Home Culture Commentary Ross Richie Wants to Push #ComicsForward (so I’m giving some direction)

Ross Richie Wants to Push #ComicsForward (so I’m giving some direction)

6

Last month, via the BOOM! Studios PR mailing list, I received a letter, containing a copy of a guest editorial by Ross Richie, CEO and founder.

You can read it here.  Go ahead… I’ll wait.

Here’s his reason for doing this:

We know where we’ve been—our favorite eras, our favorite characters, our favorite runs. We already know all of that. I’ve got a garage full of Silver, Bronze, Copper, and Modern Age comics and I love them.

But the medium of comics has never been more on the forefront of driving pop culture and as fans of this art form, we have a rare opportunity to take that interest to the next level and embrace an entire generation of potential fans who don’t read comics right now.

We can make a new Golden Age.

At BOOM!, we’ve carefully selected new projects in 2015 that we believe will help Push #ComicsForward. These projects will take on risky subject matter, introduce new characters from diverse backgrounds, and debut a swath of new creative voices to the industry.

So…  an invitation to join the conversation, which, as many know, I’ve been having for … twenty-plus years.

So… here are my suggestions….

Wait…  I should preface this by saying… while I’ve never really spoken with Mr. Richie (he’s a busy man!), I do respect what Boom! and Archaia are doing in comics, and I like him even more now that he’s pushing #ComicsForward and hoping to start a conversation.  I’m not being critical, just constructive.  Even if you don’t really care about this, go and check out what they publish.  You’ll find a lot of good titles to read, no matter what interests you.  (Also, thank you, Keith Giffen.  I owe you a drink.)

1)  Comics publishers need to think outside the comics shop.  I understand how important comics shops are to the industry, but you’re preaching to the choir.  If you want to fill the nave, you’ve got to go outside and spread the good word.  I don’t think we’ll see another boom in comics shops, if only because it’s hard to set up a small business with the Internet overshadowing everything.

Most publishers know the entry-level stuff:  EANs on the back covers of books, digital comics available for reading, sending out review copies and networking with journalists…

Yet… the comic book Direct Market is a pittance compared to the Book Trade!  ($800 Million : $27 Billion)  The American Booksellers Association has about 2000 members, which means that publishers could double the potential market just by selling to those smaller independent stores, which aren’t much different than comics shops.  (Those owners are just as dedicated and passionate!)  Of course, with bookstore distribution, those titles are also available to online retailers, and the bigger chain stores, which doubles or triples the market again.

But wait…   What if there was a way for readers to sample books for free?  Books which are curated by knowledgeable experts who have spent years and thousands of dollars honing their passion, eager to advocate and recommend titles to those seeking knowledge or fulfilment?  A market, much like the Direct Market, which buys books on a non-returnable basis, so there is little risk to the publisher?  What if there were THOUSANDS of locations scattered across this country, where a person could enter freely, without shame or trepidation?  What if some of these places were in grade schools, or universities, readily available to students?  Titles kept on shelves for years, sometimes forever, readily available to anyone, anywhere?

Gosh!  I wonder where I can find such a place?   I wonder where these experts meet?  They sound like a cool bunch of people who would probably be interested in titles that entice people to read.

2)  Comics publishers need to think inside the comics shop.  How many shops are specialty bookstores?  How many are hobby shops?  How many are man caves?  How many look and act like porn shops with posters covering the windows and a mostly male clientele seen exiting the store clutching plain brown bags of merchandise?  (Hattip to Evan Dorkin.)

It’s been almost twenty years since The Friends of Lulu published their retailer handbook.  (Again, go read.  It’s got a great introduction by Neil Gaiman!)  Most comics shops are aesthetically appealing to the general public, offer a welcoming environment, and even have some awesome employees.

All could do better.  They have to, to survive in this marketplace.  Every shop should have a dedicated section for kids and parents, with seating.  (No space inside?  How about a bench outside?)  Stores should have a professional website, updated weekly (if not more frequently) with an e-commerce store.  There should be weekly events to create community, and offsite events to promote comics and find new allies.  If the bottom line allows, offer monthly promotions.  Be creative!  Or let the staff be creative!

