Marvel Enterprises announced three new distribution initiatives that will involve Barnes & Noble, 7-Eleven convenience stores and free distribution of two million comics to public school kids. Taken together, the moves greatly expand the demographic reach for Marvel's book and periodical comics.

The Barnes & Noble deal will see 20 different Marvel titles going into comics spinner racks at 500 stores nationwide. (The deal also includes DC, Dark Horse and Archie comics.)

According to Marvel publisher Dan Buckley, the move represents not only the success of graphic novels in B&N's stores but also the success that Borders has had with its comics spinner racks. B&N began testing the program last fall and the rollout will occur over the next three to nine months.

Comics distribution through newsstands has dwindled greatly in recent years, and now the vast majority of American comics are sold through comics specialty stores. But comics shops are not for everyone and many consumers, particularly girls, find them inhospitable. Marvel has been holding focus groups on its books, and Buckley said the general response has been, "Cool, where do I buy them?" So Marvel approached convenience stores and other mass market outlets about getting its products back into them.

Marvel will introduce a line of comic book—sized 64-page flip-books at 7-Eleven stores that will retail for $3.99 and feature its best-known characters, such as the Avengers, X-Men and Spider-Man. The flipbooks are not exclusive to 7-Eleven and will be offered in other mass market outlets as well as in comics shops. The program begins in June.

In anticipation of the July 8 release of the Fantastic Four movie, Marvel will distribute two million copies of a free Fantastic Four comic to 6,000 schools nationwide in April. Written by educator Forrest Stone, the comic will be tied into a lesson plan for teachers and include a promotional poster.

Marvel also released its results for last year, which showed a 47.8% jump in revenue, to $513.5 million, but a 16.7% decline in earnings, to $124.9 million. A big jump in operating expenses hurt profits. Sales in the publishing segment rose 17.2%, to $85.9 million, and operating income rose 46.5%, to $37.3 million. The increase was led by sales gains in both comics and trade paperbacks.