Comics’ Lost Audience

On Strange Love Live I made mention of a paper I had written in college on the decline of interest in American comic books, with a subsequent promise to post said essay online. I’m nothing if not a man of my word!

What follows is a somewhat younger Tyler’s passionate explanation of why fewer Americans buy (and to a certain degree, care) about comic books than ever before. Perhaps therein we may learn what to avoid as we drive forward the stories of tomorrow.

Comics’ Lost Audience: An Analysis of the Decreased Popular Interest in American Comic Books

Spider-Man 2 Movie PosterThe superhero is an endangered species. Even with superhero movies at an all-time high in popularity (Spider-Man 2 was the second top-grossing movie of 2004, making over 370 million dollars, and its 2002 prequel is the sixth highest grossing film of all-time) (“All-Time USA Box Office”), comic book sales are at historical lows. In spite of America’s professed love in other media for the traditions and characters of comics, the top-selling comic book of 2004 barely broke 200,000 issues sold (Weiland), a number that, ten years ago, would have put the book up for cancellation. In stark contrast, Japan’s top selling comic books often sell upwards of one million copies every week! Japan’s comics sell incredibly well in all demographics, with more paper being used to produce comic books than toilet paper (Schodt 12). The decline in American comic book sales may have several contributing factors, but it becomes clear upon an examination of history that many (if not most) of the problems plaguing comic books’ accessibility are a result of the very industry that creates them.

To avoid confusion and the tired, seemingly endless debate of what is or isn’t “comics,” I’ll be using the definition Scott McCloud concocted in his book Understanding Comics: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). While this definition is easily debatable, it applies to all the material I may reference, rendering it appropriate for use in this context.

The term “comics” is one that often misleads consumers. The adjective “comic” suggests that the content of said book is humorous in nature, and while this is often the case, it certainly isn’t always the case, as demonstrated by the myriad of genres available to the average reader, or more simply by the dominating American industry of superheroes, most accurately categorized as “action” comics rather than comedy. Will Eisner, considered one of the first masters of comic book art, had this to say about this popular term in a 1987 interview (Masters of Comic Book Art):

I’ve always been annoyed from the very first day of my involvement in comics at the use of the word ‘comics.’ ‘Comics’ is a misnomer. Comics should not be comical; they should not be necessarily funny as in the case of funny papers. This is a valid medium of expression equal in respectability to words without pictures or to film.
The popular term “comic books” is also losing its literal sense. The idea of comics being confined to book or print form is naïve in this age of electronic communication. Certainly a Peanuts comic strip viewed on a screen isn’t any less of a comic strip as it was on the newspaper page. So if the terminology is flawed (but admittedly at least half-right most of the time), why would it be so commonplace? The answer lies within comics’ history.

While dialogue-free Mexican “comics” were discovered as early as 1519 by Cortés in Mexico (McCloud 10), comics’ printing-press genesis occurred in America during the late 1800s. The first comic strip in the contemporary sense of the term is largely agreed to be “The Yellow Kid,” created by Richard Felton Outcault and debuting in February of 1896 (Sassiene 13). In the initial days of comic strips, there existed no syndicates as there are today who distributed strips to all papers. Because of this, a comic strip could quite possibly be used to sway readers of one newspaper over to a rival who had the better cartoonist (Watterson 7).

The medium had several admirers early on, depending on the comic strip, but none was more misunderstood by readers as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. While the strip enjoyed initial popularity for its deceptively simple formula of a mouse hitting a cat in the head with a brick, its increased poetic form and references as well as challenging composition and surreal background imagery ostracized readers at the time. However, the strip was not without its champions. Among those to praise the strip and publish articles on it’s subject matter were science fiction writer Roy L. McCardell in 1920 (Blackbeard 14), art critic Gilbert Seldes in 1924 (McDonnell 67) and poet e.e. cummings in 1946 (cummings), but it was the support from publisher William Hearst that kept Krazy Kat in the papers through Herriman’s death in 1944 (McDonnell 65).

