I’ve been thinking recently – for obvious reasons – about the potential for new readers coming to comics, and whether or not that means increased sales for comics overall, or just for DC (and Marvel, who share the majority of shelf-space, as well as the majority of recognizable characters). And, in that slow process – insert your own jokes here – it struck me: Non-Marvel/Non-DC publishers have something that should be the greatest selling point of all: Non-superhero stories.
It’s unfair to say that Marvel and DC have entirely given up on ideas for everything that isn’t a superhero, but those ideas have to fall into very specific buckets these days: Marvel’s pretty much have to be Crossgen revivals or Jane Austen/Frank Baum adaptations, and DC’s have to be Vertigo books (Okay, Marvel also has the Icon books, but that imprint is only open to, what, three writers these days?). With DC’s New 52 roll-out, even the non-superhero concepts in the DCU suddenly become weirdly superheroic, because the connections to the world of Superman, Batman and the Justice League become more pronounced (Jonah Hex is in the town that will become Batman’s homebase! The Blackhawks are dealing with political fallout in a world where Superman exists!), and Marvel has pretty much always been all about superheroes since day one. Which, for both publishers, is great, and has worked out well for them. But if there’s one thing both publishers have found themselves trying to do in recent years, it’s diversify and grow their audience… and eventually (If not already), that’s going to mean doing things that aren’t superheroes.
I think DC is already there, including Men of War and Blackhawks and even Demon Knights in the New 52; yes, there are heavy superhero connections to make them a success in the superhero-obsessed direct market, but their very existence in that first wave instead of, I don’t know, Justice Society or whatever suggests that DC editorial know that they have to try to reach a different audience.
There’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that the admittedly-still-small digital market out there isn’t just a mirror of the Direct Market, and that books that appeal to one don’t, necessarily, appeal to the other; things like World of Warcraft and Fringe are said to rank highly in the DC sales, while Marvel’s non-MU books show a strong showing for the House of Ideas. It stands to reason, then, that those readers – the new readers apparently most likely to actually try comics that aren’t just jumping over from their local store – are looking for comics that aren’t about superheroes, and… well, Marvel and DC just aren’t providing that, to any great degree.
Of course, this could just be misplaced optimism; I remember the conventional wisdom that non-Big Two publishers would make massive strides with the establishment of a bookstore market, because new readers who aren’t interested in superheroes and would never find themselves in a comic store would finally have access to all this great material from all manner of indie companies, but that never really happened — in part, I’d argue, because bookstores ended up ordering heavily from the Big Two anyway, so the shelving discrepancy pretty much continued as before, to an only slightly lesser degree. Will the digital marketplace be any different? I’d like to think so, because of the mainstreaming of comic culture over the last decade, as well as the democratization of digital outlets like ComiXology and iTunes. Yes, there’s still an emphasis on the bigger publishers on the front page, but I’m not sure that really follows through elsewhere in the sites), and the simple fact that there’s so much great material out there for so many different tastes from so many publishers.
Comics are more than superheroes – but maybe it’s going to take superheroes becoming mainstream enough to inhabit other forms of media to make non-readers realize that. If new readers do come into stores, or go online, tempted by all the hype of the New 52, maybe the appearance of non-superhero stories will be the thing that will make them come back after the initial novelty of “Clark isn’t dating Lois anymore!” has worn off; maybe giving them what they wanted, but didn’t necessarily know existed in comics, will actually work, this time.
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