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Thought Bubble #3: Whither Genre Comics?

The comics medium attempts to answer a lot of big questions: Given great power, would you use it responsibly? What means are justified, when the ends are noble? If your life had a face, could I punch it? In that spirit, ComicsAlliance’s Matt Wilson is asking comics creators, retailers and commentators some big questions of his own.

In this installment, Eric Powell, Colleen Coover, Jess Fink, Jarrett Williams and Kevin Church answer the question: What’s the future of comics in genres other than superheroes?Superhero comics are the dominant force in month-to-month sales to comic book stores, and have been for a few decades now. In Diamond Comic Distributors’ June 2012 list of the 100 top-selling single issues for the month, only five titles (The Walking Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mars Attacks!, Saga and All-Star Western) fit into genres other than superhero.

It hasn’t always been this way, however. Though superheroes are the comics characters we remember from the era, the top-selling comics of The Golden Age featured cartoon characters, space adventurers and jungle strongmen. EC’s horror comics thrived, sitting alongside the romance and war comics that also populated the shelves. By the early 1950s, many superhero titles were so unpopular in comparison to other genres of comics that publishers cancelled them. It was only after the development of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 killed off horror and crime publishers like EC that superheroes could surge back to popularity in the Silver Age. Since then, superheroes have ruled the roost.

But the comics marketplace has diversified considerably over the past few years, particularly with the advent of webcomics and digital distribution. With that in mind, I spoke to some creators of comics that fall outside the superhero umbrella for their thoughts on where comics are going from here.

Eric Powell (Writer and artist, The Goon):

I hear creators lately talking about doing their own genre comics more than ever. And it seems like the public is starting to finally go, “Yeah, wait a minute. Why can’t there be different genres along side the company owned super hero titles?”

I hope the shift is happening, even if it’s slow moving. All it’s going to really take is for the majority of the comic buying populace to want it. If readers buy it, shops will order it and creators will make it.

Colleen Coover (Writer and artist, Small Favors; co-creator, Gingerbread Girl and Bandette):

It’s important to remember that there have been surges in popularity for non-superhero genres at various points in the last 30 years. With the emergence of the direct market [comic stores] over newsstand distribution in the ’80s, we got fantasy comics like ElfQuest, space opera like Nexus, urban fantasy like Mage, and magical realism like Love & Rockets. The creation of Vertigo timed nicely with the collectors’ boom in the early ’90s to give us horror/fantasy series like Sandman and Hellblazer, and the manga boom of the late ’90s brought an explosion of genres to delve into: crime drama (Sanctuary), comedy (Ranma 1/2), adventure (Sailor Moon & DragonBall) and romance (Maison Ikkoku).

I think the current lack of genre diversity in print publishing, particularly by the Big Two [Marvel and DC], is a reaction to the crisis now being faced by print publishing in general. Both the publishers and the people who order books for comic shops are going with what they know will sell, and are understandably reluctant to risk investing in the new or unfamiliar. As a result, the readership is limited to people interested in a shallow genre pool, so the market shrinks, and publishers become even more conservative.

Digital comics (and books) are able to break that vicious circle by keeping the overhead of publishing and shipping to near zero, and distributing content directly to the consumer anywhere in the world. Monkeybrain Comics has recently illustrated how that can be done, by debuting a variety of genres directly to a digital marketplace. It is the consumer who will determine if a new comic is successful, not a publisher, distributor, or shop owner. With tablets and e-readers becoming more and more affordable, I believe that the digital format is the future of creative innovation in comics.

This is not to say that print media is a thing of the past, or that comic shops should just give up and shut their doors. Kate Beaton has shown pretty decisively that you can have a successful digital comic, and then produce that comic successfully in print. Comic shops are going to need to re-evaluate their inventory, and perhaps concentrate on being the kind of specialty collectibles shops they were in the days before the direct market. It’s an exciting time to make comics, and I think for a lot of people, it’s a very exciting time to be a comics reader.

Jess Fink (Writer and artist, Chester 5000 XYV):

This is something I think about a lot!

