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Ten Things to Know About the Future of Comics
By Shaenon K. Garrity
Monday October 25, 2010 06:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Being a Manifesto Based on Talking About Comics with the Young People of Today, Sometimes in the Classroom, Usually Not, Occasionally Sober.

1. Newspaper comics are dead. I wish it were otherwise, but it's impossible to get around the fact that no one under a certain age—and that age gets higher all the time—considers newspapers essential daily reading. The strip format will survive online, and maybe in other print media (four-panel comics are currently very popular in Japan, where they typically run in weekly magazines in chunks of six strips at a time), but the classic syndicated newspaper strip has been dying for a long time and I see little hope for resuscitation. Enjoy Richard Thompson's glorious Cul de Sac, because it's probably the last great comic strip.

2 Monthly comic books are dead. We all know this, right? Again, it's a format with a lot of good qualities that will be sorely missed (foremost among them the ability to sample a story cheaply before investing in an entire book), but the direct market is a mess and pamphlet-style monthly comic books now barely work even as loss leaders. Among younger readers, "waiting for the trade" is the default position, to the point that most teenage fans seem only foggily aware that the monthly format even exists.

The comic book could have survived if the direct market hadn't been run, since the 1990s, like a less competent and smellier version of one of those fly-by-night outfits that hawk gold on the Glenn Beck show, but, as Kurt Vonnegut said about the fate of the planet Earth in general, we were too damn lazy to try very hard…and too damn cheap.

3. Format is infinitely mutable. But so what? You'll pick up the trade. You'll read it online. The age-old format wars and lamentations on the death of beloved antique media are gibberish to anyone under 30. What's the difference between comic strips and graphic novels, comic books and manga? It's all comics. Comics run left and right, up and down, short and long. Few of the kids I've dealt with have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, but none of them are remotely surprised by anything it has to say.

Similarly, younger readers see minimal difference between a novel and a graphic novel. One of them tells the story in pictures, is all. Speaking of which, I support Mo Willems's suggestion to abolish terms like "graphic novel" and categorize all visual sequential storytelling as either "comics" or "fat comics."

4. The audience is infinitely fragmented. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of teenage comics fans don't read manga. Or they used to read manga, but they've long since moved on to something else. There's almost nothing that everybody reads. I've talked to kids for whom Scott Pilgrim is the modern equivalent of Watchmen—a seminal reshaping of the pop-cult universe they inhabit—and kids who have never heard of it, kids who only read shonen manga and kids who only read shojo manga, kids who are only interested in goth comics or zombie comics or Fables. Open the discussion to webcomics, and the audience fragments all the way down to the tip of the long tail; on the Internet, everyone is famous for fifteen people.

5. But there is a canon. As best I can determine, the majority of comics-loving people under 30 have at least a passing familiarity with the following:

Calvin & Hobbes
Bone
Naruto
Death Note
Watchmen


…and a handful of webcomics, but the latest big thing in webcomics shifts so frequently that I can't even add titans like Penny Arcade and xkcd to the list with any confidence.

Is this the canon I would have chosen to lead the next generation into the great big beautiful tomorrow of comics? Probably not, but it's not bad. Definitely better than the canon I cut my teeth on, which contained far more Batman than was healthy for the nerds of Generation X.

6. Superheroes are not comic-book characters. They're characters in movies and TV shows. If superheroes or superhero-like characters appear in a comic, that's cool, but it's not what comics are generally about. The Umbrella Academy, for example, is a fantasy story, kind of a goth Harry Potter, about a group of kids born with strange powers who are trained to use those powers at a private school run by a mysterious old man. It's not a superhero comic. The X-Men? Oh, I used to love that show!

7. Manga has changed the game. Young creators think in terms of the sprawling, subjective, emotional approach to visual storytelling shared, to one degree or another, by most manga. They've picked up other ideas from mainstream manga, too. Focus on characters over plot. A love for iconic, instantly appealing character designs (but not, unfortunately, a love for bothering to draw backgrounds). And total comfort with merchandising. Why would you not want something fun made out of your characters?

8. The line between fans and creators is razor-thin. Comics is an industry with a low bar to entry. It's always been fairly easy to make the leap from fan to creator, or at least part-time dabbler. But it's rapidly becoming less of a leap and more of a gentle saunter. You post drawings on DeviantArt, you share some hastily-penciled pages on social networking sites, maybe you make a website, more likely you just set up a blog, and you're a cartoonist. Until you get tired of that and go back to being a fan.

9. They are mostly girls. Publishers, be ready for this.

10. They are very good at making comics. This too. It is going to be wonderful.

Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.

All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010

 

Comments

Comfort and Adam (2 years ago)
 
We've been reading some of these frustrated comments here, and we know this is very hard for some of you to swallow...
But after spending half our con going experience (we do 20 shows a year American and Anime) with the next generation of readers (15-25 year olds) we have to say that Shaenon is right on the money.
ALL of this, with some very minor exceptions, seems to be completely true. We are all walking into so very uncharted territory, and for anyone creating comics, it's something you must learn about and be ready for.
Have faith though. This all can seem scary - but we assure you - it's not. As a matter of fact, from what we've seen - it may be the best things to happen to medium years if not ever.
 
