"Circle The Wagons! The Fanboys Are Coming!"

By | Tuesday, September 11, 2007 2 comments
Ms. Occasional Superheroine recently had several reports on the Baltimore Comicon. Of particular note is her unscientific, but still unbiased, analysis of who's reading superhero books these days. "I think what I saw at Baltimore was the "face" of the mainstream superhero comic book reader -- the demographic that major comic book publishers have depended on for decades." You've probably already seen her report by the time you've stopped here.

What you might NOT have read, though, is RAB's report on the HOWL Festival in NYC the same weekend. Specifically, that the festival's organizers asked the Kirby Museum to have a presence at the event. They did and sold quite a fair amount of Jack Kirby Collector, Silver Star (graphite edition) and other TwoMorrows' titles, not to mention raise general awareness of The King.

I think the contrasts between the reports is striking. On the one hand, we have OS noting that the "mainstream" superhero comic genre might someday be just a minor niche within the industry on the whole and, on the other hand, we have RAB excitedly jumping up and down virtually at the impressiveness with which comics -- and Jack Kirby in particular -- generate interest among the laity.

Now, certainly, Jack having grown up not far from where the HOWL Festival took place had something to do with it. "Local boy does us proud" and whatnot. RAB makes some allusions to that effect. But he also makes the point that a lot people were just excited by the creations that Jack dreamt up: the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, etc. I'm sure there were talking points about the Fantastic Four, Hulk, the X-Men, and Iron Man with regards to the movies. It wasn't just about Jack, but rather the creativity that can be expressed in comics.

For as much talent as a Jim Lee or a David Finch might have, it's not them specifically that make comics a great medium. It's the energy and creativity that comes to the table in books as diverse as Superman, Castle Waiting and Groo (to pull three of this week's titles at, more or less, random). For as much banal entertainment garbage is spewed forth by mass media giants like Disney, Fox Entertainment and (almost ironically) Warner Brothers, comics offer an outlet for something new and different. Even within the often redundant superhero genre, there are ample opportunities for consumers -- especially consumers en masse -- to pick out ideas and concepts that are particularly poignant to them.

I think that's borne out particularly in film and television. Shows like Smallville and movies like the X-Men trilogy continually showcase precisely how the concepts introduced in a niche like comic books can have broad appeal. Comics, as a medium, aren't the problem. Superheroes, as the (arguably less and less) dominant genre within the medium, aren't the solution. Manga isn't the solution. What RAB showed this past weekend, it seems to me, is that people will simply be drawn to great content... provided that they can get to it. Some people, like those OS witnessed in Baltimore, dig the superhero stuff. Others, like she'll likely see at SPX, will have a broader range of interest in genres. But in either case, they're getting drawn by great content. Whether that content was created by Jack Kirby or Jim Lee or Matt Wagner or Gilbert Hernandez or Bill Griffith is, as far as the industry as a whole is concerned, immaterial.

The key is getting great content to people who are most responsive to it! As OS points out, the fanboy population who enjoys Jim Lee's take on Batman doesn't seem to have a lot of overlap with the folks who enjoy Love and Rockets. The trick, of course, is figuring out whether a person falls into one group or another before you've turned them off to the entire medium. You don't want to hand the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man to someone who's inherently not appreciative of that type of story. That does no one any good. However, if you can pass along a copy of Stray Bullets to someone who would likely enjoy something like Stray Bullets, you've done a much greater service to the industry. Because even if they don't find what you gave them to be the best piece of creative work they've ever seen, there's a better chance that they'll see the potential and seek out similar types of titles.

And that speaks to Tom Spurgeon's recent rant on comic book shops. His first suggestion is to have comic book shops having access to accurate information, which is great, but I'd say that it needs to go a step further in that the people who work in comic shops need to be willing/able to share that information with customers in a congenial way. And no, not just the regular customers who grab their stack from their file every week, but everybody who walks into the shop. Any customer should be able to walk in to any comic shop and say, "Excuse me? I need some help looking for..." and the person at the shop should be able to provide assistance. If that's not pointing them to the shelves of EC Archives, it might be helping to find their copy of The Death of Superman. If that's not explaining why All-Star Batman didn't ship this week, it might be putting in a few calls while the customer is standing there to try to track down a copy of The Waiting Place.

People who run comic book shops usually do so because they love the medium. (Which presents another set of problems, but that's another point for another blog entry.) The best business practice you can teach them is to try to share their love with every single person who walks in the store. And the way to do that is NOT by showing how much more you know about Kamandi than they do; it's about taking their preferences into consideration and making suggestions based on their tastes.

The thing to remember -- and this gets forgotten so often -- is that comics are a medium. Maybe Scott McCloud's definition is overly broad for you, but it's still worth bringing to the table here because it highlights the fact that comics do NOT equal superheroes. The Baltimore convention isn't really a comic convention per se -- it celebrates the superhero genre seen in many comic books. As OS found out painfully as she waded through back issue bins, that's a specialty niche within the broader comics industry and one that tends to cater to 20-35 year old men. Comics, the medium, are larger than that, and the supposed niche of indie comics really is, in fact, the mainstream. The only problem is that the specialty niche of superhero fans have managed to push the mainstream to the sidelines to the point where the broader range of potential in comics has become a minority.

I'm not going to sit here and advocate more diversity within the medium. Other people are already doing that and, generally, doing a much better job than I could. I'm just pointing out that their advocacy is indeed working and that, before you know it, the fanboys who won't pay attention to any comic that doesn't have scantily-clad, gravity-defying-breast-having female characters and impossibly-muscled, let-me-fix-this-with-my-fist male characters are going to be in the minority. A balance will return to the industry, and folks will regularly recognize superheroes as the niche they really are.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Scott's definition is overly narrow for me, but only because he uses the word "medium" to mean "art form." Media are newsprint, Baxter paper, the Internet... you know, MATERIALS.

I don't know that "medium" is an incorrect term here -- provided that you're using the appropriate definition. According to Webster's online dictionary, medium can mean:

1 a means of effecting or conveying something: as (1) : a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2) : a surrounding or enveloping substance (3) : the tenuous material (as gas and dust) in space that exists outside large agglomerations of matter (as stars)

2 a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment -- compare MASS MEDIUM (2) : a publication or broadcast that carries advertising (3) : a mode of artistic expression or communication (4) : something (as a magnetic disk) on which information may be stored

I think that first definition speaks to what you're discussing, T, while the second definition -- specifically the "mode of artistic expression" bit is more along the lines of what McCloud was talking to. And, obviously, that's the direction I was coming from as well.

To McCloud's original point, though, it's about definitions, isn't it? How do we define "comics"? Well, first we have to agree on a definition for "media" and whether or not that's appropriate to use in a definition of "comics".