Comics: Still Everywhere, and Still Nowhere

The other day, I was at a preschool’s Halloween Spooktacular, which was precisely as much fun as it sounds. Like the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, the evening’s entertainment wasn’t exactly geared towards keeping adults engaged, so I found my mind wandering to cataloging the kids’ costumes. You can tell more than you’d think about Where We Are As A Culture from the Halloween costumes, and this year, it was unmissable. There were a couple of pirates; I saw a Power Ranger in 2012 A.D. for some reason; but everyone else, and I mean everyone else, was a comic book superhero.

There were Batmen. There were baby Hulks. There were easily four varieties of Spider- and Supergirl. There weren’t any deep cuts– I didn’t see any preschoolers dressed as Nova or M.O.D.O.K.– but the store-bought Avengers and Justice Leaguers were out in full force.

As I watched them trick or treat from classroom to classroom, I thought, “Has any child in this room ever heard of a comic book? Are they even aware that that’s a thing?”

After shouting “Every one of you little poseurs is a Fake Geek Girl” until some of the other parents had me escorted out, I started thinking about the summer I took my role here at iFanboy.  Iron Man had just come out, and The Dark Knight was right around corner. There was a second Hellboy in there somewhere. Amid all the joy and geeking out, we perpetual bullying victims would cast a wary eye at the multiplex and say, “This can’t last. They’re gonna milk this, they’re gonna start cranking out Ghost Riders, and everyone will get sick of us. The other shoe has begun its downward trajectory.”

That was four years ago. How’s that bubble look now? Before you answer, I have a Spooktacular to show you. Our people are everywhere now. Pity we can’t say the same about the actual books.

Over the last few years, it seemed like our “community” would have the same discussions over and over again. When will the general public get sick of comic adaptations? When will someone do something about the scourge of late-shipping books? Why won’t these publishers go digital, already, and will digital save the art form once they do? Piracy something something yelling? Amazingly, when you sit and think about it, a lot of those old chestnuts have been asked and answered. Years after the adaptation boom began (some people say Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; I mark it as Bryan Singer’s X-Men) comic book movies had their best summer yet. The Walking Dead season premiere got higher ratings than everything else this fall. Digital comics are everything I ever wanted them to be and more. Lateness shriveled up, to be replaced by a game of “Spin the Wheel of Fill-In Artists.”

There is still an oldie that comes up on occasion, however: do any of these smash hit movies bring in new readers?

Years ago, the response was, “This is an unknowable mystery, like who built the pyramids or why people still buy variant covers.”

Now, the response is, “Maybe. Let’s say ‘no,’ but let’s uptalk when we say it.”

If other media are drawing in new customers, it doesn’t seem to have been a game changer so far. Sales have not been on a rocket to the moon since Marvel’s The Avengers came out. I have yet to see another human being on earth reading a comic book in public. Still, the manager of my store of choice says that since the New 52 got started, he’s been doing his most brisk business ever. Last week, I read an article with the most “beaten down geek” headline ever, “Comic Retailers Cautiously Ecstatic” (don’t let your guard down! it could be a trap!) which said the industry has seen twelve consecutive months of growth in the number of people buying good old fashioned paper-and-staples comics. That’s twelve months of growth not counting digital sales, which of course are an unknowable mystery.

When asked what they attributed the growth to, the retailers in the article did in fact point to an influx of new and lapsed readers brought on by all the pop culture exposure. It hasn’t led to a mania for reading comics, but how often is there a mania for reading anything? You get a Twilight or a Hunger Games every few years, but most of the time the bookstore is just happy not to be laying people off. Time magazine was selling 65,000 copies per issue last time I checked. If Penthouse were a Marvel book, it would’ve been canceled years ago. All things considered, these things are moving pretty well.

Even if it doesn’t translate into sales, I can live with what I’ve got. My kids saw Groot and Rocket Raccoon on TV the other day. I struggled to find a Spider-Man toy when I was their age, let alone an Iron Man costume. Even if no one else starts reading the books, at least now they see what I like about them.

 


Jim Mroczkowski is not going to hazard his Hulk costume this year. Sorry, ladies.