 
John V (2 years ago)
 
In response to Andrew Farago
So people that have bought comics almost all there lives are suddenly going to go cold turkey when they turn 65? Never happen. And lets say that the 30 and 40 something’s of today who already think long and hard about shelling out for a 4 dollar comic cut their comic purchases in half or even 70%. The prime demographic that comics are catered to (males late 20s and up) would still be the dominant consumer for comics and comic companies would still be selling to them because even with sales cut 70% they would still be the most reliable and predictable consumer base and thus, a reliable stream of income.
There is no evidence that we are in for some huge sea change or that the business is about to be swarmed by some massive female consumer base or that we’ll see some massive exodus from the traditional format to everyone reading comics on Ipads. I actually think people like you are thinking to themselves “hey, in six months the world is going to have condo‘s on the moon and flying cars.” Change doesn’t happen that fast in anything. For crying out loud, look how long it’s taken to get a freaking hybrid car.
Traditional comics and content ie Superheroes will always be the top seller. And I’d wager that the older this demo gets, they’ll be less and less inclined to read their comics on Ipads and blackberries and be twice as inclined to buy the traditional monthly print format. People’s entertainment habits aren’t subject to radical change as they get older. If history proves anything it would show the reverse to be true. If it wasn’t there would be no market for all of those DC archives and Marvel Masterworks they keep “printing” over and over and over. Who do you think is buying those up? The under 30 crowd? The Libraries? Not bloody likely. It’s the prime demo, alive and well and continuing to be a reliable market for traditional format with traditional content. And guess what? Those aren’t depreciating like the works of indie creators male AND female. Whose work you can readily buy used off amazon for what…99% off cover plus shipping? Sounds to me like another indie glut of the 90s. Yeah. Big change coming all right. My money is on superhero monthlies for last man standing.
 
 
Andrew Farago (2 years ago)
 
In response to John V
On the system not changing for another 50 years...really?
The combination of rising prices, giant crossover events diminishing the urgency/necessity of buying single issues, and the uncertain economy, among other factors, I'm spending less on monthly comics now than I have in years.
As I get older, more grown-up expenses come along, and it's those non-essential monthly comics that will end up on the chopping block. For every person like me who stops reading Avengers, you're saying that there's another 30-something customer who's going to step in and buy the books I've stopped reading? In 50 years, I'm sure that all of my disposable income's going to be spent on my grandkids and prescription medicine, not the latest New Warriors relaunch.
 
 
John V (2 years ago)
 
In response to pseudicide
That’s all fine and well, but anecdotal evidence does not a reliable female consumer base for the comic book market place make. The reality of economics and a history of one dominant consumer demographic that overwhelms all others doesn’t lie. This industry has catered almost exclusively to the male demo for what…70 years? Does everyone’s anecdotal evidence just up and change that over night because suddenly people are saying “ohh, looky at our new business model, look at Manga, comics are changing because we keep saying it’s changing over and over, so that means it’s changing and the system has died! Yipeee!!!” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. The system won’t be changing for another 50 years. Get used to it.
 
 
Powerwolf (2 years ago)
 
In response to pseudicide
I'm gonna echo Matt Brady and say that you shouldn't waste time trying to have a legitimate argument with a man who prides himself on being every awful stereotype about people who buy comics.
Great article, Shaenon.
 
 
pseudicide (2 years ago)
 
In response to John V
"In fact, you can thank males for the decent sales of comics written by Jodi Picoult, Gail Simone, Marjorie Liu, etc. I‘m afraid I missed the rush of women snatching up comics written by those writers. Probably because there weren’t any. "
Really? As a woman who owns every issue of Birds of Prey, buys X-23, has Jan Van Meter's Black Cat series, Kathryn Immonen books, most books Amanda Conner or Nicola Scott have worked on, I take huge offense to this.
Not only that, I'm a huge supporter of MEN in comics. If it's written by Jimmy Palmiotti, Greg Rucka, Peter David or Garth Ennis it will likely end up on my shelf at some point.
I buy single issues. I buy trades. I download comics off comiXology and the like. I, along with another girl, run a blog about girls reading comics called girlsreadcomics.wordpress.com and she reads a pile of comics every month too. In fact, I know I spend between $100 and $300 on comics monthly.
The thing is, i'm not the only one. There are at least a dozen girls I know in my city alone who go to their LCS at the very least monthly and grab standing orders, if not weekly. I know another couple dozen online who do the same. They aren't just buying Birds of Prey and other comics featuring lots of women, either. They buy horror comics, and mainstream heroes. They almost all buy comics from vertigo and image and other lines. They buy the big titles at both big labels - Batman, Avengers, you name it.
We know our artists. We know our writers. And we're a viable and actual demographic in the comic reading world.
By the way, I do bake cookies and bring them to cons. I give them out to friends, fellow cosplayers and creators, including the female ones. So does that make me supportive?
 
 
tylerstafford (2 years ago)
 
No more superheroes? No more monthly issues? Comics made for and by both men and women? Comics as a springboard into the film/television world?
So essentially, the American comics industry is becoming more like that of Japan? If that's the case then... it's about goddamn time.
 
