Friday, April 02, 2004


As threatened two days ago, I'm going to try to defend my assertion that what those who buy superhero comics in the direct sales market are really looking for is "elaborate multi-hero universes, endless soap-operatic plots, and continuity stretching back decades," rather than simply superheroes per se. To do so, though, I'll have to step back a bit and ask why it is that superheroes dominate the direct sales market.

It's certainly not because "superheroes are what comics do best," as some people claim: this fails to explain why comics are much more popular in Europe and Japan, where superheroes are rare, than in the U.S. Nor is it that only superheroes are capable of inspiring in their fans the level of devotion which impels them to hunt for their favored comics in specialty stores: there are many examples of other types of popular culture inspiring equal or greater devotion, such as Star Trek. Rather, I believe that the answer lies in the history of the direct sales market. (Disclaimer: I haven't done any research on any of this. Nor was I present in the early days of the direct sales market: I was alive, but I wasn't interested in comics then. What follows is based upon what I've picked up from reading The Comics Journal and other fan publications, and should be taken just as a hypothesis.)

The direct sales market did not spring up from nowhere, but grew out of a pre-existing network of shops that sold back issues of comics. At this time, comics were primarily sold on newsstands; but the system of newsstand distribution had become so erratic that you couldn't count on finding the latest issue of your favorite comic on a newsstand anywhere in your area. So as a service to their customers, back-issue dealers arranged with publishers to offer current comics as well as back issues. Initially, therefore, the comics that did the best in the fledgling direct sales market would not necessarily be the ones most popular with the general public, but the ones most popular among the back-issue dealers' existing customers.

Who were these customers? While I don't have any direct evidence, it seems to me that there are good reasons to think that these customers would have been disproportionately superhero fans. First of all, superhero fans--or rather, fans of some superhero comics--needed back issue stores, in ways that fans of other comics didn't. If you were an Archie fan, and you hadn't been able to get hold of ARCHIE #174 (I just pulled that number out of a hat, so don't write me to complain that it actually came out in 1956, or something), you'd feel sorry, but it wouldn't affect your enjoyment of #s 173 or 175. This was true of nearly all non-superhero comics, and at one point had been true of superhero comics as well. But by the time the direct sales market arose, some superhero comics had begun to feature plot lines that carried over from issue to issue. If you were a fan of one of these comics, and you were missing some issues, you'd be missing part of the story even for the issues you did own. So fans of these comics had an incentive to complete their runs which non-superhero fans didn't have. Of course, this also gave fans of these comics an incentive to buy their new issues in the direct sales market, which could guarantee a reliable supply.

But in addition to this "negative" incentive for superhero fans to buy back issues, there was a positive incentive as well, which also didn't apply to non-superhero comics. In nearly all non-superhero comics, the characters basically had no histories. They never referred to events that had happened in past issues, let alone changed as a result of their experiences. Reading back issues, therefore, wouldn't add any more "depth" to the characters or the stories; it would just give you more of the same thing you were getting in current issues. But thanks to Stan Lee, characters in some superhero comics did change and grow, or at least gave the illusion of doing so. They had histories which helped explain what they were today. These histories were alluded to in current issues, and could be read by buying back issues. Moreover, the histories of different heroes in different comics intersected with each other to form an overall "universe" which readers could imagine as a single, complex, coherent construct. Again, they could "deepen" their knowledge of this universe by buying back issues.

Note that none of these features were intrinsic to superheroes per se. As manga shows, there's no reason why non-superhero stories can't have continuing plot lines and characters who have histories and who change. It just was the case that, at the time the direct market took shape, American non-superhero comics by and large didn't. (Had the romance comics of those days been lengthy, soap-operatic melodramas like the manga Peach Girl, rather than reprints of eight-page stories, the history of U.S. comics over the past three decades would be considerably different.) Conversely, it could have been the case that all superhero comics were like Weisinger-era Superman, with static characters in self-contained stories reshuffling the same situations over and over. In which case, I suspect, there would be no direct market today, or a very tiny one, and the biggest--perhaps only--comics publisher today would be Archie.

Thus the initial customers of the direct sales market were primed to prefer, not just superhero comics, but superhero comics with a set of very distinctive features. And as the newsstand distribution system collapsed further while the direct market expanded, Marvel and DC naturally focused their energies on putting out comics the direct market would buy. Gradually, titles that lacked these features, whether superhero or not, were discontinued or remolded to satisfy the direct market's demands. This drove away readers who weren't attracted by these features, which included most casual readers, leading to a vicious cycle: the greater the percentage of comics' total readership that consisted of the direct market's hardcore fans, the more that comics were designed to appeal only to these hardcore fans, and vice versa. The end result is the current "mainstream" comics scene, in which virtually all titles have the characteristics I've described in exaggerated form. Whereas at one time a story extending over two or three issues was a special event , now six- to twelve-issue stories are the norm; whereas originally references to "continuity" had been a bonus for knowledgeable fans, today's superhero comics make no sense without a detailed knowledge of continuity.

It's easy, in hindsight, to say that Marvel and DC were rushing up a blind alley. But there were a couple of factors which obscured this at the time. For one thing, the newsstand distribution system was collapsing even faster than the Marvel and DC were alienating their casual readers. So while Marvel and DC saw their readerships shrink, all other comic publishers simply disappeared (except Archie, whose "ownership" of slots on the racks of publications in front of supermarket cash registers enabled it to ride out the storm, or so I gather). For another thing, the remaining fans were fewer in number, but they were dedicated, and willing to buy a lot more comics per month than publishers had been putting out; so by doubling or tripling their output, Marvel and DC were able to cushion the impact of their declining customer base. And the various speculator booms, which encouraged people to buy dozens of copies they would never read as "investments," further muddied the waters.

But with the collapse of the most recent speculator boom, the chickens came home to roost. The direct market is no longer growing; rather, it's shrinking as its readers age and aren't replaced with new ones. The remaining customers are already buying as many comics per month as they're willing or able to, so that line of expansion is out. The characteristics that the direct market demands of its comics are precisely those calculated to repel new readers. And when Marvel or DC do try to produce superhero comics for the "general reader," they are rejected by the direct market and ignored by the general reader, who no longer reads comic books except as an occasional novelty, and never sets foot in a comics shop -- or, if (s)he does wander into one, has little chance of finding those few titles meant to appeal to him/her among the mass of titles aimed at hardcore fans.

However, the spectacular rise of manga in the past two years has shown that the declining direct market isn't the only game in town. Apparently it is possible to get the general reader--even of the female gender--to buy comics. So far, nobody knows how to duplicate manga's success with locally-produced material, but several publishers have been experimenting, including DC (with its Death: The High Cost of Living and Elfquest GNs in "manga" format). Will anyone succeed? And if so, will superhero comics have a place in the new order of things? If I knew things like that, I'd be rich. And if anyone else in comics new things like that, the industry wouldn't be in the predicament it's in now. (I was planning to write a ringing conclusion here, but all my attempts came out too strident. And it's late, I'm tired, and I want to get this out tonight. Maybe I'll think of something tomorrow.)

Well, there it is. Naturally, I'd love to hear what people think.

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