Monday, June 16, 2003

Looking To The Stars: A Modest Proposal, Part One

Much has been said and written about how the comics industry is in dire straits in terms of membership. Your average comic fan these days is a twenty/thirty-something male; a stark contrast to even twenty years ago when the peerage was under ten or in their teens. Clearly something got lost along the way.

Much has also been written about the hows and whys of how the majority of “kiddie books” are no longer fit for the kiddies. But we must ignore all the theories of video games/TV stealing the audience or how the Dark Age of the 80’s and 90’s made things too bloody and sexual for children. Setting the blame for the responsibility of what got us here is pointless. We’ve already hit the iceberg; it doesn’t matter who was steering the ship.

It does nothing to change the fact that the ship of our hobby is slowly sinking into oblivion. And unless we bring in some new blood, the comic book may go the way of the buggy whip, the washboard and the cup of coffee that costs less than three dollars.

What I have is a modest proposal, in two parts, of how we can bring more people into our hobby. Specifically, the two groups that it seems we are lacking the largest numbers of and are going to need in order to keep the hobby going: women and children.

And for those of you who are but a simple fan, keep reading. This is not just written for the writers, artists, publishers or those lucky few like myself who have found a job in a comic store. There is a lot that even you, the lone fan, can do to help save the comic industry.

1. What The Kids Want

Regardless of age, nobody wants to feel stupid or be talked down to. And yet, I have seen many situations where kids in a comic book store are spoken to like they are idiots. This is not much better than the other frequent thing I see happen to children; everyone ignores them and only the parents are talked to.

My first bit of advice is simple; treat the children like equals. When you’re talking to a fan or a customer with kids and they have children, don’t ask mom and dad what their son or daughter enjoys. Ask the young ones themselves.

Once you know a child and what interests them, you can help them to find a book that interests them. To give one example, lets say you have an eight-year-old boy who likes robots. Try showing them Sentinel or some of the older Transformers books. Don’t just point them to the spinner rack full of “safe” comics or your collection of Archie books.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Archie Comics. But as clean and wholesome as they are, not everyone finds them funny or likes the romantic drama… particular an eight-year-old boy who likes robots.

This leads to my second point: don’t treat the kids like they are passing along on an assembly line and give them all the same thing.

2. Working With the Parents

While it is important you treat the kids getting into comics as individuals worthy of the same respect as an adult, you should also make sure that parental control is maintained. Simply put, different parents are going to have different opinions on what is appropriate for their children and it is your responsibility to help them out.

Case in point: recently at work, a young man of 11 approached me about finding a particular Hulk comic. He said that he wasn’t sure of the issue, but he remembered Hulk threatening to kill Freddie Prinze Jr. and falling out of a plane. I realized that he was talking about The Ultimates, which is not the kind of thing I’d be comfortable with any son of mine reading. We found his father and I showed him the issue in question and asked if his son had been reading the book.

Thankfully he hadn’t; it turned out that they had just gotten Tom DeFalco’s book on The Hulk, and that the Ultimates version of the Hulk was discussed… or at least the part about Freddy Prinze Jr. and the plane was. He agreed with me that Ultimates was not something that he’d be comfortable with his son reading. He said the same about the current Avengers title, owing to some rather graphic artwork detailing the victims of a viral weapon attack. This lead to us discussing what comics he read as a kid and liked and my finding some things that he and his son could enjoy.

Later that same day, a group of kids about the same age came in and immediately began sorting through the old Fantastic Four and X-Men issues. They were a bit more mature, obviously intelligent and asked if I knew what John Byrne and Chris Claremont were doing now. I showed them (and the father they had in tow) Claremont’s current work on “X-Treme X-Men” and “Mekanix” and told them that Byrne and Claremont would soon be teaming up to work on JLA soon.

The lesson here is obvious. It is important for all of us to show the friendliness of comic books to children and their parents This is doubly important for those of us employed by the stores. We must create a safe environment and let parents feel that we are actively working to help them and their children to find quality reading material and not just trying to make a quick buck by selling them “the next big thing”.

