sumhow, I fort: comics evangelism

Posted in comics, criticism

NOT a manifesto

a.k.a. how do we get more people reading comics?

The glib answer is ‘make better comics’, but there are already more good comics in print (nevermind online or being published tomorrow) than any reasonable consumer could hope to work their way through. There are arguably enough great comics extant to keep a connoisseur engaged for years.

So the answer must be Marketing! If we could only tell people how great comics can be they’ll be lining up to read them… maybe even buy them!

I’m not so sure.

Marvel movies may spawn thousands of new superhero fans but how many of them go and buy a comic afterwards? It’s not as if every kid out there develops a love for spinach despite it giving them Popeye-like muskles.

Comic-centric events have proliferated beyond the wildest dreams of my youth. Creator communities have expanded and diversified. Publishing options are unprecedented.

The readership is … static? declining? Maybe it’s a broader-but-smaller demographic?

I think the way to extend the reach of the form is to let go of the idea of a Comics Reader ~ a person who is (partly) defined by their repeated act of reading comics ~ and to look at comics as part of the environment.

Every breakthrough in comics being taken more seriously, or embraced by a new tribe, treated them as part of what was happening rather than the totality:

  • Newspaper strips put comics in the living room of adults
  • Superheroes put them in the bedrooms of children
  • ‘Relevance’, Miller and Moore forced them upon the college crowd
  • Maus brought them to the bookshelves of adults who had been encouraged to think they were kidstuff
  • Deadline took comics into the music and club scene
  • Personal memoirs reached the self-help and special interest groups

There are more, but the point is that, outside of a fanatical core, each of these new readerships were reading comics as part of their wider interests (even the kids were mostly reading outlandish power fantasies that outdid their literary and tv options or gossip/aspirational-flavoured romances, and so on).

We can definitely get more people to look at comics by targeting their burning platforms, to use Marketing terminology. This will get some new people to read comics that fit comfortably inside their bubble, but as harder to reach groups are attracted, they are less and less likely to read comics of a different topic.

Someone who loved Cancer Vixen may have a decent selection of cancer comics to follow on to, but they are more likely to read a prose book about cancer than Things To Do In A Trailer Home Retirement Park ~ let alone Calculus Cat or The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. They’ll probably watch a documentary about cancer first; read some magazines; join a group…

A silo’d approach to expanding comics’ reach is valid for individuals, but for the form itself, it’s painfully slow and encourages a boom-and-bust scenario. “I read a comic once. It was good, but I don’t need to read another one.”

There will always be Comic Readers, just as there are Film Buffs, Poetry Enthusiasts and Music Lovers, but the days of comics readers being a critical mass are behind us. Most of that status was driven by their long-lost position as the best and cheapest form of  fantastical entertainment ~ it can’t be reclaimed.

So maybe we need to divide our attention.

With one hand we absolutely must continue to make comics that stand alone as Comics ~ that sell to aficionados and niche groups. With the other hand we drip-feed them in to the general environment as  short stories in other publications; leaflets; instructions; digital delicacies and so on.

We do what we do and at the same time we normalise what we do.

So where do we sell our comics-for-comics’-sake? Marts and mail order and comic shops will be key to serving the existing audience, but how many customers from the outside world will those entice?

Comicpopup is my first stab at an alternative (not a replacement) system. The foundations are simple and anyone can adapt them for their circumstances:

  1. Gather comics
  2. Offer comics for sale in a pre-existing, non-comics environment
  3. Share proceeds with the creators of the comics

My own version is shaping up along the following lines:

  • Collect as many self-published comics for sale as I can
  • Join a local arts & crafts festival where people walk between venues
  • Lay out a temporary shop in a family-friendly pizza pub (ideally over multiple weekends)
  • Sell the hell out of each and every comic on behalf of the creators (using my own experiences from selling in the Cartoon Museum shop and comics events and taking my lessons from the approach of Page 45)
  • Donate one copy of every comic (creators willing) to my city’s central library to promote that sort of work as a new collection

The theory is that this will put small press comics under the noses of a lot of potential readers who would not come across them normally. The cost will be minimal and the investment of time will be mostly mine (although creators will be encouraged to come along and help with the selling).

There can be numerous variations on the concept ~ maybe a regular stall on a car boot sale? A recurring pub, café or community centre session? An honesty box in a suitable venue? Take them to book clubs? Just put comics in places people are going for other reasons

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