Sunday, May 01, 2011

Comics: Not a Genre or An Industry, But a Medium

This post is based on some remarks made on Facebook, principally as a response initially posted by the very talented Eric Orchard.

Often, when comics are discussed in the news or elsewhere, it's discussed as a "genre", and even among die hard comics readers it's discussed as an "industry", but it is neither.

"Industry" is a word associated with commerce, and the vast majority of the comics that are published are self published in one form or another--on the web or as self-published zines, because anyone can make comics. Anyone. So it couldn't be further from being a commercial medium. At one time you might have called TV and movies commercial mediums, but that's arguably changing as well, with the web. Now anyone can produce and distribute video.

What this puts into sharper focus for me, is that there is no such thing as a commercial medium. There might be periods in history when a medium is dominated by the influence of the marketplace, but once again I think this kind of statement confuses form and content, just like when people call comics a "genre".

Cartoonist" as a job, as a paid profession is something different altogether, but then any profession is market driven on some level. But calling comics an "industry" suggests that you can't be a cartoonist, as in: on who engages in the act of cartooning or making comics, without the market being a fundamental concern, and that's just a sad, sad way to think about comics. And though there is a comics industry just as there is a book industry, comics aren't an industry in and of themselves, anymore than poetry is an industry in and of itself, which is why it also disturbs me that, so often, any discussion about comics among people who are very much invested in the medium is a discussion about, "the industry".

Comics the Genre

Calling comics a genre further confuses the form with the content for your average non comics reader. You don't want people to base their decision to read, or not read comics on their assumptions about content. There's no assumptions made about content when you talk about a novel or a poem, but people will often dismiss comics because they think they don't like what comics are about, not because they don't like the form, and this misapprehension is responsible for discouraging many people from reading even the good stuff. And that's when the good stuff is available to them, which it often isn't, since the industry part of comics has, largely, become a niche. If you want to buy a comic book, or, as long form comics are more fashionably called, a "graphic novel" you have to first know what you're looking for, and then you have to know where to find it. There might be a "graphic novel" section in your local bookstore, but it's likely dominated by superhero comics and japanese manga (the Japanese word for comics) which are largely comprised of romance, science fiction and martial arts genres.

Just as genre doesn't define content, no genre is inherently qualitatively good or bad. Quality can exist in any genre, and just as there are good mystery novels and good science fiction novels, and yes, good romances (romance tends to be the genre most often dismissed out of hand, but, in the broad sense, Lady Chatterly's Lover could even be considered a romance novel) there are good superhero comics, science fiction comics and romance comics, but like most genre fiction, the marketplace is dominated by schlock. Commercial genre fiction in most forms is the most aggressively marketed, since genre is the easiest way to appeal to a mass audience. But genres like superheroes have become increasingly niche, and have long been associated with, and have dominated the medium.

Why Superheroes Have Dominated the Medium

Since, historically, comics, or comic books have been dominated by content directed towards children, they've been long thought of as a children's medium. The first comic books were collections of comic strips, and though comic strips at the time had a family readership, they were the part of the newspaper that was most accessible to children. Print media and periodicals were as much a dominant form of entertainment as television is today, and were as commonly consumed as the other dominant entertainment medium at the time, radio. Some strips were directed towards adults-- principally humor strips like Bringing up Father, or even the original Blondie-- accessible to kids, but with humor that had more to do with adult domestic life. But as the part of the newspaper that attracted kids, the new comic books were targeted almost exclusively at a young audience.

The first true genre to emerge exclusively form comic books was the costumed superhero. Superheroes were in fashion in the late 30s and 40s, then went out of fashion after the war. In the 50s superhero comics were in the minority, then they became more prevalent and once again dominated from the 60s on. There's no reason for this than I think, can be definitively identified, though I could make a wild guess. There was an intense moral crackdown on comics in the late fifties, blaming comics for juvenile delinquency. A "comics code" was established by the industries largest publishers as a preemptive against censorship, and the code required a very stringent, conservative, and puerile approach to morality in comics. It may or may not be a coincidence that this is when superheroes became a dominant genre, since the content, at that point, was more pointedly skewed towards an even younger audience, and superheroes represented a black and white, distilled form of morality.

But the initial young readership soon grew older, and as they grew older, were still attracted to the genre, so by the late 60s and 70s, the content became a little more sophisticated, targeted more at young adults than young children. By the early 80s, comic shops started to appear, and by the 90s, comics were almost exclusively sold in comics shops. This trend was driven by these increasingly aging superhero fans who not only were the dominant consumers of comics, but had become aggressive speculators-- comics were now considered collectibles. Individually, they were willing to spend more money on comics, so retailers could sell more comics to less people.

Throughout this time, the comics code was resisted, but wasn't fully removed from the majority of superhero comics until very very recently, even though there was no real enforcement of its rules, and the marketplace no longer cared about what it was supposed to have represented. To the publishers this symbol represented on some level, a concession towards that early idea of a family audience, even though the readership of superhero comics was, and continues to be dominated by readers in their 20s and 30s. The age of the current readership of the genre reflects it's current niche status--the readership has aged with the medium and has attracted no new readers.

