In “Marvel Wins” I told you that I had good news and bad news. The bad news was that in the battle for market share, distribution and demographics (my definition for the so-called Marvelution), Marvel wins. Now the good news: We win, too!
The “We” in question is Comics in general: The fans, the creators, the publishers, the art form-- you and me. Like me, you may believe that comics are a unique American art form. Like me, you probably believe that they have a huge potential as a story-telling medium. Like me, you might believe that they are under-appreciated and undervalued in society at large-- kids stuff that most don’t take seriously. Like me, this last probably really gets your goat!
It’s particularly grating when we consider how much society at large has borrowed from comic books and the comics pages. Other popular media, like television and movies, are constantly harvesting from the creative fields of comics for their own use. Still, despite this fact, comics are greatly more respected in Europe or Japan than here, where they were born. Comic books in particular, are looked down upon, even by other cartoonists.
As a kid, I remember sitting around West Street talking with Brian Dobbins about how, someday, whole novels would be done in the comic book format. Serious stories would be told, as well as adventure and fantasy and sci-fi for all ages. The subjects wouldn’t be limited to just super-heroes, but would and could relate to everyone and every interest. This was quit some time before the first graphic novel, and well before the independent market sprung up. Many of the things of which we (and probably many other enthusiastic young fans) dreamed, have come to pass. The blossoming of comics as a fully respected art form, however, has not happened. Oh, sure, YOU know it’s true, but in the world of popular culture, comic books are still seen as just kids stuff. Being kids stuff alone would not be so bad. The boom in children’s books over the last few years brought much attention to the genre as a haven for good stories and great art. But comic books are afforded no such prestige outside the narrow arena of the comics industry itself.
Why is this? The comic book industry is at least partly to blame. It has focused its efforts more and more exclusively on the area where it has enjoyed success-- the super-hero. In the early days, even while super-heroes were all the rage, there were still other types of comics to read: humor, cowboy, war, romance, mystery, supernatural, monster stories and hot rods. Comic books used to attract a more general population of readers, young and old, male and female. Perhaps economic downturns drove creators who could our would attract a wider audience out of the field. Maybe Wertham’s attempt to lay the blame for juvenile delinquency at the feet of comics, and the industry’s willingness to self-censor in response, played a part. I can’t claim to be an historian, and I don’t fully understand all of the reasons why this changed. Maybe no one does.
I’ve watched through the years, though, as more and more types of books were dropped from the major publishers. Soon it was all super-heroes. Not surprisingly, the major publishers went through some rough times. A smaller and smaller audience was reading a more narrowly focused product. I can remember when Superman regularly sold a million copies an issue. Now Marvel’s best seller is lucky to do half that and most books do one-tenth.
People who had grown up reading only super-hero comics began to get jobs as comic book writers and artists and brought with them a more limited experience. All they knew were super-heroes and so the spiral continued: fewer people reading more and more incestuous material that appeals only to those who understand the special language that this closed system has created.
When the independent market came along it at least afforded the opportunity for a variety of types of books to be done. Creators and fans alike hailed that as one of its major benefits. So why didn’t this lead to a wider audience? Once again that closed system is probably to blame. Those same creators who were relieved to finally have the opportunity to do something other than super-heroes weren’t necessarily of a bent to create general appeal work. Often they reacted to the limitations of mainstream super-hero work by doing extreme super-heroes: more violent, more sexy, more sick. Also, the audience that flocked to the independent stores weren’t looking for anything other than what they had come to expect in comics. Anything that was going to sell had to play to this audience, not stretching their preconceived notions too far. So we saw super-heroes who were actually funny talking animals-- turtles or fish. Since the flock of independent publishers which sprung up to feed into the direct sales outlets were born of that small, special market, and bred on the incestuous product the industry was churning out, the results were doomed to be more of the same. If a new reader looking for something other than the comic book norm happened to wander in, they were usually disappointed or confused by what they saw. There are notable exceptions of course, but by-and-large comic books have become a niche product with its own language, seldom seen or understood by others.
Even that niche market has continued to shrink as the same stories are told over and over again. Publishers have resorted to the much hyped EVENT to attract or keep readers: Crossovers, the end of the universe as we know it, deaths, marriages, etc. (This time something different really will happen. Really!)
The question is, how will Marvel Comics leading the charge to establish mall stores for comic companies make this any better? (assuming they do so as I predicted in “Marvel Wins”) I think it will accomplish this by helping to bring comics once again into the main stream. Everybody knows who Spider-Man and Superman are. The Death of Superman EVENT showed that many mainstream reader-types even care about the character, since they turned out in droves to buy it. They just don’t care to seek out the books they usually find at the comic shops.
Once Marvel and DC are in the malls, and the better independents follow, they will have access to a much more diversified clientele. If their stores are to be successful they will have to appeal to that clientele, not just to us dyed-in-the-wool comic book aficionados. The opportunity is this: Romance comics, or cowboy comics or war comics and all the rest might have a chance to sell to a general audience at a mall. If Marvel and DC and the remaining independents play this right, and begin to focus their product toward a more general audience, we have a real chance to reverse comic’s spiral into a smaller and smaller niche product. We win because as more and more readers return to comics, as comic’s stature in popular culture grows, more and more opportunities to read good comics, sell good comics and work on good comics are sure to follow. A broader base can support not just one small niche (super-heroes) but many. In just the way the popular film industry creates a broad enough base to also support art films, documentaries and the like.
The mall bookstores have not put all smaller shops out of business. To survive the independents have had to specialize in products not easily found elsewhere and in service to the customer. Independent comic shops will do the same.
I want Marvel to flood the market and be very successful at doing it. But I want that market to be a much larger one and more broadly based. If they can do that, it will mean more opportunity, not less, for the little guy. Like us.
Motion pictures were not put out of business by television. Their product became better and more diverse, and in some cases more specialized. Now both mediums are doing record business. If Marvel can make comics acceptable to a larger audience, if they can wet the general public’s appetite for the medium, then we all stand to gain.
Marvel’s victory does not mean death to the independent comic publishers or direct sales outlets. No doubt there will be some who go under. Frankly, that has been the case in this business and all others for a long time. In the long run, those who can survive will find a larger and more receptive audience for mainstream type work, and enthusiastic outlets for more esoteric items. Independent comic shops, the internet and the continued growth of electronic printing methods insure that there will be plenty of inexpensive outlets for all of us little guys. And Marvel’s efforts, if successful, will insure a market in which to sell them.
And that’s the good news.
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