I thought about writing about the best romantic couple in comics history for a “Valentine’s Day” themed post but then decided that was boring because the answer was obviously Big Barda and Scott Free. Though if you’d like to double down on NO LOVE I wrote a piece about Anti-Love: Great Nemesis pairings over on Lit Reactor.
Anyway, instead I thought maybe I’d write some more somewhat stream of consciousness thoughts on why we all love comics so much. Last time I did this when I was trying to work out “defining superheroes” we got so many thoughtful comments and discussions going as a result (the post forthcoming from that discussion is still percolating in my brain, it’s a time consuming one, even beyond the whole “superhero definition question”). Anyway, if we’re even half as lucky this time around, it will still have been an exercise well worth the effort. So I’m going to begin my rambling, and I urge you to put down your own thoughts in the comments.
The soap opera comparison to comics comes up a lot thanks to the never ending serial narrative nature of both soaps and comics, but it’s really the sports comparison that interests me more these days. I’ve been thinking about sports a lot lately (I blame the Superbowl and those amazing Teenage Dream Dancing Sharks which I will never have enough of). I feel like sports is both a natural comparison to comics and simultaneously the antithesis of comics. Which is to say that sports (especially in the US perhaps) and comics both create very fanatical cultures. Sports fans and comics fans share A LOT of common traits. I mean, there’s very little difference between memorizing complex superhero stats and the super involved stats of your favorite player or team—stuff you would definitely have trouble remembering if it was on a test at school, but which you can rattle off with ease because it ties directly to something you love. This is what defines fans. Knowing how many triple doubles someone has is not dissimilar to knowing about complicated universe continuities. And what’s the difference between knowing the line up of say…the 1992 Chicago Bulls and the team roster from the 1992’s X-Men Blue and Gold? Not much.
Historically nobody gives sports fans a hard time. Perhaps because the people who have historically dominated that culture are generally more “mainstream alpha type people” and so the thing they’re fanatical about has become “mainstream” as well. Historically comics have been decidedly not mainstream, to the point where you could easily be bullied, teased, or worse for being a fan of comics. And that behavior has certainly not been eradicated, even if you’re not as likely to be bullied there are still plenty of people that will look down on you for reading comics which they often perceive as being something “for kids." Even with some mainstream traction a lot of adults have a problem understanding comics and many have trouble respecting them. But comics have become much more mainstream in recent years. EVERYONE goes to see the latest superhero movie, and even if they don’t read comics (numbers tell us most of those people don’t) most of them seem to accept that these superhero movies (and television) that they love were born in comics or at least have comics to thank in some part. And above and beyond that, while almost all book sales have struggled in recent years, Graphic Novels are the one category that continues to steadily and consistently rise.
On the other hand, Sports fans and Comics fans—and Sports and Comics—could not be more different. One is not only accepted but frankly, expected of people (this is especially true in the US) while one has historically been derided, something that has to be hidden.
But the biggest difference to me, and with no disrespect intended to sports fans (which I consider myself to a degree: 49ers4Eva!) with comics, you have to invest a whole lot more, and here I mean COLD. HARD. CASH.
While the average sports fan likely will end up spending money on the hobby that they love – buying swag, expensive tickets to games, traveling to games, and/or buying access to more games, or games outside of their region – for most sports fans, the thing that they love is delivered to them almost free of charge. You can be a hardcore fan of Sports Team X and so long as that sports team is in the region where you live then you have access to hours upon hours upon hours of not just games, but commentary, analysis, specials, etc.
As a comic fan, if you want that, if you want to engage at that level, you have to pay for almost every stitch of it with the exception of webcomics, which to be fair, have become over the last decade or so a really important and rich part of the comics landscape and conversation. But if you want books, digital or print, you have to pay, and you have to pay quite a bit considering how long they take to read. And I don’t say this as someone that doesn’t think we should pay for it - creators have to be paid, and should be paid, and should be paid better quite frankly, I’m not advocating for things to be free, I’m just trying to draw a parallel and talk about how MUCH love we must have for this thing we love…we love it so much we spend ALL OUR MONEY ON IT…and not just for the extra bells and whistles like original art and trips to cons…we spend it just on the entry fee to the hobby...the books. But to engage in the thing we love there is a minimum level of financial investment. If someone good at math (not me) did the actual math, comics kind of look like an awful investment…what you get entertainment wise for you dollar does not technically look sound. it doesn't LOOK like a good use of your dollar. But any die hard fan of comics doesn't care much about that. I mean, we care because we'd like to be able to buy MORE comics, but we take umbrage at the idea that comics aren't "worth the money." And we should. When you love something, you're willing to pay for it, even if logically the math doesn't add up. Like fear, love often doesn't make much sense. That's why it's so damn magical, I suppose.
At the same time…is the CASH part of the equation a big reason there are so few of us? You can become a fan of sports for roughly zero dollars. But to become a fan of comics? Plan to invest basically all your disposal income. And as the middle class shrinks and we all become more poor and with less disposable income, the comics audience does indeed continue to shrink from lots of fans, including casual ones, to only the die hards willing to put down most of their "disposable" income on comics...and making tough choices against other forms of media, entertainment, and socializing.
Since sports have such a massive audience they are able to fund themselves (to massive numbers…numbers that we in comics barely even know exists. HOW many zeroes did you say?!? O_O). As a result of that massive audience a large portion of what they do is free to the fans. Sure, ticket prices are ridiculous, especially if you actually want to be able to see the game with human eyes, sure, the concession prices are insane, and advertiser logos are slapped on everything that will stand still long enough, but you can still watch a game for free in your home and fall in love if you don't have the funds. With comics, you not only have to invest once, you have to continue investing, month after month, to stay involved. And because we ARE living in a new golden age of comics with an abundance of brilliant creators and comics growing in interesting ways—a true embarrassment of riches in many ways—if you’re lucky enough to love comics, then you’re likely to find even MORE you love and have to invest in. It's a good problem to have, but it is a bit of a problem regardless.
Again, I’m not trying to complain about having so many great comics options to choose from, or about having to pay for something I get such enjoyment out of, or to advocate for there to be more free stuff, or creators to get less…I’m just trying to talk about how much we love what we love. What it is that drives us to love it so much, what makes it so special. And also to think about how that purchase price entry in some ways is probably limiting our audience. Like our own very special velvet rope that keeps most of the population outside looking in when it comes to our hobby.
So what is it for YOU? What is it about comics that makes it worth the investment? What is it that gets your heart/mind/soul going about comics? What is it that makes you willing to pay so much for that relatively short return on your dollar time/entertainment wise? What makes comics better to you than other mediums you likely ingest? Why do you count yourselves among the fanatical few that cannot quit comics?
Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She is also writing IDW's JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS and her first graphic novel HEART IN A BOX is forthcoming from Dark Horse this year. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist