Retailer John Riley of Grasshopper’s Comics has a piece at ICv2 called “Sharpening the Sword–Where Are The Villains?” which suggests that since we’re living in grim times, the pervasive grimness of superhero comics may be hurting sales over all. He spends a lotof time on Marvel, where he says “It seems that the current Marvel Universe is bogged down in some weird Orwellian dark age where the heroes aren’t heroes, and the villains just aren’t important.” Towards the end he also passes along an anecdote:

I had an interesting related experience a few weeks ago here at the store. I brought my seven year-old son in to work with me. He wanted a Webkinz (sold in the store next to mine) and I told him he could work at our store to earn the money to buy it. So I sat him down with bags and boards and a few hundred “reader copy” silver age comics and told him that if he bagged and boarded all of them he’d earn enough money for the toy. Well, it took him hours. But not because he was going slow. No, it took him hours because he read every single cover and had about ten questions to ask me about each book! He was totally captivated by them and I let him choose a couple to take home.

And all the time he was doing this he walked past the new comic rack at least twenty times and never gave them a look.

We could certainly believe that the kid was more interesting in the old comics just because he was holding them in his hand, not just walking by them, but there is something that feels accurate about this anecdote. A friend of mine showed up to an event the other night in a retro-style t-shirt he’d just purchased from Target — on the front were the heads of Wolverine, Captain America, the Thing and Thor — the heads were all from the 70-early 80s period — they were in fact the ones that had been used as the corner cover symbols. We had a good time trying to guess who had drawn the heads, but it also struck us that it was the retro look of the characters that made them to classic. It’s hard to imagine that a t-shirt with contemporary licensing art of these character would sell as well — or seem as cool.


  1. I wonder if this is the industry trend — “Grim and gritty sells” — or if we just have many angst-driven writers penning these titles. Guys like Dann Slott, Mark Waid, and Kurt Busiek alternate between writing upbeat stories and grimmer stories quite easily.

  2. Well, this post brings to mind a couple of points.

    1) Marvel comics rose to popularity precisely because they captured the angst and uncertainty of their times. They were big on drama and complicated moral issues. That isn’t to discredit the theory that maybe mainstream comics are TOO dark now. I just hestitate to read too much into this retailer’s story – I have my doubts whether or not a return to Silver Age aesthetics or storytelling would bring in more readers, particular kids.
    2) Hot Topic sells shirts with more modern takes on the Marvel heroes – in fact, they sell a bunch of Marvel Zombies-related clothing. My guess is for some folks, the more retro thing has its appeal, but we shouldn’t discredit the appeal of darker, edgier stuff. It has its audience.

  3. Riley sure makes a lot of great points.

    I think the biggest detriment of today’s comics are too much grit and poor readability.

  4. I remember a similar, stark, “grim ‘n’ gritty” period in the late 80’s – early ’90’s, which eventually gave way to a rebirth of the superhero of sorts.

    The superhero concept was put under the microscope and deconstructed by titles like Watchmen and Dark Knight, then ‘rebuilt’ with the advent of more humanistic titles like Tom Strong and Astro City (and more I’m forgetting).

    I think the focus during that cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction was the superhero as an individual, and this time around it’s more sociological –the impact would superheroes have on the world we live in, and how a lot of that impact would be negative.

    If a similar “rebirth” occurs, perhaps it will focus on returning to the core ideas of why a world with superheroes might be a great one to live in, without sidestepping the possible problems.

  5. Heidi, I think you’re on to something with the 70’s/80’s era look.

    It relates to the what Scott McCloud addressed with the “masking” theory in Understanding Comics – people are generally hardwired to be attracted to something basic and iconic.

    Open, cartoony, flat-colored John Buscema Spiderman is easy to scan with the eye, process and understand; busy, photorealistic, computer color-modelled Spiderman takes more time and effort to process. For kids or those of us who have no attention span – well lets just say I personally haven’t read many superhero books in the last decade.

    Is one way better than the other? Not necessarily, it’s just innately easier to understand and respond to Buscema because there’s less information, less to get distracted by.

    I suspect that manga’s more open and iconic character design is one of the contributing factors to it’s widespread popularity in the US as well.