Comments

  1. I recently got my nephews the first 5 floppies of Superman Family Adventures. If you know kids who like superhero stuff (from TV, movies, or video games) buy them some age appropriate comics and get them started.

    • kennyg kennyg says:

      Well done. Get ‘em young, and make the first taste free.

      All sinister implications aside, this is really what you have to do – develop a love for comics, especially at a young age, and make the books available to them. Most children don’t have much disposable income of their own to buy many $2.99-$3.99 comics (much less more expensive trades and such). Anything you can do to get comics in their hands is a plus. I wish I had a bunch to give out on Halloween.

      I would also guide them to age appropriate books, of course.

      Another idea is to steer them to good books. I don’t want to discourage them reading something, but some of my son’s friends will comment on my comics and say “I read Green Arrow,” or “I read Detective.” So then I suggest they try something similar but better, like “Batman” by Scott Snyder.

    • TheFyl TheFyl says:

      I always checked out the ragged comics from my local library as a kid. It was always superheroesque stuff, but it keep the medium in my mind until I got back into comics at a later age. I “read”, or looked at the pictures, of a whole load of Ghost Rider stuff as a kid.

    • TheSquirrel TheSquirrel says:

      Any time someone walks in with a kid wanting to get them into comics Tiny Titans goes right into their hands.

  2. Peteparker Peteparker says:

    I love these state of the industry addresses. I’m always trying to figure out if I’ve come to the same conclusions on my own. While the preschool parties I attended didn’t involve many superheroes, I did see tons of hero costumes on the shelves, and most stores are bone dry at this point.

    Still, even with all the optimism in this post, I still feel as if printed books are on the decline. Maybe it’s just because I love digital so much…

  3. Maybe we’ve reached a relative plateau in terms of readers? Expect an eb and flow but not a flood of new ones. I mean reading overall…books or whatever is kind of at a saturation point. You’re either going to do that or you’re not. I kinda feel like its a cultural thing..the idea of valuing entertainment that’s read is not the #1 thing anymore for good or bad.

    Maybe comics are no longer the primary outlet for superheroes that we know and love. Maybe its the cartoons, games, toys and movies as the main thing, and the comics are just a secondary niche product. That’s not necessarily bad, but maybe it just is.

    I have nieces and nephews, they know and love sueprheroes but its not because of comics, or anything printed in book form. That’s the world they live in now.

    Just cause they were born in the comics doesn’t mean they will stay there as the world and media changes around it.

  4. CrimsonBlur CrimsonBlur says:

    I’m 16 myself.. and have yet to meet anyone less then 20-30 years older then me reading comics. Never seen anyone reading them in public outside a comic shop ether. NOW everyone will tell me about the movies, but “GOD FORBID” they pick up a COMIC! Granted if I force- I MEAN introduce my friends to comics they will read them, and enjoy them, but they will not buy them. My guess even though geeky/nerdy things are popular now… they arent to the point where anyone will be seen with them past movie/show items. I myself got into comics through a love of most art forms (I love books, games, paintings,comics, music, poetry, etc)… plus growing up down the street from a comic shop along with 5 others in less then a 5 mile radius probley helped. I got into comics through Anime/Manga at first, and then started collecting anything, AND I MEAN ANYTHING, with The Flash on it.. from there I gained a collection of comics from just about every publisher, of every age (love vintage comics), of every sort. My comic love is one I have enjoyed alone, but enjoyed it I have.

  5. Zhurrie Zhurrie says:

    With two close friends owning comic shops I can say (although anecdotally) that the movies do not drive comic sales in any way. Even at FCBD this year with the Avengers movie and the rest that stack almost didn’t get touched. The New 52 brought in more lapsed readers and families/kids but that dropped WAY off very quickly (some by issue 2). Price and overly complex tie-ins or multiple titles for the same comic are the most often cited reasons why people stop buying.

    I’m entirely OK with the market contracting and even becoming a small niche market, even more than it is now. Just like I will never stop buying print books I will not stop buying comics and I’m perfectly fine with them not being a mainstream thing.