 
John V (2 years ago)
 
In response to MattyK
Wow, thanks for your asinine revisionist history that had nothing to do with anything being discussed. I guess you felt that leaving out the part where there was an amazing creative backlash against the code that led to one of the most creative era’s in comics didn’t help your non existent point? But hey, a valiant effort for deflecting from the main “factual” issue of the “impotency” of the female consumer in the comic book marketplace. What next? Telling me about the price of tea in China?
The only history that matters here is the history of the most powerful consumer demographic. So far, that demo is male. Sure, there are plenty of women who helped build the industry. Unfortunately, none of their gender were BUYING COMICS, HELLO!
Re: “…female readers were part of the success of a vital industry that moved and changed with it's fully engaged audience.”
Where is this female consumer in the comic marketplace? Buying Manga? How do the sales of Manga affect superhero monthlies? It doesn’t. Did you take a gander at the sales of “Girl Comics” by any chance? Where was this rush of female consumer for those three issues? I’ll tell you where…no where to be found….that’s where. Not that it matters because that project was born basically to silence a whining minority not spending any money anyways. The Achilles heel of women as a consumer demo is that women buyers don’t support women creators in any sort of meaningful way. In fact, you can thank males for the decent sales of comics written by Jodi Picoult, Gail Simone, Marjorie Liu, etc. I‘m afraid I missed the rush of women snatching up comics written by those writers. Probably because there weren’t any.
Re: “ Female readers are simply neglected by you and your contemporaries in the mainstream, that doesn't mean they are unavailable as contemporaries, they are merely, and foolishly, uninvited.”
Yes, neglected for good reason, they don’t buy comics. Why cater to them? It’s been tried and failed. Women have never stepped up to the plate to support comics because they’re sitting and waiting for comics to come to them. But comics will never come to them because they’re coming to the males. Because we buy them. We have always bought them. We are a reliable demo. Women can’t even muster up the consumer strength to make Girl Comics a marginal success. They buy manga, let them have Manga. Our demo doesn’t want it. Go to any comic shop and see the amount of Manga compared to comic books. You people need to stop looking at the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble as your examples. That’s not where comics are purchased. That’s not even where the majority of graphic novels are purchased. It’s on Amazon, Ebay, comic shops. Get your heads out of the sand. This imaginary new business model to end the stagnation isn’t coming any time soon.
Re: “The banal enforcement of needless morality on comics in the 1950's spawned such milk-toast, self-important ranters as yourself and has continued to shape the development of N A comics under that aging and useless yoke to this day.”
You say that like it’s a bad thing. I’d get used to it sugar. You got another 50 or 60 years until we’re gone. Maybe then you’ll get that ideal comic utopia where big breasted female super heroines in skimpy outfits instead all wear flannel and Birkenstocks and all the guys wait at home sprinkling rose petals around a waiting bubble bath with a bottle of merlot. But I wouldn’t count on it. Because there are more of us silver age male ranters with disposable income on their way up.
 
 
MattyK (2 years ago)
 
Responding to John V troll-baiting us all with mysogyny: The pre-code North American comics industry provided for female and male readers, I accept that the results were arguable in terms of quality (but that disclaimer covers comics for both male and female readerships). Women creators and female readers were part of the success of a vital industry that moved and changed with it's fully engaged audience. The situation leading to the comics code authority chilled the industry and its audience, and in the simpering decline that followed audience attention was snatched away. Desperate efforts under the code to claw back some sort of readership resulted in the demographic you so dearly praise; you. The banal enforcement of needless morality on comics in the 1950's spawned such milk-toast, self-important ranters as yourself and has continued to shape the development of N A comics under that aging and useless yoke to this day. First as a guide to artificial propriety, and now as a symbol of repression to be pointlessly rebelled against (e.g. 'The Rise of Arsenal'). Ironically your limp grasp of history allows you to cast yourself as the aging life-blood of modern comics, ignorant of the possibilities that lie within the neglected segment of the audience. Female readers are simply neglected by you and your contemporaries in the mainstream, that doesn't mean they are unavailable as contemporaries, they are merely, and foolishly, uninvited.
 
 
MBrady (2 years ago)
 
In response to Andrew Farago
This is too stupid an argument to really bother expending much energy on, but I gotta say, if somebody says "comics will always, irrevocably be about superheroes", and then goes on to trumpet the popularity of superhero movies as a reason why his preferred genre is so great, as well as cheering because his aging, insular demographic will continue to do little more than survive and shrink for a few more decades, he's really not worth bothering with. As unfortunate as it is that comics stores will probably continue to shrink into nothingness due to these attitudes, I'm happy to let them and their infantile tastes sit in their own closed off room and stagnate until they disappear. If you bother to give him any more attention, it's much more than he deserves.
 
 
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