FALSE Assumptions Non-Comic Readers Make About Comics

May 16, 2011

With Thor doing big things at the box office , now is as good as ever to do this article that I’ve been kicking around the past few weeks. My initial inspiration for this piece came from the comment threads on the various news-stories reporting the “controversy” in a recent celebratory issue of Superman in Action Comics #900. For those of you that missed it (it did become widely reported for all of 12 hours or so but those were the pre-death-of-bin-Laden-news-reporting-days) in a back up story in that landmark issue, Superman vowed to renounce his US citizenship so that his actions abroad would not be construed as actions of the US and that in a globalized and “smaller” world, he should serve and protect as citizen of the world. Anyway, many conservative sources lambasted this “liberal agenda” to, as some claimed, “brainwash our children.” Anyway, the comment threads on these stories, like the comment threads on every story the mainstream media has reported regarding comics in the past few years (Captain America’s assassination, Wonder Woman’s costume change, the Superman revamped earth-one origin in Stracyznski’s graphic novel), were laden with false assumptions by casual news readers who had never, or at least not in the past 30 years, read a comic (just like those reporting these stories). So what follows are 10 attempts to correct some broad false assumptions non-comic fans make concerning comics.

* Children make up the bulk of the audience for comic books

Those that worry DC has a nefarious plan to brainwash children into liberal hippies need not have too much concern because those under 18 make up a very small corner of comic readership. Though actual statistics drawn from research into the matter aren’t a deep well, most data of any kind point to the average reader being mid to late twenties; 28 comes up as the “average reader” in many sources, but arguments could easily be made for the mid-thirties being closer to the truth. Regardless, the under 16 crowd is not even a notable fraction of the comic readership base. Go into any comic shop in the US and you will likely find 20, 30, 40, and 50-year-old guys scattered about, especially on “new comics” day (Wednesday) when the new titles ship each week (occasionally women as well, though comics, particularly “mainstream” comics are more than 3/4 male supported). There are a number of reasons for this, some good some bad; positively, it means that comic publishers have managed to retain an audience over a long portion of time or at least able to entice “return customers” to begin following the adventures of characters in a medium they likely first encountered in adolescence. Also, because of this comics have aimed at telling stories that older readers want to read; thus writers in even the “juvenile’ genre of super-hero comics often finds ways to tell mature, thoughtful, or at least exciting stories adults want to read. Negatively, the reason more children aren’t reading is because comics are sold through a direct-market system: comic publishers sell through a third-party distributor (primarily “Diamond Comics Distributor”) which ships their products to comic shops which sell those comics to readers. This has been the primary model since the 1980s; and increasingly the local comic shop (with the more recent competition of online direct market options) has become the ONLY place to purchase the majority of comic titles. Remember the spinning racks at bookstores, grocery stores, gas stations, etc? When’s the last time you saw one of those? Most non-comic-shop locations no longer sell comics and unless the parents are readers themselves, most won’t take their children to the comic shop very often and if they do, they will likely notice many of these places aren’t exactly kid friendly or welcoming to the under 16 crowd.

* Comics are only about superheroes

Recent movies based on comics certainly show that super heroes are certainly big in comics–Thor, Batman, Iron Man, etc. Yet some great movies in recent years not about superheroes were also based on comics–V For Vendetta, Ghost World, Persepolis, and Road to Perdition to name a few. But certainly superheroes are the primary focus of the majority of comics to line the shelves in your average comic shop and their exploits make-up almost the entirety of “mainstream” comics. Yet scratch just a bit below the surface and you’ll find a breadth of creativity and a wealth of variety. Published as an imprint of DC is the Vertigo line which distributes cutting-edge subject matter and plots by new talent with the power and backing of  a mainstream company. Vertigo has delivered some of the best and most ground-breaking work in the history of comics: the award-winning high-brow literary epic The Sandman; the neo-noir impeccably plotted begging-for-an-HBO adaptation 100 Bullets; the dystopian gender-issue action adventure Y the Last Man; the religious mythology challenging Preacher; and the current soon-to-be classics Scalped, Northlanders and The Unwritten to name just a few. Artists and writers who went on to great acclaim and creative excellence in comics, film, and literature such as Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, and Brian Azarello all put in early work at Vertigo. Then there are the myriad of titles  cranked out by various independent publishers that are thoughtful, challenging, literate titles about everything from complicated romantic entanglements (Strangers in Paradise) to ghosts, murder, and mysteries (Locke and Key), or that focus on youthful attempts at growing up and coming into ones own as a springboard for detailing the geographic scenes in minute and exquisite detail of every town along the way (Local).

* “Real” writers don’t write comics

Define “real writer” for me anyway. Regardless, you have comic scribes who win acclaim for the medium and then go on to do the same with novels, short stories, and screenplays (Neil Gaiman); you have screenwriters and novelists who try their hand at comics to great results (Joe Hill, Brad Meltzer, Joss Whedon). Then you have great writers, past and present, who just understand how to tell a great story and find the best medium to do that in to be comics, independent or mainstream (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Gail Simone, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, etc.)

* Comics are cheap and disposable/  Comics are valuable Collectibles

Both of these seemingly opposite sentiments are both wrong when they push too far to either extreme.  Chances are the majority of comics you buy new off the shelf this year will not be worth even the cover price in a couple of months. Those that stock up on new comics for investments are the few and far between misguided folks who think it’s the early nineties again. Yet you won’t get these comics too cheap either, with DC charging 2.99 an issue, Marvel charging 3.99 for most issues, and independent companies falling somewhere between. Many shops offer discounts to subscribers and online options can save you a ton of cash, but if you want the experience (like most do) of going into the shop on Wednesday to pick up your new titles, to read them as they come out in installments waiting to see what will happen next, and conversing about them with your on and off-line friends, you’re going to be spending a few bucks to do so and if you don’t plan on keeping them to reread, file, and enjoy later, then you’re paying for a one-time use of each of those comics that even when read carefully and correctly will take all of 15 minutes a piece.On the other hand, a good way that comics not  “cheap and disposable,” is in the massive market for high-quality trades and collections. Want a leather-bound, sewn-bound, complete run of your favorite series in a large format with remastered print from the ’50s or even last year? You can probably find it; it will look great on your shelf, it will hold up to as many readings as you desire, and it will work great as a loan to friends you want to hook to your hobby. Don’t want to pay for the monthly installments of your title and are not to worried about staying in the circle of dialogue and speculation about the monthly plots? Then hold out 6 months, you can find a cheap paperback collection of the complete story0arc of any title you wish that will deliver the story just as entertainingly but for a fraction of the cost.

* Comic readers all look and act like that guy from The Simpsons.

We don’t. Well, at least not all of us.

* Comics are those things in the newspaper

So there’s this thing called “National Read Comics in Public Day.” It’s main purpose is to get those various folks who read all varieties of comics out in the parks, bars, subways, etc. reading them in front of the general public to let the masses who don’t know what they are understand a better idea of the variety inherent both in them and in their fan-base. Anyway, NPR did a story on it and hyped it for its fans and random folks in the comment threads incessantly referenced the “funnies.” NOT the same thing; those do employ graphic storytelling, but of a much more primitive method. Certain strips and the creators producing those strips have excelled in that medium making such a “primitive” art form classic, enduring and literate (Peanuts, Doonesubury, etc.), but the average “funny” is not the same thing as the average graphic novel. Oh, and drivel like The Family Circus and even the deeply funny Far Side are not even comic strips–a single panel without movement is its own art form and medium.

* Comics are a derivative medium

Graphic storytelling via the comic medium is an artistic outlet like no other; they are not “picture books” and the story you read in a novel or watch on the big screen cannot do the exact things that a comic can–those other mediums can tell stories equally as good (or as bad) as a comic, they just cannot tell the story in the exact way that a comic can. Film more than any other medium comes closest in that it also tells a story with words and pictures, but comics are like films with no budget and no limitation other than the imagination of the author and artist. Scott McCloud wrote a wonderful non-fiction graphic novel exploration of what comics are and how they function as a medium, Understanding Comics. He brilliantly walks readers through the tools graphic storytellers have at their disposal. Not every comic employs all of these tools, but the good ones do; comics are about making the pictures move in your mind, and often the action that occurs between the panels. They’re about the rapport between the writer and the artist, finding those great partnerships when the scenes a writer envisions are brought to life, framed, and detailed for an audience. Comics can work in a fluid, fast manner or a slow, attentive-to-detail meander, or even a back-and-forth between the two. They can tell you a whole story or bring you to a cliffhanger and make you wait. They can direct where you place your eyes and what you see there. They can do more than any other visual medium when they are truly produced by artists at the top of their game.

* Comics are misogynistic or sexist.

This one too often comes even from within the fan-base, usually from readers who consider themselves connoisseurs of literate, alternative, and “artistic” works tired of “defending” themselves to the non-comic reading public and in doing so concede that mainstream comics are sexist, but they aren’t fans of that kind of comic. There are great comics all around, past and present; some mainstream, some alternative, some wordy, some pure escapism and zany. So fine, if you only like the “literate” and “respectable” titles, that’s okay. But don’t condemn the majority of titles as “sexist” let alone “misogynistic” just because they aren’t your cup of tea. First off, misogynistic is a strong word implying degradation, violence against women, and a boys-club ethos of superiority over the other sex. I don’t find this in mainstream comics on any notable basis. So let’s go with “sexist.” This claim is drawn basically from the artwork that depicting colorful drawings of women with “exaggerated” female forms in skimpy, tight costumes (or less). Those certainly do abound in the superhero genre. So if the claim is that this alone makes them sexist or degrading, I suppose there is not much of an argument to counter that with. But such an assumption is false. Superficially, everything in superhero comics is drawn in over-the-top exaggerated ways; sure most women don’t look or dress like Wonder Woman, but do most men look or dress like Superman? Hardly. Their physical forms are largely unattainable for either gender and that is because superhero comics are pure fantasy. Moving past the superficial level (and completely ignoring the many pencilers who employ creative, “alternative” art styles to “mainstream” works), what can be pointed to in said comics that is sexist beyond appearance? Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Zatanna, She Hulk, Black Widow, etc are never “second-tier” to their male companions. DC has done great things with female leads in their own titles–Batgirl, Power Girl, Supergirl, Zatanna–and over at Marvel Sue Storm, Maria Hill, Mystique and the rest are never the sort to cow to male advice or commands. Oracle practically orchestrates every “bat” hero from her wheelchair and can still take care of herself in the field! Wonder Woman is just as strong and intimidating to the guys in her world both as hero and off-duty in her personal relationships! I’ve never seen (at least in modern times) a scene in mainstream comics where the male heroes chat about their superiority over the women either. Even the most provocatively dressed characters like Vampirella or Red Sonja (in horror and fantasy genres no less) are strong, intelligent, quick-witted protagonists who never falter against even their strongest male counterparts (Dracula and Conan, respectively). In the comics field itself we have strong female writers (Gail Simone) who have written some of those titles (Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman), and even artists who play up the campy eye candy (Amanda Connor). Female publishers and executives can be found at DC; some of the smartest critical reviews of comics are done by women (Blair Butler at G4s Fresh Ink, Sarah Morean at The Daily Crosshatch). Sure there are more down to earth, inspiring and realistic portrayals of women in comics (Strangers in Paradise, Love and Rockets, Local, Echo, etc). But don’t unfairly blanket the over-the-top escapism of the mainstream as being sexist simply for exaggerated artwork.

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