ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

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Comics Are for Everyone: Rethinking Histories of Comics Fandom

By Aaron Kashtan

I am honored and awed to be here. I received my PhD from the University of Florida in 2011 and UF has been foundational to everything I’m going to say in this speech. And I also organized this conference in 2008 and I’m pleased that the current organizers are doing a much better job than I ever did. I’m glad to see so many old friends in the audience, and it’s a great honor that my first keynote address at an academic conference is at the house that Don Ault built. I’d also like to thank all the people who helped me develop the ideas in this talk, including Torsten Adair, Ian Gould, Menachem Luchins, Joel Thingvall, Diana Schutz and Robert Beerbohm. I asked one question on Facebook – why is direct-market distribution so much cheaper than newsstand distribution – and I ended up learning much more than that.

In my first book, Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future, I discuss how digital technology has resulted in shifts in the material experience of reading. Printed books now have to compete with digital reading technologies. This creates somewhat overblown fears for the future of the book. It also creates what I call a crisitunity for print – quoting Homer Simpson – because printed books now have to justify the continuing existence of print, they’ve started to take advantage of the creative possibilities of print in ways that were not necessary before (Kashtan 2018). And we can understand what’s happening to print by looking at comics, because in comics, the effects of materiality are much easier to see. With a printed book, the text seems to be the same whether it’s printed or digital and it’s not always obvious that changing the material form of a book also changes its effect on the reader (Figure 1). With comics, though, when you publish a comic in a different physical format, it has obvious and visible effects on the reading experience. We all know that it’s not the same when you read comics in comic book form, in collected form, or in digital form, even if the story is the same in all three cases. Therefore, comics help us understand what’s going to happen to the book in the post-digital age.

Figure 1. Dickens’s <em>A Tale of Two Cities</em> in print and Kindle forms. Source of left-hand image unknown. Right-hand image from https://www.1843magazine.com/content/lifestyle/anonymous/shopper-e-readers.
Figure 1. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in print and Kindle forms. Source of left-hand image unknown. Right-hand image from https://www.1843magazine.com/content/lifestyle/anonymous/shopper-e-readers.

Now, Between Pen and Pixel mostly focuses on comics from the perspective of creators and publishers. My next book project, with the tentative title Comics Are For Everyone, will examine how digital technology and other related developments are changing the material practices of comics readers. Digital technology is replacing one set of material practices, centered around comic books, direct market comic book stores, and comic conventions, with a wide range of other material practices. And this significantly changes who gets to be a comics fan.

Therefore, in order to understand the contemporary comics landscape, we need to rethink what comics are, who comics fans are, and how they interact with comics. This lecture represents a basic attempt to do that. I begin by summarizing our standard account of comics history, which interprets comics purely through the lens of the direct market. I then explain why the story we tell about comics is incomplete, and I try to tell a couple of the other stories that get ignored when we think of the direct market as the only material site of comics fandom. I close by arguing that we need to pay attention to other histories of comics and other audiences that are currently being neglected because of an excessive focus on the direct market.

I begin with an image that Raina Telgemeier posted on her blog in 2012, depicting what she called a “well-loved copy” of her first graphic novel, Smile (2010). The spine is heavily taped, the cover is split in multiple places, the pages are curling. She also posted a similar photo the same year, showing another copy of Smile whose pages are falling out (Figure 2). These books have been read and reread and loved to death, to the point where they have no monetary value and you couldn’t even give them away. (On such well-loved books, see Wannamaker).

Figure 2. A “well-loved copy” of <em>Smile</em>. From https://goraina.com/blog/2012/10/portland-maine-photos.
Figure 2. A “well-loved copy” of Smile. From https://goraina.com/blog/2012/10/portland-maine-photos.

Now, this image is striking to me because it’s so different from how I interact materially with my comics. I’m a “traditional” comics fan, which means I’m a collector, even if my comics have no monetary value. My formative comics fan experiences were when I went to my first comic book store at age seven and my first comic convention at age twelve or thirteen. I always prefer to buy comics in single-issue form, and I keep them all in order and I’ve even invested in drawerboxes to make them more accessible. I regularly visit comic book stores and comic conventions and buy more comic books and sometimes even read them. And I even moderate panels at comic conventions and I used to work for a fan magazine, Comic Book Artist. So basically my fan practice revolves around the specific material form of the comic book, which exists to be read and enjoyed but not too much, because I want it to last. Of course the extreme form of this type of material practice is slabbing, where you enclose a comic in Lucite so that it can’t be damaged anymore but can still be read. I also fit the demographic profile of the comics fan – I’m a thirtysomething white guy and I’ve been reading comics my entire life.

