Matt Johnson is the owner of Cup o' Kryptonite, a Des Moines comic book store and coffee shop.
This week I finished a fantastic book called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a history of the business side of Marvel Comics. It highlights eras of comics as events in the company’s history, but looks much more at how the company sold its books, who was in charge and how they acted towards their employees.
The book, written by Sean Howe, is a must read for anyone who wants to see the direction our industry has taken and how and why the big two continue to run things the way they do now, which is so very opposite to the way things should be run.
Throughout the book there are numerous instances where you want to scream, “didn’t you learn anything from the man before you?!” You see where the problems fans scream about today came from and who most certainly is to blame for our industry’s current state.
One of the biggest issues I saw was how Marvel moved away from producing comics that appealed to kids. What is still considered by most adults to be children’s literature finally had the last nail driven into its lid by Bill Jemas and his henchman, Joe Quesada, in the early 2000s. Joey Q is quoted from an article in the New York Observer in 2002 saying, “The 8 year-old comic reader is a myth. It’s not a concern to me. A year ago, when I took the job [of Editor in Chief] that was what I was concerned with. I heard comic-store owners saying, ‘where are my 8-year-old readers?’ You know what? I don’t think they were ever really out there.”
I won't debate the good or bad of the Comic Code Authority. It was a horribly restrictive and tyrannical entity created out of lies and false facts that stifled creative growth in comics for decades. However, you can corrolate the elimination of the Code – and the “self regulating” the Big Two have done in regards to content – with Marvel and DC moving away from publishing comics for children and instead producing books for an older audience, which started the near elimination of children’s comics from the direct market.
One of the worst decisions this industry has made is discount/marginalize/eliminate groups of customers – we saw Marvel try during the 2000s to do it to their core audience and now a decade later see DC nearly perfect it - but to specifically alienate the youngest readers from the equation of publishing is just terrible.
If you've seen a young kid light up when you put a comic book in front of them, you understand why it irritates me so much. To be a retailer and see this firsthand over and over is all the proof I need that comics work to get kids to read early in life… and make them happy to do so.
I have read many a study that points out how comics can be used to increase reading comprehension, show increases in test scores later in life and – most importantly – push kids who do not read or read very little, to read.
Why is this not a direction we want our industry to go in? Why are we not increasing (and instead actively decreasing) the number of books published for younger readers?
In the shop, I have a large amount of wall space dedicated to children’s or all-ages reads. I feel this is important for not only the presentation of a family friendly establishment, but also because it's very profitable. The Adventure Time and My Little Pony series have grown to be near top ten sellers. I cannot keep the Ponies on the shelf. Similarly, I was sure I overordered Batman ’66, but now have now nearly sold out of my initial order. Yet the horrible mindset of money before community has prevented the largest companies from growing this burgeoning area of our industry.
I think the best example of the failing was DC’s cancelation of Superman Family Adventures. This was a book that, in my store at least, in its last month of publishing OUT SOLD both Action Comics AND Superman combined. If that wasn’t enough, it was canceled just two months before that terrible movie Man of Steel– not intended for kids, but nonetheless advertised to them – came out. (The same was done to Batman: Brave and the Bold the year before.) Though I deplore marketing and advertising to kids, whose brains can’t necessarily make the right choices and are manipulated into wanting things – I just can’t see how you can do one and not at the very least offer a product for them to have that is okay in terms of violence and reading level.
Aw, but have no fear, when our industry is at its worst, there are always glimmers of hope and in our terrible industry, that hope always comes from outside the big giants.
Recently the book Aw, Yeah Comics has exploded in sales at the shop. An independently published and distributed comic from the guys who did Superman Family Adventures – Art Baltazar and Franco – has taken to filling the sales hole left by Superman Family’s vacancy. Starring Action Cat and Adventure Bug, it is THE best young reader’s book on the shelf.
More examples come from outside the regular direct market comic industry. Scholastic has been publishing Jeff Smith’s Bone for years, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that many kids recognize Bone more than many Big Two heroes.
I don’t know what the “right” answer is on this. I do know that the leading kid comics used to be published by Marvel and DC. I do know that through their own decisions, they've essentially eliminated that stream of revenue (and yes, I know it is not as easily stated as they “got rid of it” but they did do a number on other non-direct market sales distributing and started writing in ways kids wouldn’t/couldn’t read the comics.) AND in doing so, they have cut off the next generation of kids that would read comics.
We need to think about this and continue this conversation or we will not see the dawn this industry could and should be experiencing.