Comic Books???!!! (Originally posted on 7/15/08)

They say that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. For nearly two years, I seemed to live in a sort of social bubble populated almost exclusively (or so it seemed) by people who read or at least condoned the reading of comics in their various forms. Over time, though, I began to see through this bubble and was forced to face the reality of the here and now: People think comic books are beneath them.

WHY? These same people line up in droves to see the latest superhero movies every summer, so clearly it’s not an aversion to the idea of a superhero. The money talks: We LOVE Iron Man, Batman and all of their amazing friends.

Is it the stigma left over from the Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954? From the days when your mother said comic books would ruin your eyes and turn you into a no-goodnik? I doubt it. No one thinks of comic book readers as badasses these days.

I’m not really sure when it happened, but at some point comic books went from being dangerous and controversial to being the exclusive territory of geeks and nerds. The weirdest thing about this stereotype is that the subject matter of those comics was NOT seen as exclusive territory. Shows like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk (not to mention ’60s Batman) would never have been huge successes if only geeks and nerds were watching. Unfortunately most people think of ’60s Batman as the epitome of comic book storytelling, which could not be further from the truth these days. In fact, I think the campiness of that show may be the root of a lot of this stigma.

There is also an equally prevalent common mentality of “Silly Rabbit, comics are for kids!” While children may have been the target audience after the Comics Code Authority was established in the 1950s, the ratio of teen-and-older comics to youth comics today is closer to 5:1. It’s an interesting phenomenon to examine: Adults and young adults think that comics are for kids, while kids would rather be facing off against adults in GTA4 or Call of Duty 4 on their XBox.

Is it just the name “comic book”? Artistically inclined people refer to them as sequential art, and it’s really the only blanket term that encompasses the whole of the genre. If you want to bump up your “indie cred” a notch, you say you read “graphic novels,” almost all of which are actually collected editions of graphic periodicals.

Perhaps it’s just that people don’t know what they’re missing. Yet every time a comic-book based property is transferred to another media, we eat it up. Wanted almost overtook WALL*E at the box office! Unfortunately, I don’t think more than 5% of its viewers knew it was adapted from a comic (and it was actually watered down for theaters). Perhaps it wouldn’t have sold as well if people had known. An interesting property to watch will be The Exterminators, a non-superhero horror series which has landed a series deal with Showtime. Of course, there are also the planned movies for Ex Machina, Runaways and Y:The Last Man (which somebody will rush to claim is some sort of tangential rip-off of Children of Men. Just you wait.)

There are comics out there that would probably appeal to you, by the way. Do you like zombie stories with great characters and suspenseful plots? Try The Walking Dead. Interested in modern drama, mystery and action with fairytale sensibility? Try Fables. Love crime fiction? Check out Criminal. Big fan of procedural police dramas? Powers takes that genre and adds a superheroic twist. Do you like stories about a teenage group of friends who can’t catch a break and have to deal with terrible (literally villainous) parents? I recommend Runaways. I could do this part all day, but who would even listen?

Well, I’m fresh out of ideas and entirely lacking in an outsider’s perspective. I’m willing to bet you have your own reason for not reading comic books. Care to share it?

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve thought of something: people like passive forms of entertainment now. Television shows kind of embody the same type of idea as most comic books; they have an overarching theme, and for 22 times (or there about) a year, specific stories told within that theme. The difference lays both with medium (most people don’t read much these days) and with availability. I don’t have to go to my corner video store and see if they have the newest episode of Pushing Daisies. It comes right to my television for my consumption -and for free, unless I get the urge to buy it on DVD (God, I want that show on DVD…). And it also airs at a specific date and time, so people are able to sit down for that time. Like, Tivo would be hell for me, because for most things I have to have a sense of urgency to watch it. So if John Adams was kicking around in my Tivo, I may still not have gotten around to watching it even though I friggin’ love it.

    Both of those things work against comic books. You have to go to a specific store to find them; that store may not have the issue you want. You have to exert energy into keeping up with this story that you don’t have to put into most other mediums. People have to spend money on the comic books. And then there is the Tivo aspect, the “I can wait a bit before picking up that issue” aspect. And that -intersecting with the whole comics=not cool factor- possibly limits comic books’ reach as a medium.

  2. @Petpluto-

    One of the problems you mentioned is frequently referred to as the “Vertigo effect,” because it tends to happen to books published by Vertigo Comics (makers of Y: The Last Man, Fables, Transmetropolitan and many more excellent non-superhero comics.) Since these stories rarely have arcs that lst fewer than four issues, most readers would rather wait until the issues are collected and buy them together as a trade paperback. Whereas once the trade paperback edition of a comic was a rarity reserved for only the best stories, now nearly every multi-part story arc is collected and bound for sale. An advantage to this (other than the fact that comics can be sold in bookstores) is that comics with low single-issue sales may be kept in production of trade paperback sales are strong.

    As for the problem of accessibility, a comic reader was recently added to the iTunes app store. If you have an iPod Touch or an iPhone, you can now download and read comics digitally at the push of a touch screen. How long it will take for a substantial digital library to be built up I cannot say, but it certainly is a start in the right direction. If Amazon’s Kindle could display in full color, I think we would start making our comics available on it. Heck, I might even buy one for the sheer convenience of it!

  3. I don’t read a whole lot of comics, but I tend to be very Gileslike about the whole thing. Digital comics seem a bit strange and like some pivotal part of the comic consumption process will be lost. The mint condition, never before opened, worth $3,000 comic will have a hard time finding an equivalent in the digital world, where everyone’s comic will look exactly the same. As much as the actual stories, writing, and drawing are important, it seems to me that the culture and collection aspect are just as important, if not more so. How do you think that aspect will evolve with an increase in digitization?

  4. You’re right, Jess. There is little to no room in the medium of digital comics for collectability and speculation. Then again, the comics after-market is a shadow of its former self. Pretty much anything that has come out within the last 15 years has barely doubled in price (unless it was a rare variant cover drawn by a now-deceased artist) In fact, some analysts say that were it not for the success of Spider-Man and X-Men movies, the speculator bust of the late 1990s would have forced Marvel out of business completely (and most of the industry with it!) The sad truth of it is that without all those insensitive mothers throwing out everybody’s issues of Action Comics or Amazing Fantasy, they wouldn’t be worth nearly as much as they are today. now that everybody buys one copy to read and another to save, the saved copies are barely worth the cost of preservation.

    Personally, I think that there will always be some monthly comics in print. The direct market is a strong enough force that it can keep up demand of core titles forever, if need be. Digital comics would make these stories accessible to a potentially much wider audience, though, and could allow titles that would never turn a profit in print to succeed in a medium where the cost of production is greatly reduced.

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