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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Is the store I work at doing something wrong? Because I keep hearing how the comics industry needs to attract new readers and that the key demographics in that regard are a) children, b) teen-agers, especially teen-age girls, and c) women. And, well, to be honest, I look around at the customers in the store and I see a lot of kids, teens and women. And again, maybe this is our fault. I mean, we've gone out of our way to make sure the store is clean, well-lit, organized, that there isn't any offensive music playing or tits and ass posters on the wall, that there is as wide as possible a selection of comics. You know, like a legitimate business instead of an insular club for the unwashed coteries of super-hero fans and spandex fetishists. Apparently we were one of the less than 10% of American comic book stores that even bothered to carry Crossgen books (Crossgen says their product was carried by something on the order of 285 stores. There are something like just over 3000 Diamond accounts. You do the math.), and one of the first things you see when you walk in is a big floor-to-ceiling bookcase of manga (which is apparently, to steal a phrase, like Kryptonite to super-hero fans), and odds are if you come into the store looking for a book by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, AIT/PlanetLar, Oni, Top Shelf, Alternative or Slave Labor we'll not only have heard of it, but have it in stock.
So, again, it must be us thats doing something wrong. Because I look at what Marvel, and to a lesser degree DC, are doing to attract "new readers" and I'm mostly left shaking my head at the near-mystical belief they seem to have that anyone would want these things, much less kids, teens and women. DC definatly has the edge here. Between Vertigo, Wildstorm, Humanoids, 2000AD, CMX and the regular old DCU it's hard to see how you can't find something published by DC that's to your taste. I sort of wish that Paradox was still around, as right now DC doesn't really have any self-conciously arty or intellectual books to compete with the indie/alt-comix crowd. What bugs me about DC right now is the kids line. It's trying too hard to play "catch up." All they've really got to offer is licensable properties. Which is fine, kids like stuff that's familiar to them. But, other publishers start putting their kids books into a smaller format, so DC does too. Other publishers do fumetti style storybooks, so DC does too.
But Marvel...Marvel freakin' kills me! They decide they want more mature, sophisticated readers...so they give us super-hero books with tits and cussing. But most importantly they're still super-hero books!!! Because, you know, the last thing you want to do is alienate your core audience, which has demonstrated over the years a willingness to buy your books, and here's the important bit, no matter what's in them or who's writing or drawing it! They're not called "Marvel Zombies" for nothing, you know. But those pesky kids, how will Marvel attract them. I think the logic went something like this: "Hey, kids like that Yahgiot crap right? What if we made a bunch of books that kind of looked like that. I bet kids would love those. Especially if we put them in books that are the exact size, shape and have suspiciously similar cover design aesthetics to a company that already publishes Yugahtot books!"
As I've said before, Marvel's logic seems to be, if it looks kind of like a manga title, it'll sell like a manga title. Because Marvel apparently thinks that people who buy manga are really, really stupid and aren't going to notice that this really badly drawn and insultingly written book has Spider-Man in it. Marvel doesn't seem to have noticed that all those manga titles that are kicking their ass in bookstore sales don't have super-heroes in them...
Or course, form does somewhat dictate sales in bookstores. I know at our store there's a lot of crossover between manga customers and Oni readers. Oni's little books are about the same size as a manga book, are priced competitively with manga books, and don't feature super-heroes. Similarly, if someone comes into the store asking for, say, a crime-drama, super-natural horror, or a romance, I'm just as capable of recomending something from one of the many fine manga houses as I am of pushing an Oni title. That's a crucial point that Marvel hasn't grasped yet. So, I'd guess that Dark Horse's plans to push Sin City in this format will pay off. The subject matter is close enough to what bookstore buyers are interested in.
So, purely as an intellectual exercise, I thought I'd share what actual customers are buying in our store.
Kids Sonic the Hedgehog: I know, it terrifies me that this book is still around too, but I'm also not eight years old, so what does Archie care if I like this book?