So my type of comics fan practice, which revolves around comic books, comic book stores, and fan conventions, has been the dominant mode of comics fandom since the 1980s. And this type of comics fandom is mostly practiced by straight white men. When you think of a comics fan, you think of someone like me. We can call this normative comics fandom or direct market fandom – the type of fandom whose spaces include direct market comic book stores and comic conventions and whose practitioners are mostly teenaged or older straight white males and whose privileged texts are Marvel and DC comic books.

But normative comics fandom in this sense is not normative anymore because it’s being overshadowed by other modes of comics fandom which are practiced by other types of fans. Instead of seeing normative comics fandom as an unchanging ahistorical ideal, we need to place it in historical context and see it as only one among various modes of reading comics. If we don’t do this, we overstate the importance of direct market fandom and we become blind to the existence of other types of comics fandom, practiced by other types of fans, that are actually more important now than direct market fandom is.

Let me put this in a less confusing way. From about the ‘80s to the 2000s, comics fandom revolved around comic books, direct market comic book stores, and comic conventions. I think we should see this type of comics fandom not as the norm but as the exception. The norm is that comics are a medium for everyone, but perhaps especially for children. The period from the ‘80s to the 2000s, which we might call the direct market era, is an exception to the norm that comics are for everyone. And we need to see it as the norm rather the exception in order to understand the contemporary comics scene. When we assume that “comics” primarily means Marvel and DC, for example, we miss the fact that the most important comics in America right now are young adult graphic novels, as I argued in my ICAF paper last November (Kashtan 2018). Our attitude of direct market centrism, as I called it in that paper, blinds us to the fact that normative comics fandom and its practitioners are no longer the default. If we see normative comics fandom as the exception and not the norm, we can reorient our understanding of comics history and understand who comics fans are today and how they engage with comics. And this lecture represents a preliminary and speculative attempt to do that.

Let’s briefly think about how this one particular set of fan practices – direct market stores, comic conventions, etc. – became identified with comics fandom in general. In the Golden Age, comic books were read by pretty much everyone, including children – to say nothing of comic strips, which were read by everyone and their brother. A 1944 survey reported that 95% of all American boys and 91% of American girls read comic books (Lopes 22). Robert Beerbohm recently posted several historical photographs on Facebook of children reading comics, which are kind of horrifying because the comics in this picture would have been worth millions of dollars today if they’d been preserved in good condition (Figure 3). But of course the reason why pre-1960s comic books are so valuable today is because most of them weren’t preserved. They were seen as disposable artifacts to be loved and then discarded once they fell apart, like those Raina Telgemeier books. In the Golden Age, comic books were not rare and valuable commodities; they were playthings for children.

Figure 3. 1950s comic book readers. Photo posted by Robert Beerbohm on Facebook.
Figure 3. 1950s comic book readers. Photo posted by Robert Beerbohm on Facebook.

Moreover, superheroes were only one genre of comics among others, sometimes not even a major genre. The most successful comics publisher from the ‘40s to the ‘60s was not Marvel or DC but Dell, whose biggest sellers were adaptations of movies and TV shows, as Jean-Paul Gabilliet documents in Of Comics and Men (Gabilliet 40, 44, 49, etc.) Western and romance and war comics were major genres, and Marvel and DC and Charlton continued to publish these genres until well into the ‘70s.

Organized comics fandom evolved in the 1960s as an extension of science fiction fandom, which dates back to the 1920s, and comics fandom mimicked the practices of SF fandom, including letter columns, fanzines, and fan conventions. But initially comics fandom was a marginal practice. My perception is that well into the 1980s, comic book creators, editors, and publishers saw children as their natural target audience. Hardcore fans, the type of people who wrote letters and published fanzines and went to conventions and bought original art, were a distinct minority. A common maxim was that every comic was someone’s first, meaning that comic books needed to be written in as accessible a style as possible. And by far the dominant mode of comics distribution was the newsstand. The direct market comic book store was a product of the mid-to-late ‘70s and was initially a very marginal phenomenon.

