OP/ED: Want More Comics Readers? Recommend ALL Comics!


New Readers: The Same Old Argument

Just before the holiday, discussions spun out of the inevitable “Best of the Year” lists.  The first one to generate a lot of heat was the Onion A.V. Club list, primarily, it would seem, for not including manga that’s frequently several years old by the time that it gets U.S. release.  Other conversations branched from that, including multiple takes on the idea of what you should give someone to read if that person is at least vaguely interested in comics.

Our own David Pepose took a swing with a smallish introductory list.  While some people joined in with their own recommendations, others, notably Jennifer de Guzman of Slave Labor Graphics and Ron Marz (via Twitter), took some exception.  Said exception was predicated on the fact that David’s short list was several super-hero books, plus “Y: The Last Man”.  I posted a comment myself, indicating that I’d rather have someone recommend something to me that they were passionate about rather than recommending something that they simply saw on a list.

All of this gets me to my central point, which is that this particular branch of discussion goes back to that same old argument: super-hero books versus other comics.  This always comes up in any discussion in which “we” (that is, comic readers of any type) talk about dealing with “them” (that is, non comics-readers).  Whether it’s soliciting new readers or ensuring that others take comics seriously as a medium, scuffles always break out around that argument.

Let me put one thing bluntly.  There should be no argument.  All of the genres under the comic book medium are valid.  Horror, “funny books”, lacerating biographies, political screeds, super-hero smackdowns, romance . . . they are all valid.  In fact, I think that the constant bickering over that point is one of the things that prevents them (them being comics) from being readily accepted in certain quarters.  If your champions ride out and say, “Accept comics as a great medium . . . except for these”, then you’re already undercutting your central thesis.

I know that I’m going to be misquoted on the above point, so let me clarify.  Not all comics are good.  In fact, hardly ALL of ANYTHING is good.  But, just as there are good comics of other wide varieties, there are good super-hero comics.  And while we may, collectively, choose to agree or disagree on which books are good or bad, we should all be able to agree that some from each category are good, or, at the very least, entertaining.

Now, I’m not necessarily sure why some people get so rankled when you discuss introducing “them”/civilians/the non-comics reading public to comics via super-heroes.  In fact, the chances are, that, due to pop culture saturation or film or cartoons or toys, said potential recruit may already have an awareness, or perhaps even general liking of, the character whose book you are trying to introduce.  This revolves back to a quote that my friend, “Shiver in the Dark” artist and writer Stuart Sayger, gave me when I interviewed him for “The Indianapolis Star” many years ago.  Stuart said, “They [the general American public] love super-heroes; they just don’t love comic books.”

Look at that again.  People love super-heroes.  They just don’t love comic books.  Is Stuart right?  Let’s see . . .

I’m going to start with the most obvious gauge of general American interest in an entertainment topic: top box office.  If you look at the Top 100 films in U.S. history in terms of box office dollars according to IMDB.com, then you’d see that 12 are outright super-hero films.  That’s not “comic book” or “fantasy” or related genres; that’s “super-hero”.  That’s Batman, Superman, Iron Man, The Incredibles, The X-Men, and, yes, Hancock.  If you were to extend that list out to “films based DIRECTLY on comics”, you could include “Men in Black”.  If you shrink the list down to the Top 25, five of the Top 25 films are outright “super-hero” movies.

Stepping back to look at the overall genre representation, and tossing super-heroes, science-fiction, horror, and fantasy into the hopper, then the Top 100 contains 79 entries.  I counted “Happy Feet” as fantasy, but did not include the Mission: Impossible films (action), Rush Hour (comedy) or Austin Powers (comedy), though some might have argued for their inclusion.  As an interesting side note, if you total up how many of the Top 100 have been comics at one time or another, either via franchise spin-off or adaptation or original material, you get a shocking number; just about HALF of them have a comics counterpart.  Sure, that’s partially because you have six Star Wars films, four Indiana Jones entries, and the previously noted super-hero movies, not to mention a healthy assortment of more recent Pixar properties and the manga-bound Twilight.  Nevertheless, it DOES seem to hold true that the general mainstream American movie-going public do not find fantastic concepts to be anathema.  In fact, they apparently dig them just fine.

We’ll move away from that line of thinking for a bit.  We’ll put “People in general are fine with super-heroes” in a theorem holding pattern, and examine another angle.  One of de Guzman’s points was apparently one of intellectualism; that is, she proffered the notion that she didn’t think that her college literature professors would necessarily enjoy the super-hero suggestions on David’s list.  That may be true.  Speaking as a college professor myself, I responded to Jennifer that I’ve known quite a few profs that are interested in comics, and don’t eschew super-hero versions of such out of hand.  The broader point may tie to mainstream fiction.  The fact is that many college professors over time have held disdain for ANYTHING that “regular” Americans read.

Look at Stephen King.  Though he’s become more accepted by critical circles in later life, there have been a number of critics and academics that pilloried the man from the word “go”.  The same could also be said for any number of best-selling authors, several of whom probably do deserve a critical drubbing.  The fact remains, though, that college professors, as cool as we may be, have never been the best barometer for mainstream American taste.  In fact, it’s probably fair to say that some people resent being “told” what to read on any kind of basis of academia or even supposed critical credibility.  People hew to such sources as long as their taste matches; when the professor/critic/whomever breaks from the liking of that “civilian reader”, then the reader clearly presumes that, in this case, the critical party “got that one wrong”.  Therefore, it might stand to reason that just because a rarified example like a college literature professor might give something a miss on the basis of it containing a costumed hero, it doesn’t necessarily follow that any other person would skip that book for the same reason.  In fact, it doesn’t follow that every college literature professor would skip that book.  It’s a premise that can’t be proven.

