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It's been a long time since comic-book heroes dominated the minds and allowance expenditures of the young North American male. Indeed, the era when annual sales of comic books could total, say, 200-million units is likely gone forever.

But don't tell that to the publishers of comic books: They're hoping that a big renaissance of their fortunes is going to start this very weekend.

This is because the feature-film adaptation of Spider-Man is finally going to unspool in more than 3,500 theatres in Canada and the United States tomorrow. Piggybacking on all the attendant frenzy is something called Free Comic Book Day, an unprecedented North America-wide giveaway, on Saturday, of some of comicdom's best-known titles from publishers such as Marvel, Dark Horse and DC.

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The comics biz's last good year was 1993, when the industry reported gross revenues of close to $1-billion (U.S.). This was when collectibles were king; when a mint-condition premiere edition of a 12-cent comic from the 1950s or 1960s could fetch $3,000 on the resale market; when speculators would buy 12 copies of one issue and put 11 in storage in anticipation of a future windfall; when comic publishers would sometimes spin off six or seven titles from one character and print five or six different covers for the same issue.

Since that heyday, it's been a downhill slide. Marvel Entertainment -- the home of such fantasy stalwarts as X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer and Spider-Man -- saw its share of the market plunge to 25 per cent in 1996 from a high of 68 per cent in 1991. By 1997, it was was carrying a bank debt estimated at $650-million and heading for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, overall sales of comics fell to $375-million in 1999, then to $220-million two years later.

The past seven months have seen a tentative revival in the fortunes of comic-book publishers. Part of this is attributable to the release late last year of Frank Miller's three-volume The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the much-anticipated sequel to his 1986 million-selling refashioning of the Batman saga The Dark Knight Returns. The first two volumes, published by DC Comics, have so far sold a total of more than 400,000 copies, at a pricey $8 a pop.Marvel, DC's arch-rival, has enjoyed similar sales with its limited edition Wolverine: The Origin, a planned six-parter featuring the most popular (and Canadian-born!) X-Man. Mix in the buzz over the Spider-Man movie, plus the announcements last month that principal photography had started on big-budget movies based on the Hulk and Daredevil, and you can see why hopes are moving faster than a speeding bullet.

If the movie Spider-Man is a hit and its success buoys comics over all, a great deal of the credit likely will wend its way to Joe Quesada, the punky editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. Quesada, who turns 41 this year, assumed the Marvel mantle in August, 2000, and since then he's become the mouthiest mouthpiece in comicdom since Stanley Martin Lieber (a.k.a. Stan Lee). It was Lee, along with illustrator Jack (King) Kirby, who, in dreaming up the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the Mighty Thor, created the modern comic-book industry, becoming, in the words of one comic-book historian, "to that idiom what Col. Tom Parker and Elvis Presley were to music."

Quesada has been at or near the centre of much of the churn that's shaken Marvel in recent months. It's been under his watch that the company created its ambitious "Ultimate" series -- refashionings of the origins and lives of such franchise properties as X-Men and Spider-Man. This was done to permit "new readers to get into the Marvel universe without 40 years of baggage," as he put it in an interview earlier this week.

Most famously, he announced last year that Marvel was leaving the Comics Code Authority. The code is a self-policing mechanism that the American industry created in 1954 to counter charges in Frank Wertham's influential book, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham, a psychologist who had the ear of Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower, argued that comics propagated communism, juvenile delinquency, premarital sex and disrespect of authority.

Speaking from Los Angeles, where the world premiere of the Spider-Man movie occurred earlier this week, Quesada described the Comics Code as "a form of nostalgia, a red herring that the old men of the industry were hanging onto." It also contributed to "the stigma that the comic was strictly a child's medium," he argued.

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Last fall, Marvel replaced the Code with its own ratings system, using categories -- All Ages, Marvel PG, Marvel PG Plus, Parental Advisory/Explicit Content -- that, unsurprisingly in this convergence, mixed-media epoch, owe a lot to the classifications adopted by movie ratings boards.

It's the Parental Advisory category and the so-called MAX titles that fall under it that have proved the most controversial. Take one such title, Fury, a sort of futuristic rendering of Sgt. Fury and the Howlin' Commandos, thefamous Second World War strip created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby circa 1963, and its Cold War spinoff, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

The most recent issue is a 24-page non-stop profanity-laced gorefest. Half of it is taken up with hand-to-hand combat between Nick Fury and a one-time Cold War nemesis, Col. Gagarin. Noses and ears are chewed; groins are grabbed; heads are stomped by hobnailed boots. Finally, Fury puts an end to it all by sticking a hunter's knife in Gagarin's abdomen, yanking out his entrails and strangling the man to death, using his intestines as the garrote.

Stan Lee, who co-created Fury 40 years ago, is not amused by this turn of events. Speaking recently from his offices in Encino, Calif., the 79-year-old Lee said: "I don't know why they're doing that. I don't think that I would do those kinds of stories."

