Missing the paradigm shift

This article on WonderCon does a good job of explaining why most people don’t read superhero comics, but their definition of “comics” as “superhero comics from the Big Two” results in hilarious false generalizations like this:

Almost no one talks any longer about comics being a sneakily artful way of getting kids to read. There is even some fear that the current waves of adult customers represent the last generations of comics readers.

You wouldn’t know it from the posse of librarians at the ICv2 Graphic Novel Conference at NYCC last week, or the number of kids on the convention floor. I will grant that this is probably the last generation of superhero readers if the publishers don’t change the model, but the writer and interviewees alike seem to suffer from a peculiar form of tunnel vision. Look no further than their dismissal of manga as “only one slice of the comics business.”

What they’re not getting is that the comics business is made up of a lot of slices, and there are going to be more. The model is changing, as we saw at the ICv2 Conference, where the big news was that graphic novels now sell better than pamphlets. And at the NYCC All Ages panel, which I will be posting about soon, there was a lot of excitement about creating comics for kids. Contrast that with this:

Brian Hibbs, owner of the Comix Experience store in San Francisco, makes the argument that cultivating adult readers is better for the maturity of the medium artistically.

“The common wisdom, when comics were considered something for kids, was that the audience turned over every three years,” Hibbs explains. “You could tell a story, and three years later you could tell the same story again.”

Well, if you treat your readers with contempt, you get what you deserve. But I don’t think Bone and Amelia Rules are using that paradigm.

Superhero comics are legitimate and important to the people who make and read them, but they are only one slice of the industry as well, and because the price of entry (in knowledge, not dollars) is so high, it is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the comics world, as this article explains very well. You can make a lot of money catering to a single group, and there’s nothing wrong with that. **cough cough yaoi manga cough cough** But don’t pretend it’s the only group that exists.

The first part of the ICv2 GN conference consisted largely of Milton Griepp presenting slide after slide showing that comics sales are growing, and the baseline for comparison was 2001. Finally someone asked, “What happened in 2000?” Here’s Griepp’s response:

I think the biggest factor was Tokyopop’s expansion of their authentic manga line and bringing in original material for girls. Suddenly there was huge growth in a business that was usually flat, and it opened up new opportunities for other categories as well.

Yes! Make comics for girls as well as boys, and you double your market share. In fact, graphic novel sales have quadrupled since 2001, which indicates a pent-up demand that wasn’t being met. No marketer can ignore that. If only there were a third gender to reach out to!

The market is deep in some places, but it’s wide overall, and it’s getting wider as different types of comics proliferate and bring in new readers. That’s why Joe Quesada’s comments about the upcoming Stephen King comic, The Dark Tower, irritated people like Kevin Church.

From Newsarama:

“[Joe] Quesada went on to say that publishing the Dark Tower comic book has been the coming out party for the comic book industry, noting that this project will be able to reach far out into the mainstream, and show that comics are a serious art form, and ‘an art form to be reckoned with.’”

Kevin:

I guess this means we’re forgetting that just in the last year or so, Fun Home was named Time’s Book Of The Year and that American Born Chinese was both nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature as well as winning the ALA’s Michael L. Printz award.

Well, you can’t forget something you never bothered to learn, but Church is right. Furthermore, when I think “literary merit,” Stephen King’s is not the first name that springs to mind.

From my vantage point at the Javits Center last week, the comics medium looked pretty robust. There was lots of excitement around new lines like Yen Press and Vertical’s manga imprint. The fangirls were hooting and hollering as CPM announced that their existing series were back on schedule. You couldn’t walk through Artists Alley, it was so packed, and the diversity of styles was impressive. Scholastic was getting a lot of buzz when people realized what their sales numbers were like. The superhero stuff was all there, but I pretty much ignored it, and I still had more than enough to keep me busy.

Oh, and one more thing: I write about manga, I read about manga, but I read other stuff as well, most recently Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries. I’m quite willing to embrace other forms of comics, even superhero comics if one catches my interest. And that’s the attitude we need to keep the medium flourishing well into the future.

UPDATE: As always, Tom Spurgeon says it better.

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Comments

  1. Interesting read.

    I was a “lost” comic book reader and artist for years. I had stopped collecting/reading back in highschool. I still drew although I changed from “super heros” like X-men and Thor, or Daredevil to stuff i found interesting in Shonen Jump like Orange Road and Drangon Ball. That was back in the late 80′s btw. In college, I drew a strip a comic strip for the college paper and it was heavily influenced by manga rather than the super hero stuff I was into as a kid. I had totally stopped reading comics in general as I had no money to buy crummy comics from the big 2 and it was just too much of a pain to spend that amount on a variety of series which I found confusing and still do today.

    It wasn’t until 4 years ago when I picked up Saishu heiki kanojo (Saikano) that my interest in the comic world peaked again. I was amazed that manga had finally gone sort of “mainstream” and decided to check out the titles that were being offered. The artwork and storyline of Saikano actually got me back to reading comics in again. Of course one series wasn’t enough and before long I was reading a whole lot more. I also happily discovered that the big 2 finally started making compilations of the comics I loved as a kid. I no longer “collect” so single issues don’t really do it for me. All of the stories and artwork I missed could be bought in a single volume, all of the newer series I might not have picked up were in single volumes as well so the price of admission wasn’t as high and I could read them all in one sitting if I wanted to.

    Manga is really what got me back into reading the comics genre in general. It also got me to volunteer mentor in a manga related art group which produced some astounding high school artists who went on to win awards and do local showings. This spwened even more interest in manga locally where I live.

    So while manga has it’s critics, I’ll have to say that I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not picked up Takahashi Shin’s Saikano. I’d have not bought a ton of graphic novels from other companies had it not been for that initial reading of one manga. And yes, every now and then I’ll pick up on what DC or Marvel is doing and check it out as well.

