I walked into a comics shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one
day in 1983, shortly after Capital Comics released WHISPER #1. (For
those who came in late, Whisper was my first creator-owned project: a
woman who pretends to be a ninja and then finds herself trapped in the
role; the series, a cult item but hardly a general hit, was published by
Capital and First throughout the decade.) The clerk, recognizing me,
raved about how happy he was the book was being published.
“You liked it?” I asked.
“Not really,” he admitted. “But it’s the only comic my girlfriend reads, and
if I can get her hooked on Whisper I think I can get her to read the
X-Men.” I didn’t really see the connection, but I wished him luck, made a
mental note to carve his image on a candle and hold a voodoo mass, and
went on my way.
One of the cherished beliefs of the industry is that there is a vast beast out
there called “comics fans,” and that among these there’s a subset called
“superhero fans.” In the mid-60s this may have been true – while the
superhero was on the ascendant then, there will still lots of other-genre
comics, from MY GREATEST ADVENTURE to MILLIE THE
MODEL to THE TWILIGHT ZONE – but as we push to the next
century, we should probably admit that comics fans are a subset of
superhero fans. Or they’re intersecting sets. But they’re not synonymous.
All kinds of fingers are pointing these days over why the comics audience
has dropped off so precipitously from the glory days of only half a
decade ago. Kids spend all their money on videogames. There are no
entry level comics. Comics are too complicated. We abandoned the
newsstand. All wrong.
Sure, kids play videogames. Some videogames. Most videogames die on
the open market, just as most comics do. Some videogames are
compelling. If comics were as compelling as video games, kids would be
“There are no entry level comics.” All
comics are entry level comics.
Whatever comic book gets a
non-comics reader interested in comics,
regardless of content, is an entry-level
“Comics are too complicated.” Again, some are. What “complicated”
really means is “it bores me to the point I don’t think it’s worth my while.”
A thousand different names and 6000 accumulated years of history for
5000 variant parallel Earths may be daunting on the surface, but if you’re
interested enough it becomes fascinating. I’ve watched 9 year olds
studiously memorize the name of every known Pokemon, as well as their
battle attacks and various other data. Very complicated. But they do it
because they’re interested.
Instructive on these points is DC’s decision several years back to rent the
Mighty Crusaders from Archie Comics and turn them into the “entry
level” !mpact line. The practice: the DC universe had 60 years of
backstory and was too complicated for new readers, so a new line
would be created without all the complications. The practice: obsessed
with creating a vast coherent world, !mpact developed a sprawling
backstory for their line that immediately complicated the hell out of their
This was the common flaw of all the “universes” created in the gold rush
of 1993: ignoring that Marvel was built over a decade and DC over five
decades, they tried to compete as wholly developed universes and
backstoried themselves to death, squeezing out whatever energy might
have remained in what was, let’s face it, nothing more than a marketing
Let’s review: kids play videogames = comics aren’t interesting. There are
no entry level comics = comics aren’t interesting. Comics are too
complicated = comics aren’t interesting.
As for newsstands, the comics business didn’t abandon the newsstand for
the direct market. The direct market was created because the newsstand
abandoned us. They don’t want us. Even at $2.50, comics are a low
profit space consuming commodity for most newsstands. Want to get
newsstands interested in comics again? Publish books that take up very
little space that they can sell for $7.95 instead.
Some comics are still on newsstands anyway. I go into local
supermarkets and superstores and I see comics on the magazine racks.
It’s interesting which ones: THE SIMPSONS, various Archies, a handful
of the more popular Marvel and DC titles. You want to see variety in
comics, check out newsstands. Want to
see a variety of comics on the
newsstands? Forget about it. That
won’t happen until both the price point
and the readership jump, and it’s
unlikely both can jump simultaneously.
Unless we start publishing really
The undercurrent of all the
pre-translated “why comics are dead” arguments is that, really, there’s
nothing wrong with comics at heart. This is where you can start to
separate superhero fans from comics fans, because only superhero fans
make that argument, and comics are largely published by superhero fans.
