Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What's the future of comics? (Is another industry headed down the tubes?)

I've wondered from time to time what children read now that comic books seem all to be dark, brooding and full of unchildlike angst. I ran the question by my friendly neighborhood comics dealer on Sunday, and he lamented that today's comics industry takes little account of younger readers. "That doesn't bode well for the industry, actually," he added.

I read traditional superhero comics when I was a kid, so even Alan Moore's psychotic, worry-ridden crime fighters are somewhat familiar to me. I was part of a ready-made audience, in other words. But what about today's children? If they don't read comics now, will they read them when they're older? Do today's kids even think of comics? Do they regard them as a grown-up thing — and how odd would that be?

Parents, children and comics readers, please feel free to respond. What's the future of comics?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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27 Comments:

OpenID maxine said...

In the UK the comic market is sad. For children up to the age of around 8 or 9 it is good - lots of interesting, fun options. Then it divides into violence for boys and sex for girls. I have girls, and I (and parents of others) am quite disgusted with the rapid segue from horses and crafts into teenage sex, make-up, reality-TV-level-celeb gossip and slutty clothes. It really is very hard to find decent comics for girls who have grown out of Simpsons and Dr Who. One of my daughters mildly enjoyed Alan thingy- you know who I mean - League of Gentelman guy - but I am not sure it was very suitable for an early-age teenager (I was told by young male colleagues at work when I told them I'd bought her a copy or two).
So, comics have been out, really. It is pretty much the same with magazines - they are all filled with dross - the one they still enjoy is Empire (film mag), but that's really about it.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would think some of of Alan Moore might be beyond the interests or comprehension of some younger teenagers. I don't think I'd have wanted to read about superheroes' psychologial problems when I was that age.

One thing I'm sure of is that gossip, sex and celebrity worship was not pitched at boys or girls back then the way they are today.

Perhaps I'll do a bit of browsing in comics shops when I come over for Crimefest.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

From my experience as a surrogate mother to my niece after my sister died, not she, nor her friends read comic books. They grew up on video games which offer characters rivaling Superman? Technology is seducing our readers to visit "you tube" than read! Sad!
p.s. Oh I know she's your favorite, but I adore Kate Winslet myself! I believe she's one of the most talented actresses in her generation, in addition to standing by her weight!

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That experience tallies with my intial guesses. I was unsure whether women would find their way to Alan Moore's Watchmen because they may not have read superhero comics as children. (I don't remember girls reading such comics.)

I also speculated that today's children might jump directly from video games to Harry Potter if they no longer have the superhero comics that I had when I was young. Incidentally, I've never read the Harry Potter books, but I wonder if their phenomenal popularity is a testament to the poverty of the rest of the reading landcape for children.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Comics weren't something that interested me greatly, so I haven't really introduced them to my boys.

The nine-year-old is addicted to Tin Tin, Lucky Luke, Asterix, and Calvin and Hobbes, but hasn't encountered the Super Hero variety.

If I got brave and started him down that path - what would you recommend, Peter?

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, my research in this matter took me to a colleague who has raised a brood of sons. She said Calvin and Hobbes were big favorites when her sons were younger.

It warms my heart to learn that your 9-year-old reads Tin Tin, Lucky Luke and Asterix. That's the sort of thing kids sould be reading, I think.

I don't know what to recommend in the way of superheroes for a 9-year-old, though. That was the point of my post, that the superheroes of my youth turned dark and brooding about 25 years ago, and I had no idea what children today were reading instead. The comics dealer with whom I discussed the matter mentioned the Teen Titans, who were around in my youth. He also recommended highly "The Invisibles," which I had not heard of before.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

The Invisibles is not for kids, though.

I'm way big into superheroes, and so I spend a lot of time reading comics, comics websites, and comics-centred blogs. So I'm in a position to say that there's been considerable thought given to your topic here.

DC and Marvel both say that they're in decent shape to face the future, but outsiders are not so sure. They seem to be tying themselves irrevocably to the dwindling comic-store market of older fans, and doing little to attract new or young readers. Nevertheless, they do both produce superhero comics that are specifically aimed at kids, and some of them are pretty good.