Famous FunniesNewspapers, like any business, were looking for a way to make more money. It was slowly discovered that publishers could repackage old comic strips in magazine format and sell these collections, thereby making more money off material they had already purchased from the cartoonists. While there were several unsuccessful attempts to do this, the idea caught on when Max Gaines, a salesman for the publisher Eastern Color, started giving away similar collections as promotions. Out of curiosity, he attempted to sell a few dozen copies with a 10-cent label. When they all sold out, Eastern Color took a chance and published Famous Funnies, which ran for 218 issues until 1955 (Sassiene 14). Mike Richardson, co-founder and current publisher at Dark Horse Comics, described this repackaging technique as “the video tape of its day” (“Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked!”).

This early format, while important and memorable for being the type of comic book people have enjoyed since the 30s, are partly responsible for the stigma attached to comics today, especially comics aimed towards adults. These original comic books were marketed towards children with understandably shallow pocketbooks, and thusly were printed cheaply, rehashing old material. In short, they were a disposable medium, something to be enjoyed and thrown away. This belief of comics as kiddy trash would recur during the upcoming age of superheroes.

While the first costumed hero was Lee Faulk’s “The Phantom,” a newspaper strip started in 1936 (“Phantom 2040 – Comics”), the original superhero in the sense that he had actual powers was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman,” which debuted in DC Comics’ Action Comics issue one, published in 1938 (Sassienie 21). Superman’s stories sold so well, that soon the entire industry was buried in these four-color gladiators. Rival publishers such as Harvey Entertainment, Fawcett Publications and an early incarnation of Marvel Comics concocted their own brands of superheroes, with varying degrees of originality (26). Most of these superheroes, while a bit simplistic and quaint by today’s standards, operated as basic metaphors. Superman came from a rocket ship and attempted to do good on his new planet, using special skills he acquired from his background. Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon suggested, in the History Channel’s television program “Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked!,” that this qualifies Superman to be the ultimate immigrant, stating that even his original name “Kal-El” sounds vaguely Jewish. Fawcett Publications’ “Captain Marvel” was an example of ultimate wish fulfillment, where young radio personality Billy Batson simply uttered the word “shazam” and instantly transformed into a strapping do-gooder. These superhero titles were escapist fantasy for their young readers, and this would prove most important during wartime.

Captain America Comics No.1Superheroes were natural icons during World War II. They were idealistic fantasies of what could be accomplished, and since their genesis was entirely American, they operated well within the patriotic, wartime setting. The most direct example of this is the cover of 1941’s Captain America Comics No.1, which depicts the debut of the comics’ namesake as he throws a smashing right-cross to Adolf Hitler’s jaw (Sassienie 33). Superheroes represented instant solutions. Within these same comics, superheroes actually told their young readers to donate paper to the war effort. The first things the kids saw to donate were the very comics they were holding in their hand, and while this helped the country’s cause, it also further established that this was disposable entertainment. Comic books were read, enjoyed, and then recycled as are newspapers today. When was the last time you stored a newspaper in a plastic bag and reread it from time to time?

It’s arguable that the superheroes themselves are part of the real problem at hand here. They are, on the surface, absolutely ridiculous; heroes who do good because “it’s right,” wearing underwear on the outside of their clothes and parading around fighting dime-a-dozen supervillains, most decked out in bright purple attire; in essence, flamboyant boy scouts. One of the biggest events that ultimately hurt the public perception of superheroes and thusly comics in general was the 1966 television show “Batman.” Based on the comic book, this show was an extremely campy take on the caped-crusader, where the creators purposefully pushed the ridiculousness of the character. This initially made sales of the book double (“Comic Book Superheros: Unmasked!”), but was damaging to comics’ image because it typecast the entire medium. From then on, America thought of superheroes as “biff,” “bam,” “pow,” and juvenile.

This does not mean that superheroes can’t be handled intelligently; in fact, quite the opposite. As mentioned earlier, superheroes operate as metaphors. This allows writers, artists and storytellers to use them to convey a sense of greater meaning, often political because of the superhero’s long-term relationship with political sentiments, as illustrated by the World War II environment in the industry. Throughout the 1960s, the Marvel Comics line of books created characters that were openly metaphorical and relevant, such as the X-Men, a group of teenage heroes born with unique powers, and persecuted by the rest of the human race despite their want to make right; an obvious comment on racism.