Over the course of the ‘70s, the comics industry contracted significantly. Genres like romance and western and war were crowded out of the market by superhero comics, and newsstand sales declined. Jean-Paul Gabilliet attributes this to several factors (72-73). First, comic books declined as a primary form of children’s entertainment due to competition from TV. Second, newsstands became an ineffective distribution channel for comics because comics had a low profit margin. A letter column response from a 1967 Charlton comic shows that the profit margin on comics was razor-thin and publishers had to sell a hundred thousand copies just to break even (Figure 4). It didn’t help that the newsstand distribution system was allegedly run by the Mafia and was full of fraud and corruption. A famous example of the economic crisis facing comics in this period was the DC Implosion of 1978, when more than twenty DC comics were cancelled at once. Meanwhile, Marvel might have gone out of business if not for the massive success of their Star Wars adaptation. Rachel Thorn adds a third factor: the replacement of public transit by interstate highways, which cut down on spare reading time (Thorn).

Figure 4. Letter column response from<em>Peacemaker</em> #5 (Charlton, 1967). Photo by Aaron Kashtan.
Figure 4. Letter column response fromPeacemaker #5 (Charlton, 1967). Photo by Aaron Kashtan.

One of the things that saved the comics industry at this time was the growing fan market. With the collapse of the newsstand system, comics publishers increasingly turned to direct market stores as their primary distribution channel. The advantage of direct market stores was that with the direct market, comics could be profitable with far smaller print runs. Under the newsstand system, there was no way to tell in advance how many comics would be sold, so publishers erred on the side of printing three copies for every one copy they expected to sell. Moreover, newsstand stores could return unsold copies to the publisher for a refund, or later, they would strip and return the top part of the cover and destroy the rest of the comic. So if a comic sold poorly, the publisher would take a loss. And the system was also rife with corruption; for example, newsstands would sometimes take unsold comics that were supposed to have been destroyed and sell those comics on the black market, which further cut into comics’ profit margin. The innovation of Phil Seuling, who essentially created the direct market, was that comics sold on the direct market would be nonreturnable. Instead of being able to return unsold comics to the publisher, direct market stores would buy them outright, though at a deeper discount, and so if a comic didn’t sell, the store, not the publisher, would take the loss. (The above information is indebted to Facebook responses from Robert Beerbohm, Torsten Adair, Joel Thingvall and others.)

This meant that comics could be profitable with much smaller print runs, and so the direct market quickly eclipsed the newsstand as the main distribution system for comics. By 1980, Marvel and DC had both started publishing comics that were only sold through the direct market, and that quickly became the norm. DC even adopted a so-called hardcover/softcover program where popular comics like New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes would be published on Baxter paper, which was mentioned in Alexander Ponomareff’s paper, for distribution to comic book stores, and then they were reprinted on newsprint for distribution to newsstands. This didn’t last long and was a disaster, but it shows the increased primacy of comic book stores. Independent comic book companies came into existence whose primary distribution channel was the direct market and not the newsstand. Among the earliest of these publishers was Pacific, which started out as a comic book distributor and then began publishing its own original comics that were only distributed to comic book stores. A further advantage was that direct market comics didn’t have to follow the Comics Code, so they could include more adult-oriented content. So according to Chuck Rosanski, in 1979 only 6% of Marvel comics were sold through the direct market, but in 1985 that figure was 50%, and by 1987, it was 70% (Rosanski). The direct market had become the primary location of comics fandom.

This was great for comics publishers, at least at first, but it also constricted the audience for comics. Because who was buying comic books in these stores? Mostly it was superhero fans, who tended to overwhelmingly be straight white boys and men, just like the protagonists of superhero comics were. That’s not entirely true, because direct market comic book stores also sold alternative comic books, which had a much more diverse audience. But alternative and independent comics were a far smaller market than superhero comics. Writing in the late 1990s, Matthew Pustz pointed out that even then, superhero comics were the vast majority of the market, and alternative comics were just a marginal category – which is a bit hard to realize now that authors like Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware have been so firmly canonized. Until the graphic novel boom of the ‘90s and 2000s, superheroes really were the mainstream. And as comics fandom grew in importance, a vicious circle ensued where now that fanboys were the target audience, Marvel and DC and Image marketed their comics entirely to fanboys and forgot about the maxim that everyone’s comic is someone’s first.

