It’s no secret that the comic industry hasn’t enjoyed the best of health in recent years. You could read all about it in any of the comic news magazines – if there were actually any left on the newsstand racks. But luckily the internet is there to spread the news and gloom of a once vital industry fading.
But is it?
Like so many things, the conclusion depends a great deal on the perspective from which the evidence is viewed. If you just want to take sales figures as the primary unit of measure, then yes, the industry is on its way out. Sales have declined fitfully, but steadily since the boom of the mid nineties. The reasons for this are many, but all of them fairly easy to discern with even a casual look. Where reading was once a universally popular form of mass entertainment, in the new millennium it is in danger of becoming a niche hobby, practiced only by the scant few willing to go to the effort to discover its pleasures. It is not just the comic industry that is teetering on the sales precipice. Traditional bookstores, including the once mighty Barnes and Nobles and Borders chains, are grappling with a customer base that seems to dwindle by the day. There are a vast number of other flashy entertainment options competing for the consumer dollar, most of them electronic. They do not require you to put any real effort into them, and so they become more attractive to our increasingly passive culture.
Comics today read and look better than ever. The paper is glossy, the art is often spectacular and the stories are more compelling than ever before, despite what the die hard nostalgist might tell you. But all this improvement comes at a cost. Comics are no longer the cheap entertainment of yesteryear, and in today’s tight economy a lot of fans are finding it hard to justify the cost that supporting a full line of comics entails. This, combined with the fact that we now have a whole generation that has somehow been taught that free entertainment is an entitlement, adds up to sales figures that could best be described as…”wafer thin”. Success and health in modern American is measured by the sales figure and the sales figures for most comics are not good.
But measured in other ways, the comic book as an art form could be viewed as healthier than ever.
First, the stigma that once used to accompany comic collecting has almost completely fallen away. The older fans out there can certainly remember when admitting to collecting and enjoying comics was equal to admitting to an inferior intellect. Comic books were childish and shallow. They were entertainment considered fit only for children or borderline illiterates. As the children of today become more occupied with video games, computers and television, the comics industry has aimed at an older, more litterate audience. The “comics as kids stuff” stigma could soon dissolve entirely.
Next, the very comic book once considered to be capable of nothing more than lightweight children’s entertainment has evolved into one of the most dynamic of storytelling mediums. there’s a reason why so many creators from outside of comics now dabble in the field (Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, Kevin Smith) and find it to be an ideal compliment to the stories they tell in the movies and on TV. Never before have the characters from the rich history of comics been so widely popular, with Hollywood digging deep into the comic mine for hot properties to exploit. Whether consciously or not, these characters have evolved into America’s mythology and their influence is inescapable.
However, all of this might be moot if no one is actually buying the comics, of course.
There are several examples of art forms that lost their mass popularity but refused to die. Jazz music was once the popular music of its’ day. As it declined from popularity, many predicted that it would soon fade from existence entirely. As most any music lover can tell you, that did not happen. Certainly Jazz will never compete for the top position on the popular music charts, but its’ devoted fans keep the art form alive and vibrant.
This is not to say that hurdles don’t exist. The biggest one is fan apathy. It is frustrating to hear someone say that they “used to read comics” but X-Men began to bore them so they quit comic books entirely. To me, this is similar to saying that Law and Order isn’t interesting anymore so they got rid of their TV. This is not X-men or Batman that we’re talking about, but rather the art form of comics. It is not limited to popular characters. It could be as diverse as the imaginations of its’ creators and the demands of its’ fans wish it to be. While spandex clad superheroes and buxom women populate the majority of books on the stands, their prevalence is less than it once was. Books like Elephantman, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Fables and a surprisingly large group of others now give much needed variety to the comic racks. As comic fans we’re finally growing up, perhaps a little slowly, but still growing nonetheless.
There is no question that we are in a period of change, not just for comics but for all packaged media. I don’t want to gloss over the challenges that currently face the industry. A lot of comic shops have closed in the past year or so, including some long running shops in East Texas. There are a lot of things that we take for granted and assume it will always be there when we want it, but nothing survives without support. As I am fond of saying, you vote with your dollars. Lack of dollars could very well vote the traditional printed comic book out of existence if enough more shops have to close their doors.
Don’t underestimate your part in all this. Your support keeps the comic shops open, your dedication keeps the art form vital. The format and means of distribution may change, but as long as there are enough fans who love comics, the art form will survive. But remember, in this and all other things; complacency is the enemy.