by KC Carlson
Previously on KC Column: Comic books used to sell millions of copies (on a good day — usually it was just hundreds of thousands). Now they don’t. Where did all those people go?
Or to put it in even blunter terms: Why don’t people buy comic books any more?
But first, a little side-trip into some role-playing…
Imagine, if you will, that you’re wearing a cape. And skin-tight clothing in colors that cause your eyes to vibrate. Then… wait a minute! Not that kind of role-playing!!
Okay, pretend for a moment that you know nothing about comic books. You don’t even know they exist, because you’ve never seen one. But one day, you see a Batman or an X-Men movie. And you think it’s really cool. But you might not know they were based on comic books. You might think Batman was based on that old TV show. (And wonder how the heck they got the movie concepts from that!) Most likely, you saw one of the many Batman cartoons on TV — same with the X-Men. There’s nothing to connect those movies to comic books except that “Based on concepts from the… comic books… published by… “ And who’s gonna remember that after two hours of big-screen excitement?
There’s not any real evidence from the movies that Marvel and DC actually make comic books. Their movie logos subtly imply that. But if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you don’t know that those are comic book images being flipped at high speed. You don’t see what a comic book is. I actually know people who think “Marvel” is just a company that makes movies about superheroes.
Remember, in real-world terms, there haven’t been that many real-life things happening to remind non-comic-book people that comic books still exist. They haven’t often been seen in common places since the 1980s. Many people only remember them from when they were kids. When Superman “died” and it was a big media to-do (mostly because of a slow news day), the #1 thing heard that day was “They still make them things?” (Comic store owners and workers also know it’s the #1 thing heard when somebody accidentally stumbles into the comic store after shopping at the pet store next door for chew toys.)
If you don’t know that comic books exist, why would you even think there would be comic book stores? How could you make that leap of logic?
But let’s also suppose that you (still not knowing anything about comic books) accidentally stumbled into one. Thinking back to your positive movie experience, you notice that there are Batman and X-Men comic books there. Suddenly, you’re in heaven.
But then you look further. You begin to realize that there are a lot of Batman comic books. And a lot of X-Men comic books — and a lot of them featuring characters that you don’t recognize from the movies. Luckily, you’re in a comics store where the clerk actually comes up to help you (rarer than you might think) and the following conversation takes place:
Clerk: May I help you with something?
You: Oh, I’m curious about the X-Men comics. I really liked the movie. But there seems to be a lot of characters that I don’t know.
Clerk: Yes, there are a lot of X-Men. About 200 of them.
You (astonished): 200?!?
Clerk: There used to be a lot more! But Marvel killed off a lot of them a while ago! There used to be too many of them!
You: 200 is a lot! Say, I see Cyclops on a lot of these covers… Isn’t he dead?
Clerk: Not in the comics.
You: But in the movie…
Clerk. Oh, yeah. He did die in the movie.
Clerk: The movies don’t really have anything to do with the comic books.
“Okay,” you think. “This is pretty confusing. Maybe I should try Batman.” You pick up the current issue of Batman.
You: Is it okay if I look inside this?
Clerk: Okay, but no reading!
Clerk: Nah, it’s okay. It’s slow today…
So you flip open the book and start reading. Soon you realize that you are reading about Dick Grayson — not Bruce Wayne.
You: Excuse me. I’m confused… Batman is Dick Grayson?
Clerk: Oh yeah, Bruce died.
You (unbelieving): What? When did that happen?
Clerk: Oh, he’s not really dead. Darkseid blasted him, and he was trapped in the prehistoric past for awhile. So Dick became Batman because he thought Bruce was dead. But now Batman’s back.
You: So Dick isn’t Batman anymore?
Clerk: Oh no, he’s still Batman. And Bruce is still Batman. But not all the time. He’s now training people around the world to be Batman. Here — it’s all in here.
He hands you a copy of Batman Incorporated. You flip though it. You don’t understand any of it.
Clerk: It’s great, isn’t it? Morrison’s a genius. But I actually like his earlier Batman stuff where he incorporates a lot of concepts from the 1950s Batman comics. There’s some of that in here, too. Amazing stuff!
You: There’s 60 years of Batman comic books?! (Remember, you don’t know this!)
Clerk: Actually, there’s over 70 years of Batman comics. He first appeared in 1939!
You sadly look at both the comic books in your hands. And put them back on the racks. You look at the rest of the huge wall of comic books, but it’s all a four-color blur to you. Everything seems overwhelming.
You: Thank you very much for your time. You’ve been very helpful!
And then you walk out of the store.
Okay, maybe a little bit far-fetched (and maybe a bit manipulative).