3)  “All Ages”.  Ugh…  This really could be a subset of #1 above.  In book publishing, yes, you hope a title appeals to a wide audience.  However, in the initial marketing to librarians and booksellers, every publisher knows the core audience whom the book to whom the book will appeal.  Yes, lots of adults read “Harry Potter”.  Yes, in the Eighth Grade, my friend was reading and collecting Stephen King novels.  There are many classics, originally written for adults, which are considered suitable for a younger audience (Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Little Women…).  I can sell Watchmen to a variety of readers using a variety of talking points, but when I do, it’s usually for one particular reason, based on the customer I’m selling to.  (It could be someone looking for a murder mystery.  It could be a fan of science fiction.  It could be a U.S. Senator who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.)

“All Ages” doesn’t work as a descriptor.  I believe it was created to avoid the stigma of “comics are (only) for kids”, which is understandable.  If we follow the spirit of “pushing comics forward”, we need to realize that there are a multitude of comics available for a multitude of different audiences, and that the most important audience of all is children and teens.

Hollywood does have an “all ages” designation: the G rating.  But movie studios don’t promote the rating, and I was surprised how many popular movies actually had the rating.  I think it’s a kiss of death, bringing to mind The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.  (Don’t tell them it’s good for them!)  So, yeah, go ahead and make a family-friendly movie that plays to all four quadrants (and sometimes appeals to none of them).  But don’t be afraid to make something that has a more focused appeal.

Teens… that’s a pretty easy audience.  The cool kids have mastered the leveled readers and have discovered that almost everything published barely exceeds an Eighth Grade reading level.  Add in the illicitness of reading something they shouldn’t, and it’s hard to keep a teen, especially one with a sharp intellect, from discovering all sorts of interesting stuff to read!

Kids… that’s more difficult.  How well does a child read?  What’s the interest level of the child?  Is it age-appropriate?  Is it parent-appropriate?  This is where the publisher plays an important role, by marketing the book properly to those most likely to be interested in the title.

Comics publishers need to look at their catalogs and figure out how to market every book they acquire.  Many publishers specialize in certain genres, markets, and/or audiences.  Others, like BOOM!, have a varied list.  The smarter publishers set up imprints, to better brand their titles to readers and retailers.  BOOM! offers:  BOOM! Studios, Archaia (literary comics), BOOM! Box (alternative), KaBOOM! (kids).

4)  I want to see more imports.  If a German graphic novel can be marketed to roughly 100 million readers in Europe, why can’t that same title be marketed to readers of English?  (Most publishers, if they have an international presence, will buy the English language rights for the entire world.)  We’ve already seen the success of Japanese manga (thank you, Pokemon, for saving the American comics industry!), and there has been a slow trickle of French titles appearing each year.

What aren’t we seeing?  Would you be interested in the true story of a serial killer of Weimar Germany, who loved young boys and threw their corpses into the local river, and who was an inspiration for “M”?  How about a Japanese manga that reads as if Grant Morrison wrote a fictionalized biography of Bob Kane? Or maybe some of the manga that’s being produced in Germany and France?

5)  I want to see more diversity.  I love non-fiction comics.  Partly, it stems from my curiousity, but partly, it was a defense mechanism against people who scoffed at comics.  “See?  I’m learning about the Trojan War!  It’s one big crazy soap opera!”  I truly believe that “applied comics” can be a great learning tool, even used to teach kids how to construct giant spaceships and adults how to build a loft bed.  Also, it’s easier to convince librarians and educators to buy them… and once they buy them, students can read them!

I love that libraries have graphic novel sections, and promote those titles.  But… I want to see comics mainstreamed in with the other books.  So that when someone browses the cookbooks looking for vegetarian recipes, they find this.

I also want more varieties of fiction as well!  The broader the variety of good and great graphic novels, the easier it is to recommend them to someone new!  It can even be a new twist on an old story.

