In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the distribution of comic books went through a major fluctuation, as newsstands and spinner racks gave way to individual storefronts dedicated to only selling comic books.
The "direct market," as it came to be known, allowed comic book publishers to send their products to retailers who marketed directly - and, usually, only - to comic book consumers.
"It was very exciting because it was a chance to make the publishing side of the business profitable again, which it hadn't been," former DC Publisher Paul Levitz explained to Newsarama. "The direct market was going to be a very different thing. It was going to be older readers, meaning we weren't going to be making comics for kids as an impulse purchase."
Along with the maturing of comic book readers came a more mature approach from publishers, one which was hailed as an improvement by critics and a now older audience.
Yet the maturing of comic book customers - and the direct market that targets only them - is also a concern for the future of the industry. Without new, young consumers having access to comic books in the stores they frequent, can the industry survive - even with digital comics?
But how old is the average consumer? What type of person reads comic books in 2017?
As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we talk to retailers about the aging population who reads comic books and whether new, younger consumers are finding their way into comic book stores.
According to most retailers we surveyed, ongoing comic book consumers have aged in recent years to average in their mid- to late-30s.
"When we opened in 1988, we located close to three high schools, several middle and elementary schools," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California. "Back then, the average age of a Flying Colors customer was about 18. These days, the average age is 35. Yes, comics sure have matured!"
"Our average age of our customer is 36-years-old," said Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Arizona.
But for several retailers, that average age appears to be changing.
"The average age of our customer is actually dropping," said Matthew Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Oklahoma. "We are in a college town, so that refreshes itself to some degree anyway, but we are seeing more kids and young adults who are interested in the form."
"Until the last couple of years, our guests age range fell mostly into the 30+s region," said Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio. "This was a long-term concern for me for sure, but with the advent of social media, movies, availability of digital copies and the loss of the 'nerdiness' stigma attached to being a comic fan it no longer concerns me."
Other Media Attraction
Retailers pointed toward movies and digital comics as a reason for the attraction to comics from new and, hopefully, younger consumers that will stick around.
"The average age of our customers is usually 20-30," said Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "However somewhere after the first Avengers film came out, I did notice a sharp increase in children reading, where in the mid to late 2000's that number had been in decline.
"Absolutely there is hope in the rising number of kids reading comics," Parks said, "especially with their knowledge of comic characters growing in relation to the amount of information and media like movies and superhero shows out there."
Charlie Harris, owner and operator of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizona, said there's also a wide variety of genres and all-ages materials to attract young people as well as new female readers (adding to a previously male-dominated customer base).
"For many years, it was mostly college age and young adults [shopping at Charlie's Comic Books]," Harris said. "Now it's folks from all walks of life. The expansion of good, all-age titles (thanks, Roger Langridge), non-fiction and famous writers entering the field has done nothing but expand the audience."
Now Let's Keep 'Em
James said it's also up to retailers to market themselves to younger customers and, when they come through the door, to make sure those consumers stick around.
"We continue to grow our fan base by listening to both the older customer and especially the millennials," James said. "As we slowly bring the millennials to floppies, we still need to introduce, educate and inspire them to continue to buy their comics from the local comic store. I think its great to see the whole family buying their comics and competing against each other in the store."
And although Field admitted that comic readers have matured, he said it doesn't necessarily mean the industry is going to die off. "I'm not concerned with that maturity," he said. "We're selling more comics to more people of all ages and interests."
"With the diversity of genre, characters and creators," he said, "we potentially are at the edge of a new golden age of comics."