I never read superhero comics when I was a kid. Animation was my focus for a while but when I started reading comics in high school I started with indie comics. I picked up titles like SCUD: The Disposable Assassin, The Maxx, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Tank Girl and I read some manga too. I never really saw the appeal of superhero comics. I went to school for comics, and my classes were filled with dudes who obsessed over superheroes, and I was in the minority. That’s where I first started to get bitter about the lack of appreciation for a wide variety of genres in this field.

Classes with superhero comics teachers were frustrating, all of the assignments were very limiting, and based around drawing superheroes and redesigning their outfits. Even the history of comics in those classes focused only on superheroes, never even mentioning Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay or R. Crumb. My favorite class was Storytelling with indie comics creator Tom Hart. In Tom’s class we explored all kinds of subjects and reinforced the attitude that comics could be about anything just as art and books could be about anything. Tom introduced me to Top Shelf and Fantagraphics comics as well as French comics which are very diverse.

Most fields have a variety of popular subjects and it’s odd that comics seems to be associated so heavily with this one very specific genre. There are also an amazing amount of indie comics out there to read, especially with the advent of webcomics, but despite the quantity and quality of these comics it often feels like they can never get over the hump of pop culture visibility that super hero comics have built. For this reason it sometimes feels like super hero comics are their own separate field. Indie comics cover such a vast variety of things that appeal to so many different age ranges and people, while super hero comics seem to target mostly 15-35 year old males. If anything it feels like super hero comics are niche and indie comics are completely diverse. Something like the popularity of Scott Pilgrim raises public awareness that indie/genre comics are here and there are a lot of them.

Comics is a very polarized field right now, but it’s way more diverse now than it was 15 years ago. If we look at a book like Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which has won tons of literary awards and accolades, and compare it to something like Green Lantern, which is part of pop culture, they seem like they are two things from separate worlds. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, these books are both popular and I think it’s a sign of diversity we need more of in comics. What the popularity of webcomics proves is that people want to read about a vast variety of subjects, I can only hope that this trend continues so the popular idea of what a comic is can grow.

Jarrett Williams (Writer and artist, Super Pro KO!):

When I began Super Pro K.O.!, it was mainly because I wanted to draw an epic, pro-wrestling comic series that spanned a generation or two. It was my pet project that I essentially drew for myself. I never realized that others probably wanted to see it too, because it’s such an out-the-box comic.

As for certain genres having more potential for growing readership, I would hate to think that there’s a winning formula for that sort of thing. I just assume if the creator is having a blast telling their story, then that resonates with readers on some visceral level. It’s just a matter of these stories finding their intended audience. I also have the mindset that if I want to see a genre outside of the norm get representation in print, it’s my responsibility to put it out. Whether that’s done through digital distribution, self-publishing, or traditional publishing channels, it’s my call and my responsibility to make it happen.

Superheroes are just a natural association to make with comics (no different than Barbie with toys or Monopoly with board games). Superhero comics are an easy jumping-on point for casual readers and a necessity to our business overall. However, comics like Archie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Richie Rich, Usagi Yojimbo, Dick Tracy, Curtis and more were also available to me as a kid; as a result, I grew up seeing the distinction between genres in our medium. When I travel to schools now, I see kids reading Amulet, Owly, and Bone. They’re totally aware the world of comics encompasses more than just superheroes, too.

That being said, readers will come to appreciate other genres as we (the creators) do our part to overwhelm them with those types of comics. When I look at what my peers are doing right now even at Oni Press, our comics are such a fusion of so many genres and influences. Plus, the web is a playground for new ideas so I see that as the starting point for anyone looking for something completely new and fresh. Just look at Monkeybrain and what they’re doing right now even. Also, a number of “niche” comics have crossed over to mainstream status so there’s a bit of grey area with that term to me in general. Ultimately, everyone just needs to go out and buy these comics, support them, and let the publishers know they should acquire more of them. Pick up Super Pro K.O.!, Sharknife, Crogan’s Vengeance, Remake, Reed Gunther, and every other oddball comic you see out. As these types of stories gain more exposure and sales, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see many more unconventional genre comics on shelves in the future.

