Monday, July 7, 2003

Looking To The Stars: More Reader Mail...

Another week has passed and I still didn’t get that marriage proposal. What I have gotten, however, is a few more letters regarding the columns of the past three weeks and a lot of questions and suggestions and universal praise.

Sadly, space limits the number of letters I can print here. Most of the letters did nothing more than complement me. I’ve left these out of this column since I imagine that much gushing praise, while doing wonders for my ego, would be a bit dry and dull for everyone else to read. Many of the letters raised the same questions repeatedly, so I was forced to pick between them and choose the ones who most clearly articulated or expanded on what I had written.

Our first letter comes from Mike Maillaro, who wrote me about both halves of MP on separate weeks

It’s funny, my girlfriend hated comics when we first started dating (7 and a half years ago). I worked at a comic shop, and she thought I was crazy when I would show her most of the stuff. Finally I found a comic that really appealed to her was Maxx. One of the main characters really reached out to her. In fact, I wrote her a little love note in the Maxx classified section which Sam Keith was nice enough to publish in issue 25.

She discovered superhero comics because of Alex Ross. She saw the cover for Kingdom Come and even though she knew nothing about these characters, she dived right in, and quickly became hooked. Slowly, she started getting interested in other series (especially Batman and Aquaman). Since Crossgen launched and she saw some strong realistic females, she has become a huge comic geek.

Mike’s letter was one of many I received from men about their girlfriends and from the girlfriends themselves, about how they didn’t like comics until they found a character they could connect to. This was one of the major points I made in the proposal; potential readers need to have characters they can relate to.

Our next letter is from Will Helm

The last column about how to bring women into comics was great. It’s funny, but I had to deal with a lot of it recently due to a question my girlfriend asked me. We were in a comic shop (I’m a bit of an X-freak) and she asked me what comics I thought she would like. Uh-oh. I had to do some research, knowing that she enjoyed ’50s noir stuff, I picked up an issue of the now-cancelled American Century for her. She loved it, but she also saw an ad for Fables in the issue. Now Fables is her favorite comic, closely followed by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (she’s already lambasting the movie!). What do these books have in common? Great writing.

Now she’s in the comic shop more often than I am, although she does have to deal with the oftimes-less-than-attractive clerks hitting on her. I made sure to warn her about that, though.
Oh, speaking of great writing, one genre that seems to have totally disappeared from the shelves that I think women would be attracted to (mainly since my gf also collects them) would be the old EC-style horror comics. What ever happened to comics like that?

Short answer; Dr. Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent happened and the old pulp horror/detective comics disappeared. But that is a whole other story best told by others. (I highly recommend Stan Lee’s first-hand account from his autobiography, Excelsior!)

I decided to share this letter since Will reinforces my point that you cannot stereotype what women will like. I got that point reaffirmed this weekend after a man came in with his ten-year-old daughter to find her some comics. She wasn’t interested in the Powerpuff Girls books that made up the near entirety of our young girl’s comics stash, but she was, for reasons defying all convention a big fan of Ghost Rider. Not something I’d want my kids reading at that age, but daddy looked over everything first and said he thought it was okay so who am I to judge.

And speaking of reaffirming stereotypes, this seems as good a time to slide into this letter from a woman known only as Val. (Hmm...Val Cooper, mayhaps?)

Being a girl as well as a comic book fan, I have read most of my experiences in comic book shops in your article. When I was trying to find a comic to start getting into I was constantly bombarded with the usual snotty remarks as how comics weren’t for me or I was steered, as you mentioned in your article, directly to cute-sy statues and Hello Kitty merchandise. I was actually asked once if I was lost because I walked into a comic book shop on my own!

The only thing that I do not agree with you on is that Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or any comic books with strong females as the main character, a little romance and a little humor should be a model for what girls want in comics. I don’t disagree that the majority of girls like romantic stories and are usually turned off my comics cause they’re seen as such a “man” thing but I also don’t necessarily agree that it is the only way to get more girls reading comics. But then again I may just be the odd-man out. I think promoting comics such as Buffy may get some new female readers into comic book shops but I think it would leave many others out. I don’t work in a comic book shop nor do I know many other comic book fans who are girls but I would think that this idea of promoting Buffy comics to girls may also backfire. I would not want any store to assume that just because I am a girl I automatically want a comic with a strong female lead, to me that is just as bad as being pointed over to the Hello Kitty things.

