Following are the first two parts in a weekly series of features examining the origins, detriments and solutions to the flight of children away from the comic book medium. Check back each Wednesday for a new installment.
Part One: The Exodus of Attention
As Brian Pollizi looks across the aisles of his small comic book shop in Sarasota, Fla., he can’t help but smile. It’s a warm July day and Darkside Comics and Games is packed from one end to the other with fanboys reveling in their weekly comics fix. He watches his customers scoop up copies of Secret Invasion No. 4, desperately trying to alleviate the frustrations stemming from four long weeks of withdrawal.
Leavened by the touch of Hollywood success, the inaugural decade of the 21st century has bestowed the comic book medium an unparalleled flirtation with mainstream acceptance. Summer blockbusters, television shows, video games and web-based content have all spurred a level of interest in Pollizi’s store he once thought improbable.
Yet even as he watches his register brim with cash, there remains an ever-present, nagging concern. Buried in his mind beneath the immediate joys of a populous storefront and a strong bottom line is the recognition of who isn’t in his store. According to Pollizi, the medium’s original audience — the medium’s future audience — has all but abandoned the comic book for different, more accommodating options.
“Kids don’t come into my store,” Pollizi says. “The stereotypical old comic shop was a place kids would use as a sort of haven, and it’s not like that anymore. I certainly don’t have a slew of children riding their bikes into my shop, hanging around all day.”
Two weeks later and a three-hour drive down Highway 64, Edward Uvanni watches a middle-aged woman wander aimlessly, shyly perusing the shelves of The Coliseum of Comics, located in Lakeland, Fla. Uvanni offers his help whenever she needs it, and after a few minutes of timorous searching, she obliges. As it turns out, she is a mother of two young boys. She remembers her brother reading comics as a child and, seeing as how her kids have worn out their DVD copy of Spider-Man 3, she feels inclined to probe their interest in the original subject matter.
As Uvanni points the woman toward the children’s rack in the front of his store, he watches a sardonic smile creep onto her face as she realizes this unit — the bottom two shelves of a larger case showcasing recent Manga releases — constitutes the lion’s share of his child-friendly material. She winds up buying a single issue of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man and leaves mildly confounded.
“Most people, no matter how mainstream or accepted comics are at the moment, still hold on to this outdated notion that comic books are a kids medium,” Uvanni says. “I think they are a bit surprised to find out that most of the books in my store are not really all ages appropriate.”
Uvanni says the proportion of children coming into his store is more or less encapsulated by the two lonely shelves resting in the front of his shop. He estimates his average customer base to run between ages 25 and 45. ”Comic readers as a whole are getting older, and there is very little new blood coming in,” he adds. “Most of the kids who come in come in because their parents are regular customers of mine. I have maybe a handful of kids who actually come in on their own.”
To many industry professionals, the flight of children away from the comic book medium remains a veritable elephant in the room. Yet as the phenomenon persists, more of them are beginning to openly vocalize their concerns. Brian Clevinger, author of Red Five’s Atomic Robo, believes that while the issue is largely ignored, it’s also readily apparent to anyone paying attention.
“By and large, kids are not reading comics these days. Just ask the storeowners,” he said. “Your average local comic shop is sustained by the regular college and “grown up” customer base. The kid who has taken up comics on his own; the kid to whom today’s comics reach out and grab for life, that’s a dying breed.”
According to Clevinger, the industry is showing the symptoms of an increasingly large generation gap — a gap that continues to narrow the publishers’ focus to a small niche of more mature readers. Kids who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s were the last generation of kids to get into comics on their own. Without new generations of readers, Clevinger and others are forced to rely more and more on the ever-shrinking demographic of those readers who haven’t yet abandoned the hobby.
John Rozum, author of a bevy of children’s titles including Scooby Doo and Cartoon Network Block Party, believes the problem branches beyond shortsighted drops in sales. As the mean age of the consumer base continues to rise, the industry will begin to shrink incrementally with each generation.
“Face it, most comics published by [Marvel and DC] are repetitive stories that we’ve all read countless times, and no number of crises, secret wars, stunt deaths and costume changes can disguise that,” he said. “Adults eventually tire of repetition if nothing fresh is added. I don’t know how many 60-year-olds are still interested in following the monthly exploits of the Justice League of America or the Avengers, no matter how well-written and drawn these titles might be.”
According to Rozum, the problem is urgent. The high attrition rate of older readers, coupled with the decline of a renewable base, may eventually sound the death knell for the industry if the issue remains unaddressed. Working from the front lines, certain retailers agree.
“I think this is probably the biggest issue facing American comics today,” Uvanni said. “For comics — mainstream superhero comics specifically — to continue to thrive, something will have to change.”
Part Two: The Wane of Accessibility
While delivering his keynote speech during the 2004 Eisner Awards, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon spoke on the evolution of the comic book medium, specifically addressing the incongruous nature of the general public view with what occurred during the legitimization movement of the 1980’s.
For at least the first forty years of their existence, he said, comics were universally branded as juvenile.
“They were greasy kid’s stuff,” Chabon said. “They were viewed as the literary equivalent of bubblegum cards, meant to be poked into the spokes of a young mind where they would produce a satisfying but entirely bogus rumble of pleasure.”
After explaining some of the follies of the 1990’s, Chabon went on to declare the battle for legitimization complete, citing a nearly unabridged redistribution of respective readerships — a victory ultimately responsible for a whole new set of problems.
