For instance, yesterday I needed to clear a path through the book buildup and took a couple of boxes of books to the Strand for my mocha latte money. The young fellow who was taking the books out of the boxes, as these young fellows so often do, couldn’t help but be intrigued by the fact that I had so MANY graphic novels. “Do you work for a publisher?” he asked?
“No, I’m a reviewer.”
“For where? Wizard?”
“No I have my own blog. The Beat.”
A moment of silence, then, “Have you read Spider-Man: Reign?”
Whoa, didn’t see that one coming! “No. What did you think of it?”
“I read the first couple of issues. It’s got some good stuff. I read a couple of comics…just getting back into it.” (I had a lot of books so it was taking a LONG time to take them all out of the box so we had a lot of time to talk.)
I looked at this young fellow. His age wasn’t that clear, but he couldn’t have been much older than 25 or so. Here was a demographic subject who would have come of age during the bleak 90s, the era when we all thought there were no comics for kids. How? HOW had he discovered comics? What promethean meteor had descended on him?
“What comics did you read when you were a kid?” I asked him.
“Oh, probably Infinity Gauntlet, Secret Wars, that kind of thing. My father was a big comics collector.”
Well, here in one swift stroke was proof of TWO theories! #1, the idea that Marvel heroes have usually had a broad demographic appeal. And #2, the idea that “We must breed a new race of comics readers! It is our only hope!”
Lately I’ve come around to the idea that the Grim and Gritty era DIDN’T kill off kid comics readers entirely, as evidenced by the fact that there are many people — male and female — in their early 20s who READ COMICS. I doubt that anyone has made a real study of what the gateway drugs are, but I would love to start an informal poll. I’ve heard GI JOE and BARBIE mentioned. Clearly SAILOR MOON was the gateway for the manga boom, and at least partially by extension the Bookstore Explosion. I think the number of child readers dwindled in the Dark Ages — and sales figures in the late 90s would back this up — but it wasn’t as drastic a purge as a lot of people feared. I think Bruce Timm and the Batman and X-Men animated cartoons did a lot more good than they are generally given credit for.
I think there are a lot of gateways now for younger 20-something readers. I think Alan Moore is a gateway, and Frank Miller is a gateway, and so are other authors from Brian Wood to Brian Vaughan to Bryan Lee O’Malley. I know from anecdotal field research that even Marvel and DC are gateways.
To return to my own empirical field research, it seems like every time I get on the subway I see someone reading a comic. Sometimes its a manga, sometimes JLA, sometimes Ultimate Spider-man. I suspect these subway riders are what I will call “recreational readers.” They are not fans per se, in the collector, plastic bag, Android’s Dungeon sense. They are the current incarnation of those regular folks who like to read comics because they provide fun stories and engaging art. That’s right, they read comics for fun.
I think Civil War did a better job of engaging these recreational readers than a lot of comics pundits would like to admit. Civil War is the Infinity Gauntlet of its day. It has characters people can relate to — Cap and Iron Man! — and a goal people can identify — dealing with superpowers in the post 9/11 world. I haven’t read more than a few pages, so I have no idea how the execution is, as Tom would say. I stand by my claim that I would rather read a Global Hobo mini comic, but in a world where we are all wondering “How can we sell more comics?” It could be worth figuring out what is appealing about this story. NOT because First Second needs to rush out a mini-series where Kampung Boy fights Missouri Boy over an ID card, but to see what makes this story engaging to recreational readers.
In yesterday’s comment section someone linked to this fascinating story from IGN where Joss Whedon explains why he can’t write Marvel Comics any more.
Whedon: You know… I think my Marvel time is winding down. That’s not to say there are no properties, but right now, everything is so connected that I can’t get my head around it. Obviously this is doing great business for both Marvel and DC, and bringing out some of the best writing, is some of this enormous event stuff. Identity Crisis was amazing and spin a bunch of stuff – that’s really cool.
But I kind of like it when the Hulk’s doing his thing, and Cap’s doing his thing, and you buy it once a month and get excited. Everything is so complicated that, you know, “Um… is… is Marrow?” and then, “Yeah we’re using Marrow! She’s part of the New Brunswig Avengers!” So you’re like, “Oh! OK, great, nevermind, sorry!” I don’t understand… And also again the workload.
There are definitely characters I like, but I have no idea if they’re going to be dead, rebooted, Ultimated or be wearing a black costume by the time I get to them. I was going to pitch a Fantastic Four story, I did pitch it, saw what they were doing and said, “Actually what you’re doing is cooler.” I wish somebody had just told me before I wasted all this time, but this is a cool story, and I think my thing doesn’t work in this universe as it’s progressing. So, not to go on, but I kind of feel like, “Ehhh, I’ll just play with my toys until they break… in about six issues… and then maybe it’s time for me to rest.”
Now I have no idea how much Whedon is spinning his story for the sake of funny lines, but if it’s remotely true, it’s sadly shortsighted on Marvel’s part. Joss Whedon is an immensely popular writer with a huge built-in fanbase, ASTONISHING X-MEN is one of Marvel’s best selling graphic novels on the backlist, and anyone who wouldn’t take a flyer on a Whedon-penned FF series being another backlist hit is throwing away sales. Neil Gaiman’s ETERNALS mini may not have been at the top of the charts, but I guarantee the collection will sell well for a long time. (I’ve seen skatepunks at Union Square reading 1602.) Have you never heard of ELSEWORLDS, wpeople?
At the end of the day in the spirit of “How can we?” I think we need to question all our assumptions. The audience for FUN HOME is not the audience for CIVIL WAR, thank God, and I’m not trying to say that the people spilling into the Android’s Dungeon to buy CIVIL WAR are suddenly going to get interested in AYA. We’ve proven many many times that just putting indie comics in the proximity of better selling superhero books doesn’t sell more indie comics. But the rising tide is lifting all boats. The important thing is for publishers to stop accidentally knocking holes in the bottom of the boat by telling Joss Whedon he has to write CIVIL WAR: BACK DOOR.
I haven’t given up on those quirky, creator driven titles because the reality is that they are going to be the comics that end up selling year in and year out to the new crop of recreational readers. I was a bit too old to read INFINITY GAUNTLET, but I read plenty of Jim Starlin books when I was an impressionable youngster. By today’s standards, this would be a quirky, creator driven book. EVERY comic is somebody’s first. The industry just needs to make sure these comics bear some resemblance to good storytelling and don’t just fulfill the need to bring someone back from the dead.