But it also points out an age-old conundrum for comics retailers. Just what do you hand a newbie reader who only knows comics from the movies?
Remember, you don’t want to give them something steeped in years-old continuity. Or something that’s no longer in line with the current version of the characters (or you’ll have lots more ‘splaining to do later).
What would you give an imaginary “You”?
STRUGGLING TO GET IN
There have been a number of entry-level comics projects done over the years. For example, Marvel’s currently doing their “Point One” series of comics, which has been somewhat helpful, but confusingly numbered and titled and seemingly randomly scheduled. (And often concentrating more on setting up the next storyline than encapsulating the past history.) However, several, so far, have been excellent stand-alone tales. (Although they don’t always provide a place to go next, especially when the Point One is by a different creative team than that on the regular series.)
If I was the comic store clerk in the situation above, right now, here’s what I’d give You. First, I’d start with collections. They’re better value for the money, and a longer read is a better starting point when you’re beginning from next to zero. Batman: Year One is always a good choice, or the Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told anthology volume might help narrow down WHICH Batman the reader prefers. After that, there are literally hundreds of Batman books, and my well-stocked store has lots of them to flip through, to see which artists or concepts intrigue You.
To expand into the greater DCU — because, as a good comic store clerk, I want You to find more to buy and enjoy — there’s All-Star Superman (potentially a good lead-in to Morrison’s upcoming run on the character) or Birds of Prey or a Justice League collection featuring Batman. I won’t give You Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns until You are more comfortable with the superhero genre and expressing interest in something more. (They both read much better if you already know about the everyday conventions of superhero comics, anyway. They’re excellent for readers who’ve read a bit of the basics first.)
If You’re an older reader who seems interested in more than just superheroes, that’s a whole ‘nother wide world, so I’ll also point you at the Vertigo web page with free #1 issues to read, because you might enjoy a focused series like Sandman or Preacher or DMZ or Transmetropolitan. I’ll make sure, though, to point out a limited number of good choices, because any recommendation page quickly gets out of date from the time it was made, as this one has. Depending on the series, I’d also warn You about it having more mature content (as one should never assume that a first-timer is ready for material at that level of intensity). But You might appreciate finding some free comics to read, and You’ll think well of a store that is so helpful.
With the X-Men, it’s slightly more complicated, because that’s been a much more sprawling, soap-operaish series — encompassing dozens of titles and hundreds of characters over the decades — and Marvel doesn’t always keep its collections in print. I’d start You with an X-Men: First Class trade paperback, although I’d be sure to explain that it’s not set in the same time period as the recent film, and it has different characters and conflicts. The trade-off is that the X-Men: First Class stories are breezy and fun and feature lots of guest-stars, which will also subtly introduce You to the wider world of the Marvel Universe. If You are ok with black and white, there are the Essential collections of the Chris Claremont Uncanny X-Men run — a classic series from the era when reading the mutant world was much simpler.
The most important thing, as a skilled clerk working with You, is that I pay attention to what You tell me. I should talk, conversationally, with You about what You responded to in the movies, so I can better find something You would like to read. There is no magic, “one size fits all” reading recommendation. Instead, I should find out what other books, movies, and TV shows You enjoy so I can better craft a suggestion of comic reading. Yes, that takes work and time and knowledge on my part. But that’ll ideally give You a great customer experience and help You feel comfortable returning.
Since Westfield is a mail-order comic service, we unfortunately can’t offer browsing and face-to-face discussions (unless you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, and come to our brick-and-mortar stores — we’d be happy to see you!). And that’s why we’ve been running this Westfield Blog — to share our experiences reading (and sometime working in) comics. It may not always seem like it, but we all love comics — most of us have been reading and collecting for decades — and a couple of us are even still active comic book professionals! That’s why we love to give tips (and warnings) about new projects, talk about history and current comic trends, and generally just gab about whatever pops into our heads at any given moment (although, maybe that’s just me!). While we don’t have any established method for asking questions about comics (yet!), we always welcome them. For now, feel free to use the comments box below. We love comics, and we know a lot of stuff!
And that’s one to grow on!
Next time: How distribution (availability), price (value for money), and content affect your comic book reading experience — and may help explain where a bunch of those former readers went.
KC CARLSON thought that it was very cool that there was an ad in the credits of the Green Lantern film telling movie fans that they could get more adventures of Green Lantern in comics and collections at their local comic shop. Unfortunately, it was at the very end of the movie (after the credits). I was the only person in the theater to see the ad. Everybody else already left. Ads only work when people can actually see them. (Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing wrong with the movie…)
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.