  6. CGPO CGPO says:

    I’m pretty sure that I learned about certain comic book superheroes through TV and movies first and then found comic books later. Whether it was the classic Spider-Man cartoon, the Adam West Batman show, the Hulk TV show or the Superman movies, I was exposed to those before I could read or even probably saw a comic book up close. So I think the movies, cartoons and TV shows today are a great way to expose kids to comic characters, the real problem is getting them to read comics.

    I think the problem is that comics aren’t marketed towards kids, at all. Yes, I know there are all-ages comics, but please, to me, those remind me of Marvel’s Star comics, those are for babies (is what an eight year old would say). Comic companies need to target the 7-12 year olds range in terms of when a kid starts reading comics. Now, I don’t blame the comic industry entirely, because there are some forces beyond their control.

    If I was “King of Comics” for a year, this is what I would do: Get comics back into newstands. Be it grocery stores, 7-11s, whatever. I know the problem is the newstands dropped comics because they weren’t returnable, so make those ones returnable (don’t ask me how, I don’t have ALL the answers). Also, that price needs to drop. Like $2 max. How do we do that? Cheaper paper. I’m not talking old fashioned newsprint, but how about the paper that Vertigo prints their stuff on? Or Archie? If you want to have better paper, buy the direct market version. Newstand comics always come out a month later anyway. Parents in grocery stores would be able to give their kid a comic to keep them occupied, but they won’t if they are $3-4. Have ads for the online comics and comic stores inside so that if they want more, they can move onto those.

    We’ve forgotten that this is a disposal medium. In some ways we need to get back to that. All this complaining about fill-in artists, bah. I’d rather have a comic come out every month, as all we did was complain about late comics a few years ago. Heck even in the 80′s there would be issues where not only was it a fill-in artist, but a fill-in story, sometimes in the middle of a story arc! It was because there needed to be a product on the shelves every month. I’d start simple with what was on the newstands, the major stuff, Batman, Detective, Action, Superman, Amazing Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, etc. And if there was a character being pushed my a new movie, etc., maybe that one too. I think in some ways they need to go back to Direct market only comics they way they did. They had better paper and those ones you could put out more mature content. The flagship titles need to be more kid-friendly. That doesn’t mean dumb, that doesn’t mean simple, just less blood and sex and more done in one or two issues stories (this also does not mean there isn’t a bigger story in the background or no continuity, it just that someone can pick up an issue and not feel completely lost). And forget new number ones. My first issue of X-Men was 211, my first issue when I started picking it up every month was 233 I think. Meaning I figured it out, I found back issues, etc. Kids don’t care about that stuff, we do as adults. Today it’s even easier to read back issues with the Essential line and other trades, never mind there’s Wikipedia. The comic industry needs to stop catering to us, the OCD geeks who need everything and won’t come into a story in the middle. We’ll be gone in 20 years, and so will the comic industry if it continues this way.

    • Toshimoko29 Toshimoko29 says:

      I’d like to second pretty much everything CGPO said. Emphatically.

    • kennyg kennyg says:

      Excellent ideas all around. Not sure how practical or do-able they are, but making comics more accessible has to be part of the solution. I am somewhat encouraged that Barnes & Noble is stocking a lot of monthly “floppy” comics in addition to the trades. The local Toys R Us also has some comics in the action figure section, but they are usually very damaged and out of date.

    • CGPO CGPO says:

      While there are definitely factors that would make my ideas impractical, I think that accessability is the no. 1 issue. Parents do not go one day “I want to take my child to a comic store”. They don’t, not unless they themselves went or still go. Comic books at gorcery stores and convenience stores puts them in a child’s line of sight and gets them interested. I think that the younger you get them, the better, because even I fell out of comics during high school (so age 13-18), because it wasn’t “cool” and I had other interests. If Archie is able to maintain a newsstand presence, why can’t Marvel and DC? And how about some cheap digests in newsstands too? They would resemble the Archie ones in terms of size and paper, and maybe collect 3-4 issues from the 70′s or 80′s. These wouldn’t be about continuity, just telling good stories. I assume royalties would be the biggest problem here, as they should also keep those cheap, under $10, heck maybe just $6 or so. Again, appeal to a parent’s frugality, as if it’s took much, the parent will put it back. Those 100 page spectaculars DC put out last year and earlier this year was a good idea, but executed poorly in that they were too expensive and would probably have more appeal on a newsstand than in a comic shop.

