Children’s book illustrator and sometime cartooner Jed Alexander read my piece on top selling graphic novels the other day, and spun it off into his own piece entitled The Future of Comics: A Casual Readership. While I agree with the basic premise, I think Alexander went a bit far in condemning superhero comics as purely a niche product:
Despite attempts to attract new readership with recent revamps like Marvel Now! and The New 52, the two largest comics companies ,Marvel and DC, have consistently catered to their long standing fans. These companies get most of their business through the direct sales comics market (comics shops) rather than bookstores. They target a rapidly dwindling fan base of aging adult readers. Instead of reaching out to new readers, their strategy has instead been to get these older readers to buy more comics. Because of this approach, they still manage to sell in relatively high numbers, but aside from a few spikes in sales a result of the speculators market, these numbers have been steadily decreasing. It is because of the fan market that Marvel and DC and some of the smaller direct sales only comics companies continue to reach the bestseller lists.
Japanese Manga, since they cater to a younger fan base outside the direct sales market, are one of the few exceptions to this rule, but still represent a niche market.
The idea that superhero comics are only read by aging readers is just patently not true. It IS true that sometimes they are marketed that way, but there are plenty of younger readers (college age and up) who got drawn in by recent events and revamps. And by virtue of the Marvel movies alone, superhero characters are better known than ever. The comics don’t really benefit from the movie audience, but I’ll hold on to my bathwater along with he baby by stating that superhero culture is pretty darned mainstream these days.
Now, what I DON’T like is when “superhero comics” are used interchangeably as a term for “Mainstream comics”—it’s silly to say Batman isn’t mainstream, but so is Maus and Alison Bechdel these days. Alexander is correct in saying that there is a much larger audience that appreciates comics without necessarily slabbing their copy of The Disgusting Room by Austin English.
[Art above by Jed Alexander.]