While Lee remains "chairman emeritus" of Marvel, for which he receives about $800,000 a year, his active involvement in the company's affairs ended years ago. (In fact, as a comics guy, he's been most active in recent months with his former foes at DC -- now a division of AOL-Time Warner -- creating one-off "alternate" origin myths for some of that company's most enduring properties, including Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the Justice League of America.) As a result, he can only sigh and be philosophic. Still, he's saddened by what's happened to Fury. The original comic was a kind of balancing act, he said: On the one hand, it was a relatively authentic portrayal of a tight-knit group of soldiers who talked tough and acted macho; on the other hand, it respected the Comics Code by "not using dirty words" or revelling in violence.

Lee acknowledges the Comics Code "is pretty much an anachronism," and says he has "no problem" with Marvel's abdication from it. It's a view borne out by the changes in the industry over the last 25 or 30 years, according to John Jackson Miller, editor of Comics Buyers' Guide. In the seventies, stores dedicated exclusively to the sale of comics and related merchandise were virtually non-existent; now, Miller says, they account for 85 per cent of the business.

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The Comics Code was once the primary way distributors gained access to newsstands, confectioneries and drug and department stores while easing parental concerns about the comic-book "menace," Miller noted. While the wire comic-book carousel at the corner variety store still serves as an entry point or "feeder" for the novice, it's no longer where the big retail action is.

At the same time, the Wal-Marts of this world, with their relentless demand for super-profits, have by and large forsaken the sale of comics, realizing that the rack that once featured Archie and The Flash generates greater revenue when it displays tennis shoes or Digimon figurines.

The Comics Code Authority has been such a whipping boy for publishers, comic fans and freedom-of-expression advocates for so long that it's a bit of a surprise to discover that its current incarnation is just a one-woman operation functioning with a budget on such a shoestring that it can't afford the seemingly de rigueur Web site.

Working from a small office on the 17th-floor headquarters of the Comics Magazine Association of America in Manhattan, Heidi Koenig peruses about 100 comic titles a month in their prepublished form, looking for, variously, scenes of nudity, drug use and religion-bashing, as well as word balloons with curses and obscenities. If she spots something questionable on Page 8, middle-deck, far-right panel, she phones the publisher. More often than not, the offending scene has already been changed, she says, in accord with the Code.

Koenig believes the CCA still has a role to play, and, in fact, Dark Horse, DC and Archie Comics, among others, continue to rely on her adjudication services. The Code is voluntary and exists primarily to protect younger readers and guide the 15 per cent of the market that isn't specialty stores, she said. There are no fines, no bans. If a publisher feels strongly about a particular story line that trangresses the Code in some way, he can still publish the work, albeit with the realization that some distributors and shops might not carry it since its cover will be minus the Comics Code seal.

"Really, it's a very friendly thing," Koenig said recently, "and there's a lot of wiggle room for interpretation.

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"Of course, sometimes you'll get people asking, 'Can we say "shit"? Can we say "ass"?' And we say, 'If there's another word that can be used there, why not use it?' It's not that onerous."

Onerous or not, Joe Quesada, for one, isn't looking back. In fact, he believes that the Spider-Man movie will help usher in the great age of comics."Comics are still a fairly young medium when you think about it. They're only about 60 years old. I don't think we've even tapped the surface of what can be done. Our biggest Achilles's heel to date is that we haven't been able to market ourselves that well, but that's changing."

Marvel and the comics industry generally were hurting in 1999 when the X-Men movie started filming, Quesada noted. Marvel received only $1.3-million up-front from Twentieth Century Fox when the X-Men deal was negotiated in 1993, and given no participation in the movie's box-office performance. For the rights to Spider-Man, Marvel made sure it got $10-million up-front from Sony/Columbia and a guarantee of "first-dollar participation" (that is, it will receive a percentage of the movie's box-office revenue before its production and ancillary costs are subtracted).

Like Quesada, John Miller is bullish about what Spider-Man portends. "With Free Comic Book Day, you have publishers saying, 'Hey, Spidey may not be a movie about one of our superheroes, but we're going to take advantage of the traffic that's going to come with it.' " Moreover, unlike the X-Men but like Superman, Spider-Man "is, in the popular culture, a recognizably comics character. People know that's where he comes from and that's where they can find him."

For information on Free Comic Book Day and a list of participating stores in Canada, go to .

The new 'code' ... These days, many comic books are filled with the gore and sex that the 1954 Comics Code Authority prohibits.

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Top: Marvel comics, which dropped the code last year, now has no trouble getting around the ban on 'werewolfism' in its new book Wolverine: The Origin.

Middle: DC Comics' new Wonder Woman saga flirts with the code's edict that 'females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.'

Bottom: This is one of the tamer pages from Marvel's Fury. The profane gorefest spurns the code's prohibition on 'scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crimes.'

. . . the old code Contrary to the belief of some, the Comics Code Authority does not run to dozens of pages or involve detailed rules and regulations governing every kind of human and superhuman behaviour. It totals about 1,800 words that are organized into two overarching categories (Code for Editorial Matter; Code for Advertising Matter).

Here are some of its edicts:

1. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

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2. Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crimes shall be eliminated.

3. Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.

4. All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.

5. Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.

6. Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

7. Advertising for the sale of knives, concealable weapons or realistic gun facsimiles is prohibited.

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