  6. It seems that the opposite is actually more effective in the video game world. To my eyes, the objective of most video game design – and this relates more to action games than roleplaying games – is to create as immersive an experience as possible, and doing that realistically would make it more believable, hence more enjoyable.

    Because of technical limitations, VG characters used to be far simpler – hell, it doesn’t get any more iconic than Pac-Man. I can’t eat the first pizza slice without thinking about Pac-Man. And everyone played Pac-Man! But Ms. Pac-Man had a slightly less iconic design – and was a better game.

    The two might be connected – while both comics and video games require reader/user participation, the video game creates the world for the user, while with comics the reader has to effectively create the idea of motion and sound for themselves. Video games require a more visceral physical participation, while comics are purely mental; almost to the level of reactive vs. proactive (though RPGs tend to be immersive on the mental level as well).

    The temptation when looking at a very heavily-rendered picture is to stop and study it for a while, and in comics (and this is my opinion, of course), that tends to disrupt the flow of the story. Tezuka, for example, will employ a very open cartoony style, and when he wants you to pause and look at a nice landscape, he’ll draw the hell out of it.

    But I think most of this is stuff McCloud has covered, and I suppose I’ve internalized. Sorry for the length.

  7. I think the reason he was asking about the older covers was… there was something to ask about. They were covers that suggested a major portion of a story, an odd twist, even if you didn’t know the characters particularly. You don’t need to know what Superman looks like to know that it’s odd for someone who looks like Lois Lane is marrying someone who looks like Bizarro Superman. (Okay, I don’t know that that’s really a cover… but it’s gotta be!) Or why a superhero is fighting a giant jack-in-the-box. So many of today’s covers just communicate that there’s two costumed guys fighting… and many don’t even do that. The “poster” covers have taken over from those with idea elements, dialog, charges to the reader, and other things that make you want to open it up and find out what’s going on.

  8. I was at my local comic shop once and the store is long and thin with both walls lined with the big wooden display racks up and down both sides. They are like four feet apart. I was standing looking at the new books and this woman and her young son came in. Kid was about 7 or 8. The woman stopped at the counter to talk to the owner and the kid came back and walked up and down between the racks a couple times and finally he said “Where are all the comic books?’ Now seriously, at his height, all he could see was comic books. I did a little rought math. This shop will keep 2-10 issues of a title up before sending them to back issues so there was between 1300-1500 different comic book covers on display.

    So I assumed the kid was looking for Pokimon or something and didn’t know super heroes from Frank Sinatra and he went up front and came back with his mom. She stood and looked around and says “Where are all the comic books?” Now I’m telling you there was Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk, FF all of DC and Marvel all in plain sight. Not just Hellboy or Mouse Guard. Things that people should recognize immediately.

    But 1500 comic books were invisible to two people of vastly different ages standing no more than three feet away from them. It was the most telling thing I’ve ever seen. The covers are so generic they don’t catch anyone’s eye even if they are staring right at them! I’ll bet if he saw Daredevil #43 where he squaring off with Captain America he’d have known it was a comic book.

  9. Not at all Kevin .. thanks for the thoughtful response….and the others in this thread. My copy of Understanding Comics isn’t at hand so someone has to do it!

  10. “But 1500 comic books were invisible to two people of vastly different ages standing no more than three feet away from them. It was the most telling thing I’ve ever seen.”

    Hmmmm … I dunno … a small kid and his mom … two people who obviously know nothing about comic books. They stand among thousands of comic books and ask where are the comics. That says more about the “civilians”.

    I’ve had people comment that comic books shouldn’t cost more than ten cents, like in the Old Days, while they’re slurping down a $5 latté. Or that comics are “only for kids,” even if they’re favorite films are based on comic books because “That’s different.” Or that it never occured to them that people wrote and drew comic books … they thought machines produced the stories and art.

    If any of these people stood in the middle of a comic shop and asked, where are the comics, I would give as much weight to their opinion as when they made their other stupid remarks.

  11. But what would we have thought of that shirt in the late 70’s and early 80’s? And what will we think of it, and its counterpart with today’s characters on it, in 20 years?

  12. There should be no such thing as “civilians”. This isn’t to pick on you, Rich, as that term has been around for a long time. Comics readership shouldn’t be a secret society.