      This industry idea (or at least DC’s plan) to get lapsed 90′s readers back is stupid. A lot of comic buyers at that time were collectors, not readers. I bet a large chunk never even cracked open their comics. The ones who read are probably reading still today or have come back due to the movies and renewed interest in geek culture. We need new young readers, not “new” old ones.

    • all of these solutions assume there is a desire by younger generations to want to read comic books. One has to ask themselves…are comics going the way of model kits, toy soldiers and kites? Is the medium of comics still relevant to younger generations? If no, then why not? How can the medium adapt to the culture instead of endless marketing gimmicks and PR tricks to grab short term end of quarter hype (i.e killing a character, and polybagging his return)

      You can’t force things down anyone’s throat when it comes to entertainment and media. At a certain point, you need that customer you are trying to woo, to actually have the desire to try your product, and you can’t really force that.

    • CGPO CGPO says:

      I don’t think it would hurt to try, as the current model isn’t working. Really, we don’t know if kids would still be interested in comic books or not, as they don’t have access to them anymore. The fact that they still like superheroes is a start and I’d say at least a point in the right direction. But continuing to milk the current audience for more money by charging a dollar more or double-shipping is only a small-time solution, and comic movies aren’t putting lapsed comic readers back in stores. Maybe comics are going away, or maybe kids need to be reminded of comics, and since most probably aren’t aware of them, the print form is probably the best way right now while the digital medium is still finding its legs. There must be some interest though in comics, as somebody is buying those Archies.

  7. icn1983 icn1983 says:

    I am constantly amazed at the variety of obscure Marvel and DC characters that now have action figures. I’m also amazed at how expensive they’ve become over the past couple of years. Here’s a question though: what about the various Marvel figures that come with a comic book? Do you think that’s effective at all? Or are they just thrown away? I mean, nothing will ever top the tiny comic books that were packaged with Kenner’s “Aliens vs. Predator” figures, meant to tie into a 90′s cartoon that was never produced.

  8. darkstar darkstar says:

    You know, I still think that the problem is exposure. If there was a comic rack alongside the action figures in the Target aisle, we’d see kids asking for em from the parental units. The comic store is still unapproachable for many people who enjoy superheroes in other mediums.

  9. stasisbal stasisbal says:

    When I was a kid in the 90′s I was aware of super-heroes more through cartoons, action figures and trading cards than the actual comic books. I would buy comic issues occasionally but never regularly for financial and convenience reasons. I was 8 when the X-Men Animated Series started in 1992. It was my favorite show for a while and I learned more about the characters and some classic stories from that than I ever did from reading the books. I didn’t started reading comics regularly until I was in my 20′s.

    Kids being aware of comic books outside the comic book medium is an ongoing trend. The super-hero genre has always had wide appeal. The successful big budget movies have just taken it to a whole new level. It seems the actual comic book market has developed into a niche thing for young adults and up. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that.

  10. KenOchalek KenOchalek says:

    For getting kids into comics — how about this:

    Marvel and DC assemble a committee of educators (I’m sure there are more than a few comic-fan/teachers out there willing to volunteer) and worked with them to generate age-appropriate reading lists of comic titles (past and present). Then offer schools bulk subscriptions to those titles at some kind of discount. If you’ve got the teachers on board, I can guarantee those books will get read by kids. If you extend that discounted subscription plan to the kids themselves, any kid that gets hooked on a particular book could save their money (or get their parents to pony up) and buy a personal subscription.

    It’s unlikely to cause a huge boom in sales now, but it would certainly help foster future readers and less overtly improve the reputation of comics as literature (imagine a whole generation of kids ENCOURAGED to read comics at school!).

