This might be a shocking revelation, but superhero comics do not stand on top of the comic book landscape -- at least, not in terms of sales. Over the last couple of decades, drastic shifts in the way people read comics, as well as the groups of people producing comics, have shifted sales away from the few superhero titles that stand atop their competition. Rather, a new market for comics aimed at juveniles has opened up. That, combined with the ever-increasing mainstream popularity of manga, has revolutionized what material fans want to read.
However, all this came to a head at New York Comic-Con, when a presentation revealed this pie-chart, depicting how much people buy comics aimed at kids or manga as opposed to superhero comics.
The evidence is clear: 41% of comic sales are juvenile fiction, 28% are manga, while only 10% are superhero comics. So how did we get here? What does this mean? And what should the comic industry do to take notice of this growing trend?
Everyone Underestimates Juvenile Fiction
People often dismiss or overlook the impact of children's media in publishing. They might not consider them "serious literature," whatever that means, and, as a result, they ignore how well books aimed at kids and teens sell.
Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series is one of the top-selling children's comics around. This graphic novel, aimed for children, tells an epic story across multiple, beautifully illustrated and compelling volumes. While you will find Amulet being pushed in school libraries and book stores, this isn't the sort of graphic novel you'd expect to see, say, being pushed at your local comic shop. And that's because the target demographics are very different.
You see, juvenile fiction targets juveniles. This means children, middle-grade students, and young adults. This market is, frankly, gigantic.
You won't find Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal by DanTDM or Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke in your local comic shop either, yet they regularly outsell superhero fiction because they are being sold to children, many of whom can follow a story along better if they have visual aids to go along with the prose. A lot of libraries and teachers consider that when encouraging parents to buy or rent books. Even more so, these books are sold in book sales in every school around the United States.
And of course, none of these addresses the gargantuan success of Andrew Hussie's Homestuck, which, frankly, remains one of the most successful independent franchises ever created.
The Appeal of Manga
Likewise, many people overlook manga as a huge market. Or, at least, they dismiss it when talking about graphic novels. There is an odd sense of snobbery some older fans employ when looking at manga. Sure, Naruto isn't the smartest story around, but it garnered a huge international audience for a reason: people like the characters, like the insane action, and want to see more of it.
Manga stories are often told over a collection of chapters, which are then collected into volumes. However, unlike comics, it's easy to figure out where to start and stop. Only recently have trade paperbacks picked up in popularity. Even then, you'd need to figure out where to start. You'd have to look on the back cover, figure out what issues are being collected, and, even then, you'd need a working knowledge of at least some of what came before to understand what is happening.
With manga, the entire story is collected in inexpensive, large volumes. The average volume costs $10 as opposed to a cheap TPB averaging twice that amount for half the content. Each manga volume comes with a big number on the spine so you can easily figure out which volume you're reading and the order in which it takes place. TPBs have only just recently started to employ this technique, and, even then, usually the "Number 1" volume is just the first few issues of a particular run. There is still decades of continuity leading into that issue.
Each manga series is its own, complete story. It isn't required you read other stories outside your selected genre to understand what's happening. You don't need to know about Dragon Ball Z to understand what happens in Fruits Basket. However, to understand what happens in Iron Man, you might need to read a random issue of Deadpool. Even if you don't like the genre or stories in one, you need to read it to understand what happens in your particular character's story.
For superhero fans, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it can be alienating for fans who might want to get into comics but don't have the time to learn decades of continuity.
This isn't News
For those who have been paying attention to books, however, none of this information should be a shock. While many still insist superhero fiction is the core genre of choice for comic books, fans who have been taking a step outside superhero fandom forums shouldn't be surprised by this news.
Publishers have realized this for over a decade. It's one of the reasons why YA novels have been adapted into so many manga-styled graphic novels over the years. Most notably, the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson was adapted into a series of manga-esque graphic novels, adapting the stories in a stylish way that drew in a fairly sizable audience.
Even on Amazon's Best-Selling graphic novels and comics lists, manga often feature heavily, butting out all but the most beloved graphic novels from those same lists. The simple truth is this: the genre isn't just superhero comics anymore.
Furthermore, DC drew criticism from several groups during the New 52 for its level of violence and sexual exploitation in books aimed at teenagers, such as Red Hood and the Outlaws and Teen Titans. While these books might've gotten better, many readers didn't stick along with them long enough because the first volume didn't grab them. Many, even those in DC, felt the books were made for an older audience, and so the huge market of young readers elected not to continue with the New 52.
This isn't Doom and Gloom
However, this isn't to say superhero comics are failing -- nor does it indicate that they don't have a chance to reclaim their footing.
Obviously, superhero cinema is booming more than ever before, with multiple billion-dollar films being released over the last year. The characters are still widely beloved icons. However, comic publishers have been exploring how to advertise to that untapped audience of adolescents they have neglected.
For all of DC's mistakes with younger readers, however, the publisher seems to have figured out how to draw in the teenage fanbase once more. DC has released imprints of books aimed at younger readers and teens, each bringing in reputable talent from those fields to help with that effort. DC's multiple YA novels have (thus far) proven to be well-received. The new DC Ink imprint has successfully reinvented superheroes for teens in new and exciting ways. On the other hand, DC's comics aimed for kids, such as DC Super Hero Girls, has successfully drawn in a young market of fans.
Superhero comics need to adjust to a new market. They need to remember that, while those buying comics in local comic shops and conventions are an important demographic, they aren't the only demographic.
KEEP READING: DC Just Made Wonder Woman Its Most Important Hero