Dr. Fredric WerthamUnfortunately, these attempts were sabotaged beforehand by a 50s government crackdown on comics, orchestrated by Dr. Frederick Wertham with the 1954 publication of his book Seduction of the Innocent, which attested that comic books were the source of juvenile delinquency. Using the momentum of the McCarthy era of extreme paranoia, the argument actually made it to the United States Senate where Wertham’s testimony included such statements as “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” Fearing a ban on their books, the comic book companies formed a separate self-censoring organization called “The Comics Code Authority,” which would inspect comics before publication and either brand it with a stamp of approval or send it back to the publisher for revisions (Sassienie 57). Comics became much softer in their impact, with former vigilantes like Superman and Batman working hand-in-hand with law enforcement and Wonder Woman spending more time with her boyfriend Steve. It robbed comics of the alternative, edgy quality that would have made them a perfect fit for the 1960s counter-culture. In a television interview, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada said that the establishment of the comics code “instilled that belief in the public that comics are strictly a kids’ medium. We’re still fighting against that stigma today” (“Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked!”). While comics would eventually regain the lost ground in terms of storytelling, the highly publicized events of Wertham’s studies solidified the idea of comics as trash, and it would take over 20 years after the inception of Marvel Comics before comic book superheroes experienced another renaissance.

The next explosion of creativity in the realm of superheroes would come in the form of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal twelve-issue story, Watchmen, published by DC Comics initially in 1987 and kept in print ever since. The story takes a team of superheroes (based loosely on the Charlton Comics heroes such as Blue Beetle and The Question, which DC had recently acquired) who deal with real human problems in tandem with global social and political issues. The story illustrates the importance of not blindly following some sort of authority and depending on them for your safety. Around the same time, Frank Miller published his groundbreaking Batman mini-series “The Dark Knight Returns,” which brought Batman back to the grim-and-gritty roots of the character, rescuing him from the tired burden of muddled continuity that had plagued the character over the last few decades (Sassienie 111).

The cover to Frank Miller's Absolute Dark Knight collectionWhile these books are both highly-regarded and brilliant works, reading more similarly to novelistic literature than any superhero project before them, their existence burned bridges for the comics community. While material now existed for an adult audience, the heightened sales of this demographic caused the industry to begin to cater solely to it. As DC publisher Paul Levitz put it, “not only are comics not just for kids, they aren’t mostly for kids” (“Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked!”). While the majority of current comics readers had began reading as children, the children of today are not buying comics. The comics industry has become so tailored to this very specific (though small) adult audience that it has burned its largest bridge. In an interview with Stanley Wiater, Watchmen writer Alan Moore said that “I felt a bit depressed in that it seemed I had unknowingly ushered in a new dark age of comic books” (Wiater 170). The American industry now finds itself in an odd demographical purgatory, catering to an adult audience that can only get smaller.

The characters are also becoming horribly complex for the average non-comics reader. A person picking up the latest issue of “Batman” or “Amazing Spider-Man” is going to be utterly shocked by the immense amount of baggage the characters have, an impossible obstacle course of continuity that only the most diehard fans can accurately navigate. These meandering plotlines carry on throughout entire series, even those with hundreds of issues under their belt, and are often contradictory due to the impossibility of writers keeping up with all of it; just imagine what the reader’s struggle must be like in comparison! Because of the comics companies’ desire to continue lucrative franchises, there is no cohesive continuous storyline that unifies the life experiences of a popular character. There have recently been attempts by Marvel Comics to fight this, first with the release of the “Ultimate” comics line, a separate continuity where famous Marvel characters have their stories retold in today’s setting. While these books became immensely popular, at least in comparison to the rest of the comics landscape’s meager sales, they are doomed to the same failure as their predecessor. Some have had “crossover events” wherein characters hop from comic to comic, and with many of these books passing their fiftieth issue, they’re building up a modest amount of back-story in their own right. The comics industry will forever be hitting “reboot” on their tried-and-true characters, leaving the new reader to sort through the milieu of new “number one” titles and separate continuities. And that’s only if they’re able to read the thing in the first place!

