"Comics are for people!"
This being my first column, I suppose I should explain myself a bit, and the focus that I hope for this column to take.
Comics are for people.
Let me tell you how I came to this, rather than explaining myself outright from the get go. Over the last five years, I have moved all over the great state of California (or cali-fah-nee-yah as our governator would have us pronounce it), and have had the opportunity to shop at several comics shops from Eureka (at the northern coastal tip for CA) to Hollywood (uhmm... middle bottom!), and let me tell you, in my lifetime, I've seen about seven or more comics shops that I frequented close down.
And to be fair, four of those shops probably opened and closed in or around 1993 (for you youngins, there was a huge industry boom in 1992, mostly due to "speculators" and a subsequent collapse in 1993). That said, in the last two years, two shops that were "my shops" (as in, the stores where I was a regular... good stores) closed down. The last of the two, Tales to Astonish of Santa Maria, hit me pretty hard because it was the only shop for a 30 mile radius. Yep, thats right... SIXTY long expensive miles between comics shops. Luckily for me, Captain Nemo's of San Luis Obispo is a great store (more about them in a future column), and worth a 30 mile drive, as there's plenty of other reasons for me to go to SLO (as we call it). But I was shocked and taken aback that there could be only one store serving such a large area, and then that the store wouldn't be doing enough business to survive. What was going on?
The more I thought about it, the more it became clear. My eyes were opened to a much wider problem. Comics readership is on the decline. The only kids I ever saw in Tales To Astonish were my kids. In fact, I was probably the youngest regular customer that this store had, and I'm pushing 30 as it is. So, not only is readership on the decline, but there are also no new readers. Or, very few, making the percentage of those who hang on a very small number.
Where did things go wrong? In my mind, comics are something that should be as approachable as a prose book, movie, or any other common form of entertainment. Where did things suddenly go south for, not just the industry of comics, but for the medium itself?
I've identified a number of factors, that will become the focus of this column, as well as current events, developments, and general goings on in the comics world with these concerns in mind. Some of these are:
The Direct Market - It maybe unpopular to attack the direct market, as its been as much of a help to independent companies/creators as it has been a boon to the medium itself. This is no attack. I have nothing against the concept or system itself, but over the last 20 years or so, we've seen a shift where comics are no longer available on your typical magazine/news racks, and only in specialty stores. There are many reasons and causes for this, which we'll explore, but what's troubling about it is that for a kid to find a comic book they'd have to go to
Local Comics Shops - Once again, not an attack. But I feel that, for a kid, or any age person, to be exposed to something, the fact that its only available in a specialized store is a hinderance unto itself. What's getting people to the point where they want to go to an LCS in the first place? Couple that with (c'mon admit it) the fact that many LCS's are not exactly the most welcoming places. There are plenty of GREAT LCS's, but there are just as many (and trust me, I've been to them) that seem to go out of their way to make you feel like they don't want your business, whether it be from the atmosphere, the attitude, or just plain not being open when normal people shop. That doubles the blockade to new readers. I hope to explore what LCS's are doing right to promote readership, as much as what they are doing wrong, hopefully to help everybody.
Subject Matter/Public Perception - Ask Joe Moviegoer what his favorite "comic book" flicks are, and he'll probably say Iron Man, Dark Knight, X-Men, Spider-Man-- when the case might be that he enjoyed movies like I Am Legend, 30 Days of Night, or Ghost World way more. What I'm getting at, is that the public perception is that comics = superheroes. Why should it? Comics have just as unlimited possibilities for genres as do any other medium. It's like saying all movies are romantic comedies, or all books are murder mysteries. While there's nothing inherently wrong with the superhero genre (I, for one, love it), it seems silly that comics as a whole should be characterized by it, especially when there's a general perception that the superhero genre is childish, at best.
To summarize: Comics, by non-readers, are considered to be of juvenile subject matter while actually being marketed to a 30+ crowd in stores where only people who already read comics frequent.
