Following are the final two parts in a feature series examining the origins, detriments and solutions to the flight of children away from the comic book medium.
Part Three: Comics in the Digital World and the Rise of Manga
Looking back at the World War II entertainment era reveals a time when comic book publishers had managed to establish a steady corner on the children’s media racket. In the golden age of the industry, titles like Superman and Captain Marvel regularly sold between one or two million copies a month — predominately to children. During the pre-television era of the 1930s and ’40s, comics served as the main wellspring of prepubescent entertainment.
“Obviously, times have changed,” said comic store manager Edward Uvanni. “It’s a digital world and I think comics just don’t have the same level of impact for the younger generation.”
Uvanni is realistic. He understands that today’s comics fight more competition than at any other point in their history. Television, video games, movies and the Internet are all incredibly effective and profitable in their mining of minors, posting nearly unprecedented yearly gains in what has been labeled the “tween” demographic.
According to the NPD Group — a leading consumer and retail statistics provider — the video game industry posted record profits last year, generating nearly $18 billion. The same group also reported that more than one-third of the children in the United States are playing more video games today than they did just one year ago.
Vertigo’s Jason Aaron points to the video game industry as one of the main reasons he has a difficult time getting his own 14-year-old son to sit down and read comics — even the ones he writes. “Whatever storytelling needs these kids have are being met by HALO and Gears of War,” he said.
Uvanni believes the children who have grown up in the multimedia era have chosen to replace the comic book with a more engaging product. He remembers using comics as a form of escapism. As a child, he fantasized about being a part of the Marvel universe, having theoretical adventures side by side with his favorite heroes. Kids today, he says, are able to connect to their fantasies in a much more literal fashion.
“Nowadays, you don’t even need to imagine anything,” Uvanni said. “All you have to do is log onto World of Warcraft and you’re literally having adventures in this virtual world. For kids raised in this digital culture, how can comics really compete with that?”
But it’s nothing new. Video games have been around for 30 years. Aaron says there should be no real surprise in the medium’s domination. The real variable, he believes, comes with the continued success of imported Japanese manga. According to the ICv2 — another media research firm — manga sales reached $210 million in 2007, with the majority of its readership coming from the exact demographic American publishers crave.
“Do you know who buys the most manga? People who are new to comics, kids and women,” said Atomic Robo scribe Brian Clevinger. “The continued and still-growing success of manga in the U.S. proves that people in America want sequential art and that they’re willing to pay for it.”
Clevinger believes the success of manga boils down to its ability to succeed in the areas where American comics fail. These books, he says, in large part have solved the accessibility issue. Not only is manga available in every single mainstream bookstore, but the titles themselves are inherently new-reader friendly.
Books like Naruto are neatly organized and labeled in sequential order, clearing a comprehensible path for newbies to immediately delve in. This schematic, he believes, is a far cry from the convoluted back-reading necessary to fully understand American comics.
“Do you know what you need to read to understand a volume of Superman,” Clevinger said. “The previous volumes of Superman, Action Comics, Justice League of America, at least several years’ worth of universe-wide crossover mega-events that will be incomprehensible to you unless you’re reading at least a dozen other titles and their tie-ins.”
Uvanni, who carries a small selection of manga in his shop, has another theory.
“It may just be what this generation has gravitated towards,” he said. “If that’s what all your friends are reading, well that’s probably what you’re going to read as well.”
Part Four: The End of Condescension
With mounting competition and the possibility of alienating older, more consistent readers, the question remains: What, if anything, can the comic book industry do to attract younger readers?
“I think kids are definitely interested in reading comics. I’ve made enough appearances in elementary schools to know that,” said John Rozum, author of Scooby-Doo and Cartoon Network’s Block Party. “The problem really is getting the comics to the kids and providing a wider variety than what’s currently available.”
Looking back on 20 years of pitches, Rozum claims to have been consistently rebuffed by publishers touting a blanket claim of there being no interest in child-friendly material. Thankfully, he says, in the last few years he has seen a bit more reception to it, mostly coming from mainstream publishers who have never produced comics before. These industry heavy weights are beginning to view comics as something to mix in with their other child-focused materials. “That excites me a bit, because that means that mainstream publishers are viewing comics as not only a valid storytelling medium, but they are looking at them as another way to tell stories that appeal to children and young adults. And not as novelty books,” he said.
