The State of the Comic Book Industry – A Fan Spouts Off

I’m stealing this blog idea from my friend Sudge. It’s a blatant blog steal. I have no excuses beyond writer’s block. Sorry.

I wouldn’t say I stay awake at night worrying about the state of the comic book industry (I have woken up at 3am panicking about not having handed in my final degree dissertation, but as that was five years after I graduated, I think it might have been a nightmare), but I’ve got an interest in it. I want to see it do well, because, at the end of the day, I like comics. Problem is, I love them a little less than I used to, and it’s probably that’s not an isolated story. Maybe I’m slowly growing out of them (but I still love the characters, go figure), maybe the spark’s gone and they’re not doing for me what comics should do. I’m not sure what the deal is, and it would be wrong to extrapolate that to cover the fate of the industry as a whole… But that’s what I’m gonna do!

Earlier I admitted the subject of the post was stolen, but not entirely. See, when I was in Toronto, I walked past a comic shop. Now, I’m sure it was a perfectly fine establishment, but it didn’t look like a perfectly fine establishment – kinda dark and with a giant picture of Alan Moore on the front. Now, Alan Moore is one of the great modern comic book writers, but he looks like a terrifying wizard, and having pictures of terrifying wizards welcoming you probably isn’t all that inviting to the general public. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t see it working for the Gap.

That’s part of the problem with the industry, I think – it’s somewhat exclusionary, and part of that is that it’s run by Fans. Don’t get me wrong – fan involvement in the creative side of a project can be a life-saver. After all, it’s what allowed Doctor Who to make a pretty spectacular comeback. However, the difference is that people like Russell T. Davies are big enough fans to know what makes a show like Doctor Who tick, but also have enough experience in general TV to know how to grab a mainstream audience. Problem with comics is, there IS no mainstream audience and therefore there’s no direct impetus to engage with it. Doctor Who has to engage with the millions of people who are watching EastEnders; comics just seem to engage with the people who are reading comics. Problem is, the number of those actually doing that are dwindling and there doesn’t seem much in the way of efforts to re-engage with a more general audience. There was a big deal recently about how all the major comic companies now have digital editions of stuff coming out – there’s an app for it – but that just means they’re engaging with the people with the technology to read the stuff online; that’s not the same as finding people with the inclination to read comics.

This is just a problem in the West, of course; in Japan, comics are mainstream, covering a much wider range of subject matter, and the audience is correspondingly bigger (although falling too). Somewhere along the line, comics in the West became synonymous with superheroes, which is a problem; I love superheroes, they’re pop culture icons, but it’s pretty much putting all your eggs in one basket. I know the argument – the quirkier stuff just doesn’t sell. But maybe that’s got something to do with rising comic prices. Maybe that’s got something to do with the fact that people who might be tempted to buy the quirkier stuff don’t even know it exists. And the fanbase you’re connecting with aren’t buying the quirkier stuff because hey, they’ve got to eat and they’re choosing loyalty to the characters and titles over loyalty to the medium in general, voting with their wallets. That’s capitalism for you. And besides, I have to pay my electricity bill.

So how does the industry engage with a wider audience? I don’t know; if I did I’d be a consultant and I’d be blogging this from my private jet. If I had to guess, I’d say it needs to look beyond its typical audience, which I’m fairly certain is men in their twenties and thirties. This means a lot of modern comic book plots are driven by nostalgia, and maybe to a degree innovation is sacrificed to the status quo – stories echo the stories told twenty or thirty years ago, only with a greater level of ultraviolence to convince everyone it’s a mature medium that isn’t for kids. Only guess what? No-one thinks comics are for kids any more. So maybe that’s somewhere to go – produce a bunch of kid-friendly material (you know, with fewer hearts getting ripped out) and then get involved as much as possible with literacy projects. Exploit the cross-platform nature of characters like Batman or Spider-Man to get kids reading. They’re being used to sell cinema tickets, try working backwards from that.

Then there’s the gender gap – women aren’t a massive section of the western comic readership, although they’re okay with Manga. You can make lots of arguments about how to broaden the market to make it attractive to more geek girls, but you can have all the debates you want over re-designing Wonder Woman, the first thing you need to do is employ more women in the industry. I suspect that would start solving a lot of these issues automatically; at least it might do something about the whole Women in Refrigerators thing.

But you can do all that but comics are still somewhat invisible, even if that fact is masked by the ubiquity of superheroes over recent years. I have to travel a minimum of five miles to get to a shop that sells comics, and that’s a specialist retailer. And then I have to walk through a Twilight section to get to the comics, which makes the store look even more specialist. Getting them into newsagents and supermarkets is a first step, although maybe a panacea – they’re still expensive, and people have to want to actually buy them when they see them. Still visibility is a first step. Get more genres out there – I know there’s a Fringe comic out there, but why not release, I dunno, a Glee comic? Okay, it wouldn’t work because the point of Glee is the music, but hey, can’t someone figure out how to use the whole digital app thing to produce a comic that includes music? Maybe audio books could be the next big influence on comics?

And, being a closet idealist, when I saved the comic industry and made millions, I’d use the goodwill people have towards the whole superhero thing and set up a charitable foundation to support various good causes; a friend once told me that comics can help deaf children learn to read because the visuals help develop understanding of the words, and that’s stuck with me, and so I’d build on stuff like that. Because characters like Superman have transcended the comic industry and have become a byword for helping others. And that’s something that’s worth building on; you can’t read about superheroes every week for years without wanting to leave the world a better place.

So those are my thoughts on the future of comics. If you’re a reader and disagree, fair enough, tell me why. If you’re an industry professional…

…I’ll invoice you later 😉

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