“Children did not abandon comics. Comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children,” he said. “And for a long time we as lovers and partisans of comics were afraid, after so many long years of struggle and hard work and incremental gains, to pick up that old jar of greasy kid stuff again, and risk undoing it all. Comics have always been an arrivist art form, and all upstarts are to some degree ashamed of their beginnings. But frankly, I don’t think that’s what’s going on in comics anymore.”
Rozum remembers the legitimization movement of the late 1980’s as a bizarre phenomenon mostly amounting to filler for morning talk shows or the back pages of the Entertainment section. The maturation of the comic book medium became a perpetual blurb of sorts for a succession of slow news days. These articles, many of them touting future landmarks like Watchmen, Sandman and Batman: Year One, combined with a non-campy, comparatively adult Batman movie, wound up creating the problem. While the term “child appropriate” is certainly subjective, Rozum believes the legitimization movement ultimately resulted in an unprecedented disparity between the number of books being published for kids and those being created for adults.
“When I started reading comics as a kid, no mainstream comic was off limits,” he said. “Now, there’s very little in the bundles I receive from DC each month that I’d feel comfortable putting into a child’s hands. Even books like Superman are too sexy and violent for an 8-year-old to read, which I think is wrong.”
According to Rozum, this revision of attention started with a bang, but the residual effects seeped their way into prominence methodically. Adult material, once limited to miniseries and side imprints, began to find its way into mainstream superhero books. When the respective universes of the two major publishing companies began to infuse their core characters with grimmer, more realistic trappings, everything else was forced to adapt along with them.
Not only did light-hearted characters like Spider-Man cease being so much fun, but the stories themselves began to lose their sense of fun and awe.
Said Rozum: “In a world occupied by Uzi-toting drug dealers, is there really room for a giant in a purple helmet that eats planets?”
As a vested fan and retailer, Pollizi believes the movement away from all-ages material, especially in regards to the iconic tent poles, works as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, comics have taken a turn towards better writing and better artwork, but in doing so they’ve also alienated a whole generation of potential readers.
“It’s a two way street,” he said. “If you think of comics as our folklore, then they’re making the folklore good. They’re taking these characters, engrained in the American consciousness, and telling interesting and pertinent stories and making them more accessible for adults. But on the other hand, the focus is turning further and further away from what children can relate to.”
As for the books that are suitably written for children, Rozum believes they are being built within what he calls a “compartmentalized ghetto.” Kids are basically fenced into a figurative playpen where they are spoon fed from a blitz of marketing and cross-promotion. Until the past year or so, Marvel had no comics specifically aimed at kids, and all of DC’s comics for younger readers were based on TV shows.
“There couldn’t be a comic book about Batman that kids could read unless there was a television series to tie it into,” he said. “It’s still that way for the most part.”
Clevinger postulates that this reliance on cross-marketing directly results from the unfair stigma attached to titles aimed at broader audiences. When a typical comic fan hears the phrase ‘all-ages’ or ‘for kids,’ they immediately brand the content as the comic book equivalent to a G-rated movie. The comic book industry has taken a phrase that means ‘accessible to a wide audience’ and reduced it to ‘exclusively for babies.’
“Think about how damaging that is,” he said. “We’re in an industry that equates material that’s accessible to the widest possible audience with something that no one wants.”
To make matters worse, Clevinger believes the scenario of forcing kids into a small niche of materials is only amplified by the foibles of another major culprit. The few mainstream titles that remain approachable in content still manage to suffocate potential readers, this time falling victim to an esoteric approach. “Comics have become exclusionary,” he said. “Titles today are so concerned with their own incomprehensible continuities — often to a degree that borders masturbation — that outsiders and newcomers are completely insulated from the content.”
Clevinger sees the crutch of continuity as being a pretentious turn-off for adults and downright crippling for younger readers. He equates the inherent convolution of an extensive canon to watching a movie hinged entirely on inside jokes, themselves referring to an even more obscure movie from 30 years ago.
“I’m not saying that building upon mythologies ought to be avoided, but my god, there are ways to do it that doesn’t exclude people who aren’t yet aware of the mythologies,” he said.
Rozum says the industry has already lost out on a whole generation of readers, mostly because it hasn’t provided them an avenue to catch up. During the past 20 years, modern superhero comics have all but ignored children and, in the process, have established a doomsday scenario seemingly ripped from their own pages.
“If the comics you read as a kid were all based on Cartoon Network shows — which is what was primarily available during at least the latter half of that period — and you kept reading as a teen, what would make you turn to reading superhero comics, which are essentially adolescent power fantasies, if you’ve navigated past that insecure point in your life?”
Even putting aside accessibility issues, other authors point to the deterioration of simple availability as another major threat. Jason Aaron, author of the critically acclaimed Vertigo title Scalped, remembers a time when comics were readily available at just about any newspaper stand or drugstore.
“I was already a huge comic fan before I’d ever seen an actual comic book store,” he said. “These days, that’s obviously not an option.”
Clevinger believes that fact, combined with readily available competition, plays a huge role in the suppression of younger readers. Books, DVDs and video games are available just about anywhere. But for many people, just getting their hands on an actual comic book is an ordeal. “You have to be lucky enough to live in a town with a comic book shop, you have to track down where it is, and you have to hope that it’s run with at least a semblance of competence,” he said.
Credited with saving the industry in the 1980’s, the local comic book shop has become the predominate means of finding new material, theoretically stifling the general flow of influence to any outsiders curious about the medium.
“With things so dominated by the direct market, this has become a very insulated industry,” Aaron said. “There’s no gateway drug to get these kids hooked, and most comic book stores just aren’t new reader friendly, especially for kids.”
By Daniel Crown