Monday, July 9, 2007

Mature content: Can older readers equal new comic book fans?

It’s a common topic of discussion in the comics community: How do we – fans, booksellers, creators and publishers – bring new readers into comics?

When it comes to younger readers, we think we’ve got a good idea of how to go about it. Age-appropriate storylines, tie-ins with popular cartoons and titles that can act as a bridge between kiddy books and the regular lines (titles like Runaways, for instance) are common wisdom. And it makes sense – getting new readers when they’re young should help keep the medium fresh and creative, and from a business perspective it helps lay the foundation for future sales.

But what about adult readers? How do you take the average person who might wander into a typical comic book store after watching the latest superhero movie and turn them into ongoing comic readers?

There are some hurdles that can be tough to overcome, not least of which is, ironically, that well-known stigma of comics being “just for kids.” But I think it’s mostly a problem of familiarity – most people just don’t think of comics as “reading,” and even people who do read comics aren’t necessarily knowledgeable of all the various genres that are out there.

When I was working in a comic shop I prided myself on being able to guide people to titles they might not have given a chance otherwise. Best of all was introducing customers to books they never would have thought of but ended up really enjoying. But I had an advantage – they were already coming into the store looking for comics.

It’s a different story outside of the shop. Talking to people who don’t normally read comics is a much tougher sell, and my batting average has only been … well, average. A few people have become regular readers of one or two titles, but more often I’ve gotten polite disinterest and a promise to “catch up with the collections.” A lot of times it’s just the disinterest.

Take, for instance, my wife. In the years that we’ve been together, I’ve rarely been able to entice her into reading comics. My wife is very into history, world cultures and complex storytelling (Russian literature is her favorite), so I thought Neil Gaiman’s Sandman would be a no-brainer. It turned out to be a non-starter, and I was stumped.

Later, she enthusiastically plowed through Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and later still she did the same with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series. Now I think I have a better idea of what kind of comics my wife would be interested in, but I don’t force it (just because it’s my hobby doesn’t mean I expect it to be everybody’s). As it is, it took a while to figure out what kind of books she might like, and I know her better than any random customer.

I wonder why it was so tricky, and it makes me wonder about the market at large. Is it a problem of culture? Other countries don’t seem to have the problem of comics being considered an immature hobby, or as something you’re supposed to outgrow.

Is it a problem of format? People in general seem to expect more magazine for their three bucks (and I can’t really blame them for that), and it might be why there’s a trend toward “waiting for the trade.” But how many of those people actually pick up a trade that comes out months after a comic initially grabbed their attention? And there’s also a learning curve, because it sometimes takes a while for new readers to realize that there are a number of writers and artists and combinations of the two, some of which they’ll like and others they’ll just hate, and it take some patience to navigate all that. How do you convince people it's worth the effort?

Or is it a matter of content? It isn’t fair to expect new readers to be knowledgeable about every genre out there, particularly the independent titles that often escape the notice of even dedicated comic fans. That mostly leaves comics that really are meant for kids or mainstream books that seem to be relying more on cartoony violence and gore, along with a helping of adolescent attempts at titillation.

This isn’t meant to be a knock on those kinds of books (look at my pull-list and you’ll see I have no room to judge), but it doesn’t exactly do anything to dispel the immature image the comics community is trying to fight off.

Which brings me back to my original question: How do we - fans, booksellers, creators and publishers – bring new adult readers into comics? And once we do, how do we keep them there?

Or should concentration stay on younger readers, with the hope that they'll continue to be fans after they've grown up?


Lisa said...

I can't believe S-dawg didn't like Sandman. I'm not sure that I can be her friend anymore.

Quite frankly, I don't care if get other people into comics or not. It's my hobby I like it and you can't have it. =P I did care more when I worked at the shop but now I've got other things to do than worry about what Jim Bob over here is reading.

Lisa said...

"if I get other people into comics..."

Maxo said...

You're just bitter ... bitter and shriveled. And whiffy.

Seriously, though, I understand what you mean, and to a certain point I agree with you. Whether or not someone enjoys and pursues a hobby they like shouldn't depend on anyone's approval (assuming your hobby isn't, y'know, keeping heads in your fridge or something).

But there's a little self-interest here, too. I want to be able to CONTINUE to enjoy my hobby, and what's good for the industry ends up being good for me. And I think bringing comics even just a little bit more into the mainstream consciousness would be good for everyone, as long as it doesn't become homegenized. It's definitely a balancing act.

Kyle said...

Did I send you this? I meant to. Interesting take on this topic.

Lisa said...

Whiffy? Is that a word?

I guess I'm just not too worried about it, the comic industry seems to be doing great. Movies do more than you ever could.

And what's wrong with keeping heads in your fridge? They'd get all stanky if you left 'em out, silly.