Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who's reading?

Item: The Fortress Keeper writes a very thoughtful post regarding the quality (or more precisely, the lack thereof) of current comics (from DC in particular). He follows it up with another on Marvel offerings, which is slightly more hopeful, but still pretty pessimistic.

Item: I read those posts on the heels of finishing Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright's solid examination of American comics as cultural artifacts. One element of his broad and deep survey of the history of comic books stays with me, chapter after chapter: just how many comics used to be sold in this country, month in and month out, when they were just disposable entertainment, and how few are sold these days, now that they achieved some "respectability."

Item: I am in my LCS, looking for something to buy. On the "new" rack, a see a leftover Birds of Prey:

I immediately recall the source of this hommage cover; I can picture it quite accurately even before I locate an image on the internet:

I smile a little in my nostalgia, and then I think, as I look at the cover, that the source for this pastiche has got to be almost forty years old. Why would anyone who is not in my demographic care about this? As cool as I may think this is, does it sell any comics to new readers? I flip though the book. It doesn't even sell the comic to me.

Item: I am in a Barnes & Noble, looking at a spinner rack of current comics. A woman comes up with a four- or five-year-old boy, and encourages him to take a new comic. I look at the titles displayed and, knowing a little bit about their content, blanch at the thought of a young child looking at them. The kid selects something based on Sonic, the video game hedgehog; I try to recommend a Krypto to the woman as an additional choice. I leave the spinner rack and head over the the TPBs and graphic novels.

Item: I am back in my LCS and spy Darwin Cooke's Spirit #1. I am sorely tempted, since I liked his one-shot crossover with Batman so much. I put the $2.99 single back on the shelf, and decide to wait for the trade.

I love comics; I can't seem to let them go. I keep reading them, reading about them, writing about them, and using them in my classes. I don't think I'll ever stop reading graphic books.

I also think I'll live to see the end of comics books as I knew them. The seeds of this demise were sown with the rise of the direct market; the paradigm shift from comics as a broad entertainment channel to comics as a fan-priority enterprise followed and further limited the growth of the industry. The perceived need for and almost sole focus on darker or "mature" themes excludes many potential new readers; the increasing "sophistication" of story arcs and crossover events has left in the dust the old axiom (Jim Shooter's?) that every issue is some reader's first. The advent of classier formats and the new alliance with legitimate booksellers scores with the base and introduces prestige work to a new readership, but does nothing to promote the bulk of the production or pull in new entry-level readers. In fact, collections and big volumes draw even some of the converted away from the monthlies, continuing the shrinkage.

I don't believe that comics will go away; I do believe the face of comics will change. Singles will continue to lose ground; I imagine a lot of them will disappear. Perhaps we'll see more of the European model, with original material presented only in hardcovers or paperbacks, even in the genres.

I don't worry about my not having comics to read. But I fear that someday, the kid carrying around a folded eighty-page giant, being exposed to wonder and science and morality and history and adventure and yes, literacy, all while just thinking it was great fun, will be nothing but a quaint image from an almost forgotten past.


The Fortress Keeper said...

I'm afraid the image of a kid with an 80-page giant has already disappeared.

The LCS in my area gets a bit nervous when kids come in to check out Archie or Teen Titans Go!, worried that their presence will somehow disturb the collectibles.

I'm 44 and am not even the oldest customer in the shop.

It seems as if the comics - and comics fans - of my youth are going the way of the dodo.

Too bad, although I personally wouldn't mind seeing the European model of comics put into play.

Loren said...

Oh, no, no, no, Walaka! Don't wait for the trade for The Spirit. This issue is a contained issue (which I'm hoping is what Cooke will do with all issues). It's so fun and, honestly, I want to make sure that it survives so I can keep buying it. It's SOOOOO good!

PS - Thanks for the congrats at my blog. As you know, also newcomer to your blog, but enjoying every minute!