6)  I’m waiting for The Enlightenment.  Mr. Richie states, “We can make a new Golden Age.”  The problem with Golden Ages is… we don’t know when we’re in the middle of one until it passes.  Also, it seems to reek a bit of nostalgia.  “If only we could return to those halcyon days…” which, of course, runs counter to the whole #ComicsForward ideal.  Myself, I like to follow the art historians.  Right now, we’re in a renaissance. A dark age has passed.  Old works, long forgotten, are being rediscovered.  Works from foreign cultures influence and inspire innovation.  New technologies allow ideas to spread easily.

We all know what happened during the Renaissance in Europe.  Da Vinci.  Galileo.  Luther.  de’ Medici.  Shakespeare.  Machiavelli.  The New World…

I love all the amazing stuff that’s being published now.  It’s so easy to find stuff, or stumble upon stuff.

That’s great, but…  The Age of Enlightenment.  130 years of amazing advancement!  What if comics shops were the new coffeehouses?  What if the decade of manga, the decade of mainstreaming, was obliterated by the decade of hypercomics?  Kids innately learning the tools of cartooning, and making crazy experimental stories, shared online, maybe coalescing into comics circles, with an American Comiket or four, like MoCCA Fest being held in a convention center!  Studios and communes and schools and workshops and retreats and summer camps!

Within the next ten years, I want to see an explosion of discussion, debate, philosophies, ideas!  I want universities to offer degrees on how comics communicate ideas, and how that can innovate the transmission of data.  I want comic books to be commonplace!  Where it’s just another format, and people don’t even think twice about reading it.

7)  I want more comic cons!  Every city which has an auto show, a boat show, any type of consumer show aimed at the general public… should also have a comics show!  I don’t care if it’s some local promoter, or part of a multi-city circuit.  It can be a Comics Arts Festival, a Comic Con, or just something held at the local library or Lions hall.  Or even a comics club that meets after school!  It’s about making comics easier to find.  It’s about creating networks and community.  It’s about validation.  It’s about celebration!

ALSO!  If you’re an illustrator working in comics, you should be at arts festivals.  If fantasy and science fiction illustrators can do that successfully, comics creators can as well.  If you’ve got posters, t-shirts, and all that etsy stuff at your artist alley table, then you should consider renting space at arts fairs.

8)  I want more comics evangelists!  I love spreading the good word wherever I go.  But I’m a weekend warrior, attending about ten comics shows a year.  I’m not a circuit rider. I’m not traveling overseas (although I would love to!).  We need more people out there speaking and talking and listening.  We need more cultural organizations sponsoring cultural exchanges.  We need friends telling their friends about great stories they have read.  We need activists willing to testify about the inherent worth of comics.  We need creators willing to visit schools (not for the faint of heart!) and talk to students and educators.

9)  We’ve established a presence in school libraries.  Now we need to convince the art instructors.  I’m not in this sphere.  I talk to librarians, but I don’t know many in the art education community, unless they’re also comics creators. If we can get art instruction in grade schools, we can encourage kids to be creative earlier.  There are various “comics in the classroom” programs out there already, and comics clubs at schools have been in existence for decades.  Do the national conferences discuss using comics?  I’m fairly certain…all it takes is an art instructor/comics fan getting approval from an administrator to teach a class.  Add in the encouragement from state legislation regarding multicultural education and cross-disciplinary learning standards, and comics fits in quite nicely.

10)  We need more ideas.  I can only think up so many crazy ideas.  We need more people asking “What if…” and “How about…?” and “…and then what happens?” We need more thinkers and dreamers and doers.  Got an idea?  Share it below!  Meet some friends for morning coffee or happy hour drinks. Maybe hold a mini comic con cocktail party!  Compare and contrast.  Discuss amongst yourselves.   Just drop us a line when you do.  Why should you have all the fun?!  Besides, we’ll probably have a few suggestions of our own!


 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this, Torsten! For as long as I’ve known you, you have been one of comics’ most loudest cheerleaders outside of the direct market, and I highly value your ideas. Thanks for these constructive thoughts to help push #comicsforward!