Literary and Non Genre Comics

Coincident and parallel to the rise in popularity of superhero comics, a movement of adult oriented comics also arose in the form of underground comics. Artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton deliberately pushed the boundaries of what had previously been considered a children's medium, with content that was heavily influenced by 60s drug culture and the sexual revolution. These comics were sold at head shops, and as the head shops disappeared in the late 70s, so did the undergrounds.

In the early 80s, what came to be known as alternative comics emerged. The first of these were even more adult oriented superhero and genre comics directed at the new older audience that were frequenting comics shops. Around this time, Art Spiegelman's watershed anthology, Raw, appeared, which contained European imports and a new breed of U.S. cartoonists influenced by the Europeans and U.S. undergrounds. Raw didn't find its way into comic shops but was principally sold in progressive bookstores in larger urban areas, and it's distribution was minimal. Some of these same artists also began to have their work seen in free weeklies, and eventually, started bleeding into the comics shops, generating a new, but still minority clientele. Since the comic shops were owned and operated by superhero fans, the shops relationship to this new audience became a somewhat reluctant one. But this minority audience began to grow, and a new generation of non genre and literary comics emerged. Long form comics or "graphic novels" started to come into the fore. Distribution was still spotty, but by the late 90s, the quality of these books could no longer be ignored by the intelligentsia. These comics were still little known, but became increasingly well critically regarded, and as they began to enter bookstores, sales increased, but most continued a marginalized life in the back shelves of comic stores, or squeezed into the "graphic novel" sections of bookstores between Batman and Superman.

In recent years, non-genre, and more specifically, non-superhero periodicals have been almost entirely pushed off the shelves of comic shops. graphic novels or long form comics have become the main venue for literary and non-genre comics, but they're still hard to find. Young adult genre comics are on the increase in bookstores, especially manga, but kids no longer read superhero comics. Superhero movies and cartoons continue to appeal to kids, but superhero comics, no longer targeted at kids, have completely lost their once young audience and are now exclusively targeted at an adult audience whose conservative tastes have been catered to by the comic shops and publishers to their own disadvantage. They've inadvertently cut their audience off at the knees.

The Problem

The perception that comics are principally about superheroes has been perpetuated by their fan base. Comic book conventions, which have always been dominated by superhero comics, are now a place where superhero and science fiction movies are promoted, further blurring the distinction.

The problem is that, even though, in the last couple of decades, a large number of non-genre and literary comics have emerged, it's almost impossible to have a discussion about comics with someone who did not grow up with them and who does not have an expressed interest in them. There's simply no common ground to begin the discussion. Because of the dominance of comic shops, comics have lost a generation of readers who never had the experience of walking into a grocery store or drugstore to buy a comic book. Even though, when I was a kid, comics were still all about superheroes, they were at least practically accessible. I didn't need to go to a special store. All I needed to do was walk around the corner.

With the internet my hope is that the new generation of comics readers will have the equivalent of the experience I had as a kid. That they'll be able to find comics, if not at their local drugstore, than on their browser. The internet has the ability to inform a whole new readership that comics are more than just a genre, but a thriving medium.

What Publishers Need to Do

Publishers have recently become more graphic novel friendly, but most of them are in the dark as to how to sell and promote them. Keep in mind that a new readership needs to be developed and cultivated. For all my focus on adult oriented and literary comics, it has to be said: if you want adults to read comics, you need to start with kids. Kids need to start reading comics again.

In the area of Children's and young adult fiction, Diary of a Wimpy Kid has recently been a breakthrough book. Even though it may look like an illustrated book, it's essentially a text heavy comic book, dependent on both words and the pictures to tell its story. Unfortunately, publishers answer to Wimpy Kid has mainly been to make inferior Wimpy Kid clones. Their other tactic has been to make graphic novel versions of their already successful young adult series novels, but these graphic novels become ancillary to the more popular novels. They're more a form of merchandising than a success in themselves. So how do you successfully produce and market children's comics?

I think one of the best things you can do is hire a comics savvy editor. Candlewick Press recently picked up Francoise Mouly's Toon Books because they know that Mouly knows comics. She and her husband, Art Spiegelman have had success with their line of Little Lit books because they know who the best cartoonists working today happen to be, they know comics, and they have a good feel for what appeals to kids.

Someone Needs to Hire Chris Duffy

Chris Duffy was the editor of Nickelodeon Magazine's comics section, and he knows comics every bit as much as Mouly does. Nickelodeon Magazine is now defunct. If you're a publisher and you want to hire an editor that knows his stuff, Chris is the guy. Snatch him up before somebody else does.

Don't Ignore Girls!

Another important audience that both alternative comics and manga have brought to comics: female readers. Since superheroes were mainly targeted at boys, girls were long excluded. Now there's a growing audience of female readers that comics haven't seen since the 50s. Take advantage of this.

As for comics for adults: simply look for what you would look for in any good fiction: good writing and good storytelling. Don't be afraid of it because it's a comic book. Sell it like you would any good novel that you believe in. I'm not an editor or a publisher, so if you happen to be one, this may sound naive, but it might just work.

No comments:

Post a Comment