    My girlfriend and I are trying to contribute back to the genre now and of course we have dreams of making it big one day as manga artists… but we’ll see. I still see a pretty big hole for kid friendly manga and maybe one day we can help fill that.

    sorry for the long rant!

  2. I felt in general the same way as you did, kimonostereo! Except my manga revelation was Ranma 1/2.

    The American comics industry “turned me over” when I was a teen but manga brought me back!

  3. Ditto to all your points! Well said.

    I still don’t understand why industry folks and reporters and fans alike don’t understand that there’s room for everyone in the world of graphic novels — long tail, anyone? Whether you subscribe to that theory or not, there’s so much father we can go in terms of graphic novel and audience type.

  4. Heidi M. says:

    Brigid great comments, but I will stand up for Stephen King’s literary merits. Granted the guy has written way more than any one human should in a lifetime, but his best work is very good on all fronts. I like to say he’s better than Hemingway, but I’m not a big Hemingway fan.

  5. I’m so disillusioned! Heidi M. not a big Hemingway fan….*sob*.

    I mean, personally, Hemingway and I would not see eye-to-eye (I certainly couldn’t keep up with his drinking!), but “The Sun Also Rises” is my fave novel of all time.

  6. Calvin Reid says:

    Hey B.
    Great comments. There is a paradym shift going on. Super hero comics are fine, but they’re only one “slice” of the business. Not to mention that the manga “slice” is the fastest growing sector of the business, attracting millions of new readers to comics. Now the American comics consumer–including a lot of people who never thought they’d ever be comics consumers–is getting a chance to sample the whole pie.

  7. I remember some great debates about comics and manga at AoD over the years. The San Francisco Area market was often referenced in those conversations with Eisner winning shop Comics Relief mentioned as a comic shop that embrassess manga and graphic novels as a whole along with the monthly superhero comics that is their base.

    At the same time there are those out there that maintain the belief that gaining more of those $1000 buyers are all the industry needs. When ICv2 and even Diamond lists can tell you that GNs and the large number of $300 buyers will continue to carry this industry.

    I think the market has to continue to look for younger readers. The Japanese market makes a clear case for that. With the three major publishers – Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – each providing content marketed directly to that demographic. These properties might not be high quality art but they promote a culture of comic readers. I also feel that the market has to branch out beyond just the fantasy, action and sci-fi titles that dominate comics and manga in North America. I don’t think books about Warren Buffet will sell very well, however dramas, thrillers and yes non-fiction can bring in readers who are looking for new means of engaging entertainment. Comics are so cool cause they are portable means of visual and written art. The industry should try to make it seem as close to TV as possible (providing content for every demographic out there).

  8. “Well, if you treat your readers with contempt, you get what you deserve.”

    Agreed!
    This article hits so many good points. It’s like the red states vs. the blue states of comics.

  9. I’m not sure if you misunderstood the quote you pulled? I was talking about how comics were 30-ish years ago in that quote — “when comics were considered something for kids” — not about treating the audience with contempt. The comics audience has grown up, and so, rightfully, has content with it.

    -B

  10. Wow! Thank you all for reading my little essay and taking so much time to comment on it!

    Heidi, I knew I was going to get clobbered by someone over that King comment. I’ll confess I was being flip, as I haven’t actually read any of his books. It looks from the outside like formulaic genre fiction, but I’m happy to take your word that it’s not, because I certainly agree with you about Hemingway.

    Brian, I don’t think I misunderstood, but your quote speaks, in a way, to the point of the entire article. The underlying assumption is that comics are better when they are made for adults because kids’ comics aren’t very good.

    That doesn’t necessarily have to be so. You can have good comics for kids as well as adults, and if you do, you double your audience. I was reading comics 30 years ago—heck, I was reading comics 40 years ago—so I know what you’re talking about. I never got as involved in Richie Rich or even Superman as my kids did in Amelia Rules. Kids are another under-served audience; bring them in and the medium gets even more robust. Assume that formulaic crap is good enough and you cut out a valuable part of the audience—not just future comics readers but current comics readers.

  11. Obviously you can (and should) make good comics for all readers and demographics, but 30-ish years ago, I think very few publishers thought that they were publishing anything with, erm, “legs” I guess. There were no trade paperbacks, there was no way to sell material except through the newstand.

    But I don’t think that shows “contempt” — I’m sure that Mort Weisenger thought he was trying to meet his perceived audience’s needs as best as he could on SUPERMAN. The common wisdom was that the audience bought comics from (say) ages 9-12, then they stopped and never came back again.

    So it’s not that “comics are better when they are made for adults because kids’ comics aren’t very good.”, it’s that “comics became better once they realized that kids weren’t the ONLY audience, because comics aimed solely and exclusively at kids didn’t HAVE to be any ‘good’ to sell well, and that expanding the audience to adults put pressure on producers to make kids comics better”

    Or something like that.

    Really, I don’t think that a book like AMELIA RULES *could* exist without a marketplace that’s creating SANDMAN or GHOST WORLD.

    -B

  12. OK, I see your point. This discussion has made me think a lot about the comics I read as a kid, though, and they really do seem formulaic and boring compared to what’s available now. Even more important, there are transitional comics for teenagers and kids who aren’t interested in superheroes.

    I actually read superhero comics until I was in my late teens, but I also was fortunate to have a lot of “girls’ comics” from Britain, thanks to two doting aunts in Ireland. There wasn’t anything like that in the States, and even back then, that bugged me. So I’m delighted to see things like Minx, and the new graphic novels from Harper Collins, because I think they are going to grow the market. And, as much as I loved my Bunty and Judy, the new stuff is better than that. Kids these days don’t know how good they have it!


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