Thursday, June 05, 2008

Accessibility in Comics

I just want to make sure you guys understand that the column below is an opinion. I sincerely believe a lot of what I say below. I don't think this is controversial, but in the comics-blogosphere, there are certain elements of "common wisdom" about comics that people accept as fact.

One of these issues is the inaccessibility of comics.

The slippery slope here is that there just isn't much in the way of fact and statistics to hang onto when expressing an opinion or making a point about comics fandom, etc... So this post was actually a bit hard for me to put together with little in the way of data to pull from.

Anyway, its an opinion. And its not based on any particular evidence, other than a trend I've been seeing at Newsarama and other trafficked websites.

Since I have no data, I'd really like to hear your opinions in the comments section. If I'm way off base, I'm way off base. But I'd at least like to challenge this particular notion of "accessibility".

Comics, as an industry, are not in a great financial position. Top selling comics usually sell around 100,000 copies. I'm at a loss for what the "mean" might be for comic sales, but comics from the Big 2 (Marvel and DC) start facing cancellation in the 20K range and lower. To put it in perspective, some of the lowest rated TV shows on network TV (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and CW) are pulling in around 2 million viewers (Example: The Pussycat Dolls present: Girlicious). Or, roughly, 100 times the number of people buying that issue of Blue Beetle, which is only movinga round 20K per month.

The Problem

After the 1940's and 50's, when titles sold in the millions annually, the common wisdom surrounding why comics go mostly unread these days is that comics are "inaccessible". It should be noted that this inaccessibility is believed to exist despite the $100 million opening weekends for movies like Iron Man (whose comic of the same name sold 38,000 copies in April 2008).

The definition of "accessibility" in comic blogging parlance is (I guess): the complication a reader may experience while attempting to become engaged in a superhero comic narrative. This complication may be due to the intricate nature of a storyline and character(s) who have amassed considerable back story, which the reader may feel they need to know before engaging the current story in its full capacity.

So the problem may be seen as: Comic superhero narratives extend over years, and, in many cases, decades. So that if Sally Newreader picks up an issue of, say Iron Man, the world she would encounter with a single issue's read would be SO MINDBOGGLING that she would give up on Iron Man, and (perhaps) comics forever.

Narrative Complexity

The truth is that comics DO have ongoing narratives. Picking up any single issue of a series might drop you mid-stream into a story, and there's no guarantee the reader will feel they have adequately caught up by the end of the issue. Add in the idea that any single issue of Iron Man is but a peek into a character who has been around since the early 60's, which has been a part of a larger universe since that same time, with dozens of comics released each month defining that universe... and all the characters that have appeared in that series, and all of the storylines which have appeared... And, technically.... yes. It could be seen as a bit daunting to jump into a comic on the strength of one issue.

Just who is reading these things?

I think its important to understand who comprises the comic audience. DC and Marvel don't really go out of their way to hype their marketing research, but a few stats I've seen suggest that the audience is HUGELY male, and in their 20's or older. One report stating the audience was 90% male, and respondents were an average age of 29 (29!). Johanna had some words of wisdom on the issue about a year ago.

This is in sharp contrast to the audience which was believed to consume comics from the 1930's - 1970's and the rise of the comic fan movement (if you'll pardon the expression) which began the change in demographics.

Today's superhero reader is most likely a male, much older than the school children of years past. My guess is that they have been reading comics for many years, and that they have specific characters and titles which they follow. Although, increasingly, readers will move from title to title to follow a writer and/ or artists.

Where can I get these funnybooks?

Its also, I believe, key to understanding the accessibility of comics to understand where comics are available and the cost of a single issue of a comic. Comics are now available in the traditional format (20 pieces of paper folded and stapled together) almost exclusively in specialty retail shops. These comics now cost around $3.00 a pop. To make my point, the spinner racks in the magazine aisle are now long gone. Comics are no longer distributed through the same channel as magazines. Instead, a single distribution company holds a monopoly, and they work almost exclusively with the small retailers of comic shops (there are no big, nationwide chains of comic stores.).

In short, the point of physical access for readers and comics has all but evaporated. When Marvel and DC decided to quit competing for space on the newsstand, they made a decision to become a product for boutique retailers. This decision was either consciously, or unconsciously made to keep kids out of the equation. But...

Kids = new readers

new readers = growth (or at least a sustainable business model)

A trip down memory lane...

Returning to the idea that comics are inaccessible, I have only my own recollections, and the anecdotes of a few other folks to go by.

My first issue of Uncanny X-Men (a series of which I have 172 issues) was issue 210. It occurred between two well known storylines, the conclusion of the Rachel Summers/ Phoenix/ Selene storyline and was one issue before the Mutant Massacre. I had no idea what a mutant was, who this "Rachel" person was, what battle occurred that everyone was so worried about, or what was going on. But I was hooked. And I think 172 issues speaks pretty well for how devoted I became until the post-Claremont flailing.

