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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:


“Oh such a burden, to be so relied on.”

Don’t bother Googling it. That’s from Brian Eno’s “Cindy Says” off of the titanic HERE COME THE WARM JETS from…1973…? If you don’t know it already, then do yourself a favor and go download it (but be sure to sent him fifteen bucks by way of Paypal or something) or trundle down to your local record store and just buy it. If you don’t like it, I’ll send you a free comic book or something.

Last week, I presented some musings as to where comic fans actually came from. A fair question as even cigarette manufacturers know where the next generation of smokers come from, just like those nice folks in Lynchburg know where the next bunch of Jack Daniels drinkers are coming from. All those advertisements you see? They’re not for the current consumers, but for those teenagers and folks over the age of twenty-one who haven’t yet made their minds up as to whether they’re gonna smoke Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, whether they’re gonna be Johnny Walker or Glenfiddich sippers. The people consuming such luxuries (in a legal and purely responsible manner) have already fixated on a brand or narrow range of brands. They’re set. They’ll know which shelves to gravitate towards when they stroll into a finer liquor store or smoker’s establishment (are there even Tobbacoist’s shops any longer?)

Now, granted, there’s gonna be Batman fans or Superman fans for life (Superman, when written well trumps Batman any time, but it’s easier to get Batman mostly right) or X-Men versus Avengers fans (X-Men, almost always, though my favorite single issue of a team book is an Avengers annual—you know the one). There’re even Marvel loyalists and DC loyalists (grew up on Marvel comics myself, so I’ve got quite a soft spot for Marvel up to about 1987 or so, though a handful of DC books shook me and everyone else up in the middle 80s, famous enough that I shouldn’t have to spell them out for you). And yes, there’s even folks who identify themselves as primarily artcomix fans. Wouldn’t want to leave them out. Nor would I wish to discount the “only like manga” fans. I suppose there’s Image comics fans, but I imagine that designation would be more appropriate for the period from about a decade ago. Nowadays Image is too much of a mixed bag to inspire a single, unified fandom. (God bless ‘em for that, since they’re actually publishing stuff that’s different and yet still primarily entertaining.)

That’s all well and good. We’re solidly factionalized.* We’ve got our battle lines all drawn out and we’re gonna show those rubes/snobs what good comics is all about--LET ‘EM HAVE IT! FULL POWER TO THE MAIN CANNONS! Man, that was satisfying. Gimme a cigarette; I’m gonna enjoy this post-ravaging cigarette (if over 18) and snort of hooch (if over 21), because I really showed those other jerks what good comics are! Behold my wit and witticism.

Ah. I caught myself. I was wandering again.

What’s the path for comics readership though? Where are the new readers coming from if at all? Let’s look at a few of the possibilities.

Children’s comics. Well, assuming these can be found in places where kids actually go, they could do the job. The problem is jumping from say BATMAN STRIKES to any of the current BATMAN books. I don’t see it happening immediately. Want to know why? Well, primarily because the reading experiences are so utterly different. One is accessible with easy to follow art and storylines that can reward surface reads (and wink at older readers). The other is generally a story/continuity driven exercise with no clear set reading strategy and aimed at an audience that’s been following the character for literally years. Yes, I can sweep a generalization with the best of them. I never said I couldn’t. But more importantly than that, what’s going to get a kid reading children’s comics? Cartoons/toys/paraphernalia? Sure, there’s some of that at work. But if that’s true, then let’s look at another category of work altogether.

Manga. Manga’s overnight success in the marketplace only came after a major confluence of events. One, and this is one that’s almost never brought up in these discussions, but is crucial, is the stream of anime material that’s been shown in the US since literally the seventies. And that stream has grown into a torrent, starting in the nineties really. Let’s not forget the infusion of the anime aesthetic into videogame platforms of the era as well (mostly because the same things that made the anime style cheap on celluloid made it resource-cheap on the first run of 8 and 16-bit gaming machines). Kids have been primed to respond to the BESM style. Throw in things like diversity of material (ie, stretching beyond capes), availability of long storylines nearly immediately, crazed demented imagination, cheapness (both on the production/translation end of things and the cover price) and bookstore-friendly sizing/spine width, and manga suddenly has a lot going for it in this regard. Will this translate into any reading of western-style material? Dunno. I’m not qualified to judge that, most likely. However, I will note that most manga readers aren’t frightened by a lack of color on the page, as opposed to “typical” western comics readers who shy away from anything that is neither garish nor four-colored.

Movies! Boy, those Spider-Man movies sure have translated into major successes for the Spider-Man comics franchise, right? The comics exist so that the movies can be made. Now that the movies have been made, the comics aren’t all that critical (but to the legacy readers – and to the retailers who keep their rent paid with these books.) Coming back to cartoons for a second, my suspicion is that when the cartoons resemble the comics or vice versa, there’s a better shot at a fan of one being amenable to the other. If they can find the comics. Yes, I know. I keep harping on this point.

Spontaneous Bookstore Conversions. All those awesome reprint volumes like SHOWCASE and ESSENTIALS? Man, I love those. They’re great. Awesome value for the dollar, enough so I buy the really stupid ones like ESSENTIAL GODZILLA and HAUNTED TANK. But I’m an old guy who wants to read old comics. My son thinks these make for awesome coloring books, but he won’t read ‘em. Maybe in a few years, but I dunno. My gut feeling is that these are made to service another segment of the legacy market, one that wants to dig into the old comics that were always just out of reach by way of back issues.

Webcomics. Now here’s something interesting, which I haven’t done a lot of research into. Webcomics have a lot going for them, immediacy (they’re right there on tha interweb), non-reliance on old franchises that are impenetrable (though I understand that you can read the current Schultz/Gianni PRINCE VALIANT online now), fresh voices (which means a lot of weeding out the junky stuff, but hey, whaddya gonna do?) Call me crazy for going out on a limb here, but these guys (and gals) may indeed be onto something. Just ‘cause old folks like me are wary of the digital-only platform doesn’t mean that kids are. Now, if these folks can keep coming up with business models that will keep the rent paid so they can keep generating content to build a sustainable readership, they have nowhere to go but up. As of where they stand now, not sure. Things are still too much in flux, kinda like determining the hurricane season for 2008 based on the butterfly farm you’re keeping in your backyard.

What have I missed here? I suppose there’s the family that passes a love of comics down from one to the other. But I’m telling you, that’s not a slam dunk. Unless it’s got Darth Vader in it, my son is having none of it. I keep waving I SHALL DESTROY ALL CIVILIZED PLANETS under his nose and he keeps looking at me like I’m a crazy man.

Sigh. And here I was all set to talk about comics journalism, but I’m all out of space for this week. Maybe next time.

* - This is lazy shorthand. Comics are actually not broadly factionalized in my experience: most of the people I talk with online and in the Real World read a wide variety of comics from the sacred holiness of Pure Art Comix to the vulgar profanity of the latest tentpole crossover event.

Matt Maxwell

Check out the trailer for Matt's STRANGEWAYS: MURDER MOON!:

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