Words of Questionable Wisdom: 5 Points To Keeping Young Readers Around
By Paul Sebert
Another free Comic Day has come to pass, along with reports from stores filled with smiling children and to be quite honest it still boggles my mind that not only are there people out there who believe that kids don’t like comics any more. True our beloved medium has to compete with cartoons on TV 24 hours a day, trading cards, and video games. Yes it’s true the books aimed at younger readers sell poorly in the direct market. The fact is children still love super heroes, they love colorful art, and they love action.
So why do books like “Teen Titans Go?” and “Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man” sell so poorly?
Part of this is the fault of us older comic fans. A lot of us are still trapped in the mindset that we somehow have to “validate” the genre, and that books written for younger audiences are inherently inferior to “mature” books. To make matters worse a large number of these fans have decided define “mature” as filled with lurid violence, swear words, and the occasional rape scene. To me a truly “mature” work is one that’s defined by careful thought and analysis into human nature. This is why I’d consider a work like “The Tarnished Angel” story from Astro City, or the “Echo Vision Quest” arc from Daredevil to be more mature than say “Supreme Power: Nighthawk” a book about people vomiting blood. While I there’s nothing in the Astro City or Daredevil arcs I mentioned that I’d have a problem with a 12-year-old seeing, they strike me as the kind of stories that it takes an adult level of understanding and patience to fully enjoy.
The other problem facing titles aimed at younger readers today is the manner in which they are marketed and distributed. While Marvel has done a slightly better job at introducing comics to new readers, both of the big two should think outside of the box and re-analyze how books for younger readers should be put on the market. Here’s 5 points publishers can keep in mind to attracting young readers.
Point 1: Consider the Price
Lets face it comics are expensive these days and $2.99 an issue is quite a bit for older readers to swallow, much less a youth. With raising paper costs comic fans are facing an increasing amount of advertisements and even product placement in comics which perhaps may only serve as a stopgap measure to prevent further price raises.
So what can be done? Sadly not that much, but considering how well manga printed on black & white newsprint sells perhaps it should be considered that not every title needs glossy paper or computer coloring.
Point 2: Availability Is All Important
Last year Marvel struck a deal with 7/11 stores while continuing to periodically distribute magazine sized collections at Target, while DC’s children’s books like “Cartoon Network Block Party” started showing up in unexpected places like Movie Gallery video stores.
What boggles my mind however is that the big two have seemingly overlooked what could be the most lucrative path of distribution: Supermarket and department store checkout lanes.
Impulse buys are big business as Archie Comics sells 800,000 titles a month and only 20-30% of those come from the direct market. Disney Adventures magazine which showcases a number of short comics aimed at readers aged 7-14 sells over a million copies a month and is now expanding into collecting their books into a series of digest-sized trades.
Point 3: It’s Time To Experiment With Format
We stand at a very odd crossroads at this time in the medium. The big two publishers are in the black, sales are up, however we’re witnessing an emergence of a market of readers that are forgoing traditional comic shops in favor of getting their comics fix through trade paperbacks and manga anthology magazines. While the industry needs to strive to continue increasing the sales of monthly titles, new outlets should be considered. With the success Marvel’s had in recent years with trades published in digest format, perhaps it’s time to try publishing original material in a digest sized magazine. One of the advantages of producing new material exclusively for this format, is that it would avoid some of awkward changes that occur to coloring and sometimes line work when the size is changed.
Point 4: Viva Variety
One of the nice things about the anthology format used by magazines such as Viz’s Shonen Jump is that it allows the publisher to introduce readers to something normally wouldn’t try, but might latch onto. A person who picks up an issue of Shonen Jump to read Yu-Gi-Oh and One Piece might not normally think to try something like Hikaru No Go, but could be pleasantly surprised. The past few years have proven it’s rather hard for new characters and concepts to break through to readers who seemingly prefer just to buy anything with an X or a Batman logo on it. Marvel tried an approach not-unlike DC’s old Showcase title in Amazing Fantasy introducing new characters in each story with mixed results. They’ve experimented in selling flip books which pair established hits like Amazing Spider-Man with less established ones like Runaways. While these flipbooks might sell well on newsstands and provide a good value for new readers, their appeal is limited by the fact that they only contain reprint material some of which has been long available in trade.
What I’d like to see is an American publisher try it’s hands at an anthology, possibly digest sized with original material. Marvel could package an original Ultimate Spider-Man story alongside one of Sean McKeever’s Mary Jane stories and a Power Pack story. DC could try packaging a new Superman story alongside something like Teen Titans Go!, and The Batman Strikes.
Point 5: Consider the Content
D.C. promotes its Teen Titans Go! book as a “The Comic That Acts Like A Cartoon” but the title actually reads as if it was created for an even younger crowd than the audience of the show it’s based on. While the Teen Titans cartoon builds entire seasons around a designated serious threat like Slade, or The Brotherhood of Evil, in the pages of Teen Titans Go we have yet to see a villain who can’t be defeated within the span of 24 pages. All stories are self contained and there are no real ongoing plots. While I do see the value of having short stories, Dan Slott and Ty Templeton’s run on Batman Adventures showed you could fit ongoing story elements into seemingly self-contained stories. While Teen Titans Go! has been amusing , it would benefit to explore some of the same themes as the cartoon it’s based on: first love, betrayal, and standing up against unstoppable odds.
Similarly Kurt Busiek’s “Untold Tales of Spider-Man” focused primarily on done-in-one stories while getting readers to come back month after month in anticipation for a brewing confrontation with the Green Goblin that wouldn’t be resolved until the book’s final issue. Marvel could use such an approach to draw a buzz to it’s Marvel Adventures title, which has improved greatly in quality since switching to original stories by Sean McKeever, and later Zeb Wells but could use something else to draw a buzz among fans besides being the “purist” Spider-Man book.
The are other measures that publishers can take to attract the interest of younger readers such as licensing popular animated properties, or further pushing public libraries to carry their titles. That said all ages books will only continue to exist within the medium if we let them. It’s ultimately up to we the fans to help ensure there are titles for new readers.