I also started reading Batman comics right before the notorious "Dial in and kill Robin" stunt. I really didn't understand who this second Robin was, what his background might be, how he related to Batman, or what the past 45 years of Batman comics were like. But I was similarly fascinated.

So what...?

Question #1: The question, then, is: Do adult readers, coming to a shop for a specific purchase and more entrenched feelings regarding brand loyalty, etc... truly find new comics inaccessible, or do they simply not find new concepts and comics worth exploring?

Question #2: Are kids and their natural sense of exploration a more apt audience for the endless mythologies of mainstream comic superheroes?

My opinion is that it's not a clear cut answer. New series rise and fall, just as they once did on the newstands. But the audience is just so much smaller with comics unavailable to the general public.

The argument I would make is that the narrative of comics is not what is keeping NEW READERS away. The barrier seems more likely to be the limited availability of comics due to the boutique nature of comic shops. Add in the price point, which many may find a bit steep, and its a tough sell.

Won't someone think of the children...?

And, geez... You're going to need those kids. Find a way to reach them. And, for the love of Wertham, make sure the content isn't going to sink the industry. Johnny DC is a GREAT start (seriously, I love the Johnny DC titles). But also get the other stuff out there, too.

But unless those comics end up in the candy aisle or in the toy section at Target, I have no idea how kids are going to find them. Moms aren't taking their 8-year-old to the comic shop, and it seems like there's a market here.*

For those sad, unsatisfied fanboys...

I have no answer. I have my suspicions. I don't think adult readers, already invested in a number of titles are likely to be willing to expend either money or energy to uncover the mysteries of, say, Iron Man in the way they might have done at age 11 when first getting into superhero comics.

From the comments I've seen, it does seem that there's a rush to condemn event comics such as Final Crisis for not sticking to some indefinable simplicity out of a Universe in which many of the commenters have seemingly never before taken interest. I'm not sure how to solve that accessibility gap. In some ways, it seems, someone new to superhero comics would be at an advantage. They would not assume they should have all a priori knowledge, and write off concepts they might not immediately recognize as "inaccessible".

As per most other titles... unless you're talking Morrison's Doom Patrol or Invisibles, accessibility into the worlds of each title isn't a huge issue. Marvel spends a page at the beginning of each issue recapping previous events. DC has a marvelously crafted blurb explaining who each titular character is on the title page.

In my opinion, things seem complicated not because they actually ARE that complicated, but because the readers feel its easier to pass judgment rather than actually checking out the series (as a Superman nut, I'm particularly sensitive to this issue). But could anything be more convoluted than a team-book like X-Men? Or a character like Batman, managed by how many creative teams across how many comics? And still these comics sell okay to the existing fanboy audience.

When I was a kid...

As I mentioned, my first issue of Uncanny X-Men was issue 210. Today, my run begins with issue 169.

My point being: Yes, X-Men had a complicated past, running 209 issues before I tapped into the X-Universe. And in those days, in order to get the back story, I had to talk Karebear into driving me down to Austin Books so I could pillage their back-issue bin. There weren't trades in the 80's. But, even as a kid, I didn't feel that I needed to start from the beginning. Instead, if issue numbers were referenced, I saved my pennies and went looking for the back-issues.

It wasn't "inaccessible", it was something to uncover. And, honestly, its sort of how I feel about Superman comics these days. Nothing like doing a victory dance because you stumbled across a beat up comic featuring the first appearance of Parasite (again, thanks, Austin Books!).

So in conclusion...

I don't buy the "inaccessibility" argument. Maybe for some, limited titles. But I certainly don't buy it for most of the mainstream DCU or Marvel U titles. To me, it sounds like an excuse. After all, the audience got into comics at some point. Often as children. And while I do honestly believe today's superhero comics are more sophisticated than those of the 70's and 80's (and much of the Image-tastic 90's), I don't believe that literate adults really find the 22 page floppies impenetrable.

What I do believe is that the readers simply lack the switch which once turned them on to new ideas, new characters, etc... that aren't part of the superhero comics with which they're already familiar.

In my opinion, making those comics accessible is part of the fun. Good writing in current issues has often made me want to learn more. And, today, its easier to do so than ever with collections, Marvel's Digital Comics, well-timed re-prints, etc... But... I think more often than that, good writers also don't assume readers will know everything and give the readers what they need to know. The problem comes when a assumption is made that the knowledge is there by poor writing.

That said, the comics exist within SHARED UNIVERSES. Event comics do sell well, and are probably good for not just the strength of the companies, but as a reminder to writers that their comics and characters don't exist in a bubble. To suggest that comics referring to the shared universes and their complexity shouldn't exist is asking the the Big 2 to give up on one of the most exciting parts of what makes these universes great.