  2. Great piece Torsten!
    There are myriad difficulties with #9. Two of the biggest art the lack of art classes in public schools these days and the curriculum guidelines that any classes must meet. Some school systems have dropped art classes claiming the time is more neede and better spent on STEM issues and workforce prep (though they don’t usually use that terminology). Schools that do offer visual art classes often times alternate them with music so that a student may only see their art teacher every other week.
    The guidelines are actually a good development that was introduced to lead art classes to be more than study halls or free periods. The problem is that those who are tasked with matching the outcomes with the guidelines are generally a conservative lot who want to avoid failure (in both the student and the teacher).
    This is all my opinion as someone with experience in the field of education but I’d love to hear from someone who’s had a different experience as I agree that comics in schools, both as learning aids and communication tools for kids to make, is an exciting and worthy idea.

  3. “Here at Boom Studios, we believe in Pushing Comics Forward! Now, here’s our next big announcement for 2015 – A rip-off of Icon by two aging white guys!”

  4. David,
    I was thinking more of middle and high school classes, which were electives when I was a student back in the 80s. (I got good grades in middle school, but my college-prep plans did not allow time for art in HS.)
    In elementary school (K-6), we had a weekly music and a weekly art class. One instructor for each subject, who cycled through the classrooms. I think gym was once a week as well.

    Some schools are changing STEM into STEAM, adding Art to the mix.
    (Back in the 80s, we didn’t have much science at the elementary level. which was kind of stupid.)

    Common Core does have standards aimed at visual literacy, such as reading an infographic.
    Standardized tests in Ontario have used comics.

    I do know that students entering art schools for comics are more talented than in previous years.
    Also, that many art schools have initiated comics-specific tracks to meet the demands of students.

  5. As always Torsten, this is an excellent piece. If you dont mind, I’d like to add a little more to the point about All Ages. I too understand why comics publishers use this term but it is terribly useless beyond the comic shop. Put it this way: If you look at any school system, library or traditional book store, there is no section called All Ages. There are buyers for children, young adults, teens, and adults. There are buyers for romance, health, self help, etc…but there are no buyers to review All Ages books. Comics publishers lose an incredible amount of revenue by insisting on calling a kids book All Ages. Assigning an age range to a title allows the buyer an opportunity to assess where the book belongs in the store, library or school. There is a lot more to the process but this is really where much of it begins.
    As for the question about art teachers? The place to start is with the latest generation of teachers who have joined the work force. Like the librarians of the 90s and 2000s who are now decision makers in their industry, there are new teachers bringing their love of the comics medium to the classroom. The best thing to do is find them and include them in professional development programs at the cons across the country. It’s a bit of a long tail but it seems to be working in other areas of the market quite well.
    Here’s what I think are the realities of the market: The opportunity to grow a readership audience of readers older than 40 is not where the energy should be spent. It doesnt mean to not publish content for older readers it just means those books will only sell a smaller amount while the real investments to be made are in the early readers, middle graders and young adults. Scholastic, Abrams and Capstone all know this quite well and they are selling at levels that comics publishers would love.
    Keep creating great books for older readers but start growing the market of younger readers by selling them with the proper age ranges. The returns will allow publishers to continue to do awesome content for every interest level.

  6. I imagine this is a minority opinion, but I have found AT and BW have become TOO juvenile for my tastes; both titles started off at a young adult level and seem to have aimed for a younger and younger audience. This is great if those kids are picking up the books, but it feels like the tone of the tv shows has become more adult and refined over the same period of time. My lack of interest has made me drop these titles from my pull list even though I am enthusiastic about the tv shows. I think that its time to stop seeing comics as a unified field and realize its only the medium, not a movement. Image comics is in a Platinum (Silicon??) Age releasing the most amazing books, all beautiful and most pretty forward thinking (I dare you to read ODY-C). Boom is in a Plastic Age, reproducing popular memes from TV and the net on paper. Support good comics, not good PR.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version