How do we earn new fans of comic books? Not comics characters, mind you. Long before he could recognize them immediately on a page, my son learned about the Avengers via movies, Batman via cartoon shows, and Spider-Man via his pajamas. As he and my younger son grow up, they will no doubt be immersed in comics culture. It helps when daddy is chained to his desktop computer and/or iPad Pro every day making his own comics, but I can easily imagine how their generation — with more content in more available mediums that I would have in my own childhood (which in itself was fairly diverse all things considered) — could lose comics in the shuffle so easily.
While he was joking, my good friend and comic retailer Shawn Hilton (of Comics Cubed in Kokomo, Indiana), was quick to make his request to save the industry at large. “Destroy all devices with “I” in the title, get rid of cell phones, and destroy the internet. Minecraft and YouTube have to be wiped out as well.”
He makes a point. The ubiquitous market of video games and streaming video compete with pulp and paper in the most unfair of fights. Find me a kid who chooses prose to pixels, and I’ll show you a diamond in the rough. I’m not here to pat myself on the back. I personally didn’t find a love of comics specifically until I was in middle school, and even then my initial liking of them was tied specifically in with wanting to have more in common with my-soon-to-be brother-from-another-mother, Unshaven Comics’ own Matt Wright.
Another friend of mine, mother to an bright and amazing nine-year old girl, was quick to denote the barrier to entry in the subculture. When I asked her if she ever took her child to the local comic shop, her reply broke my heart.
“We have. She always grabs a few at Free Comic Book Day, and she purchased a Donald Duck comic once. The store intimidates her though, even though she knows on of the staff (our next-door neighbor and friend works there one night a week to pay for his books). Dan Mishkin belongs to our synagogue as well, and she enjoyed a comic book workshop he taught recently, and she’s “writing” her own book now too, but she doesn’t like the comic shop. She feels more comfortable at a traditional bookstore. Comic shops are not generally welcoming places for nine-year old girls.”
Let’s dissect that a bit. Her daughter is one of the good eggs, the kind we strive to hold amongst our ranks. The lure of Free Comic Book Day clearly has worked a bit. The local community hosting a comic book workshop helped too. But twice in her response my friend is clear: “the store intimidates her.”
In the war to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of comic book fans, I am of the opinion that it will begin and end with the local comic shop. While Shawn may do battle with smartphones, tablets, and YouTube, I am apt to defend those distractions to the death. It can never be us vs. them. There is room for both electronic and paper entertainment. Marvel, DC, and the industry writ-large is holding up their end of the bargain — saturating the market with high quality adapted works for TV, movies, and video games. They’re introducing the next generation to their characters and storylines right where that next generation is looking. The local comic shops must find the way to build the bridge from those screens to their doors.
I should note that the publishers bear the burden of offering comics that keeps kids coming back. I freely admit I got event-comic’ed to death. The continual need to collect books I didn’t want to ensure I got the whole story felt (and was) a cheap ploy to ply my money from my hands. The tail wagged the dog too much, and I was forced out of weekly books — opting instead to seek more backing of Kickstarters and artist alleys at comic conventions to satiate my need for sequential art. The devil is always in the details.
I know that without my own hometown always have a comic shop nearby, I would have never found myself rifling through a long box for a back issue. Without a (mostly) friendly staff there to hold my books weekly, make excellent suggestions and jabber with me when I wanted to vent, I’d never have become a subscriber. To save printed comics, we must save small businesses in our communities. In turn, those businesses must do what they can to attract all manners of customers and serve them. I don’t profess to know that specific secret mind you; it’s why Matt and I turned down the chance to own our own comic shop about a year ago.
Inevitably, I’ve ended up as a snake eating its own tail here. The comic shops must be all-inclusive. The publishers must produce meaningful work at an affordable price. Kids have to see the value in the printed comic being physically in their possession over dropping bitcoins into Candy Crush. Inevitably many comic shops wind up catering to the older generations with more disposable income and they don’t care about kids coming in for some all-ages books. The publishers produce the cash-grab-friendly crossover event comics because time-and-again it lands them predictable revenue in an ever-growing marketplace with hot competition. And the kids are lured away by Minecraft. Ce la vie.
But I remain a vigilant optimist. The next generation of comic book fans are out there. The only way we’ll earn their fandom is to do the work to earn it.
So… what have you done to keep our medium alive today?