(Or, as in the case of Marvel where the publishers don’t seem to know
what they’re publishing, the editors are superhero fans.) Comics shops
were mostly started by superhero fans.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t like superheroes. Be
my guest. But the mentality that says the long term goal of introducing
people to comics is to get them to read X-Men (or Spider-Man, or
Green Lantern, or Wildcats, whatever) has killed the business. The idea
that any story worth telling is worth telling as a superhero story (and I’ve
had more than one person tell me with a straight face that the superhero
genre can accommodate any kind of story, when it only comfortably
accommodates one kind of story) has
killed the business. The sheer stubborn
unwillingness of the comics industry to
accept that somewhere it took a wrong
turn has killed the business.
There’s something in gamblers called
the prime roll, which is that hot streak
where you just can’t lose. Prime rolls
end, and when they end they end hard.
The comics industry went through its
prime roll in the first half of the 90s and operated like it would never end
and the world was theirs to pick off at will. But that roll has been over for
a long time and aside from financial cutbacks everyone’s continuing as if
all they have to do is keep behaving as they did in the prime days and
those days will come back.
But it’s rare for gamblers to hit two prime rolls in a lifetime.
The secret great event of the 80s was the sudden plethora of different
material available. LOVE AND ROCKETS. Ed The Happy Clown.
WATCHMEN. SANDMAN. A comprehensive list would take pages.
These projects got noticed, they brought in a lot of readers who wanted
to be interested in comics. They wanted to like more comics. And
publishers tried to feed them superheroes instead. Marvel, for instance,
turned the graphic novel – potentially a major breakthrough item for
comics if they had put anything of substance in them on anything
resembling a regular basis, instead of making people go hunt for them –
into little more than longer issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and flooded
the market with them. There were superhero fans who had grown up in
the 70s who wanted more sophisticated (not the same thing as
complicated) fare to feed their expanding tastes. They all went away
because the industry got to a point – mainly prompted by the fratboy
marketing frenzy of the Image era – where nothing was being produced
that maintained their interest.
Those readers are the great untapped resource of the comics industry.
There’s no reason to believe they couldn’t be enticed back – if there were
comics they wanted to read. They’re the people with money, and now
with families. Forget the myth of the kid stumbling across comics for the
first time on the newsstand; while I’m sure it happens, it’s much more
common to be introduced to comics by friends or relatives who already
read comics. That’s the chain we broke. In houses where parents read,
children read. In houses where parents read comics, children read
comics. That lost generation will feed us the next generation, if we can get
To get them back, we have to make comics interesting again. That may mean something other than superheroes, it may mean an interesting superhero concept. But until comics can compel readership, it’s not going to happen. Designing the right costume isn’t going to make it happen. The only thing that’s going to make it happen is getting fresh content – real content – into a medium stale to the point of extinction.
Which means endlessly reiterating the material we dug as kids in an effort
to recapture the excitement we felt then has got to stop. A comics
industry that is conservative in nature is not an industry that can compete
on the entertainment landscape. The past is the past; it’s not the road to
As the nights grow long and the days grow bleak, it’s time to figure out
A couple notes: thanks very much for the overwhelming response to my
debut column. My e-mail server has been overwhelmed as well, and
while I’ve been reading every message, there are now far too many to
respond to. I appreciate that many of you printed out the column to show
to others; I’d appreciate it even more if you just gave them the URL and
got them to check it for themselves. (Economics, you know.) Several of
you asked if I’d critique your unpublished work, but time and my lawyer
unfortunately forbid it, and when I go into critic mode, I turn into a nasty,
nasty man, so your self-image is probably better off without me anyway.
Rule of thumb: the only person whose opinion of your work counts is the
editor you’re trying to sell it to. (This counts just as much if you’re
self-publishing.) Until you think your work is good enough to show to an
editor, it’s not a good idea to show it to anyone.
If you’re going to be at the San Diego Con this weekend, I’ll be signing at
the Chaos Comics book from 1-3 on Thursday and Friday and
1:30-3:30 on Saturday and Sunday. Also look for me at the “Wrestling in
Comics” panel on Saturday at noon, with special guest WWF superstar
Mankind. I’m easy to spot: I’m the one in black with white hair. See you there.
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