  11. I started reading comics with the new 52. What prompted me to get started reading comics? I loved the movies coming out and thought to myself: “Aren’t the books usually better?” Now I know, why yes, yes they are.

  12. KenOchalek KenOchalek says:

    You know, as I read a lot of the great ideas in these comments, I’m left wondering what it is we’re missing? What do the publishers (or perhaps their parent companies) know — that we don’t — that has prevented them from trying any of these things in the last 10+ years.

    Not to disparage anyone’s creative thinking, but I think it’s fair to say that all the ideas we’ve come up with here lean toward the obvious, so what’s the problem?

    Maybe the goal isn’t new readers?

    I wonder if it’s time for Josh to resurrect “What’s Wrong With You?!” but turn the focus toward the publishers?

  13. markavo markavo says:

    “Even if no one else starts reading the books, at least now they see what I like about them.”

    How great is that statement? People realize it’s about the stories and characters not the people or the “culture” that permeates comic book geekdom.

  14. hanson724 hanson724 says:

    I read comics as a kid and pre-teen in the 80′s and then stopped reading them for years. I always loved super heroes but stopped buying books for typical money reasons( didn’t have any). I probably never would have come back if I didn’t have kids. We bought our son some shoes and an advertisement in the form of comic came with them and he loved it( he’s 6 now and 5 when this happened). I told him he if he liked it I’d take him by the comic store. This was a few months After the new 52 started and my faded love for actual comics has been reignited with a fury. My son and I love reading them and it’s been great. Talk Bout a great way to spend some time. Anyways he’s full on diggin’ them and constantly asks to go to the LCS.
    The biggest problem is advertising . I totally agree with the other posts. My son and I got into comics because of Skechers handing them out with their shoes. He doesn’t wear Skechers all of the time but he cannot wait for the new Adventure Time to come out. Go figure…

  15. Personally, when I was a kid, I got into comics through reading old ones. My dad got me hooked with a collection of old Superman stories, and from then on, I would read whatever Imcould get my hands on, as long as it had superheroes. The amount of 80′s comics I have is insane.
    Eventually, I moved on to new comics, and that was because my dad bought me the first issue of Jeph Loeb and Ed Mcguinness’ Hulk. You know, that title that everyone hated? I loved it. Go figure. From there I read the last issue of Secret Invasion, which led me to Dark Avengers, which led me to Siege, which led me to all the Avengers titles that came out after that, and so on.
    So really, all some kids need to get into comics is some old stuff. I know it worked for me. One of my friends got into comics through the Avengers movie, simple as that. Believe it or not, the next generation does like reading comics. We just aren’t that obvious about it sometimes.

  16. ohcaroline ohcaroline says:

    They’re still making new Power Rangers shows, oddly enough.

  17. Megazell Megazell says:

    I grew up around comics. My mom and dad grew up around comics and my kids will grow up around comics. With that said from my weekly Wednesday pick-up chat/meets with the other comics geeks (male and female – some are old as 67 to as young as 15) ppl are purchasing comics differently. Online. One-Shots ONLY. Graphic Novels. TPBs ONLY. Using myself as an example, I only buy/get complete graphic novels. I’m more into independent comics than the big 2. I don’t think I can ever go back into floopies like I use to. My oldest kid (11) reads Manga like crazy with SOME comics like Archie and Escape Goat. This kid kills 15 to 20 books a week. Old or new. It don’t matter. My youngest (5) loves 2 books “Adventure Time” and “Sonic.” As I converse with ppl about what and why they collect or read…I’ve notice that a great many of them burn out faster then before. I remember this young man came into a shop I frequented. He was super excited and buying up Spiderman soon after the Civil War storyline where Peter revealed this alter-ego on TV. This guy would come in, chat with us and go into his love of the most recent development about it….when that story was retconned…He stopped showing up. I had the luck of running into him on the other side of town by accident. Spoke to him for a bit…He was just disappointed that the books he collected and read “Never Happened.” He was DONE. Comics were not for him. I saw this same phenomenon with others when the NEW 52 came up. I think the editors are making too many “Dallas” changes and over all it burns ppl out and that’s why new readers don’t stay.