Comics as a whole are in somewhat better shape. Beyond DC and Marvel, there're a lot of creators and companies who are trying everything they can to succeed in every possible distribution avenue (traditional comics shops, bookstores, online...). Their subject material is as diverse as you can imagine.

And manga is huge. More kids are reading manga, by far, than superhero comics. In North America, I mean.

One recommendation for kids: Bone. I haven't read it, but it's supposed to be excellent.

(My own superhero/comic book blog is Legion Abstract; it's about the future of superheroes and comics in an entirely different and unrelated sense.)

January 20, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

The Invisibles= violence,sex,drugs,endless pop culture references,just about every conspiracy theory you have ever heard of and many you haven't,occultism,gnosticism,assorted mysticism,Philip K. Dick,more violence and more sex.
Definitely not suited for 9 year olds.I'd say from 14-15 onwards.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Matthew and Marco. First of all, I have to defend the comics-shop guy. I did not ask him specifically for comics suitable for 8- or 9-year-olds. I just asked about comics for kids in general, and he answered. I don't think he was trying to corrupt our youth, Vanda's children or anyone else's. But yep, I'd say sex, conspiracy theories, pop-culture references and Philip K. Dick would be over the heads of all but the most advanced of 9-year-olds.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

And I forgot the end of the world.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"DC and Marvel both say that they're in decent shape to face the future, but outsiders are not so sure. They seem to be tying themselves irrevocably to the dwindling comic-store market of older fans, and doing little to attract new or young readers."

That makes me cringe, since I work for a newspaper. Enough said. Or maybe this is just an example of the market fragmenting, with some pubilshers specializing in comics for kids and others in comics for adults. But just the thought of future children thinking of drinking coffee, staying up late, and reading comic books as things that grown-ups do is sure evidence that we live in a strange new world.

"Comics as a whole are in somewhat better shape. Beyond DC and Marvel, there're a lot of creators and companies who are trying everything they can to succeed in every possible distribution avenue (traditional comics shops, bookstores, online...). "

I hope you're right. I think the power of economies of scale, with its tendency to concentrate publishing, distribution and sales in fewer and fewer hands, is crushingly stronger than the Internet and the opportunties if offers for alternative distribution and small-scale publishing.

I hope that once we all begin picking up the wreckage of this economy, we'll have learned the folly of concentrating too much power in too few hands -- and that smaller publishers, traditional and online, will figure out ways to make a bit of money, Doing it for love goes only so far.

And thanks for the link to your blog. I'll take a look.

One last thing, since you've thought about comics and their future: I once read that Finland had among the highest rates of both literacy and comic-book readership. Has much thought been given to using comics in the classroom? Seems to me that schools ought to jump at cheap reading material that could hold kids' interest.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How could you forget the end of the world?

January 20, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

The end of the world wasn't/isn't/won't be all that it's cracked up to be.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How could it be otherwise? The end of the world is really death on a big scale, and death is the one experience impossible to embrace fully in art. That's one reason Alcestis and Hamlet send shivers up and down my spine. In different ways, they confront this impossibility.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Has much thought been given to using comics in the classroom?

Yes. I can't cite references or anything, but it is a topic that's come up pretty often.

One thing I should have mentioned about DC and Marvel's strategy: it's been speculated that they don't really care about comics anymore, per se. The comics are just a mechanism to keep alive intellectual properties that can be licensed and turned into movies, and that's where the real money is. The comic books are just a little boutique industry.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One imagines that some folks would be scandalized by the thought of comics in class, but if they nurture a love of reading, why not?

With respect to Marvel's and DC's strategy, they, like any good corporation, would deny the speculation. I would suggest that Stan Lee is turning over in his grave, except he's still alive and probably grown wealthy off the very strategy you mention.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There are some people who haven't gotten the word about the power and potential of comics. But I think the sky's the limit for what can and will be done with them; there are just too many brilliant people working in the field for progress not to be made.

Recommended reading: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and, if you like it, its two sequels.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I have one of the Understanding Comics volumes lying around, maybe two, and I've been reading more comics in recent weeks: Alan Moore, Scalped, The Punisher, 100 Bullets, Ex Machina, Harvey Pekar. There's some good storytelling going on.