3. Got To Keep Them Seperated?

I made mention earlier of the spinner rack full of “safe” comics. Many stores now have special areas set aside for children or a family area, with board games and action figures as well as the comics deemed appropriate for younger readers. While the idea behind such an area is noble, the execution does have some drawbacks.

For one thing, kids don’t like being corralled. Indeed, they like to roam around anyplace new and interesting. Try and steer them towards something and some of them will push the other way. Also, introducing anything as “kids stuff” is a virtual guarantee of their ignoring it. When I was a kid, I hated hearing anything I liked called “kid stuff” and I doubt things have changed that much.

I recommend what we do at my store; split the difference and have a rack full of kid friendly stuff close to the front but also put those same books on the main shelves. This way you have books at the front for the parents looking for something for they can get quickly and those who come in browsing for themselves with their kids. You can let the children roam around and feel like adults and still be able to control what they might get their hands on.

By that token, stores should probably avoid having a separate section for more “mature” titles as well. This is not to suggest that you should put the latest offerings from Avatar Press on the shelf next to Justice League Adventures, but there are alternatives. Higher shelves that the young ones can’t reach or “black bagging” mature titles are just two of the possible solutions to this problem. In any case, I personally advise against keeping comics separated into different store areas. Kids love to get into anything forbidden and they’ll try to sneak past the curtain to the back room just on the principal that adults always try to hide the “cool stuff”. And some parents may wonder about the suitability of the entire hobby if a large section is labeled “off-limits” to children.

4. Interesting Children in Comics

Of course all of this discussion of where to put the books is pointless if the children aren’t interested in reading the books to begin with. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to get kids interested. I’ve already talked about finding an interest and relating that to a specific book, but there are other methods as well.

The mass media is our friend and adaptations of comics into other media only helps to bring in more fans. I can’t tell you how many kids started reading Ultimate Spider-Man after the Spider-Man movie came out, but I can guarantee you that movies and cartoons don’t hurt. And in these days when Trade Paperback collections of the hottest selling books are so commonplace, it is much easier on the allowance of these new fans to get into a book.

And I am glad to note that many companies, publishers and writers are now making an effort to produce more books that are written towards a younger audience. It has been said before, but I think the best example of what we as writers should shoot for is Harry Potter, which has a huge following with adults despite being written on a younger reading level. Kids relate to Harry and his friends and wish that they could study magic instead of math while adults like Harry Potter because it is a good adventure story with a lot of funny moments. In fact, the first time I saw the Harry Potter movie in the theater, I saw more adults in an early morning showing than I did wide-eyed kids. (Incidentally, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix goes on sale this Saturday)

This is what many are shooting for. Rather than write bland or inoffensive stories like many of the Archie comics, they are making an effort to write stories that adults and children can both enjoy on an equal level. To give an example of some of what is coming for those of us who want to bring our own children or other kids into the hobby…

• After an absent of many years, Gladstone returns this month with a new series of Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics with more Disney-based titles due out by the end of the year.
• Peter David just started a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book based on the new cartoon series, while a “mature” title based on the original comics still continues to be published for the fans who disliked the “dumbing down” of the Turtles to create the original cartoon series.
• DC launched a new Batman title based on the animated series the week of Free Comic Book Day. They also publish Justice League Adventures and will no doubt have a title for the new Teen Titans series on Cartoon Network
• While I’ve praised it before, I must once again mention the wonderful Gus Beezer series by Gail Simone is a hilarious treat for kids of all ages.

In conclusion, there are four things we must do to bring children into our hobby. First, we must treat the kids as equals and not talk down to them or ignore them. We must find out what they want as individuals and not give them a standard cookie-cutter answer. We must find ways to let them feel like adults as we integrate them into the hobby while letting their parents control what they read. Finally, we must have a steady stream of books that they can read and enjoy.

Tune in next week, when we’ll take a look at that most rare and wonderful of creatures: the female comic reader. Same Matt time. Same Matt Website.

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