So this period, from the late ‘70s to the early 2000s, is the origin of most of our popular stereotypes of comics fans. A stereotypical comics fan, or fanboy, is someone who reads Wizard and thinks Rob Liefeld is a talented artist and has pimples and glasses and has no social life outside comics. The key examples of this stereotype are the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy and Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club. And the central gathering place of such fans is the comic book store, a poorly lit dungeon filled with back issue bins and posters of scantily clad women (Figure 5). Those stereotypes are a product of the direct market era of the ‘80s to the 2000s, and at that time it was often accurate, and they’re still often accurate today.

Figure 5. Evan Dorkin’s <em>Eltingville Club</em> #1.
Figure 5. Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club #1.

During this period, Marvel and DC did make token efforts to appeal to people other than the primary demographic. An example was Barbara Slate’s Angel Love, which was published for eight issues plus one special from 1986 to 1987. This series is so bizarre and so ahead of its time that it’s hard to believe it even existed. It’s drawn in a cartoony style and includes characters like talking cockroaches, yet it engages with topics like cocaine and abortion. But a comic like this is the exception that proves the rule. It failed and is mostly forgotten today because its intended audience was unable to access it. On Twitter, Kurt Busiek suggested that the problem with Angel Love is it was sold in comic book stores, but it was marketed to people who didn’t go to comic book stores. The same thing happened twenty years later when DC launched its Minx imprint, which was marketed to teen girls who were readers of manga. This imprint featured work from a lot of quality creators but was marketed very poorly, and DC was unable to get it onto the shelves at bookstores, which was where its target audience would have been buying it. When Minx was cancelled in 2008, Andy Khouri wrote: “Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.” So basically, on the rare occasions when commercial comics publishers tried to appeal to readers other than the normative fan demographic, they failed, either through lack of effort or through no longer understanding how to market comics to kids.

Now this was at the same time that graphic novels were becoming a major emerging literary genre, but the critical success of graphic novels like Maus and Persepolis and Blankets was not matched by popular success. By 2004, the crisis in the comics industry had reached the point where Michael Chabon said in his Eisner Awards keynote address:

As the reputation, the ambition, the sophistication, and the literary and artistic merit of much of our best comics work has been steadily rising over the past couple of decades, comics readership, viewed in terms of sales and circulation, has pretty much been in freefall. More adults are reading better comics than ever before; but far fewer people overall.

But even his proposed solution to this problem was still rooted within the direct market and the superhero genre. His solution was “to sweep them up and carry them off on the vast flying carpets of story and pictures on which we ourselves, in entire generations, were borne aloft, on carpets woven by Swan and Hamilton, Kirby and Lee” (Chabon). Which is brilliant poetic language, but Chabon’s recommendations all involve creating better comics for children, rather than also coming up with better ways to get comics to children. And in general, my recollection of this period was that at the time, people were still thinking within the box of the direct market and were not coming up with alternative material practices and locations where comics could be made accessible to new audiences.

This is due to the attitude that, again, I referred to elsewhere as direct-market-centrism. This attitude says that the direct market can be identified with the comics industry in general, that direct market comics are comics. Direct market centrism also skews how we think about comics history because it tells us that the direct market is the natural teleology of the comics medium – that the entire history of comics was a trajectory that naturally resulted in the direct market. The story we tell about comics and their material practices is the story of the direct market. Usually that story has an unhappy ending. The standard narrative is that “comics are dying” because direct market fans are dying off or because Marvel and DC aren’t appealing to them effectively. A more recent version of this story is that comics are dying because of diversity (Figure 6). The only natural audience for comics is direct market fans who fall into the standard straight white male demographic. Other people aren’t interested in comics, and when Marvel and DC try to make comics for people other than straight white men, they contribute to the decline of comics.

Figure 6. Sample results from a Twitter search for “diversity” and “comics.” Screenshot by Aaron Kashtan.
Figure 6. Sample results from a Twitter search for “diversity” and “comics.” Screenshot by Aaron Kashtan.

