that recasts and remixes well-known manga characters and storylines – in flagrant violation of copyright law, it should be added.

Amazingly, mainstream manga publishers seem to have embraced dojinshi, or at least to tolerate it, because, so the theory goes, it sustains the interest of manga’s most fanatical fans while potentially attracting new readers.

Here’s Pink on a recent dojinshi convention – “acres of territory in which the basic tenets of intellectual property seem not to apply,” he writes – which attracted upwards of half a million consumers.

The people selling their wares at the [dojinshi] markets are consumers and producers, amateurs and pros. They nourish both the top and the bottom. If publishers were to squash the emerging middle, they would disrupt, and perhaps destroy, this delicate new triangular ecosystem. And remember: If manga craters, it could drag the entire Japanese pop culture industry down with it.

Whether the dojinshi “business model” can be exported to North America, as Pink suggests, seems unlikely at the moment, but his article does provide an interesting counterpoint to the comic industry’s baby steps online.