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Are Comics Dead?

An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Comic Books, R.I.P.?

As everyone knows, the public perceives comic books poorly. Comics are for kids and other emotionally arrested people. Confirming the point is a note about Black Scorpion, a new series on the Sci-Fi channel. From the LA Times, 2/20/01:

[Co-creator Roger Corman] insisted the show have broad commercial appeal. Hence, the cool cars, chase scenes, special effects, constant action and tiny outfits.

"It's a little T&A, but only a little," said Bonnie Hammer, the network's general manager. "It's meant to be comic book in style. It's not meant to be a serious, profound experience."

The results of this poor image are painfully clear. From the LA Times, 3/25/01:

[Comics are] struggling with dwindling circulation and a host of rivals: video games, the Internet, the World Wrestling Federation, Harry Potter and every other competitor for the time and money of young people. Last year, comic book sales in the U.S. were in the neighborhood of $375 million, down significantly from the boom days of the 1980s and early '90s, when the total peaked at $1 billion.

Comics:  R.I.P.?
I'm beginning to think—or rather, to conclude, since I've thought this before—that comics are a dead or dying medium. Although creators are doing great work in places, many books seem creatively moribund. Kids aren't impressed with the hundredth battle of Spider-Man vs. the Lizard or Flash vs. Captain Cold.

These stale comics might be palatable if they still cost 12 or 15 cents, but now the base price is $2.25 or $2.50 and climbing. The key problem is that comics are too labor-intensive to be cost-effective. It takes a team a month to put a comic together, while a thick, information- and picture-filled Time or Cosmopolitan magazine needs only a week.

Comics are no longer cost-effective, but if they were, they'd still be competing with pro wrestling and syndicated series on TV and video games and pornography on the computer screen. New forms of interactive media are especially compelling because kids can participate in and even control the action. Who wants to peruse unmoving drawings when they can be part of a "live" world?

Which also suggests why the remaining comics have been terrible in recent years. Much of the top talent may be leaving the field for more lucrative jobs in advertising or new media. The creators—and the fans—who stay may be the ones fixated on traditional superhero comics—the battles with villains, monsters, and demons.

Comics professionals like Steve Gerber and Joe Casey seem to agree. For instance, Gerber has said, "Comics today appeal only to the rarefied sensibilities of a diminishing readership." And Casey has said, "It's time to clear out all the old fart, spandex nightmare, pro wrestling crap that the mainstream has been trying to pass off as entertainment and get down to the business of making comics vital again!"

Therefore, it's good that I'll have to publish PEACE PARTY as a graphic novel, Internet comic, or prose novel. Because those mediums aren't dead or dying. Books and the Internet are still expanding their business. And I want to be where the action is.

Lawyer pronounces comics "dead"
In January 2001, I met with a lawyer who's a comic book fan. He claimed comics are "dead"—not dying, but deceased. He didn't hold out much hope for graphic novels or online comics. Ruben Chavez and I discussed this lawyer's views:

>> ...there are still rays of hope, aside from what you mentioned, another example is Tomb Raider, which is now on the verge of moviedom like the X-Men before her. <<

Is that because the comic is good or because the character is sexy? I'm afraid it's the latter.

Lara Croft was originally a video game character. Isn't the comic just exploiting her temporary popularity? I think comics based on sex and violence are doomed to fail, because eventually kids will get enough S&V from their video games or the Internet. So I'd call Tomb Raider a symptom of the disease, not a sign of a cure.

>> If comic books were completely dead, they wouldn't be making blockbuster movies about them. I hear they are getting a lot closer to producing a Spidy movie. <<

Yep, the Spidey move is in production. I wrote about the X-Men movie after I saw it. As I recall, I implied it was a rehash of an old property, which isn't what comics need. These movies may bring in people in the short term, just like Tomb Raider has, but will the people stay? Not if the comics are as bad as they are now.

It's like ABC with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or CBS with Survivor. These shows were hits because they were fads, but the ratings (for Millionaire, at least) are starting to tumble. Meanwhile, the networks are trying desperately to clone them. They may make a few bucks, but in a couple of years, they'll be looking desperately for new products.

(As of 2002, the ratings for Millionaire have officially tumbled. That this show would burn itself out by cloning itself was as predictable as Regis's "Final answer?")

Desperately seeking salvation
>> With all the printed and electronic media competition, a person has to be a little (lot) more creative. Darn it. <<

Comics need to be a lot more creative, too. Instead, Marvel's big idea is the Ultimate Line: relaunching its titles yet again. As I said to someone, Marvel has launched "universes" many times: the original universe, the New Universe, the 2099 titles, the post-Onslaught titles, the Heroes Reborn titles, the MC2 titles, and now the Ultimate titles. The recent examples have been attempts to update (i.e., simplify or dumb down) the product for kiddies. Can you say creative bankruptcy?

I don't have a real problem with creating new versions of characters for the younger generation. But the corollary should be to let the old versions grow and change. What will Marvel do in ten years when it has two twentysomething versions of Spider-Man, both living in the present, but one with an extra 40 years of baggage?