The problem with this story of comics history is not only that it’s racist and sexist, but also that it’s empirically false, because it ignores other ways in which the story of comics could be told. When we interpret the history of the comics industry solely through the lens of the direct market, we ignore other developments happening outside the direct market that were more important than anything happening within it. Because at the same time Chabon was suggesting ways for the comics industry to do better, the comics industry and comics audiences were already being revitalized by an entirely different audience and a different set of material practices, and these new audiences and new material practices would eventually eclipse the direct market in importance.

Later in 2004, the New York Times published an article by George Gene Gustines with the headline “Girl Power Fuels Manga Boom in U.S.” Manga had been published in English since the ‘80s, but it was previously only a very marginal area of the comics industry and it was published in the format of traditional comic books. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several things happened to change this, including the unexpected success of manga franchises like Sailor Moon and Pokémon and the fact that a manga fan named Kurt Hassler happened to be the graphic novel buyer for Borders, so he was in a unique position to get manga into mall bookstores (Brienza 51-52). And that opened up a radical new market for comics that was accessible to new audiences, as Casey Brienza explains:

Getting collected graphic novel editions of Sailor Moon into the mall stores meant that the teenage girls to whom the series most appealed were far more likely to find out about this strange new thing called manga through a recognizable brand for sale in a familiar environment. After all, the mall, and most definitely not the forbidding, male-only terrain of the comic book store, was where they were hanging out already. (Brienza 51)

Manga became an explosive success and its success was mostly driven by a new audience, teenage girls, a new format, the manga volume, and a new location, the chain bookstore. Barnes & Noble and Borders had entire aisles devoted to manga and throughout the 2000s it was not unusual to walk into one of these bookstores and see teenage girls or even boys sitting on the floor reading manga (Figure 7). (Which, by the way, is an American version of the Japanese and Korean practice of manga cafés or manhwabangs, where you can sit and read comics and drink coffee, except in Japan and Korea they charge for the privilege.) Manga proved to be far more popular than superhero comic books and they also appealed to broader audiences – and even if the most devoted manga fans were teenage girls, manga, as we all know, is produced for all audience demographics, from adults to small children, so manga had crossover appeal.

Figure 7. A manga display at a Barnes & Noble store. From https://goodereader.com/blog/manga-and-anime-news/barnes-and-noble-puts-a-priority-on-manga.
Figure 7. A manga display at a Barnes & Noble store. From https://goodereader.com/blog/manga-and-anime-news/barnes-and-noble-puts-a-priority-on-manga.

Now at the time, direct market fans largely ignored manga or saw it as a separate category from American comics – and that’s still true now. Douglas Wolk refers to manga as the “eternal exception” (61), a phrase that exemplifies how fans of American comics typically think of manga as a sui generis category that has to be bracketed out when discussing comics. However, as the manga boom continued, people outside direct market comics were paying attention and were using it as inspiration to rethink American comics, specifically who read American comics and where and how they read them.

At the same 2004 Comic-Con where Chabon gave his keynote address, Scholastic Books announced a new graphic novel imprint, Graphix, whose first title was Jeff Smith’s Bone.Bone originated in 1991 as a self-published comic book which was distributed through the direct market. It was heavily influenced by classic children’s comics like Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and it became the best young adult comic of the decade. Incidentally, Jeff Smith was a keynote speaker at this very conference a decade ago.

According to an interview with Jeff Smith published by Eric Nolen-Weathington, Scholastic was already interested in publishing graphic novels for children. I don’t know how they got that idea, but it was probably a natural idea given the rising cultural profile of comics at the time, as well as the manga boom. And they hired consultants, including Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, who recommended that they begin with Bone. Now, Bone had already been serialized in Disney Adventures magazine starting in 1994 alongside various comics starring Disney characters, and the comics editors for Disney Adventures were Heidi MacDonald and Marv Wolfman, who were very familiar with developments in the direct market comics industry (Nolen-Weathington 44) (Figure 8). So the success of Bone in Disney Adventures was proof that it might appeal to children, who, however, would be unlikely to find it in comic book stores, unless their parents happened to be comic book fans.