When I started looking for comics that I wanted to read I ended picking up Fables, Sandman, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and American Century. I didn’t pick them because I could relate to the female characters (since I am neither a fairy-tale character nor am I a vampire [although one could hope]). And American Century’s women are usually the problem and end up dying anyway. I picked them up because their stories interesting me and/or I loved the writers, not because they were geared towards women. In fact when I had first started looking for comics I wanted to find reprints of old EC comics and Tomb Of Dracula comics. Those were definitely not geared towards women and I had a hard time being taken seriously. But like I was saying it may just be me.

Judging from Will’s letter about his girlfriend, I think I can safely say its not just you who likes old horror comics or American Century and good writing, Val.

I wrote Val back and assured her that it was not my intent to suggest Buffy was the be all/end all way to get women interested in comics. She is right and such a thing would be just as bad as pushing women towards the fairy statues or stuffed dolls. But that was not my intent.

My intent was to counteract the general consensus by society at large that fantasy/sci-fi IS a men’s only fiend by presenting an example of a multiple-media science-fiction series that had a larger than usual female audience. That’s it. Val responded thus some days later thanking me for the clarification.

Finally, a letter from Brad Muller, who wins the special Starman No-Prize for Most Output In A Single Letter.

I think the “Children” issue is easier to deal with than that of Women. You mentioned Harry Potter as a mold for creators to follow, and I agree. But another model for you would be Pixar and even Disney in general. Somehow, they manage to put out movies that, while meant for kids, adults can equally enjoy.

The question is marketability. If we want new readers, we need to advertise. Marvel should have it arranged that they get an advertisement for them and the for the Comicbook shop locator service before every one of their movies, and during any TV shows they have. The same goes for DC and every other comic company for that matter.

Brad makes an interesting point; Marvel has done little to promote their comics by themselves this last year, aside from the 25 cent special issues timed to come out close to the movie releases. And nobody advertises comics or comic book stores outside of other comic books. Why not stick an ad for the newest issue of the Hulk in People Magazine or some such?

Something else that needs to be looked at is how the current readership got reading in the first place. This issue is too spread out for me to answer with one sentence, but I have to think that in part, comic readers got other people to read comics. Specifically, for the new generation, I’m looking at parents. If it wasn’t for my dad introducing me to his older issues of X-Men (Some from the Claremont/Byrne era, some after), Avengers (Some w/ old Perez art), and Fantastic 4, I wouldn’t be reading comics today. Granted, he let me read these because I showed interest, but I don’t know how many comic readers would let their kids read their books for fear of them messing them up.

Comic readers with kids should try to influence their kids to read, or at least not shun them if they show interest. Kids want attention from their parents and often want to be like them, do what they do. And if that means sharing your comics with them, do so if you don’t think the books are too mature for them. Or go one step further, and try to find comics you think are suitable for them.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this never occurred to me, though I see it happen every weekend. Dad comes into the store to look at everything and tells his kids not to touch anything or to wander around looking. He gets a few books, a few bags and boards to protect them and then likely sticks them in a box that is off limits to his children in order to protect his investment. I wonder how many of those kids are attracted to the books and then become resentful of something they can’t have?

Another problem for kids, and I’m not sure whether you mentioned this or not, is the price. Comics aren’t that cheap for what they are. You’re talking $2.25 at the least for something that a kid might just read and throw away. I’m sure parents would be a bit discouraged from spending that amount of money on a comic, and we all know that usually with the purchase of one comes several. And then, you have to come back each month for new issues if the kids still want the comics. Thus, you’re always spending. Parents might just decide to get their kids a movie or video game, thinking the price isn’t that bad in the end.

So for that end, I’d love to see comics cheaper. Thing is, with the quality they are now, I don’t know if they can be made cheaper. Still, the price is a problem. I think the idea of coming back for the next issue might be a problem for kids. Trades are nice, but even more expensive. Especially when you think that with trades, there are multiple volumes. Still gonna have to get the next trade. I have no clue on what to do about this. Maybe more self-contained issues and limited series? I don’t think that would hurt.