From a creator’s perspective, Clevinger believes that authors need to reevaluate how they write all-ages content, emphasizing the expunging of any form of condescension. The key to pulling children in, he believes, is to present them with smart stories that don’t patronize in order to connect on what has been deemed “their level”. He points to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and other creations as evidence that stories can work on multiple levels when carefully layered with universal sensibilities. “Kid-friendly” does not necessarily imply dumbing down material.
“I was nine years old the first time I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I loved it,” he said. “I don’t pretend for one second to have understood even half of the comedy going on in those books at the time, but I got it enough to be engaged by it and to want to figure out the rest. The older I got, and the more I read it, the more complete my understanding and appreciation became.”
Rozum agrees, believing that there is a lot to learn from the brash tongues of children. Kids are much more intuitive than adults like to believe. Writing mystery stories for DC’s monthly Scooby Doo, he can recall receiving countless letters from children complaining that he had crafted a tale that was too easy to figure out. “It’s much more honest and insightful criticism than the useless comments that adults usually make, such as that my Batman story sucked because it wasn’t written by Paul Dini,” he said.
Clevinger points out that children are fundamentally designed to tackle thoughts and ideas that may, on the surface, appear over their head. Children are literally learning machines — their brains are wired specifically to absorb language like a sponge.
“What is language but a system of interrelated contexts infinitely linking symbols to noises to concepts to objects to events,” he said. “What a kid doesn’t immediately understand he can probably figure out. And if he can’t? So? Isn’t that one of the things parents are for?”
Yet, even if material manages to balance perfectly across the line of entertainment and pedagogical access, Rozum believes the whole point becomes moot if drastic changes aren’t made to the marquee franchises. He calls for a controversial and near 180-degree turn for superhero comics, believing that Marvel and DC should make all of their mainstream superhero titles child friendly, while creating a smaller imprint of core character titles for adults.
Clevinger may not fully agree with such drastic measures, but he does point to a recent Marvel imprint as proof that the old-school formulas can still work when given due diligence.
“Thank god someone over at Marvel discovered that people eventually age and die. They’ve got half a dozen Marvel Adventure titles out now,” he said. “Every single one of them has top-notch production values, done-in-one stories full of action, characterization, and mythos. Any issue of any Marvel Adventure title is instantly accessible to anyone.”
Even so, the Marvel Adventures line — aimed predominately at children — hasn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire. In August of 2008, the best-selling title in the Adventures line was Marvel Adventures Superheroes, which ranked No. 216 on the Diamond Indexes. The comparable Spider-Man title came in at No. 219, while the Avengers finished at No. 226. Of all the childrens comics published in August, only DC’s Tiny Titans managed to sell more than 10,000 copies.
According to Clevinger, the fact that the Marvel and DC are beginning to produce more child-oriented material serves as something of a good-faith effort, but is not enough in and of itself. “It’s not going to solve the problem, but this is a step in the right direction,” he said. “What we’ve got to do now is to make kids aware that these comics — and more like them as time goes on, I hope — exist.”
Darkside Comics and Games’ Brian Pollizi agrees, adding that the final responsibility might fall on the front lines. Each local comic shop must take a more active role in finding a new audience, even giving the product away for free at times if necessary.
“I know it makes it sound like comics are drugs and we’re the dealers, but these are the folk stories of our nation so it’s important,” he said. “Our focus has been on getting the word out and letting the parents know that we’re here. We advertise on the cartoon network which does get kids into the shop, but getting them to come back on a routine basis is up to the parents.”
In the end, Pollizi believes that he is doing his part. Now he calls for both of the major publishing companies to start doing the same. From his retailer’s perspective, comic publishers are not thinking about the long term. As they continue to boast record profits in the present, they also carry on turning a blind eye towards the future.
“Comics are at an all-time high in terms of story and content,” Pollizi said. “But I think that is a short-term view. To not take into account generating comics that are producing new consumers, then they’re slicing they’re risks and my risks at the same time.”
Ultimately, in order to ensure the stability of future ventures, there needs to be a mature embracing of comprise. This agreement, Clevinger says, requires small sacrifices from across the spectrum of the industry, coming from publishers and adult readers alike.
“We’ve got to start making comics for kids,” Clevinger said. “I’m not saying that all comics have to be produced specifically for kids, or that we should go back to the Comics Code Authority, or that we have to give up the battle for legitimacy that comics have fought for the last twenty or so years. I am saying that we won that battle and it’s okay to tone it down a bit now. Let’s make the comic shop and comic books kid friendly again.”
By Daniel Crown