Does Comics Culture Have an Inferiority Complex?
Here's the truth: Comic book publishing—yes, just the business of selling printed comics—is a billion-dollar industry. This month, 1,194 new comic books and 391 new graphic novels and collections will hit shelves. That's a lot of titles for a single month, and those aren't uncommon numbers. Comics are everywhere; even your grandma knows who Thanos is. If anything, comics are a bigger deal now than they've ever been.
And yet, many people who care about comics seem to live in perpetual fear of the industry's demise.
No matter how many metrics and how much anecdotal evidence shows that things are looking up, there's a persistent undercurrent in comics fandom that seems to want things to go down. Every new storyline is lambasted. ("It's just a gimmick!") Every new publishing initiative is criticized. ("You're disrespecting the real fans!") Every single store closing is met with a strange schadenfreude. ("See? I told you it was all going to hell!") And it's been this way for years.
To quote a well-known comic villain, why so serious? And more to the point, why so sad? Does comics have an inferiority complex?
"We shouldn't, but sometimes I fear we do," says Joe Quesada, chief creative officer for Marvel Comics. "This kind of doom-and-gloom thinking started with Dr. Fredric Wertham [and his 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent], which then trickled down into American society in general. For decades, comics were labeled a dumbed-down kids medium. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth."
Back in the 1950s, Wertham's book caused a panic over comics. Parents freaked out that the books were warping children's minds. Eventually publishers, fearing the worst, formed the Comics Code Authority, which for years regulated anything even remotely edgy to within an inch of its life. The industry took a big hit, creatively and financially, and ever since worries persist that the business isn't bulletproof. Fans stress that comics are struggling, an (untrue) notion that leads people to believe their beloved medium is shifting focus to save itself, being coopted by Hollywood, or just not what it used to be.
A lot of these apocryphal narratives stem from perceptions of Comic-Con International, which starts this week in San Diego. Generally considered a snapshot of the industry as a whole, it's increasingly become a festival of pop culture—not comics. Tenderfoots, who call it Comic-Con, show up looking to grab the latest Mattel toy. Hardcores, who go to multiple small-c cons each year, call it "San Diego." The former group seems to grow every year, while the latter becomes harder to find.
One of those hardcores is Bud Plant, an exhibitor who was at the very first San Diego con and who has managed a booth on the main convention floor for 48 years running. Now, Plant has pulled up stakes, saying that while more and more people go to the con, fewer and fewer are buying his books.
"Expenses kept going up, and the revenue kept going down," Plant says. "I used to be one of the main exhibitors, before Marvel, DC, and all the movie companies started setting up giant booths. Now I've become a tiny player. Unfortunately, the people who are putting on the show don't seem to be too worried about keeping people like me."
'I used to be one of the main exhibitors, before Marvel, DC, and all the movie companies started setting up giant booths. Now I've become a tiny player. Unfortunately, the people who are putting on the show don't seem to be too worried about keeping people like me.'
Many in the Little Village of comics, Quesada included, were saddened and shocked to hear that Plant wouldn't be back this year. Nor is he the only one to let the con go; Mile High Comics pulled out last year after nearly five decades on the show floor.
But the handwringing around those departures is in many ways a funhouse mirror reflection of what's actually going on in comics shops, where books of all varieties are gobbled up as soon as they hit the shelves on Wednesdays. "The fact that fans may occasionally say, 'This is the death of Marvel! This is the death of DC! Not another crossover! This is the worst thing ever!' I've been hearing that as long as I've been in comics," says Quesada. "It's part of fandom, and believe it or not, I think it's part of the fun of fandom. It's a fandom built on conflict."
Ah yes, conflict—the beating heart of most fandoms. It can be about who is the Greatest Of All Time, or it can center on why Things Were Better in My Day, but it's always there. Lately, there's been a lot more of the latter in comics, something that Ryan Higgins, owner of Comics Conspiracy in Sunnyvale, California, attributes to the ongoing culture wars.
"If you look at what happened with videogame fandom, Star Wars fandom, you can apply the same to comic books," Higgins says. "There are fights within the community that boil down to 'There's only one right way.' People don't seem to realize that there need to be many different styles, different groups of people all working together. Different groups within fandom just can't see how other people could think they're right."
At Higgins' store, business is booming—sales in 2017 were up 10 percent from the previous year, and 2018 is tracking to be 20 percent better than 2017. More importantly, for those worried the future is famine, the uptick comes from younger readers looking for titles like Bone, Amulet, Asterix, and Uncle Scrooge. "We have seen an explosion of young people coming in," he says. And those youths are picking up everything from superhero titles to indie fare like the crime-fighting canine book Dog Man.
Higgins sees the stories foretelling dark days for the industry. He's been reading comics since the late 1980s, and working in comics shops since he was teenager, and consistently reads the death-knell pieces on comics websites. Yet those narratives run counter to what he experiences as a comics shop owner. On release day, fans still show up religiously at Comics Conspiracy and elsewhere, like Star Wars fans lining up for new movies on opening night. "When you consider buying patterns, human beings usually don't shop like that," Quesada says. "Comics fans are motivated. There are industries that would kill to have the kind of following that we do."
'Comics fans are motivated. There are industries that would kill to have the kind of following that we do.'
Joe Quesada, chief creative officer for Marvel Comics
Comics writer Joshua Dysart is jazzed about what he sees. "I think we're heading into this massive content gold rush," he says. "We're seeing comics like Infidel, an Islamic horror story, being optioned for six figures. We just need the big companies, when they're releasing a comic book movie that doesn't fit the mold of a comic book movie, to tell the world that it is. I mean, no one knows that A History of Violence was a comic book first. Ghost World—no one equates that with a 'comic book movie.'"
Quesada thinks the industry is at a creative high point as well. "I've been working as a comic professional since 1990, and even then people were already talking about the wide variety of comics being sold," he says. "Now it's way wider. The direct market is a boon to creativity. It allows someone with the right idea and a great story to find an audience. And the ability to publish for newcomers is easier than it's ever been. Printing costs are much lower. You can crowdfund your book. There's no excuse."
And the audience for those books exists. Former readers are replaced by new ones. Yes, stores go out of business, but they too are replaced by new ones. According to Diamond Comic Distributors, which distributes comics for most of the industry's heavyweights, the number of stores with active monthly accounts has increased slightly for three years in a row. And that doesn't take into account the fact that fans can now access comics on an array of digital platforms.
Even Bud Plant is sunny-side up. "From my perspective, I think the readers and fans are pretty pleased by the way things are going," Plant says. "Their choice of interest has been substantiated by the public, even if it's only in attendance at the movies. There's still an awful lot of interest in comics and graphic novels. You see comic shops that are busy."
The culture of comics is fine—it's just not all at Comic-Con.
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