Formula for Regrowing the Comics Industry
I’m entering my 37th year as a comics retailer, with multiple locations for most of that time, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in sales patterns. The nice thing about having multiple stores is that you sometimes see sales initiatives play out differently at alternate locations.
a lack of choices offered by Marvel and DC that keeps this market small.
One universal pattern has been the loss of younger readers. But this loss has not been because of a lack of interest. The potential customer base is there and clamoring for material. It has been a lack of choices offered by Marvel and DC that keeps this market small.
When I first opened, everything in my store was All Ages material. I made a choice to have a family friendly environment, and avoided Adults Only material. When local laws were established that prohibited the sale of X-Rated material in locations close to schools and churches, I was unaffected when the other bookstores were all raided in a single day.
But one aspect of my customer base was being underserved -- that of the Mature Reader. Then Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight came along, and the industry woke up to that fact.
Coinciding with this realization was the concept of the graphic novel. One of the first things I did after opening my first store was to collect runs of comics into hardcover graphic novels. Deluxe reprint collections of New Gods, Ronin, Shadow of the Bat, and many others sold as fast as I could have them bound.
In the mid-Eighties, I took samples of these prototype graphic novels with me to a Capital City Distribution Retailers Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and showed them to both DC and Marvel. My first question was a concern that they might feel I was doing copyright infringement. Both companies told me the same thing:
"When you put a comic into a plastic bag, you’re repackaging it. However you want to repackage something for resale in your store is fine with us," -- it’s when you start advertising to sell them outside your store is when they’d have a problem.
My second question was -- why weren’t they doing graphic novels themselves? These things sold as fast as I could make them. Again, both Marvel and DC gave me the same reply:
"There will never be a market for reprint collections."
Then DC tried it with Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and found out otherwise. Both books remain in print today -- much to the outrage of Alan Moore, but that’s another topic.
Both DC and Marvel are once again overlooking a huge potential market for the comics industry -- that of the All Ages Market.
When it was recognized that the Mature Market was being overlooked in the Eighties, in the following Nineties the pendulum swung completely in the other direction, and ever since then it has been the All Ages Market that is being overlooked.
The selection of All Ages material became so small, that I had to create an All Ages sections in my stores, and other than Teen Titans Go and Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes, the mainstream heroes from the movies are rarely represented.
It’s so obvious that Marvel has completely forgotten how to make All Ages material, that when Disney wanted to create the All Ages Star Wars Adventures, they used another publisher.
Nearly every day I have children on their first visit to the stores shake their heads at the meager selection in the All Ages section, while the parents shake their heads at the mainstream Marvel and DC that the kids gravitate towards, all of it targeted at Teen and older.
The problem today is that when many publishers make All Ages material they treat young readers as though they are mentally retarded, and dumb down the material. Kids are not stupid, recognize this, and walk away.
The publishers then draw the wrong conclusion that kids today don’t want comics anymore. The conclusion they should be drawing is that kids never want to be talked down to.
The formula for making All Ages content was best summed up in the made-for-television movie, Adventures in Time and Space, which chronicled the making of the first year of the BBC program Doctor Who. In it, the BBC program director explained the formula for children’s programming:
"You’ve got to make it complicated enough to keep the kids interested, but dumb it down enough not to confuse the adults."
American comics do the exact opposite.
The best All Ages material that I’ve ever read was stuff I read as a kid, and still enjoy as an adult: Carl Barks’ Disney Ducks and anything by Russ Manning. His science fiction stories about Magnus, Robot Fighter from the 1960s is as enjoyable, or more, than any similar work being made today. And Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories, many of them set in the 1930s and 40s, are timeless in their charm.
The key was simple; good storytelling and art. They didn’t need sensationalized gimmicks. Minnie Mouse was never raped or murdered. Donald might have lost his temper more than a few times, but he never went full vigilante.
Magnus, Robot Fighter on the other hand was unfortunately modernized with today’s style of mature storytelling, and no one buys a single copy of the latest incarnations at either store.
I’m not saying that we need to once again ignore the Mature Readers market. We don’t need yet another complete swing of the pendulum.
What I am saying is that as an industry we need to find equilibrium. Stop the pendulum in the center, and go back to the Golden Age when there was plenty of material being made for every audience.
The All Ages market is where our next generation of readers will come from.
This is the formula to grow our industry.
The opinions expressed in this Talk Back are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.