Figure 8. The February 1998 issue of <em>Disney Adventures</em>, containing a chapter of Jeff Smith’s <em>Bone</em> as well as a Disney comic.
Figure 8. The February 1998 issue of Disney Adventures, containing a chapter of Jeff Smith’s Bone as well as a Disney comic.

So Scholastic published Bone starting in 2005. The importance of Scholastic’s acquisition of Bone was tremendous because Scholastic had almost a century of experience selling books to children. For example, Jean Feiwel, the editor who acquired Bone for Scholastic, is also credited with creating The Baby-Sitters Club. And Scholastic had access to distribution networks that were closed to publishers like Marvel and DC, including sections of bookstores other than the graphic novel section. When asked if Scholastic helped his sales, Smith replied that Scholastic wanted to shelve Bone with regular non-comics children’s books, and:

That appealed to us, because the graphic novel section always looked messy, like nobody took care of it. People would pull a book off, read through it, and cram it back on the shelf, and the books would get all beaten up. … We got shelved in the children’s section alongside Harry Potter, and it was a very popular section of the store. It was very good for us. The numbers are astronomical compared to what we had been selling on our own. (Nolen-Weathington 63)

I quote this at some length because it emphasizes the physicality and materiality of the bookstore setting and the way in which a simple change of location in a bookstore can translate into a completely new audience. Scholastic also had access to entire distribution channels that were closed to most comics publishers, notably including school book fairs. These are already held in schools throughout America and by selling comics in school book fairs, Scholastic was able to get Bone into the hands of hundreds of thousands of children who didn’t even know what a comic book store was (Figure 9). Furthermore, Scholastic knew how to do things like send out review copies and market comics at trade shows.

Figure 9. A display of graphic novels at an elementary school Scholastic book fair. From http://cricutcraftyclare.blogspot.com/2019/04.
Figure 9. A display of graphic novels at an elementary school Scholastic book fair. From http://cricutcraftyclare.blogspot.com/2019/04.

The next logical development was for Scholastic to develop their own original comics, and one of their first projects was by a little-known artist named Raina Telgemeier. Now, Raina Telgemeier already had a small cult following as a minicomic artist – I met her at San Diego Comic-Con and bought one of her minicomics before she was famous – but in 2004 she met a Scholastic editor at Comic-Con and was invited to submit a pitch. By the way, another example of the importance of specific physical locations in comics is that all the stories I’m telling here seem to revolve around the 2004 Comic-Con. Telgemeir told the editors that she’d been a fan of The Baby-Sitters Club as a child, and they suggested that since Scholastic already owned that intellectual property, Telgemeier should adapt it into a graphic novel series. Which made its debut in 2006 with the first of four volumes by Telgemeier, and Scholastic has now republished these volumes in color, since they were originally black and white, and has also revived the series with other artists.

This series was a breakthrough because Raina Telgemeier is exactly the type of artist who’s historically been excluded from direct market comics fandom. She grew up with comics, but her favorite comics were Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or for Worse, not Batman and The Hulk. She said in a Cosmopolitan interview:

I was one of two women in a cartooning class of 25. Most of the friends I made who were cartooning majors were dudes. And most of my favorite cartoonists were men. There wasn’t really space yet for mainstream comics for women, and graphic novels weren’t really a thing yet. Most of my [male] peers were writing superhero comics or telling personal stories that closely resembled the story arcs in Wolverine. I had never gotten into superhero comics. I was making comics that were very personal and introspective (Rudulph).

In Sisters, Telgemeier depicts a conversation with her cousin Josh where she tells him that she loves Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or for Worse and FoxTrot, and he says, “Pssh. Those aren’t real comics” (117). During the time Telgemeier was growing up, millions of other children were also reading and loving these same comic strips. But few, if any, of them would have even considered making their own comics. Making comic strips is not a realistic career choice unless you happen to be the son or daughter of a syndicated cartoonist, and in the direct market era, comics books were a field reserved almost exclusively for men. One factor that’s helping to change that is the manga boom and the rise of YA comics, which create prominent examples of comics that aren’t about superheroes and that appeal to people other than straight white males. A related factor is the rise of webcomics, which make it possible for anyone to publish a comic strip on any subject and potentially find an audience, and I don’t have time to cover that here although I do touch on it in my book.