Liefeld's artwork from YoungbloodAs comics have grown and matured, new and innovative compositions have been invented. These unique panel arrangements allow for worlds more expression than the equally-sized rectangular panels of yesteryear, but with a price. To many adults who have not grown up learning the language of comics, the landscape of the comics page is foreign and mind-numbingly confusing. Rob Liefeld, a controversial superhero artist who co-founded Image Comics at the height of the 90s speculator buzz, had this to say about the unorthodox panel arrangements in Rich Johnston’s 2004 “Waiting for Tommy” interview:

Comics were very static and rigid and then we rebelled on the page using jagged lines and broken panels and two and three page splashes in ridiculous excess, and we connected with the youthful audience who responded to our rage and energy. We were literally, the “Grunge music” of comics. Instead of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, there was Spawn, Wildcats and Youngblood.
While this form of storytelling may have been expressive to youth of the time, they may have sabotaged comics in the long-run. In a recent essay posted on his weblog “The Less Said the Better,” cartoonist and art instructor Don Simpson hypothesizes that adults are actually unable to read comics. He coins the phrase “mosaic confusion,” defining it as an adult’s learned behavior of analyzing a mosaic of comics panels as a collection of individual images (akin to an electronics catalogue or a newspaper page) rather than reading the images in sequence as a narrative. Simpson says that this skill is naturally learned from newspapers and magazines, where items are arranged not in sequence but in a matter that allows the reader to scan and select. Simpson says this process is “a necessary time-saving device in our complex world.” This scanning process is further reinforced by the layout of single- and three-panel cartoons that dot every newspaper’s funny pages. If this is the process by which most adult readers are familiar with the act of reading comics, it’s unrealistic to expect them to pick up the visual language of comic books immediately.

America secretly loves comic books. We line up in droves to see the latest Spider-Man and X-Men movies, kids watch cartoons like “X-Men: Evolution” and “Justice League America” on weekend mornings and come Halloween, superheroes dot the landscape of suburban communities. Sadly, their birthplace is being lost. The usual message at this point is to suggest to the average reader to visit a comic shop in search of the wide variety of material that may appeal to you if superheroes aren’t your thing. But the question is raised; why is the industry making it so hard for those readers to be reached? It appears that comics, like all art, are a conversation between creator and audience; it’s about time both sides started talking.

Works Cited
Since originally written, some of the works cited have disappeared from the internet. In these cases, the location has been maintained but unlinked.
  1. “All-Time USA Box Office.” Internet Movie Database. 15 March, 2005. <http://www.imdb.com/boxoffice/alltimegross>
  2. Blackbeard, Bill, ed., and George Herriman. Krazy & Ignatz: 1925-1926. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2002.
  3. “Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked!” History’s Mysteries. History Channel. 2004.
  4. cummings, e.e., “A Forward to Krazy” Krazy Kat. Henry Holt & Co., 1946. 3-5.
  5. Johnston, Rich. “Waiting For Tommy XXII.” Dynamic Forces. 22 Jan. 2003. <http://www.dynamicforces.com/htmlfiles/tommy22.html>
  6. Masters of Comic Book Art. Dir. Ken Viola. Videocassette. Rhino Home Video, 1989.
  7. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Canada: Paradox Press, 1993.
  8. “Phantom 2040 – Comics.” 10 May 1997. <http://www.geocities.com/~shovalfilm/comics.htm>
  9. Sassienie, Paul. The Comic Book. Great Britain: Chartwell Books, 1994.
  10. Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. New York: Kodansha America, 1997.
  11. Simpson, Don. “Mosaic Confusion.” The Less Said the Better. 19 Feb. 2005. <http://comicsaintart.blogspot.com/2005/02/mosaic-confusion.html>
  12. Watterson, Bill. “The Comics in Transition.” Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. New York: Scholastic, 1995. 3-7.
  13. Weiland, Jonah. “2004 Industry Stats.” Comic Book Resources. 14 Jan. 2005. <http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=4678>
  14. Wiater, Stanley, and Stephen Bissette. Comic Book Rebels. New York: Primus, 1993.

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