Simpsons and related titles: A lot of the kids buying these books have been around for less time than the show.
Spider-Man and related titles: I'm not sure how much of this was spurred by the Spider-Man movies, but a good deal of it must be independant of them. Especially considering that two of the most popular characters amongst the hordes of the under-12s who regularly ransack our Spider-Man back issues are Ben Reilly and Carnage. (Odd, then, that this new Carnage storyline in Ultimate Spider-Man isn't selling better for us...oh, wait, that's right, the median age of our Ultimate Spidey buyers is 30...)
Also, whatever character happens to have a movie out right now. Which was why it was really frustrating as a retailer to not be able to sell, say Hulk and Daredevil when those movies hit. Hulk was flat-out inappropriate for anyone not in their teens, at least, and DD was so badly drawn and slowly paced that kids didn't care once they saw the comic. We had to show kids and parents pre-Quesada era back-issues on both those titles to sell any. Likewise, tons of kids came in asking for Hellboy when that movie was out. And right now I'm getting a lot of requests for Catwoman. Swamp Thing is asked for periodically as well, which is how I know when one of the movies has been played on cable.
I also get a lot of requests for Aliens, Predator (and more than usual right now), Jason/Friday the 13th and other horror titles based on R rated movies. Which tells me that parents aren't supervising their children as much as maybe they should. Or, I'm a lot older than I like to think I am...
Teens (and young adults) This is where the disconnect between the buying habits of boys and girls starts to become pretty strong. Boys mostly stick to super-hero comics, graduate up to Spwan, and from there, if they haven't discovered girls/boys yet, to gross-out horror titles that more often than not I have to refuse to sell to them without permission from a parent. Which is odd, because most of the titles they ask for haven't been published in years, like Deadworld. I'd ask them how they're hearing about these titles, but I'm afraid of finding out what the answer might be.
Girls meanwhile, still buy a lot of Archie titles. And they don't seem to care what's in it or how old it is. They just want stories about those wacky Riverdale kids. Older girls also gravitate towards the gothity-goth-goth comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Gloomcookie, Lenore and Courtney Crumrin. I think this is the female equivalent of the gross-out horror trend boys go through at this age. Chynna Clugston-Major and her comics are a big draw for this crowd as well, especially the girls who are more into the indie-rock scene. Hell, half the girls who buy Chynna's books look just like her characters.
Vertigo books do well with this audience as well. Mostly it's Sandman, but all the mystical/magical books, like Books of Magic, Fables and Lucifer do pretty well. The more action-oriented books like 100 Bullets and Losers just don't seem to interest them. About the only non-"magic" Vertigo title that does well with young women is Transmetropolitan. And, to be honest, Warren Ellis in general seems popular with women.
Crossgen books did pretty well with teenage girls too. Pity...
And of course, manga, manga, manga. A good chunk of the teenage girls who come into the store never make it past the first twenty feet of the store. They hit the manga wall, go to the register, and split.
Women Most of what I've said about manga and Vertigo holds true for adult women as well. (And by "adult" I really mean "old enough to have graduated from college"). But we can now add Alan Moore to the list of comics writers with strong female followings.
But what's really noteworthy is that what most adult women seem interested in are indie and alt-comix. In fact, sales on D&Q, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and the likes books are almost evenly split between men and women. Which, to be honest, says more about the maturity of alt- and indie comics fans than about either gender. They're people who have "come up through the ranks" of comics readership, are still interested in the form, but don't want to have anything to do with super-heroes.
In fact, about the only super-hero titles that have any kind of large female following, of any age, are the X-Men titles. I'm always being told that this is because of their "strong female characters" and doesn't have anything to do with the frequent soft-core bondage or rape and lesbian subtexts that characterize most of the X-Men titles I've read.
So, given what sells to these much coveted "new readers" in our store, and given what Marvel and DC are actually doing to attract these audiences, I think it's safe to say that we're not going to be seeing a lot of new customers coming into the store thanks to the Big Two...