This week on Thursday’s Jazz Alternatives [on New York radio station WKCR] there was an interview with a member of the New York Jazz Initiative, an organization that holds workshops in New York area high schools to get kids interested in jazz. The idea is to have them play with professional musicians, and in doing so create a new audience for the music. Their plan is “to educate and inspire the next generation of performers and listeners.”
During the interview there was a lot of talk about how the golden age of jazz has passed and now schools are churning out jazz musicians with nowhere to play. There are more players than listeners, really, so a new audience for the music has to be created lest it become “museum music.”
I couldn’t help but think about comics while I was listening to the interview. This might be a new “golden age” of comics but what if the audience just dries up in the next decade or so? Jazz was dominant on the radio and in nightclubs in 1960, but by 1970 jazz musicians were running out of places to play. I thought, “What’s going to happen when all the comics shops close?” That won’t happen, you say? Well, they said that about record shops, too, and now they are just about all gone.
—Cartoonist and critic Frank Santoro, writing on the future of comics for The Comics Journal. Santoro is writing as a partisan of independent/small press/alternative/art comics published by entities other than large corporations, and as such I wonder if his concern is a valid one. From Peter Laird shutting down the Xeric grants for self-published comics to DC going same-day digital for its entire line, the assumption made by people all across comics is that the replacement of print by digital is a difference in degree, but what if it’s a difference in kind?
Comic shops play an educational role in growing the next generation of comics readers, not just an economic one. The shop I went to as a kid noted my interest in Frank Miller’s Batman and introduced me to Sin City. Yes, that’s different than introducing me to The Acme Novelty Library or whatever, but it was my introduction to the idea that comic books could be about something other than superheroes, and that its artwork could have graphic values independent of action spectacle. From there, the distance to Acme and its ilk was a lot shorter than it otherwise would have been. Frank’s complaint is that the existing feeder system for new readers, Free Comic Book Day, is geared primarily toward getting young people who are interested in superheroes from other media to read about them in comics form; no similar infrastructure exists for other comics, and the advent of digital makes it tougher for one to be established.
Santoro’s partial solution? Comics-literacy festivals like Toronto’s TCAF and Brooklyn’s BCGF, where admission is free — thus opening up the proceedings to more than just the comics lifers who some say are the sole audience for shows like MoCCA and SPX — and the wares appeal to a wide variety of arts- and literature-interested readers — as opposed to the superhero/SF/fantasy/action/nerd-culture conglomerate of Comic-Con and the like. But is it enough to avoid a future where, as with jazz, there are “more players than listeners”?