Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Superheroes are not Comics

My Twitter pal R. M. Rhodes wrote a lengthy post for Gutter Brawl on what he calls “The Scarlet Genre.” He’s talking about superhero comics and asked if I wouldn’t mind commenting on his thoughts.

Though he doesn’t directly explain it in the article, it’s obvious that Rhodes picked the title of his piece in reference to the scarlet letter that kept prejudiced people from interacting with Hester Prynne. His assertion is that the comics medium has become confused by mass audiences with the superhero genre and - like Prynne's embroidered mark - it keeps people who don’t like superheroes from interacting with all comics, regardless of genre.

Rhodes talks about how comics creators, publishers, and vendors need to market comics differently to correct that misperception and let the mass audience know that they have other choices. That’s all good and I agree with him to a certain point. Comics marketing is traditionally poor when it comes to reaching people who don’t already read and love comics. We can do better.

I disagree with him on a couple of things though. First, with the idea that mass audiences are turned off by comics because they think that all comics are about superheroes. The crazy successes of movies like The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises show that mass audiences do, in fact, love superheroes. That adoring audience almost never translates into new readers of superhero comics, but that doesn't mean that there's a problem with the genre. As Tom Spurgeon points out, comics people love to analyze this stuff and figure out What's Wrong With Us, but it's really as simple as "a lot of people like superhero movies and not as many like superhero comics." I talk to superhero fans all the time who love these characters every bit as much as I do (often more than I do), but simply prefer to watch them in movies or on TV. They're just not into comics.

The reverse is also true. There are a lot of eager comics readers who don't care at all about superheroes. I don't have numbers, but non-superhero publishers like IDW, Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, First Second, Archaia, and BOOM! seem to be doing very well with comics across a wide range of genres.

In fact, what I said about movie fans not becoming comics fans seems to be a problem limited exclusively to the superhero genre. The success of The Walking Dead alone proves that there's a huge audience willing to check out the comics that inspired their favorite TV shows and movies. Comics retailer Mike Sterling has written about how comics movies do in fact drive interest in the comics they're based on (especially if they're written by Alan Moore, but there was also huge demand for Sin City and Hellboy comics when those movies came out).

Where non-superhero comics have the advantage (specifically, non-corporate-owned superhero comics) is that it's much easier to find the story that directly inspired the film or TV show. Every time a new Marvel movie comes out, we see a gazillion lists posted (all different from each other) about which comics to buy if you want to read more about the character. Corporate superhero comics are fun for people willing to invest some time in them, but they're impenetrable to casual readers. That's a much more significant cause for disinterest than simply not liking superheroes.

My point is that superheroes don't equal comics. I agree with Rhodes that it's often the first genre that comes to mind in most people's minds, but it's a perception that's a) easily changed with some quick pop culture references and b) is changing more and more every day. In fact, I suspect that the perception problem isn't one that mass audiences have as much as a certain segment of comics fans does. I keep reading articles in which superhero comics are referred to as "mainstream," but I wonder if that's true anymore. I'd love for someone who isn't me to run the numbers and compare sales of all corporate-owned superhero comics (and graphic novels) to sales of everything else across all distribution outlets. I bet we'd be surprised at the results.


Aldo Ojeda said...

I don't have the link, but I remember reading that from the top 100 best selling comics from last year, only like 2 titles were not Marvel/DC (superheroes.

And I don't agree with you on corporate superheroes being impenetrable for casual reader (the Spiderman from today is basically the same as the Spiderman from the sixties. On the other side, independent superheroes (as the Invincible or Powers characters) may grow and change from one number to another.

Michael May said...

Those Top 100 lists are from specialty store sales that do skew heavily towards Marvel and DC. I'm curious to know how those numbers change once general bookstore and digital sales are factored in.

I should clarify what I meant by impenetrable. It's not that movie fans can't pick up a Marvel or DC comic and enjoy it, it's that it's difficult for casual readers to know which to pick up in the first place. That's a barrier. Of course, it'll vary from person to person how much of a barrier it is, but I've seen it at work.

Something else I noticed at San Diego this year while walking around the convention floor with a friend of mine who loved comics as a kid: he wanted to buy some old back issues to recapture that feeling he had when he was younger, but after browsing bins for a while, he left empty-handed. He realized that he wasn't going to be satisfied with just an issue or two; that the story would be continued in another issue and in order to be satisfied, he'd have to buy a ton of comics.

That's still true today. Marvel and DC (and a lot of independents, yes) intentionally make it so that you can't buy just one. That's good business when dealing with a committed fan base, but it works against attracting casual readers. It's easy to buy a Watchmen or Hellboy tpb if you're interested in those movies. It's a whole other thing to commit to an ongoing, never-ending series that interconnects with other, never-ending series.


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