  13. “…but it also struck us that it was the retro look of the characters that made them to classic.”
    I’d suggest just a bit more, that it was the retro look that brought back classic ‘feelings’, aka nostalgia, else Darwyn Cooke should be more well known than Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Sadly, he isn’t.
    ===== =====
    Rich Yan said:
    “But 1500 comic books were invisible to two people of vastly different ages standing no more than three feet away from them.”
    Perhaps they were expecting to see the comics displayed in a different manner. I can envision them looking for stacks of comics laid flat, 50 or 60 high, slightly uneven, slightly more atilt, ready to fall over the next time somebody bumped them. That’s how I stored my comics when I was a kid.

  14. Hey Heidi, I didn’t read the link but

    “Retailer John Riley of Grasshopper’s Comics has a piece at ICv2 called “Sharpening the Sword–Where Are The Villains?” which suggests that since we’re living in grim times, the pervasive grimness of superhero comics may be hurting sales over all.”

    I think his thesis is wrong from jump street. We’re living in grim times? Crime is at 40 yr lows. Where is this grimness that comics claim to be reflecting? One would think NYC is still in “Death Wish” territory from the way comics portray the urban landscape, but last time I walked on 42nd street it was walking by the 24 hr starbucks en route to buying tickets to Young Frankenstein: The Musical.

    and you’re right, a T Shirt with modern art would not be as cool. The heads you saw were probably drawn by Romita.


  15. I second Matt’s statement.

    Joe, you have a point. The primary difference between comics in the Golden Age thru early 90’s vs. comics today – and to give due credit this point was made to me by my friend/former teacher/seasoned comics writer Joe Edkin – is that comics aren’t necessarily the best place to experience superheroes anymore. They used to be the ONLY place to. Up until the mid-90’s or so, it was a rare thing to see a really good version of a superhero onscreen – I point you to nearly every live action TV show Marvel did in the 70’s and 80’s.

    Sure some of them had charm, but 70’s stuntman Spidey vs. 00’s CGI Spidey is mediocre vs. definitive. Today, they can duplicate the visuals from comics perfectly. I hear that after 20 years Batman will be able to turn his head in the next movie :)

  16. I believe the market has more diverse material (i.e. genre and age friendly) than it ever has in it’s history. How is it not possible for someone who works in a LCS to feel “handicapped” (my wording, not his) in suggesting age/subject appropriate material?

  17. A few years back, my son, then aged 12 was captivated by the black and white Marvel Essentials collections…. but has no interest in contemorary superheroes today.

  18. Ken, have you forgotten that we’re currently in the middle of an incredibly unpopular, expensive and bloody war without an end in sight? That alone might have SOMETHING to do with modern times being described as “grim”, not counting all the other obvious stuff going on.

    Sean, I agree that Marvel comics always had that extra edge of angst, even in the Silver Age. But I think its fair to say that edge was tempered with a layer of fun and fantasy that allowed it to be as escapist as it was relevant. I think its also fair to say that outside of a number of side titles, that layer is no longer a concern of the main publishers. I don’t think we need a complete 180 back to the silver age, but the Marvel Zombies you mentioned as a modern comic still popular with the kids is far more goofy than it is angsty, despite the gore.

  19. In the DC Clothes stores here, ALL the art on tshirts and jackets and whatever they use is retro- only occassionally do you see a Jim Lee Superman drawing. And you know what else? They use ONLY retro art and the retro versions for the female characters. It’s like the modern versions are too porn-y or something.

  20. Maybe it has something to do with the way comics are sold, as well. Publishers aren’t necessarily trying to capture the attention of the “everyperson” passing by a news-stand, jam packed with other fare, on the street or a spinner rack in a drugstore. The focus is on the comics fan. It’s almost as if the covers are printed in code these days,…aimed at a smaller audience. I’ve had people tell me that they can’t figure out how to read a comic. Then there’s the idea that (…some,…most,…) modern writers and artists are incapable of telling a story or drawing a picture that communicates that story, in my humble, ego-maniacal opinion. In the rare cases where an illustrator (Note that I did not say, cartoonist.) is capable of pulling off that remarkable feat, modern coloration and printing technology frequently make the books dark and difficult to see.
    Then,…there is that; modern concepts of good and evil, ain’t what they used to be.