Sadly, dropping the price without dropping the quality is a tricky balancing act. I’ve had customers complain about the $3.00 price of a comic, comparing it to the 25 cent comics of their youth without realizing how that price compares when adjusted for inflation. Yes, comics are more expensive but so are cars, housing, candy and pretty much everything else in the world.

Trades can help the problem somewhat, as they are more durable than single books and often times cheaper than the single issues bought one at a time. Still, the 'this is too expensive' demon rears its' head here again. I recently had a mother screaming bloody murder about a $9.99 manga collection, never mind that it did collect several parts of one story! And speaking of Manga...

Something else though, would be more non-superhero stuff. Manga has been very popular for kids, as well. Not just women. Look at DBZ to see what I’m talking about. We do need to have some things meant more for kids, but not dumb downed to the extent that adults won’t read it.

I thought of this when writing part one, but couldn’t really think of any specific manga’s outside of DBZ, Dragonball and Yugi-Oh that I had seen younger kids reading. Still, Brad does have a point, though I personally have seen a greater connection between women and Manga than children and Manga.

I can name the following women in comics that aren’t either successors or sidekicks: Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, Harley Quinn, Black Canary, Huntress, Saturn Girl, Triad, Spark, Sensor, Apparition, Shikkarri (Yeah, Legion has a ton of women), Storm, Jubille, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Rouge (Probably more X-Women I’m forgetting), Invisible Woman, Scarlet WItch, Black Widow, Elektra. I think that covers it.

Actually, Harley Quinn did start out as a Joker sidekick. And most of the women mentioned are members of a team; not a solo hero who works on their own most of the time. Still, I did forget to add in that quantifier when I wrote the original column and make the point that there are few female characters with a solo title. Of course as Brad pointed out I missed a few people myself.

Also, you forgot some books with both Marvel and DC featuring Women. Elektra, for example. I haven’t read it, so it might not be something women want to read, but nevertheless, it features a woman. Also, I think you forgot both Harley Quinn and Birds of Prey at DC. Again, read neither, and for all I know, Harley Quinn might not even be around anymore. But I think it is. Birds of Prey is even a female TEAM book for the most part. I know we get to see the entire Bat-supporting characters, but was led to believe that Black Canary, Oracle, and Huntress were the main focus of the book. And Legion has a large female cast. So books with women are out there, but I realize that more are needed.

I did forget Elektra and I too thought Harley Quinn had been canceled recently. But I purposely didn’t mention Birds of Prey since it is a team book for the most part, despite a heavy focus on Black Canary.

You gave ways to change the comic shop to be more welcoming to women, and while they’re admirable, I don’t know if they’d work. Furthermore, I think there’s a better way around this, and it’s something I don’t like admitting, and you as a comic shop employee probably don’t like to hear either.

And that is comic companies need to star selling their SINGLE issues in book stores. And I’m not talking about newsstand additions on spinner-racks that we see at some bookstores either. I’m talking about selling comics exactly like a comic shop would. You’d have problems with back-issues, but I don’t find it necessary for bookstores to carry back issues, but just keep on the shelves what comics haven’t sold, regardless of the age (Though after a number of months, you’d probably want to pitch them.)

While I love the environments of comic shops, one of the big reasons for success of comics in book stores is the amount of them compared to the amount of comic shops, not to mention the visibility of them. Every mall usually has either a B Dalton of Waldenbooks shop, and Barnes and Noble have begun running rampant across the country. These shops have a visibility that comic shops don’t have, so it’s a lot more likely for someone to wander into one of those and drift over to the comic section than wander into a comic shop. We already know trades do fairly well at book stores, I think everyone would be surprised at how well single issues would sell at bookstores. All book stores would have to do is make a conscious effort to carry both trades, in a large number, and single issues. I really do think this would help the comic industry get more readers, not just women and children.

I have to agree with Brad here. One of the biggest things that killed the industry was when the specialty shops started carrying titles that the bigger bookstores couldn’t get. After that, the bookstores had little reason to carry comics anymore and even the ones that still do, like Waldenbooks, don’t carry the wide variety of available titles. You can’t even get the entire printed mass of everything by DC or Marvel there!

My thanks to all of you out there who wrote in to contribute, with an extra special Thank You Very Much to all those of you who didn’t get to see your name here in print. Know that it is because my appreciation for your help is limitless, but the space on the web page isn’t.

Tune in next week. Same Matt Time. Same Matt Website.

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