Kevin Church (Writer, Wander, She Died in Terrebonne, The Rack):

I just looked at the New York Times hardcover and softcover “Graphic Books” bestseller lists for last week, while ignoring manga for the sake of this discussion, and here’s what I got: eight Batman titles (which is completely understandable,) a selection of adaptations and licensed material covering multiple genres, a few memoirs (including what may be Harvey Pekar’s final piece,) Anthony Bourdain’s first graphic novel and collections of both Fables and The Walking Dead.

The most interesting thing about a large swath of these titles is that if I walked into your typical Diamond-supplied comics shop and asked for, say Are You My Mother? or Get Jiro or even the first A Game of Thrones collection, it’s pretty likely that I’d be told something along the lines of “that stuff doesn’t sell for us.” Yes, they’d probably have The Walking Dead, but I’m getting to that.

And that’s the thing: the direct market is not the only market for comics, but it’s the one most sites like this discuss because that’s where we we’ve been going to buy comics for most of our lives. Marvel and DC focus on the direct market because they’ve got that locked down, which means they focus on what works in the direct market, which means superheroes because that’s what the people come for every Wednesday. For a lot of shops, Wednesday’s sales account for the vast majority of income they see in a week, which means they zero in on just those people and various factors — multiple titles for the same core group of characters and double shipping, to name two — force them to invest a lot of money into a very narrow range of titles, which sticks them in one genre for the most part.

I’ll give DC’s reboot some credit: Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., G.I. Combat (and the short-lived Blackhawks and Men of War) all manage to break free of the genre lockdown to some extent, but that’s a total of six titles out of how many that they’re currently publishing? Marvel, on the other hand, is happy keeping all of their non-superhero material over in their creator-owned Icon line, which still features several titles running on tights and fights. To truly break away from those genres, you have to look to other publishers: Image, Oni, etc. For most retailers, the decision to either buy the ninth Avengers comic that month that they know will sell to a core group or taking a risk on an issue of Stumptown or Elephantmen or Near Death is a no-brainer.

That’s a vicious cycle that the direct market isn’t going to break free from unless DC and Marvel decide to stop thinking on such a short-term basis and look at different genres and properties as investments. From the Big Two’s point of view, however, there’s no real reason to diversify: the vast majority of comics are barely making money, so they’re pumping an existing customer base for as much as they can while ignoring the fact that something like The Walking Dead racks up consistently large sales because it’s got an easy jumping-on point, it’s self-contained and, yes, it’s on the TV.

But would TWD have a chance if it debuted now, when Marvel and DC both are asking for more and more of a retailer’s monthly investment? I’ve talked to people at various publishers about what books like the much-heralded Prophet and Fatale actually sell in the direct market, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t help but feel that DC and Marvel’s shelf space war hurts a lot of victims that have nothing to do with the conflict, and that includes their own efforts from lines like Icon and Vertigo. I’ve been to shops that didn’t bother stocking single issues of Vertigo titles because until they went to collections, they hadn’t been proven.

Thankfully, I think — and hope, frankly, because I’ve got a vested interest in it — comiXology and the like may offer the halfway point between the direct market and the more highly curated book market that the medium needs. ComiXology doesn’t release sales figures, but the fact they’ve managed secure a spot as the highest-grossing iPad application for their core product indicates there there is a real group of people that are paying for comics just like they’re buying Angry Birds or extra weapons in whatever tower defense game they’re playing.

DC and Marvel still dominate comiXology’s charts but there’s a very distinct advantage that the digital marketplace has over the physical: Nobody is forced to buy non-returnable products three months in advance. This means that people who have an interest in comics finally have a storefront that sells them something besides Punchman Adventures #45 (Part 5 of the 13-Part Crosstime Punchfest Spectacular) or the more literary works that seem to end up on lists like the New York Times bestsellers.

The TL;DR version: I think digital means that non-superhero, non-so-called-”literary,” genre-oriented graphic novels and comics are going grow and become a significant force in the marketplace. I very much hope that leads to genre books becoming more dominant in the physical space as well.

Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful contributions. And now we put the same question to ComicsAlliance readers. What’s the future of comics in genres other than superheroes?

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