*Have you stood in the toy aisle at Target? Literally half the folks are NOT shopping for the kid who is with them, but for a present. How easy would it be to sell comics as a cheap substitute for a toy to some kid pouting because he's not getting a Transformer? Especially when your comic ties into the toys on that same aisle...


J.S. said...

Kids today just have so many other things to compete for their attention besides comic books. When we grew up we certainly had television, but each house had one or two TVs which might or might not have cable, and there weren't nearly the programming options available that kids today have. Now it seems like every kid has a TV in his room and a TV in the car (with a number of channels available that specifically are aimed at kids), a DVD player or two, a videogame console, a portable videogame system, and a computer with internet access. Comic books with static pictures and words that you actually have to read just don't compete very well. There are too many other options.

I think comic books have their niche, but it IS a niche, and it's pretty much for adults (although I think high school kids can still be a pretty viable market for comics- they're open to unusual ideas in storytelling and might appreciate the art in a way that's less easily distracted than younger kids).

Anyway, I guess I'm just saying that I don't think comics will ever again reach the sales figures of their golden age just because there are too many other competing mediums out there today. I'm just saying that the smaller audience may not primarily be a factor of a mismanaged comic industry- there are a lot of outside forces that are competing with the comic market share.

The League said...

I think that's sort of a separate but equal issue.

My point about kids and comics was more intended to point out that when comics were much easier to get, kids jumped right into comics without worrying about whether or not they were accessible. Curiously, today's readers who have been part of the boutique superhero culture (that niche you mentioned) into their adult lives, and who could or should know more about super-hero comics just by osmosis, dismiss comics they aren't already deeply familiar as "inaccessible".

Anonymous said...

I like the way Marvel has been running a "recent recap" on page one of their books. Kind of like "Previously on LOST..."

J.S. said...

I don't mean to out you as a gamer or anything, but I remember that right around the time that you were getting into comics you were also getting into superhero roleplaying games, so we had all of these game guidebooks around that had all of the characters listed for the Marvel and DC universes along with their respective powers, backgrounds, and origins (remember the "Children of the Atom" book with all of the mutants from Marvel listed in it?). I think that probably helped make the comics more "accessible" because any time there was a character we didn't recognize, we could just look him up in a guide book.

The League said...

True enough. The info in those books came from Marvel's "Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe" books, I believe. These were comics that included an image, history, list of powers, etc... for a given character.

Why DC and Marvel quit publishing these books is beyond me (DC's version being called "Who's Who"). It was a great way to get readers up to speed with the complicated universes and recognize characters when they saw them on the page.

Simon MacDonald said...

I believe the two biggest problems with comics today are price and availability.

Price: Comics are no longer a good value. An average comic gives you 22 pages of story for $3. That takes you about 20-30 minutes to read. Contrast that with a 2 hours you spend at the movies for $10 or the 4-5 hours you spend reading a novel for $10.

I sincerely believe that comics are pricing themselves out of the market for new fans. Even if you get someone interested in Superman, for instance, for them to follow the character for a year they will need to buy somewhere on the order of 30 comics (Action Comics x 12, Superman x 12, DC yearly event x 6). That quickly adds up to $90 for one character. God forbid the collector branches out into Batman, etc.

Availability: Comics are just not available to the casual buyers these days. Gone are the days where you could grab a comic up off a spinner rack. How many of you got your start in reading comics waiting for your parents to pickup something from the store? Kids just don't get that chance anymore.

Borders, Barnes and Nobel's are starting to help with their expanding graphic novel section but a graphic novel is a serious outlay in cash for a new reader. This is where manga is eating comics lunch in new fans as they are readily available in book stores and priced reasonable enough for new readers. One wonders why Marvel or DC haven't tried their own black and white pocket book reprints of their major titles to hook new readers.

So that leaves only one place where a new fan can get his/her start on comics, a comic book store. I don't want to over generalize things but in my experience comic book stores are not geared towards attracting new fans.

So where does this leave us? The only place I can see monthly comics going and thriving is the digital realm. I hope one of the big comic book publishers figures this out soon. Sorry Marvel your digital offering is not quite up to snuff.

Going digital would allow publishers to drop the price of their books as they are no longer paying for printing and distribution. Also, by direct selling to customers they will probably end up making more profit.

The added bonus of going digital is that your back issues are never out of print. No more coming in at the third issue of a 5 issue story arc. You can always go back and get the first issue.

Then with the entire back catalogue available publishers could start getting creative with print on demand technologies for the end users to create their own trades. This would open up a myriad of possibilities.

Well maybe someday, I'm getting off my soapbox now.

The League said...

I think it would be wise for a follow up on digital comics, and the possibilities for the Big 2. It's also worth thinking of smaller and self-publisher's ability to turn a dime with digital comics.

Anonymous said...

I, too, wish comics were less than three dollars.

SinlessTouch said...

i totally agree with you guys. damn, sex toys are even more accessible than comics :( that is so sad because comics are a big part of our culture :(