Here's a link to Amazon's Top 10 best-selling comics and graphic novels of 2012. Read that list please. No Superman, no Batman, no Spider-Man, no Hulk. There are, in fact, only two superhero comics on there at all, and only three that are published by comics' "Big Two." In fact, of the publishers on that Top 10 list, there are more books from Pantheon than there are from Marvel.
And look at the creators of these books! Chris Ware, Jeff Lemire, Charles Burns, Jeffrey Brown... All very talented folks, and all very much NOT the type of people who you would expect to write about spandex-clad musclemen.
And bear in mind that Amazon usually categorizes manga and Young Adult comics separately, so those don't likely even factor into this list.
"But, Sean," you say, "this is only one retailer. That's hardly representative of the entire industry."
Yes, Amazon is one retailer compared with the 2000-3000 comic book shops across the US. But they also account for around 1/3 of all book sales here. One third of every dollar spent on books in the US is spent at Amazon! That makes any top-selling title in every comic shop look like chicken feed! Is Amazon perfectly representative of comic sales? No, but they're much closer than what we see in the Diamond sales charts.
So I'm done with people talking about the "comics industry" or "mainstream comics" and only referring to Marvel and DC. They're fighting over an increasingly smaller piece of the pie when it comes to the local comic shop scene, and that scene wasn't very large in the first place.
Look, I'm not down on comic shops here. When they're done well, they make for a great experience that you can't get anywhere else. The personal attention you get from employees is great, and the interactions you can have with other patrons is fantastic. I am all for more great comic shops.
But they're not mainstream, and they don't represent the comics industry.
I have been to exactly zero comic book shops that have a larger manga selection than my local Books-a-Million, and my local Books-a-Million sucks. The great strides in YA comics from the past few years? Almost completely unseen in local shops -- try getting a copy of something from the Baby Mouse series from your LCS. And, although it's still a nascent industry, webcomics aren't even on the table with this discussion.
I'm not dissing superheroes. I'm an old school superhero guy. Really. Over half of my collection is from Marvel. It was John Byrne's run on Fantastic Four that got me hooked on comics in the first place. Add in DC and those two publishers make up nearly 70% of the comics I own. Count 'em yourself.
I'm just saying that people should be honest with the terminology. Mainstream is defined as "the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend" and that is NOT what superheroes are. Spandex and capes do show up in the broader market, but they are by far not dominant. Two out of the Top 10. Two. Twenty percent. Hardly dominant.
It sounds like a stupid semantics discussion, but it's really just indicative of the broader issue. Namely, that when people are looking to "fix" or "save" the comics industry, their solutions won't work because they're not looking at the whole industry, just the superhero corner of it. Comics is much, much broader than the direct market and trying to fix a system that's specifically designed to cater to very small, niche market of comic collectors is like trying to impact our entire political system by changing the platforms of the Green Party. However much people may be devoted to the Green Party and their (decidedly worthy) policies, the reality is that they're a small player in a much larger market. So too is the direct market a small player in the broader book market. You know, the one where those "elusive" new readers are.