This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on February 11, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why don’t more adults stop reading superhero comics and why don’t more kids start reading them?
Mark, while I normally might chastise you for asking two questions, I’ll give you this one because they share an answer and I’d rather not repeat myself. That answer in its entirety is a complex thing composed of colorful personalities, decades of history, and shifts in the comics market (both financial and aesthetic). However, it boils down to something rather simple:
Superhero comics aren’t being sold to kids.
It’s worth starting by narrowing this very big question just a little bit so this answer doesn’t get picked apart for the sake of semantics. In this instance, we’re talking specifically about the North American market for comics. Japan doesn’t have any problems selling superhero comics to kids. Just look at the sales on series like the superb One-Punch Man and My Hero Academia. These put the numbers behind even the most successful series coming out in America to shame.
I’m also going to narrow my scope in America to two publishers: Marvel and DC Comics. There are superhero comics coming from others. Image and Dark Horse are releasing superhero series like C.O.W.L. and The Paybacks, respectively. Yet they don’t sell nearly as large of numbers as their “distinguished” competition and aren’t really targeted towards kids. The former example focuses on labor relations and the latter on repo men. If anyone is going to shifting the age demographic for capes comics in any meaningful way at this exact moment, it’s going to be one of those “Big Two” publishers.
So with our focus sufficiently narrowed, what do I mean when I say that superhero comics aren’t being sold to kids. There’s no Comics Code Authority attempting to obfuscate the sale of this corrupting influence to minors anymore. There doesn’t need to be. The sales strategies being undertaken by both Marvel and DC are doing a fine job of keeping kids out of the market in an effort to maintain or grow sales from adult readers.
My primary backup for this assertion lies on the shelves of every comic book store. Marvel and DC are publishing more than 100 superhero series currently with a strategy comparable to carpet bombing. They’re filling as much space as they can with as many series as they can. Those series reflect a variety of strategies as well. There are loads of crossovers, consistent reboots and events that “change everything”, lots of focus on adult-oriented subject matter, and a price point that rarely reaches below $3.99 and keeps aiming higher.
You might look at that list and think it’s the same old list of complaints that are trotted out by comics fans on a biweekly basis, and you’d be right. But those complaints are lodged in the truth of the market. Just because the same people complaining continue to buy all of the things they’re whining about doesn’t mean that stuff doesn’t exist. It just means they’re helping to perpetuate the status quo. That the status quo is often maintained by the very people complaining about it helps to explain why all of these deterrents for young readers are considered a solid strategy at Marvel and DC Comics.
The comics market isn’t large right now, but it’s big enough to sustain itself and Marvel and DC continue to tower over their competition. Even after a pretty terrible year that has left anyone paying attention questioning how Dan Didio is still co-publisher, DC Comics still pulls in more than twice the revenue and moves more than twice the units of its closest competitor. It’s good to be the king and neither of these groups appear ready to risk that status. They know what their sure thing is and they’re going to bet on it.
Unfortunately, that sure thing is anathema to growing an audience of kids. All of the shit that keeps an aging audience of superhero readers and occasional new recruits engaged with buying lots of their comics looks like, well, shit to someone who doesn’t even have a high school diploma. Crossovers and continuity may have attracted some readers in the past, but look how many people actually read these comics. For many, it’s just a lot of crap that’s not worth digging into Wikipedia for when so many other forms of storytelling are vastly more accessible.
Then consider how events, reboots, and crossovers look from the outside. Just as you’re getting really into characters and subplots a secret convergence of infinite wars comes along to tell you a different story altogether, temporarily end the series, or force you to buy things you didn’t care about to understand what’s happening. This doesn’t even take into account the consistent changes in creative teams that can often turn great comics into an absolute slog overnight (*cough* Catwoman! *cough*). It’s hard to imagine wanting to try and follow this when you can call a duty or guitar hero and know exactly what level of quality you can consistently expect. What? I don’t actually play video games, sue me.
Anyway, you take all of these reasons for a young person to not want to dig into superhero comics and slap a $3.99 or $4.99 price point on about 20 minutes of reading (optimistically), and you’ve got a pretty damn good set of reasons to not give a damn. Those prices make perfect sense for grown ass men who will buy Batman or Amazing Spider-Man even if they hate what’s happening. It’s a guaranteed sale even when the price of these books outpace inflation or start to double ship.
You can’t blame the folks in charge of these publishers for not taking risks on lowering the price or pursuing customers with a lot less cash to spend when they can rely on income from the same set of adults who want a very specific scratch itched.
Of course there are exceptions to this, but it’s a broad question looking for a broad answer. Comic series like Ms. Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Batgirl are clearly made to appeal to an audience of all ages. They’re pretty successful too; all three of those examples are well made and entertaining without excluding any potential readers based purely on age or life experience.
But what portion of their readers do you actually imagine are kids? You can certainly recommend them to kids. I know I have. Some kids are certainly reading them. I’ve seen little ones flock to their creators tables at cons. Yet how many kids are discovering these comics without a parent or mentor who’s already a comics fan? How many of them are willing to spend their allowance on these books instead of video games, toys, candy, or whatever it is that kids like today?
My suspicion is that the comics being published by Marvel and DC that are suitable for kids are reaching their intended audience, but in much smaller numbers than we might like to believe. I’m inclined to say that they have a very vocal fanbase, but the vast majority of their readership still lies amongst adults. Hell, even comics likeUnbeatable Squirrel Girl contain a LOT of humor and references that are going to fly well above the heads of a 10 or 12 year old.
When you look at the few series that are targeted specifically at a younger demographic, like Art Baltazar and Franco’s delightful Itty Bitty Hellboy and Tiny Titans, they don’t sell in impressive numbers. It’s not that there isn’t a market for superhero books or comics in children either. Look at how a comic like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile or some of the illustrated DC books do at book fairs. They’re impressive sellers, but floppies don’t come close to those numbers at the comic shop or on digital platforms no matter their content.
The reason we don’t see more kids reading superhero comics has nothing to do with kids themselves. Having taught comics to different levels of public education for a few years, I’ve never seen anything to convince me that kids don’t like comics or superheroes. To the contrary, I’ve primarily witnessed a lot of love for both the medium and the genre.
Yet superhero comics are not being marketed to kids nor are they easily accessible or affordable. The business model that Marvel and DC Comics have created doesn’t target children on any significant level. It’s based on milking as much money from a proven audience as possible. They focus on proven quantities, craft schedules based on their most profitable customers (e.g. collectors and obsessive fans), and keep raising the price on a good that seems to be price inelastic for some. Some (read: Marvel) are doing it better than others (read: DC) right now, but their strategies aren’t dissimilar.
It’s possible that one day we’ll see an American comics market where kids scoop the things off of a newsstand (or its digital equivalent) again. Japan maintains a massive readership of its various manga magazines amongst children, and the things can be found at pretty much any major train station in addition to specialty shops and apps. I don’t know what it would take to make that happen though. It’s not simply a matter of marketing, price point, or accessibility; it’s a combination of all those factors and more. I’m sure we’d all love to see more kids scooping up capes books, whether they resemble the American Ms. Marvel or Japanese One-Punch Man, but it’s not likely to happen as long as publishers continue down their current path.