I am usually asked why I read comics by both my students, my faculty colleagues, and yes, even by family members who have known me all my life. Family I usually ignore because it will only lead to argument, faculty I usually avoid because, well, let’s be honest, they’re university faculty members, and my students….well, I have to talk with them, so there is really no way to avoid them except to lock myself in my office and turn off all the lights.
But seriously though, I read comics because they are so different. There is an undeserved, “deviant” quality to them as the bastard children of American Popular Culture, and for most of my academic colleagues who professes an interest in popular culture and yet whole heartedly disavow any respect let alone willingness to acknowledge comics’ place in American History, comic book studies and scholarship becomes something I can call my own. Plus, for a lot of my students who read Neil Gaiman or who adore Y: The Last Man, my usage of graphic novels in the classroom gives me coolness points.
But how then do new readers enter this world? Two thoughts, no rather images, immediately come to mind. The first is of the comic book guy character on the Simpsons. Sadly accurate in many ways, the Android’s Dungeon shop would be off-putting to the casual or even new consumer. My own family buy graphic novels or trades online rather than going into a comic book store, even the one where I have my own subscription and would receive a discount. This is probably the perception that most people have of the medium and if my experience in comic stores is any indication, then their perceptions are not too off base.
The second image is one from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. While most of the comic humor may not be understood or appreciated by audiences not familiar with the medium, the placement of comic collecting alongside Star Trek fandom, Lord of the Rings costuming, and other usually defined “geek” endeavors, while very humorous, perhaps unintentionally reinforces a lot of the negative stereotypes outsiders have of the comic medium itself. If the character of Penny is considered the only “normal” one on the show, then what do her experiences with the guys reveal about the outsider attempting entry into the comic universe?
How do we combat this? How do we generate new readers? Some would contend that films can push new readers into comics and that blockbuster comic films will encourage readers to seek out comics. Yet, I would argue that if somebody wanted to read X-Men based on the first or second film by simply walking into a shop, they would be overwhelmed by the slew of X-related titles that bare little to no resemblance to the films. If they are lucky, new readers may find a shop where the proprietor actually greets them and offers his assistance sans condescension. More so, if this person bypassed the comic shop and went instead to Barnes & Noble or Borders, the selection of graphic novels might also serve contrary as many newbies would not be attuned to the convoluted, forty-plus year old mythology that shapes the current X-series.
DC had such an opportunity within the past two years to tap into what could possibly be one of the biggest markets for new comic readers ever–Oprah’s Bookclub. When Jodi Piccoult signed on to pen Wonder Woman, DC missed the boat entirely by cross-marketing the collected versions of her arcs alongside her novels in bookstores across the country. Piccoult’s comic stories could serve as a welcome introduction for younger female and male readers who may be too young to experience some of her more mature novels; however, the bond that it would establish between generations, parents and children who read both, would be a significant one indeed. A new audience at the ready, already aware of the author’s strengths and popularity, and anxiously awaiting the next Piccoult publication was overlooked by the current marketing strategies of DC Comics. A similar strategy could easily be employed for Brad Meltzer or Greg Rucka’s fiction.
The same could be said for comic book movies. I am always shocked as to why the new release comic book films or animated adventures are not displayed alongside a selection of related graphic novels in major bookstores. Or, why if a younger audience enjoys Superman Returns or Spider-Man, bookstores are not encouraged by DC or Marvel to cross-promote their child-friendly line of comics and collected trades along with the films. Because the direct market is unable to cross that line and most new readers are similarly unwilling to venture into such establishments. Perhaps the corporate restructuring of DC under DC Entertainment and Marvel under Disney will yield such change because if any company understands promotion and broad advertising, it is the House of Mouse.