Oversimplified? Yes. I really don't think the whole issue of declined readership breaks down to just three reasons. And any of these reasons are much more complex when you put them under a microscope for examination. But I think, for an introductory first column, this will give you a flavor of where I'm going... or will it?
You might be thinking, at this point, that I'm down on the comics industry and medium. That I'm being negative. No. Nothing further from the truth! Like any good story, before we get rolling, we first need to establish the status quo. My sole purpose for the column is to raise awareness, and to try and brainstorm (and discover and present) new and great ideas to bring comics to a much, much wider audience. These ideas can and will come from all over.
Publishers: What are you doing to pull in new readers? A lot of focus has shifted to book stores, so we'll explore that too.
Retailers: You guys are the meat and potatoes of getting comics to the people right now. What are you doing to pull new customers into your shop? I've spoken, with my previous incarnation of this column, to retailers around the country and some have come up with some fantastic literacy programs, working with libraries and whatnot... so there's a lot of cool things going on, so I'd like to see those ideas get out there.
(And by the way, retailers (this goes especially for you guys in California), whenever I get a chance, I'll be visiting you. I'll be reporting back the pros and cons of your shop to give readers an idea of what's working, what's not, and a general sampling of the retailing world. So, be on your best behavior! Readers, feel free to report back to me on this sort of thing!)
Webcomics: As the major publishers shift (albeit verrry slooowwly) to the book market, webcomics may become the model for serialized distribution. But what kind of model is it? No standardized formatting or presentation has been established, not to mention decent and consistent ways to turn a profit. I think webcomics or, more generally, digital distribution has enormous potential, especially in the vein of getting to readers that were previously out of reach. The problem here, is that, similar to the music industry, folks are becoming accustomed to free content, so until a profitable model presents itself, some may shy away from this as a distribution option. Yet another area for exploration!
So, in length, my over all goal with this column is to broaden the readership of comics, and hopefully motivate those who are already readers of comics to actively promote new readership, as well as generally just explore what's going on in comics from this perspective. But mostly, to drive the point home that comics are a medium that can be enjoyed by anyone as much as prose books, movies, or television. That comics aren't only for a minute subset of genre fans... Comics are for people!
That ought to wrap it up for this week, I know it's a bit "getting to know you," but I think its important to establish that "status quo" of what's going on, so we can springboard into more specific topics! I just hit the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco this last weekend, so next week I'll be doing a write up of that. A lot of interesting things went on there, and I'm itching to write about in length. See you then!
Matt Grant is a graphic designer and self-publishing comics and webcomics creator. His comic MastorisM can be read at www.MastorisM.com and updates Tuesdays and Thursdays. A long time comics fanatic and advocate for the medium, Matt eats, sleeps, and breaths comics. Consequently, doctors attribute his malnutrition, insomnia, and asphyxiation to those activities.
Matt would love nothing more than to hear from fans, retailers, creators, and publishers that have anything relevant to contribute to his column. He believes that, only by working together, we can bring the comics medium to a wider deserving audience. Please feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, private message him here, or harass him on the street! Matt does not claim to be an industry expert in any way shape or form, but rather an opinionated pundit on the sidelines.
Good topic, Matt.
This is exactly what I was getting at with my Halloween edition of SEB-standard. THe idea of bringing a younger generation into comics.
http://www.projectfanboy.com/vb/showthread.php?t=1774 (Shameless Plug)
The movies help.
The cartoons help.
FREE COMIC BOOK DAY helps.
Giving comics as Trick-or-Treat treats helps.
I do create-a-comic projects in class with my middle & High School students, as well as use trades in the classroom.
Plus, my foreign language speakers help me translate dialogue for my WWII project I'm scripting. I've got a student from Poland and a few who lived abroad when their parent's were stationed in Germany, who have been a big help. And they get very into the whole comic scene/creative process.
Heck, just this morning I helped one of the Middle School history teacers come up with a comic project and several rubrics to grade it, so the 7th graders will be making mini-comics of various time periods in WORLD HISTORY.
Let's get that next geneartion reading!
"Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"