Thursday, September 19, 2013

It's Not All Superheroes, So Why Do Most People Think That?

This is post is the third in a four part series discussing how to get the medium of comic books out of the niche that they're stuck in. Previously I took a look at how the niche is both the cause and the result of the high price of comics as well as the aging comic reader demographic. Tomorrow, I'll be detailing a potential solution for getting comics out into the mainstream.

For today, however, I'd like to discuss the perceived lack of diversity in comics. Now, I'm not talking about racial or gender diversity; those are worth exploring, and I have talked about them in the past on this blog. What I'm talking about is this: if you ask the average non-comic book reader to name a comic book, 95 out of 100 of them will pick a superhero title, and the last five will probably say "The Walking Dead" or, rarely, "Sandman." That's kind of a big problem.

Problem 3: Most people only know about superhero comics because comics are a niche, and comics are a niche because most people only know about superhero comics

Now, I'm sure most of the folks reading this could name a dozen great non-superhero comics off the top of their head: Preacher, Sandman, Jinx, Strangers in Paradise, Walking Dead, Fables, Saga, East of West, and many more. While comic books are, in fact, extremely superhero heavy, there are a lot of other options out there for a person that's willing to look for them. But that's the problem: they have to go looking for something they don't even know they should be looking for. Yes, the person that wants to read a mystery can go to their local comic store and ask the salesperson, but how would they even know to? Instead, they go to Barnes and Noble and hit the mystery section and find a novel.

Most people wouldn't even know to go to the comic store in the first place to look for a mystery story, because most people think "superhero" when you say "comic book." The genre and the medium are more closely tied together than in perhaps any other genre/medium pairing in the United States. If people don't know that they can get a mystery, fantasy, or science fiction comic book in the first place, why would they go to a comic shop and look for one? In the last 20 years, great new non-superhero comic books have been coming out, just as the ascendance of the direct market has ensured that most non-comics fans will never hear about 99% of them. Outside of the local comics shop, the only place a person is going to see Fables or Y: The Last Man is sandwiched into the graphic novel section at their Barnes & Noble, often not even broken out from the Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman trades.

"I didn't even know they
made a comic out of the show!"
There's a lot of historical context for why superheroes are tied so firmly to the public's perception of comic books, but it's not really necessary to get into it here. What matters, for our purposes, is that there are very few chances to change that perception. There's the occasional runaway success like the Walking Dead TV series that tells people, "Hey, we've got other stuff, too!" but those are very rare, so rare that I'm having trouble thinking of another example. Maybe Sin City? 300? Probably not even those.

It doesn't help that the big two put out almost entirely superhero content. There's a very small group of books in the Marvel and DC output that aren't superhero books, especially in the Vertigo imprint, but that's it. They clearly want to break out of this and expand their readerbase, but that's harder than it looks. They keep putting out a book here and there that is from a different genre on their main product line, but even then, it's often still a thinly veiled superhero book, like All-Star Western, which has Jonah Hex fighting the same conspiracies that Batman will fight a hundred years later, alongside masked heroes in cowboy hats.

Their reasons are entirely understandable when you look at the sales figures for printed singles. The Walking Dead is in the top twenty, and Saga is at number 22, but then you have to go all the way down to East of West at number 51 with 36,345 purchases before you get to a non-superhero, non-licensed book again. The next non-superhero book is Trillium at number 70, and it's only ~7,000 above the 20,000 cancellation mark that DC seems to have been using lately. Marvel and DC are giving the fans what they want, but that puts them in a position that prevents them from getting new fans. Even within the superhero genre, there's immense pressure to use existing properties, because they sell. Look at how many Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Avengers and X-Men-related books there are on the market these days if you have any doubt of that, or how often Wolverine, Batman, Spider-Man, or Superman shows up in a new book to boost sales.

The indies are in a slightly different position. They can afford to run with a somewhat lower circulation rate, but that doesn't help to increase the visibility of their often excellent non-superhero comics. They can get along well enough to get trades printed and put in Barnes & Noble and other mass market stores, but then they're just another book on the graphic novel shelf; they're not being stocked in the fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, or horror shelves, which means that the average shopper will give them a pass entirely, because they'll be lost in among the superhero trades.

Right or wrong, most people only know about superhero comics because comics are a niche, and comics are a niche because most people only know about superhero comics. Because most sales go through the direct market, the average non-comics fan will never know how much good non-superhero content is available. On the other hand, because superheroes are precisely why most people come to the medium in the first place, it's an uphill battle to sell non-superhero content to many of the established fans of the medium.

It's a vicious cycle that can only be addressed by changing the way that comics are distributed. By making comics widely available to people who have traditionally not been comic book readers, comics can break out of the niche that have made them more expensive, that has seen a readerbase that has only grown older over the years, and that has made the public wrongly assume that the medium is only good for superheroes.

And I'll be talking about how that new way of distributing comics can be implemented tomorrow.  See you then!

No comments: