Saturday, April 08, 2017

A Vanishing American Art Form

This week I read articles about plummeting sales at Marvel Comics Group (part of Disney). Some people (including some Marvel editors) were blaming the recent attempt to "diversify" the characters by reinterpreting old standbys and new creations as racially, ethnically, gender, and sexually inclusive. Apparently this editorial move coincided with vanishing sales.

But the editors and comic reporters got it wrong. They are right in that the comic book--one of the true American art forms--is dying out. But they missed the reason for it. Comics are dying out because the industry abandoned the kind of diversity that matters--comics that cater to all kinds of tastes.

The HUGE problem with "mainstream" comics is that they aren't mainstream. They are dominated by silly superhero comics. Now, don't get me wrong. To paraphrase Paul McCartney, I love silly superhero comics. I love them so much that I even wrote a superhero novel. I would like to write more of them. Superhero comics have their place. They should probably be a part of the comics publishing business. But they shouldn't be 99% of it! Imagine, for instance, you went into a library or bookstore and 99 out of 100 of the books in it were about superheroes. 

Comics by their nature tend to tilt toward genre fiction, but there was a time when there was every kind of comic book you could imagine selling in huge numbers. Comic books about policemen, criminals, sports figures, animals, history, military, funny animals, humor, teenagers, romance, horror, science-fiction, fantasy, classic fiction, westerns, movie adaptation, trains, cars, etc. etc. etc.

Superheroes came along and began to overwhelm the industry when first DC, and then Jack Kirby (at Marvel, the company that Kirby built) brought them back. They kicked Donald Duck and Richie Rich and Classics Illustrated and everything else to the gutter and have run roughshod over the comic book publishing business ever since.


Either the industry finds a way to start selling all kinds of comics to the public, or they fade away and go extinct. A variety of types of comics that appeals to a huge and varied audience is what will save the industry. Not some whining liberal's version of "diversity".

Jack Kirby, the man who created Marvel Comics (and who could create and write and illustrate any kind of comic) was ironically responsible principally for the dominance of the superhero genre that has overwhelmed comic book publishing since 1961.
 And here is but a taste of the kinds of comic books that the superhero genre has overwhelmed and crushed. Gone, now, from the newsstands. Absent from the book shops. Vanished even from the comic book specialty stores. Unless the industry can somehow bring back this kind of variety, the business and art form will soon become extinct. (Scroll down.)

These barely scratch the surface of variety that people used to see when approaching a newsstand where comics were on display. No wonder the market is vanishing.


Colleen Yarnell said...

I collected richie Rich and Archie, Betty and Veronica, Mad Comics. As an elementary librarian there is a huge rise in the graphic novel for kids. Fiction and nonfiction are very popular-Beaver Brothers, Narwhale, El Deafo, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bone. Also graphic novel versions of classic novels-Babysitters club, Boxcar Children...

James Robert Smith said...

Good to hear!

I read The Boxcar Children as a kid. Hard to believe it's still selling, but also wonderful that it has that kind of longevity.

When I was a kid, my writing teacher was Doris Buchanan Smith. Her novel A TASTE OF BLACKBERRIES is still in print, I believe. That's a respectable publication record.