The American comics industry serves an ever smaller fan-base and seems content to ignore its fans among women, children, and people of color. I watch with concern that an industry that once pushed the limits of popular culture (even horrified it) may be in its death throws. I say this not only as an afectionado, but a practitioner of the art, so my concern is practical as well as philosophical. Perhaps it’s just I don’t respond to the superhero myth. I feel that vein is all mined out. I find Alternative (what used to be called “Underground” comics), and what are disparagingly called “genre fiction” i.e. Westerns, Sci-Fi more more relevant in talking about the human condition than people flying around in tights. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the whole thing simply doesn’t hold my attention. I don’t even have the patience to draw Spider-Man. This places me on the outside the mainstream comic scene, at least as it stands in America.
I guess what I’m craving, both as a reader and a creator, is something different. I know the stories are out there, they’re just not connecting with the powers that be. For one thing, people of color and woman are still on the fringes of the industry. There are some African American comic creators, Kyle Baker comes to mind. Chinese American Gene Yang, the creator of American Born Chinese made quiet a splash, and the Iranian-born writer and author Marjane Satrapi, of Persepolis fame, had her creation turned into a movie. But most people hear “comic books” and think “Spiderman”. Still. Why is this? I mean, there are a LOT of movies based on comic books that don’t have superheroes in them: A History of Violence, Ghost World, From Hell, and White Out all were comic books.
Like I said, Batman’s fine and all, but some of us just can’t relate, for what ever reason. And the comic book industry is shrinking or at the very least is anemic. Instead of trying to find new markets they focus (in America, anyway) on the same people that bought comics in the 1950′s: White males. The stereotype of the 30-year old virgin still living in his parent’s suburban basement, eating pizza and playing video games was once the image of the typical comic fan, and it STILL seems to largely be the focus of the marketing of comic books. Why? Go to a comic convention and there is definitely a new wave of more diverse fans, even if these are largely fans of the movies based on the comics, or even of video games. Why is the American comic book industry half a century behind in it’s product development?
This isn’t just about focus groups and cynical demographics it’s about survival. Video games, movies, animated cartoons are all siphoning potential fans, BEFORE they are ever introduced to comics. This is the key, as I see it. By regulating comics to specialty stores that “outsiders” seldom enter (my wife claims that there is an “anti-woman force field” around most comic shops-more on that later) and focusing on escapist, male fantasy, the comics industry is shooting itself in the foot. I was introduced to comics as a way for my mother to entertain me on long bus rides around San Francisco when I was little. I clearly remember my first comic: it was a collection of Uncle Scrooge stories, actually very similar to the format of a graphic novel, that I carried around for years until it fell apart. My brother and I would read the separate characters in the story even before we learned to read “real” books. Artist and writer Carl Barks created Uncle Scrooge for Disney three decades before; it is an indication at the shortage of kid-friendly comics that I was reading something that had been created before World War II!
Children are still under-served by the comics world. They are either, like I was, given the relics (however grand) of the past, or they are indoctrinated to become superhero fans at a very early age. Now, I get it. Superheroes are the modern mythos, or one of them, that has replaced the Western as the modern American archetype of the “individuals quest for redemption against the demons of the id” or something like that. In a largely secular, industrial society, Americans look for symbols of empowerment and escapism that doesn’t challenge their picture of their place in the world. I get it. I just think that America has more diverse needs than that. Children can learn to read easily if they are interested in the subject matter, and woman might more be enticed to join the ranks of comicdom, if every time they walked into a comic shop they weren’t instantly turned off by the giant posters of representations of unrealistic femininity that are most comic book heroines. This speaks to the “anti-woman force field” that my wife coined. Why would an industry like ours be so uncaring about what half the population feels?
I can only come up with one answer, and that is that the leadership of the big publishers are stuck in the 1960′s of crew cuts and wide-eyed Americana that was the Silver Age of comics. As opposed the Golden Age of the 1940′s that gave us Batman and Superman, that era saw the time of the birth of Spider-Man, the X-Men and other well-known properties. Under the capes were edgier heroes with faults and worries, not the nerdy Clark Kent or the ultra-rich, if troubled, Bruce Wane. For their clean-cut time, these were risky ideas, and creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were breaking stylistic conventions by talking about xenophobia in the X-Man and teenage angst in Spider-Man. Instead of keeping this innovative spirit alive, the comics industry stuck with a “sure thing” and became chronically enamored with the past. What was cutting edge 40+ years ago, when Generation X was in grade school, is no longer.
Comics are stories and pictures. They are as old as Ancient Egypt, that’s what I love about them-their simplicity and the marvelous way they can tell a story. We need to run with the creative fearlessness that gave us these archetypes that many treasure, or maybe like the Pharaohs, we’ll be visiting Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest in the museum one day, wondering why the empire of the comic book crumbled into oblivion. We need to empower the young, invite the uninitiated and test ourselves as creators to broaden comics appeal even as we specify our individual voices. This could be a new Golden Age of comics, whether it’s digital comics on a handheld device, an on-line web comic, or a traditional print graphic novel. Given that, the only limits on comics are now ones that we as creators impose on ourselves. The future is in our hands.
Next: I plan to address the lack of mentorship in the industry. See you then.
Click here to read Part II
and Part III