Can The Industry Survive On Superheroes? Retailers, Publishers Talk Genre Diversity

"The Walking Dead #150" variant
Credit: Tony Moore (Image Comics)
Credit: Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird

With the advent and growth of the comic book direct market in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, there also came a revitalization of independent publications, diverse genres, and alternative comic books. Throughout the following years, publishers outside the traditional superhero genre began to appear, and readers were exposed to now-classic titles like Bone, Ghost World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But decades later, the majority of comic books shipped each week to comic book stores are still the ones starring Marvel and DC heroes. And now that the film industry seems to be in the midst of a love affair with superheroes, the strength of the superhero genre doesn't appear to be waning.

But is that a good thing? Can the direct market survive if it continues to cater to mostly superhero fans? Or is the success of The Walking Dead in recent years a step in the right direction toward a necessarily diversity of genres?

As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we talked to publishers and retailers about whether the condition - and importance - of the non-superhero market.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Dream of the '80s

Randy Stradley, vice president of publishing at Dark Horse Comics, said the growth of independent comic books over the last few decades has been great, but he's concerned that the majority of comic books are still superheroes.

"There seemed to be a realization in the 1980s, when Dark Horse got its start, that we all - publishers, distributors, and retailers - needed each other for success," Stradley said. "And there was a shared goal of building the industry into something beyond the 'boys’ club' that it was often portrayed as being. There was a dream that comics would tackle mature subject matter and themes and take their place beside respected art forms, such as literature and film - that comics would 'grow up.'

"Maybe that’s happened, but it’s a relatively small part of the industry," he continued. "Mostly what we have is adults - including the now-aged superhero fans of yesterday - purchasing the same old superhero fare they consumed when they were younger. Grown men and women who crow with excitement over the latest comic-based movies and television shows, not because they’re well-written, but because they can’t wait to see their favorite childhood superheroes on the screen. The fact that it exists is enough for them."

Stradley implied what several other retailers told Newsarama - that the drive for more creative stories or better approaches to storytelling isn't served by nostalgia. The future of the industry is better served through diversity of product, Stradley said.

"I still have hope for the future," the Dark Horse executive said. "The same idea that started this company still rings true: the right books, with the right story hooks and the right creative teams, will still sell - and hopefully sell quite well."

Credit: BOOM! Studios / DC Comics

Signs of Hope

Several other publishers have also been seeing growth in non-superhero comic books by marketing to new readers - often by utilizing digital outlets or marketing TV tie-ins or social media.

"We've seen great success with titles that reach out to new fans outside of the existing direct market like Lumberjanes, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, WWE, Klaus, and Goldie Vance," said Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing for BOOM! Studios.

"One of our goals is always to draw new fans into the comic shops," he said. "The pool of potential readers who love properties that have natural crossover with comic books and comic shop culture is massive. It takes work to draw them into stores, but we've seen signs it's possible."

Dinesh Shamdasani, CEO and chief creative officer at Valiant Entertainment, said quality is the key to bringing new readers to the direct market - and to attract existing readers to different genres.

"I can only hope that we continue this trend of bringing in new audiences and creative styles, and bringing an emphasis on quality to the industry," Shamdasani said. "Movies and television shows based on comic books are a dominant fixture of popular culture now, which is giving publishers the foundation they need to keep trying new things. This has led to one of the most creatively energized periods in comics in quite some time, and publishers across the board are still actively working to redefine people’s expectations of how good a comic book story can be and what they can look like."

Credit: Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Recent Hope

But some retailers have noticed a new growth in non-superhero stories that is encouraging, particularly as the age and gender of customers has been changing. "Superheroes are still very popular, but we have a market that has evolved to allow for genres of all types to find eager audiences," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California.

"Non-Superhero tiles are consistently increasing in sales as the years go by," said Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio. "Alternatives to the 'tights and capes' genre, especially from Young Animal and Image Comics, are incredibly attractive to both the disillusioned long-time reader and the next generation of readers emerging from exposure to the medium through digital comics, movies and social media."

Credit: DC Comics

Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Arizona, said his shop actually isn't dominated by superheroes.

"Image is our #1 selling publisher. Oni Press is #2 and Boom is #3," he said. "Customers want something new. They want to read about real life characters or someone they could be. Customers are open to a whole new array of genres and themed books from all the publishers, not just the indies but Marvel and DC as well."

Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina, said the Hanna Barbera books from DC Entertainment are "a runaway hit."

"We cannot keep copies of Future Quest on the shelf," Parks said. "Horror books and science fiction also register high with our customers. It is rare that I see people who only pull superhero books. The most diehard Marvel or DC fan will still have books like Southern Bastards or Saga on their pulls too, especially when so many of the writers on these titles have Marvel and DC books they write well and people love."

James said he's also encouraged by the appearance of newer publishers, specifically naming Black Mask, Coffin Comics, and Aftershock as publishers that are taking the lead.

"They have brought in a new collection of customers that are seeking alternatives to cape and mask characters," James said. "DC Comics dropped to our 6th best publisher in 2016 as more customers don't want the same hero doing the same thing. (We base publishers on sell-through, turn rates and bottom line profits — not by unit sales totals.) Indies have been our greatest partners since 2009. We will continue to increase our brand by working harder with each one in 2017."

Field said there are well-known names that may have dabbled in superhero comic books, but do much of their work in the non-superhero world.

"If you want to find the best-selling cartoonists, look beyond superheroes to Raina Telgemeier, Kaz Kibuishi, Dav Pilkey, Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman and others all making do without spandex," Field said. "It's a beautiful and wide world of comics now, even if it is sometimes a challenge to navigate."

Valiant's Shamdasani agreed, and he's banking on the already diverse industry only getting bigger because of all the new ways to attract customers.

"From creators to characters, to the depth and quality of the material presented, we’re now living in the most diverse era ever in comics history," Shamdasani said. "At the same time, there is a whole new generation of fans patronizing retail stores, sampling books digitally, attending shows, and educating their peers on what makes our medium special. It's something we often talk about at Valiant, and that we're not quick to take for granted."

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