In essence, then, let’s sum up the above discussion with two statements.  Those would be “People like what they like, whatever the reason” and “Despite your best intentions, you can’t really TELL anyone what they “should” like.”  Let’s move those to the theorem holding pattern, and continue.

The business of recommending anything to anyone can occasionally be befuddling.  You’ve probably known someone with very similar musical taste, only to find out that they hate the new disc you praised.  Comics are exactly the same way.  I hear similar sentiments echoed between comics and films when it comes to biographies or “heavy” material.  Some people just want entertainment or escape, and aren’t necessarily interested in a film like “Eraserhead” or a book like “Blankets”.  And that’s okay; they’re entitled to want something happy and easy.  That’s not wrong.

That holds true for television, too.  I’ve always equated the dominance of super-heroes as a genre in comics to the dominance of cop shows on television.  Quite literally, super-hero books are the cop shows of comics.  If you cast your eye at the top ten fictional TV programs, you’ll see that the list is absolutely dominated by cop shows or iterations thereof.  You see “NCIS”, the members of the “CSI” family, “The Mentalist”, and more.  What you don’t see that often are people bemoaning the fact that the wealth of cop shows is going to prevent other shows from existing in some way.

Sure, I’d like it if more people watched “Mad Men”.  But I get to watch “Mad Men”.  The existence of “The Mentalist” does not prevent “Mad Men”.  Yes, low ratings frequently kill quality shows, but low sales have often killed quality books.  Television is certainly capable of producing quality, even in the prolific cop show genre.  While there have been more “T.J. Hooker”-like shows than there have been shows like “The Wire” or “The Shield”, the existence of bad cop shows has not prevented nor invalidated the existence of “The Wire” or “The Shield”.

And yes, while it can be hard to find a gem on a crowded TV schedule, and while it’s easier to “settle” for bad TV since it comes right in the house and you don’t necessarily have to seek it out, you do not need to curse the bad shows in the name of the good ones.  Again, “People like what they like, whatever the reason” and “Despite your best intentions, you can’t really TELL anyone what they “should” like.”  The best that you can do is point them toward something good that YOU like, and try not to insult them along the way.  And why is that?  Because frankly, why would someone listen to what you have to offer if the major part of what you have to offer is mockery, easy snark, or a general deriding of their intellectual prowess?  That’s not how you sell cookies, my friend.

Nor do I think that recommending something that a person doesn’t like will result in their turning away from the medium forever.  If I had quit movies the first time that I saw a lousy movie, I probably wouldn’t have watched anything past the age of six.  Potential readers aren’t something that you’re going to accidentally break if you give them the wrong thing.  If they didn’t like the first thing, they might like the second; a friend would give you a chance.  Unless, however, that friend is party to the second half of Stuart’s statement waaaay up above.  That was:  [The general American public] just don’t love comic books.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely the case.  Some people, like us, presumably, do love them.  It’s possible that actual comics have slipped further from wider American awareness as they’ve slid from the spinner racks in every grocery store to specialty shops.  Their avenues of sale have diminished as their prices have gone up.  Those factors have a definite impact.  Granted, there’s an argument to be made that people DO have money, especially if they’re buying video games.  However, that sends us back to “People like what they like, whatever the reason” and “Despite your best intentions, you can’t really TELL anyone what they “should” like.”  Are comics, and reading in general, too *gulp* passive of a pair of activities for today’s Americans?  

There was some hope earlier this year in the form of surveys that suggested more Americans read than we previously thought.  Then again, if (and this is a generous guess, supposing that only about 25% of the audience buys the number one comic every month) 500,000 Americans read comics, then that means about 329,500,000 other Americans DO NOT.  500,000 readers would put you at roughly .002% of the U.S. population.  That number is, compared to other media, very, very small.  That is 97% fewer people than watched this season’s premiere of “Dancing with the Stars”.

Again, the fact that people have to actively seek out comics may have an impact.  Social stigma, which is still pervasive and exists despite the documented popularity of comics and super-heroes in other media, may also play a part.  But frankly, I think that the time has passed where we should seek to elevate the medium at the expense of other parts of the medium, whatever they may be.

Let’s consult the theorem holding pattern:

“People in general are fine with super-heroes.”

“People like what they like, whatever the reason.”

“Despite your best intentions, you can’t really TELL anyone what they “should” like.”

Does that mean that you stop recommending non-super-hero fare?  Of course not.  Does it mean actively listening to what another person likes before making a recommendation?  Well, you should do that anyway.  Does it mean that various supporters of various genres should accept one another’s existence and accept that other people may possibly like or recommend something different than you?  Yeah, I think so.  That doesn’t mean that you have to like everything.  That doesn’t mean that you have to like ANYTHING.  There’s room in the world (and online) for a vast number of opinions, just as there is room in comics for a vast number of genres.  NO ONE has the definitive answer.  Reviewers and critics follow their own tastes anyway, making what they think is the best judgment based on their experience with a work.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that someone else will arrive at the same conclusion.  There is no absolute.  And while you may not agree with the recommendation of someone else, I would actually recommend that you counter it with another suggestion rather than disdain the validity of the original offering.

Then again, that’s just my recommendation.  You may of course disagree.

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