To return to the story, Raina Telgemeier’s Baby-Sitters Club books helped her develop an audience, but once she started publishing her own autobiographical and fictional graphic novels, starting with Smile, Drama, and Sisters, she became the economic powerhouse of the American comics industry. I would argue that Smile in particular is the most important comic of the decade in terms of its economic and cultural impact. Until the New York Times abolished its paperback graphic books bestseller list, it was not unusual for six of the ten books on that list to be by Raina Telgemeier. Her workhas fueled the success of other kids’ graphic novels by authors like Cece Bell, Kazu Kibuishi, and Mike Maihack,not to mention series like Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid that are sort of ambiguously located between comics and prose. Itis no exaggeration to say that children’s graphic novels have become the real mainstream and have significantly eclipsed Marvel and DC in sales. And even Marvel and DC have noticed the success of Scholastic’s Graphix line and other young adult comics imprints and have tried to react to it. In February 2018, DC announced two new graphic novel imprints called DC Ink and DC Zoom, focused on young adult and middle grade markets respectively, with a superstar lineup of young adult novelists like Marie Lu and Laurie Halse Anderson and kids’ cartoonists like Gene Luen Yang and Dustin Nguyen.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Marvel announced a series called Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur which had a nine-year-old black girl protagonist and was aimed at a very young audience. Unlike some of the other comics I’ve just mentioned, Moon Girl was published in periodical form and sold through the direct market, where it was a notorious failure, often selling less than 10,000 copies an issue, far below the threshold for cancellation. Obviously, the reason for its poor sales is because it appeals primarily to children, who don’t tend to shop at comic book stores. If this comic had been published in 1986 or even 2006, it would have been unceremoniously cancelled after eight or ten issues, just like Angel Love.But as I write this, Moon Girl is now on its 29th issue with no cancellation in sight (addendum: it was cancelled in 2019 after 47 issues). Why? Because Moon Girl is one of a few Marvel titles that are sold through Scholastic book fairs – along with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, another title with similarly poor direct market sales.

It’s gotten to the point where, as I suggested in my ICAF speech, the nominal “mainstream” of Marvel and DC superhero comic books is in fact a marginal category and the real mainstream is young adult graphic novels. We’ve reached a point where comics are no longer just for straight white men, comics are for everyone, but especially for kids – which is the default position. The pendulum might even have swung too far in the direction of comics being for kids, because recent bookstore sales figures indicate that the bookstore market for comics is completely dominated by kids’ comics, and there’s a lack of comics that are targeted at older teens. However, that problem may be self-correcting because as Melanie Gillman pointed out on Twitter, the kids who are reading Smile and Moon Girl today will grow up with the habit of reading comics, and when they grow older, they’ll be a natural market for comics aimed at older demographics.

Figure 10. Raina Telgemeier (left) with young readers in Montreal. From https://goraina.com/blog/2013/03/thanks-montreal.
Figure 10. Raina Telgemeier (left) with young readers in Montreal. From https://goraina.com/blog/2013/03/thanks-montreal.

Now we don’t know enough yet about who these readers are and how they interact with comics, and to explain that would require a separate speech. We know a lot, from firsthand experience, about direct market fans like me, about what I and people like me do with our comics, but not about how kids read comics or where they get them or what they do with them. This is part of the problem. A vile racist misogynist troll like Diversity & Comics gets massive publicity because he’s exactly the kind of person who the comics industry has historically paid attention to: an entitled old straight white man. His opinions on comics are given far more weight than they deserve. Which is analogous to how the New York Times keeps publishing editorials about coal miners from West Virginia and why they voted for Trump, while not telling the stories of black and Latinx voters. Conversely, the majority of comics readers today, the children and teenagers who read Smile and Moon Girl, have no voice (Figure 10). They’ve historically been ignored by the comics industry, and few people within the industry are speaking on their behalf. More work needs to be done to understand how today’s readers are discovering and reading and interacting with comics and how comics publishers can better serve their interests rather than trying to compete for an ever-decreasing share of the waning direct market audience. We need to change the stories we tell about who comics fans are, how they get their comics, and what they do with them. We need to forget our assumption that comics are inherently a niche market; instead, we need to start from the premise that comics are for everyone.

Works Cited


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