Today’s conventional wisdom says that the biggest hurdle a new comic reader faces is the overwhelming amount of history attached to the average character. In recent years Marvel and DC comics have both made a big deal about relaunching their most famous titles in an attempt to help new readers overcome that hurdle. The idea is that by giving these titles a new starting point, and, in the case of DC’s New 52, entirely new histories to explore, first time readers will be able to ease into new stories without feeling they missed something along the way.
On the surface, the numbers seem to indicate that their efforts have been successful. Comics are having a renaissance in readership. Of course, it must be noted that other factors are likely influencing this resurgence of new readers, not the least of which are the proliferation of superhero films and television shows. There is also the insurgence of comic conventions throughout the country that continues to expand every year. We live in an era where it is seemingly cool to be a geek. In a world where an adult is just as likely to sport a Superman t-shirt as his kid and Cosplay doesn’t raise an eyebrow, a jump in readership should be expected. Given all these factors one might argue that comic readership should actually be higher than it is.
As a person who takes the long view, I naturally question the long-term effects of the current comic marketing strategies to pull in a larger audience. In terms of audience building, exposure has its obvious immediate benefits as does giving people a clear jumping on point. But neither one has the lasting effects needed to sustain those numbers. It has been over two years since DC’s New 52 reboot, so it can hardly be called new, and the number one issues are long gone. To maintain the fresh start angle it is down to the graphic novels which can be pricey, especially for a new reader. Equally problematic are the films that open by breaking box-office records but can’t even be found in the RedBox within the year.
So, what can they do now to bring in the new readers who will become lifelong comics enthusiasts? As a longtime comics reader and collector, I think of my own experiences, and offer this suggestion, make comics available to kids. I mean this sincerely. There is a lot of lip service paid to this notion, but I don’t see a lot being done to truly motivate kids to read comics. To me, that is disheartening because comics have a lot to offer a curious, creative, adventure-loving child.
Like many comics fans my age, I started reading them because, as a kid, I found a box of old comics. In my case they had belonged to my much older step-brother who had unceremoniously tossed them in an old air conditioner box and left them to rot in the attic. There were a hundreds of Batman and Superman comics as well as scads of those old Carl Barks Disney duck comics. Three guesses as to which characters top my list of favorites to this day, lo these decades hence.
Kids today are not very likely to find a treasure trove like that one to get them started, and I know why. It’s actually my own fault. I read the covers off those books I found, and more than a few of them found there way to the trashcan via a mother tired of cleaning up after me. The problem is that now I know better than to leave my books out where they can be damaged and desecrated. After I finish reading the latest adventures of Batman these days I carefully bag and board my book and file it in a longbox for future enjoyment. That’s right. I’m one of those guys — and you can’t mock because you are too, or have been, or will be if you really get into comics. There are no more overflowing boxes of old books for kids to discover because the old books are too precious to us collectors.
The industry tries feebly to compensate for the lack with annual events like Free Comic Book Day, and by offering a few free downloads on the digital comics sites, but it is definitely not enough. I have been taking my daughter to free comic book day for years, and she has amassed about thirty of those free books. A pitiful showing when thrown into the bottom of an old air conditioner box. Of course she reads my comics, and I buy her comics of her own, but that’s me, and probably you if you have a kid. To catch all those other kids they need to give away a lot more comics.
Returning to my childhood reminiscences, after I read through that air conditioner box full of books, I was ravenous for more (So much so, that thirty some years later I’m still hungry). That meant that it was time to go buy some books, and that meant spending money. If I had to spend my whole allowance on one comic book, I would have gone home and reread the air conditioner box. But I didn’t. Comics were 75 cents or a dollar for the double issues and annuals.
You might think I am going to complain here about the cost of comics, but I’m not. They cost more because you get more. The quality of the average comic is heads and shoulders above the quality of those same books in my youth. The paper is nicer, the color is amazing, and the stories are mature. We have all heard the horror stories about how the companies treated their creators in the past, but better wages and benefits come at the cost to the consumer. So, I don’t begrudge the cost of my comics at all. I’m just pointing out that $3.99 is a lot to ask a little kid to pay for an issue of Adventure Time or Scooby Doo.
The true gauge of the industry’s future is the number of kids reading books and those numbers are low. Frighteningly low. With sales on the grown-up books at a historic high point, now would be a perfect time to drop prices on the all-ages stuff to build a youth readership. It would be like a loss leader that develops the industry’s future. Batman selling a 190,000+ copies of each issue makes me happy, because it means Batman will still be around next year. But if Archie was selling at that same rate, I would be more confident that they’ll both still be around, in monthly installments, twenty years from now, for my grandkids to enjoy as much as I have.