Superman Can’t Save Comics

Among the many debates going on in the comics world, most of which I don’t know a lot about because I only read a handful of comics blogs and ignore a lot of the “controversies”, is the Superhero Problem.

As even people who aren’t comics fans are aware, the comic books are home to a few superheroes. Well, more than a few. A lot. Okay, an assload.

The problem is, according to the argument, that many people feel comics are only about superheroes. And, a related problem is that there are some comics readers who only read superhero books. These connected events have led to The Awful State of Comics As We Know It.

Over on Grotesque Anatomy, John Jakala asked, “Why NOT just superheroes?” That is, what’s the problem with people who mostly read superheroes? Here’s what I had to say:

Here’s the thing, and I hardly read any superhero comics these days. If you like horror, mystery, espionage, science-fiction, romance, humor, or any other non-superhero genre, you have a wealth of mediums (yes I know the plural is media) from which to choose. You can read a book, watch a movie, watch a TV show, play a game, listen to a radio drama…or read a comic book.

If you like superheroes, however, you’re up a creek. Sure, there are some superhero movies you can watch, if you hate your eyes, and a couple of novels, but let’s admit it — comic books do superheroes better than anything else does. They’ve been doing them longer and they do them better. So if you want a dose of superheroes, you’re gonna go to comics first and foremost.

It doesn’t take a sophisticated knowledge of logic to then incorrectly reason that, since comics are the best choice for superheroes, superheroes are then the best choice for comics. And since most people don’t have a sophisticated knowledge of logic, they naturally make that conclusion.

I have friends who read primarily superhero comics. They love the characters, the mythology, the cliches, the formulas. They love the genre. There are romance readers who read only Harlequin romances, and those are far more formulaic than comics. There are music lovers who won’t listen to anything released after 1969. Opera fans who only dig on German opera. I like computer games, but pretty much only RPGs. I’m amazed at role-playing gamers who never play anything other than D&D or high fantasy.

Every interest has people who only sit on one corner of it. If they’re happy there, why worry about it?

I was then told this:

Because it’s one almighty feedback loop. The “fans,” retailers, publishers and distributor reinforce the idea only SH books sell because that’s all they support.
“Everyone’s” happy in their little corner explaining why comics are in the state they’re in.
Meanwhile in the bookstores…

To which I replied:

I’m still not sure what the problem is. People only buying superheroes hasn’t affected the range of comics available, even in (and especially in) bookstores. The popularity of Batman and Superman hasn’t prevented DC from doing Y: The Last Man, Fables, or Human Target. Queen and Country does well (as well as a number of other crime/spy comics.) Manga is seldom about superheroes (in the usual sense). Say what you want about Crossgen, they had a comic about a Victorian detective. The comic book industry is in the situation it’s in for a number of reasons, but I don’t think one of the major ones is that there are people who only read superhero comics.

The same person who replied before answered this with “No, totally unconnected,” which, from his previous reply, I assume was sarcasm.

But seriously, what IS the problem? Others in the discussion compared superhero readers to classic rock fans — again, people who happily sit in a genre corner because that’s what they like, are familiar with, grew up with, or whatever.

I find it hard to believe that declining comics sales and the seeming inability to hook new young readers on comics is due to the fact that someone out there is only buying X-Men books. I can’t speak for Marvel, because I don’t pay much attention to them, but all the other major publishers are happily putting out non-superhero books that people seem to happily be buying. I buy a buttload of comics and very few of them feature superheroes. The problem doesn’t seem to be that some people read only superhero books, but that many people (non-readers) thinks comics are only superheroes. That’s a big difference. The variety is out there, but people aren’t aware of it. Do people really think it’s because this guy over here is only interested in the Flash?

In addition, it’s not like the superhero books are making mountains of money while the non-superhero ones flounder and die. None of them are making that much cash. That’s the problem.

There are probably many many ways to increase comics readership and awareness, but I’m not sure how bitching at certain people because they’re supposedly not buying and reading the right comics will help the situation. Will we really make the medium stronger by eating each other?

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