By Ricardo Serrano Denis
Take a quick stroll through the floor of the Javits Center, once again hosting this year’s New York Comic Con, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that everyone reads comics. Every single person in and out of the convention center, they all read comics. And yet, the “Comics Readers Today: Who Are They and Where to Find Them” panel, hosted by Heidi McDonald from The Beat (never heard of her – Ed.) in conversation with Chris Thompson (Titan/Statix Press), Karen Green (Columbia University Library), Terry Nantier (NBM), Jennifer King (Space Cadets Collection), and Nazeli Kyuregyan-Baron (Europe Comics), paints a more complicated state of affairs regarding the amount of people that actually read comics.
The good news is a lot of people read comics. The panel featured a slides presentation that offered numbers and stats that showed the American market and the European market definitely has strong backing from readers, especially from fans of Young Adult fiction. Children, teenagers, and ‘tweens’ have all made it possible for YA creators to carve their own space in the industry, with an accompanying commanding voice that forces other publishers to respond accordingly. DC Comics, for example, has revealed its plans to offer YA fiction through two new imprints, Ink and Zoom. It’s clear that publishers are recognizing that young adult readers will eventually become adult readers. It’s an investment in the future of comics.
The numbers also show women are not only interested in comics—which dispels the myth furthered by the uninformed assumption that comics are mostly for boys—but are also one of the main driving forces demanding publishers pay attention to their interests in offering new or reprinted stories. With Franco-Belgian comics, for instance, we see that 54% of comics readers are female. Facebook data shows that women express more interest in comics than men (although the site’s user demographics has to be taken into account here).
There is a difference between American and European comics markets. In the US, according to Bookscan numbers, men still make up 63% of comics sales, while women make up 37%. Nazeli Kyuregyan-Baron spoke to this difference by comparing comic book cultures. European comics offer a variety of content that is not dominated by superhero comics, as is the case in the American comics culture. The focus tends to be one of character-driven stories that open up storytelling possibilities, within which superheroes is but one of them, and certainly not imposing. American comics do not lack diverse storytelling options, but the conversation is still very much superhero-centered. Marvel and DC still have their hands firmly on the wheel, although indie comics are fast breaking and reassembling industry rules.
Chris Thompson reminded the audience of the power of the all-ages books. The European comics culture has a long history of being inclusive with age groups, crafting stories that aren’t so much suggested for certain ages as they are created for readers that do not really care for the distinction. Comics are for everyone, is the idea. They are stories and they do not necessarily have to be segregated by age. A question from one of the audience members sparked an interesting discussion on how one could feel the need for an excuse to browse the YA section in a library given it’s not on display for adults but rather their kids. The panel seemed to agree the YA classification should not scare older readers away from these comics. There’s still work to be done in making that idea seem obvious to readers.
Karen Green offered a different look at how readers can dive further into comics by looking at academic libraries as providing a different way of thinking about comics. If a comic book becomes the focus of academic research, new readers find an additional gateway into the medium. In fact, it can lay the groundwork for future debates that could inspire the industry to explore themes it might think has little to no audience whatsoever (much like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns did when they were released).
A bit of bad news comes from the fact the difficulty of painting a more vibrant picture of the American comics market due to its lack of comprehensive data. The contributions of digital and self-published comics sales have yet to be clearly defined in this conversation. European markets are heavily skewed towards graphic novel publishing while in the US we have a constant battle between single issue sales and compilation sales. Collected editions seem to be favored in the US due to their being binge-friendly, but single issues are still very engrained in the industry’s DNA.
I had the chance to ask the panel about how to bring in new adult readers. Young adult comics are doing their part in recruiting new readers, but adults seem to be a harder sell if they didn’t read comics from a younger age. Jennifer King suggested a compelling strategy in getting more adults that haven’t read comics into it: Gateway Comics. Suggest an amazing comic that you think can get people hooked and wanting more. King’s gateway comic is Donny Cates’s God Country. Kyuregyan-Baron added that adaptations of prose books and classics work well in this department. She mentioned the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred as a strong candidate. Karen Green referred to her comics classes and how a good dose of panel and image analysis can turn anyone into comics.
It looks like comic readers aren’t that hard to find. They are male, female, non-binary, of all ages, and everywhere. There are a lot of them today and it seems fair to expect a lot more of them to come.