  21. I’m not surprised that a kid would be more attracted to Silver Age comics than modern ones (even though this anecdote doesn’t prove that he actually compared the two).

    As a kid, those were the comics I was attracted to because they were fun, simple, and fired the imagination with possibility. As an adult I like things more complex, sophisticated, and relevant to what I go through (that’s the fun of fantasy for adults). Most of those comics have grown up to meet my needs, which is nice, but at the expense of younger readers’ needs.

    I think the fact that the kid saw bagging comics in a comic book store as a necessary evil to get his toy next door says a lot more about the state of the industry than anything else I’ve read in a while.

  22. I think many of the modern “painted” covers are very bland and unattractive compared to the fun pop art stylings of yesteryear. I go into the comic shop and the Marvel section is just this large muddy blur of Photoshop and Painter images with nothing grabbing my attention.

    I’m a big fan of the amazing painted covers of the old pulp magazines and said on a number of occasions a few years back how I wish more comics had painted covers. Now I regret my wish as the current crop of heavily worked cover images have turned the New Release section into a bore. I’m tired of serious, self-important, “mature” comics and their yawn-worthy cover adornments. I just want them to be fun again.

  23. Superheroes are grim. I just read Marvel’s Silent War, and was disgusted by the climax. I suspect that Marvel will have an upcoming event where the heroes will discover the abuses of power, Iron Man will suffer for his Good Intentions, and the public will forget their stupid mistakes. Or the governmment could easily outlaw everyone, ending in the gritty future shown in The Uncanny X-Men #141.
    Yes, New York City is safe and clean and almost clear of it’s bankruptcy. But do people notice the plethora of security cameras? The soldiers at Grand Central? The random announcements on the subway, alerting us that large bags and containers are subject to search by the NYPD? I’m a New Yorker, so I tolerate it, but I don’t ignore it. Which is why I loathe orange clothing.
    I enjoy DMZ not because of the civil war aspects, but because of the humanity depicted. That’s what heroism is about: overcoming adversity. Storytelling is about making people believe in imaginary concepts, like Santa Claus and Freedom.

  24. Was it this shirt? The first 2 are Byrne, but I dunno about the others.

    Who in the big 2 writes comics for kids anymore? By that I mean, with them as the main target for an audience? And by that I also mean comics that sell well. Yes, DC and Marvel have kids lines, but where are they in terms of sales? At the bottom.

    When we read comics in the 70s and 80s, they were made for us. At least, I see them that way, looking back. And today, they’re still being written for us. I’m not saying that today’s books are inaccessible to kids, but they’re sure a lot less fun. It’s like what Spurgeon said a while back wondering what a kids would think about buying a comics called COUNTDOWN PRESENTS THE SEARCH FOR RAY PALMER: WILDSTORM. Bo-ring!

  25. That’s a good point. In the past comics were considered all ages by default and the adult titles were only in the direct sales stores. But nowadays the adult titles are the norm (corresponding to the entire industry having retreated to the direct market) with entire special “kids” books being marginalized to imprints, seemingly only to exist to keep some watchdog group happy somewhere.

    Mainstream comics are doing a great job currently selling to the market created 30 years ago. But who is creating the market that will exist 30 years from now?

  26. To my own surprise, I am coming to the conclusion that Seduction of the Innocents and the coming of the Comics Code Authority are the reason Silver Age comic books were more fun than superhero comic books are now. Things in the U.S. are not worse now than they were then. Things here are quite good. And I can forget that we are in a war.

    I also think the similar imposition of restrictions by the technology of the time helped… for example with coloring. The thing that happens to bother me most about modern attempts to create comic books is the coloring. Modern comic book colorists are in general still struggling with the new freedom they have.

  27. I’ve been reading a lot of old comics recently and, while I enjoy them, they are also sort of boring. They just aren’t as deep as the current crop. There needs to be a way to get the fun bright stuff out to kids and the deeper stuff to us grown-ups. We need spinner racks again, but the Spinner RAcks probably don’t really need anything from the MAX line, for example…

    The point about villains not really being important is dead on, though, and that’s frustrating to me. This whole bit with THE HOOD organizing villains now in New Avengers… I mean, why didn’t he do that last year during Civil War? It seems like the villains just sort of sat it out, which makes no sense.