A lot of comics since, I guess, the 1980s have been dark reimaginings of heroes from earlier decades. One wonders what current and future comics artists will come up with now that those older superheroes may have been reminagined within an inch of their lives.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

How could it be otherwise? The end of the world is really death on a big scale, and death is the one experience impossible to embrace fully in art.

It's a different end of the world.
Maybe.

January 21, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

As far as comics in the classroom, I've seen Persepolis and Maus on late high school/early university reading lists, and the odd Shakesperean comic in schools (same texts, but abridged and illustrated - actually, I find them rather nifty) but that's it.

I missed the superhero comics entirely when I was younger. I know friends read them, but they didn't appeal at all. My visual imagination is pretty wretched now and was worse then, so I didn't really appreciate the illustrated aspects, and I read so fast I thought most comics a waste of money. However, I did enjoy Asterix and Tintin, largely thanks to my parents. They don't read much but somehow had a bookworm daughter and were keen to encourage me. They were only familiar with classic titles, so steered me in that direction. Which turns out to have been a lovely thing to do - I still love Asterix, now in multiple languages. And Smurf comics as well. I picked up a copy of "Les Schtroumpfs Olympiques" while waiting for a train in Paris about seven years ago (my French can't cope with Le Monde), and am slowly working my way through the series.

Anyway, the result is that as an adult superhero tropes are something of a closed book to me, and I'm unlikely to pick up a comic for which I know I'll miss the point. I've always felt the traditional comic world is something I'm just not part of - it doesn't seem to cater for non-afficionados to well. Which doesn't seem to bode well for the future.

(As a side note, I can confirm that there are a LOT more young people reading anime/manga than Super-person these days. But less so in the UK than in Australia. Is it the proximity to Asia/extent of migration from that part of the world? I'm not sure. What's the US experience?)

January 21, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Lauren,
You could try Alan Moore's V for Vendetta or Swamp Thing or Neil Gaiman's Sandman-Sandman especially had a large female readership who probably didn't much care for standard superhero tropes

January 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I'll have to respond in bits and pieces thanks to time constraints.

I don't know to what extent manga is read in the U.S., but I suspect it's considerable. One of the major chain bookstores in Philadelphia has about as much manga as it does all other kinds of comics combined.

Your experience tends to support my childhood recollection that girls did not read superhero comics.

But Marco may be astute in his Alan Moore recommendations. I was surprised to find a woman in her early twenties reading Swamp Thing in a cafe recently. I don't think she had much experience with superhero comics, but she was an Alan Moore fan nonetheless.

January 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, in that case, I shall look forward to that new and different end of the world.

January 21, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

One comics:

Are Comic Books Dying?

And the site of the
The New Frontiersman

January 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for two interesting links. What a rich variety of material exists within the world of Watchmen. With respect to the death of comics, concerns about price may be related to my comics dealer's observations about the industry's not catering to children any longer.

I'd find it hard to buy anything in the format of the typical single-issue comic just because something that size would take me such a short time to read (Though I used to buy Harvey Pekar's American Splendor as each issue hit the stands.) With once exception, the comics I've been reading the past few months have all been in bound collections of multiple issues.

January 22, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

I'd find it hard to buy anything in the format of the typical single-issue comic just because something that size would take me such a short time to read (Though I used to buy Harvey Pekar's American Splendor as each issue hit the stands.) With once exception, the comics I've been reading the past few months have all been in bound collections of multiple issues.

American comics are really short.When I was a kid,the Italian versions included two supporting series in addiction to the headline comic,so if you bought L'Uomo Ragno,for instance,you had one issue of the ongoing series of Spiderman,the title character,and then one of Daredevil and one of the Hulk.
One problem I've seen mentioned with trade paperbacks is that now authors tend to write in closed story arcs-there's neither much room for single issue stories nor for slow-boiling subplots which may take years to come to full realization.

v-word:genest

January 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You mention story arcs. This reminds me of the aspect of The Wire universally cited as evidence that the show was serious art: its long story arcs, said to make the television show like a novel. long, closed story-arcs are cool and "adult."

I wonder if a move away from single-issue stories is part of that phenomenon of moving away from young readers.

January 22, 2009  

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