Working in the comics industry for 20 years, I’ve learned that the creators and fans tend to be some of the most open, progressive and inviting people on the planet. They are not quick to judge people and always seem open to new ideas…except when it comes to their comics.
For some reason, when it comes to their comics, most of today’s readers, and frankly creators, want to keep the status quo. Anything new is viewed with caution or, sometimes, outright dismissal. Anything that is not directed at their particular tastes is derided and summarily dismissed. Not always, mind you, but I’ve noticed a very conservative tilt when it comes to people’s comics. I’ve read super hero comics, I like them and think they should always be around, but comics can’t make that the end-all/be-all.
As an industry, we’ve been forced to steer most of our product to the same demographic. Comic books in the direct market are non-returnable, so that puts the retailer in the position of taking the chance in ordering comics. If they order incorrectly, they end up with product they can’t sell and have to eat that cost, so they usually play it safe and order the top-sellers for the most part. I don’t blame them. If I was given the choice of selling X-Men, which I know will sell through, or another less known commodity, I’d choose X-Men. So, then the publishers see that and provide more of what the retailers want. It’s a vicious circle and diversity is lost.
You may say to me that there is a ton of diversity out there, but I mostly see an appeal to the same type of reader. Why else would it be news when comics geared at women are released? We have shrunk our medium to a very small group. In a world of billions, it’s telling that the top-selling book sits at around 100,000 copies sold. And those numbers are dwindling. Why? When a survey comes out saying that 25% of comic readers are over 65, don’t we see the answer?
As Whitney Houston once sang, I believe the children are the future. (Yeah, I’m old.) We need to get more children into reading comics. Now, I’ve heard it said that there are plenty of comics out there for kids, and there are. A lot of them happen to be super-hero comics cleaned up, but I think we need to radically change the kinds of comics we do for kids as well as where they are distributed.
First up: the type of comics. I know that there are plenty of all-ages comics out there at the smaller comics companies, but as I said, they’re not being ordered by shops. I’m looking at the big comics publishers who must lead the charge moving forward. They have the resources and giant multi-media parent companies. So, while super hero comics are well and good, we need to expand that. We need to do comics that, like a Pixar movies, can be about lots of other things and other subjects and other genres. We can have adventure stories, fantasy stories, or anything else we want. But, and this is key, these books need to break from the monthly format. Marvel and DC need to offer up 120 page graphic novels that can be read in one sitting or with their parents a little at a time at night before bed or whenever. I look at the passion my kids had when Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out—they gobbled the books up. We need to make comics for them fun, exciting and something they want to read, just like movies. The movies that seem to consistently do well are those aimed at all-ages audiences in whatever genre they may be.
The next important thing is getting those books into their hands or, more likely, into the parents’ hands. They are not coming to us. Parents don’t head out to comic book stores because there either aren’t any, they don’t know of any, or their dreaded preconceived notions of comic shops. We need to get these books into the major bookstores, right next to other children’s books. We need to run a pilot program that offers these books to schools where children, teachers and parents can read them firsthand.
I have experience with this. I started Franklin Richards, a comic I wrote and drew with Marc Sumerak, when my kids were in second grade. I offered copies to the teachers, which they seemed to like. The children loved them and then the parents started approaching me asking where to get the books, because the kids loved them. I always cringed at the responses when I told them they could get them at comic book stores. They usually didn’t even know there was such a thing. Then when the trades came out, I told them that they could get them at bookstores, but the bookstores didn’t stock them. I think there was a fear of the unknown in both the parents and booksellers. They didn’t know what this book was. But, I think when there are enough of these type of comics out there, they become the norm and accepted. Eventually, the teachers told me that the Franklin books became a great motivator. The children all wanted to read the comics, so the teachers would let them read them after they completed an assignment or read a prose book. It was a treat to them. We need to make comics a treat for kids again.
I recently read a study that children prefer reading books digitally rather than dead tree versions. I’ve seen it first hand. My kids have read more comics on my iPad than they ever read before. They aren’t giant comic book readers, but they seem more intrigued. I would love to do a digital comic along the lines of the Alice in Wonderland app when things happened as you read—things moved, popped out, etc. Another idea was a flash comic I saw once where the page stayed static and each time you touched the screen, it flipped to the next panel or completed an action in the panel. Whatever type of digital distribution is utilized, it can only help. However we do it, we need to get these new type of books into their hands. We need to go out and get them, because they aren’t coming to us.
I know a lot of people who look down their noses at all-ages comics and they have the right to their opinion, but I think to dismiss the idea or to think they aren’t real comics should really look at the bigger picture. Numbers are dwindling. The amount of devoted comics readers is going down and if it continues, the books that you love may disappear with the readers. So, we need to build back readership and that means getting them when they’re young and maybe the next survey will say that 25% of comics readers are under 10 and we’re growing the industry.
Like I said, we need to turn comics into a treat for kids, but also let the parents know it’s a treat for their kids, but maybe also for themselves. Don’t look down on kids comics. Make them, distribute them, celebrate them and maybe, just maybe, they’ll pick up a copy of X-Men when they get older and see what it is about comics that you love so much.
Chris Eliopoulos has been working in comics for over 20 years. He has written and/or drawn Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius, Pet Avengers, Desperate Times, and the daily strip, Misery Loves Sherman. He's also known as one of the best letterers in comics today. He has also been trapped in New Jersey for far too long, and efforts to retreive him have fallen sadly short. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter.