Monday, February 22, 2010

Comics Aren't Just For Adults

The title of this piece seems almost absurd, doesn’t it? I mean, we shouldn’t need to say that “comics aren’t just for adults” because nobody thinks that, do they? After all, I remember in my youth the big debate being that comics aren’t just for kids, as scores of men approaching middle age tried to justify their four colour habit as the world looked on and merely assumed that they were trying to cling on to their childhood. The message was picked up and echoed by many comic creators too, who wanted the freedom to tell more mature stories in a medium that had been traditionally viewed as being just for kids. DC’s Vertigo line, and the slew of independent publishers and studios that spring up in the nineties made great strides in convincing a sceptical world that comics don’t have to be just for kids; and now, I believe, we’ve reached a point where most people are fairly accepting of the fact that adults read comics too. Indeed, when most people think of a stereotypical comic book reader, they don’t think of a kid, they think of someone like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

There’s a problem with this though, a very big problem. We seem to have moved from the position that comics aren’t just for kids, to the position that comics aren’t for kids at all. Now, I’m going to kick off with a bit of personal, anecdotal evidence here, which I know is bad form, but it illustrates my point well, so bear with me. Yesterday I took my eight year old son into our local book store. They have a big display of graphic novels and trade paperbacks, which is mostly dominated by Marvel, and as we were looking at it I simply said to him, “If you could have just one thing from this section, what would you want?” He looked over the shelves, groaning with the latest volumes in Marvel’s Dark Reign saga, the adventures of the new Red Hulk, and the current exploits of the X-Men, and he simply replied, “I wouldn’t want anything.” He’s eight…he’s a boy…he loves sci-fi and fantasy…and he didn’t want anything that the leading comic book company has to offer. Am I wrong in thinking there’s something wrong with this?

How can it makes sense that comics which have Saturday morning cartoons, toy lines and blockbuster movies based on them are carrying a “T+” rating? I’m not suggesting that mainstream comics need to be dumbed down, kids are smart and we don’t need to dumb anything down for them. I’m not saying that mainstream comics shouldn’t be written in such a way that they can appeal to adults. I’m merely saying that they shouldn’t be written in such a way that they only appeal to adults. I can go back and read the comics I was reading at my son’s age…stuff like The Armor Wars in Iron Man, or Fall of the Mutants in the X-Men books, and still enjoy them just as much as I enjoyed them when I was a kid. They’re well written, they’re engaging, they’re certainly not patronising or “just for kids”…but they’re also written with an awareness that a younger readership was going to be reading them too, and so the adult themes were dealt with in a more subtle way.

The problem, as I see it, comes back to the Direct Market, once again. With the switch from the newsstand to the comic shops, comics moved from being a mass market product with mass appeal, attracting a readership from a wide and diverse range of ages, to being a niche product, aimed squarely at the single men in their thirties and forties who make up the bulk of comic shop customers. As an aside, I’d also say that this is part of the reason for the rising tide of misogyny in comics…the increasing tendency to present women in comics wearing next to nothing and standing in “porn poses.” Remember back to the comics of the eighties, back when they were appearing on newsstands and primarily trying to attract kids. The women were generally fully clothed (within the “skin-tight super-suit” conventions of the genre) and would generally be standing in regular poses, maybe in the midst of some kind of dynamic action. They would not be wearing little more than underwear and thrusting various parts of their anatomy at the reader. It disturbs me a little that we’ve come to see this as normal, and defend it as being “just comics.” We shake our heads at people who accuse us of sexism and misogyny and say that they “just don’t understand comics.” I’ve been guilty of that myself, and it’s generally not until you talk to people outside of the comics bubble that you realise just how bad it looks from the outside looking in. We fetishize each and every major female comic book character and then wonder why more women aren’t reading comics.

But I digress…the simple fact is that the comic book industry is haemorrhaging readers. The top selling comic book in 1991 sold 8 million copies, and I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of those 8 million copies were sold to people under the age of sixteen. Fast forward to the end of 2008, and the top selling comic for the month of December sold around 150,000 copies. If that’s not alarming enough, skip forward another year, to December 2009 and the top selling comic only sold around 100,000 copies…and I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of those copies were sold to people over thirty. The readership has dropped by a third in just a year, comic shops are closing at an alarming rate…the Direct Market is dying because we’ve been aiming comics at an ever shrinking market of existing fans. This has got to stop.

The frustrating thing is that this can’t be done at a grass roots level. I know a lot of creators who feel that the key to the future survival of the comic book industry is in producing more all-ages comics. However, there’s no point in an indie comic book company producing a comic that will appeal to kids. Indie comics are only ever going to be available in speciality stores and at conventions. Kids don’t go to these. They go to their local stores, where mum and dad buy their newspapers and their magazines, and the only comic companies who can get their comics into those stores are the likes of Marvel and DC. This change in attitude has to come from the top or the readership will simply keep shrinking until it’s gone. God forbid we should get to December 2010 and see that the top selling comic only sold 50,000 comics, because by the end of 2011 it will be over for comics as we know them.


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Kosmikat said...

If I were king of Marvel or DC (unlikely, I know :) ) I'd ban all alternative universes and parallel dimensions etc. and bring everything into one world. Each character or team would only have one main book with the usual team-up/guest star/slight crossovers etc. allowed. Those books would be written with a strict 'don't write for kids but make sure kids can read it' approach and I'd push like mad for a mainstream newsstand distribution. I'm not advocating a return to silver/bronze age stories and art (you can have your fancy computer colouring etc.) but the big boys could do far worse than try to emulate those times a little more if they want to keep the funny book side of their businesses going.

mimi tomlinson said...

I couldn't agree more. I have five children who have never really 'got into' comics even though i was as a child. I am not 'on the scene' enough to know enough about the specialist stores or I wouldn't have the confidence to go to one, I am a regular shopper who would buy from a book shop or newstand. I loved comics as a child and even though perhaps was never a die-hard marvel fan, I subscribed to a number of different comics that were targeting a more female audience. I try to buy comics for my children from regular periodical places and the choice is dire. My girls have nothing offered to them other than barbie/princess/pink nonsense and my son's choice is even worse. Also, between the ages of about 9-10 and 16 there really is nothing mainstream. My children love all the new movies that have been made in recent years based on the conventions of the traditional comic book hero or characters we knew as kids, yet, there is very little for them to read about in this genre. I don't want my 12 year old son reading manga style nonsense that, as you pointed out, is really just porn. Until I stumbled over your profile and read your job description, I assumed there weren't really any comic writers anymore. Bring back the favourite conventions and universes on the edge, I say. It was so much fun while maintaining a certain level of innocence.