For comics not to advance their characters like real literature does is madness. Marvel first succeeded precisely by making its heroes more human than DC's. Today's comic book publishers face competition ranging from movie franchises to book series like Harry Potter. Like their characters, these publishers must evolve or die.

Speaking of Harry Potter, it was the publishing success of the year 2000. To me that only proves the market for fantasy adventure. The trick is to tap into it with the same kind of work. That means work that's witty and intelligent enough to appeal to adults, but with the energy and sense of wonder for kids.

All sorts of authors—Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Turtledove—have written what we might call imaginative fiction. Tony Hillerman has done it with his Navajo mysteries. What is PEACE PARTY except Tony Hillerman meets Harry Potter? Sounds eminently marketable to me.

The solution:  Better comics
Speaking of authors, my local comic book dealer says these days people are coming into his shop asking for hot writers, not artists. It's another sign the audience for comics is maturing, edging out the fanboys who dominate the public's perception. If compelling writing can become comics' selling point rather than glossy artwork, comics stand a chance of surviving.

Or as director Ridley Scott said about his movie Gladiator (LA Times, 3/25/01):

We ought to be a bloody sight more sophisticated than we were 35, 40 years ago. But we still make bad movies. It all boils down to story, story, story.

Story, story, story—which means eschewing the flashy juvenile elements that kids enjoy. An article hits home the need to target adults more and children less. From the LA Times, 3/30/01:

Media Giants Stress Wrong Demographic, Expert Warns

By BRIAN LOWRY, Times Staff Writer

An aging baby boomer population, combined with longer life spans, will heighten pressure on media companies to revise their obsession with the youth market, a research demographer told an audience at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood on Wednesday night.

Ken Dychtwald—author of "Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old" and head of Age Wave Inc., a research and consulting firm—noted in his hourlong presentation that the youth market is shrinking as a percentage of the overall population, "[so] any company trying to grow share against the youth market is making a very big mistake."

Citing census data and demographic trends, Dychtwald noted birth rates are declining while life expectancy keeps increasing. Moreover, older people are "absolutely not acting their age," he said, a development only sparingly recognized by the worlds of advertising and media.

"We are at the birth of a longevity revolution that will change everything," Dychtwald said, calling the baby boomers—those born in the 18 years following World War II—a "huge demographic bulge [that] is migrating out of youth," causing "incredible growth" among those 55 and older over the next decade.

Good to see the cold hard facts confirm what people like me, Steve Gerber, and Joe Casey have been saying. The market for juvenile stories featuring spandex superheroes is moribund. Kids today are more attuned to the animated flash of MTV, music videos, and video games. But more sophisticated, literate comics—your MAUS and SANDMAN, DARK KNIGHT and WATCHMEN—will appeal to the vast pool of Baby Boomers who grew up on Curt Swan's Superman, Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four, the Batman and Star Trek TV shows, and good ol' Archie. Not to mention the Gen-Xers who began reading comics with these masterpieces.

Even kids want substance
Today's teens—what one author calls the Millennials—should appreciate better comics too. "Better" starts with less pandering sex and violence. An article about—of all things—an instructional film titled "Etiquette Man" makes the point:

"Etiquette Man is so nerdy that, in a twist of logic, his message of kindness is reaching teens."

"Twenty minutes of entertainment with a little message," as the article puts it. Sounds like a good comic book.

I'm not saying bad manners are a huge problem or that we need more cornball works like "Etiquette Man." I am saying our media doesn't have to pander to kids with vulgarity, sex, and violence to make a lasting impression. "Dark" characters like Rambo, the Punisher, or the latest rap poseur come and go, while "bright" characters like Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter still inspire people.

How many people remember where they were when they first saw Nightmare on Elm Street, Death Wish, or Pulp Fiction? How many remember where they were when they first saw Star Wars? Recall that the movie industry considered Lucas's vision a huge gamble and a probable failure. Instead, it became part of the cultural landscape and influenced millions of lives.

Media moguls should rethink their conventional wisdom and try something else. Today's youths have shown they'll buy positive role models, multicultural casts, and works not steeped in sex and violence—if they're done right. In short, they'll buy more than what today's comic book publishers are offering them.

Here's what another article had to say about this generation's movie preferences. From the LA Times, 7/15/01:

Millennials like stories that are about something important, something epic. Stories about real people doing things, not phony people hyping things....[L]ike the viewers of "Dawson's Creek," with its SAT-prep vocabulary, Millennials gravitate to producers who respect their intelligence. Any adult skeptical of their prodigious appetite for left-brained complexity is hereby required to challenge a 4th grader to a Pokemon contest. "Dumb and Dumber" is out. Smart and Smarter is a better bet.

It won't be long before some producer and director achieve fame and fortune by making the next generation-defining movie—which will be for Millennials what "The Graduate" was for boomers and "Breakfast Club" was for Xers. What will this movie be like? Here's one easy bet: It will be something fresh and creative, something that captures this rising generation.


Related links
Undressed for success:  superheroes without costumes
Pop culture:  time to get serious
The future of comics

Readers respond
"'Black Scorpion' might look exactly the way it does now even if it did *not* have comic book roots."
"No, comics aren't dead, just the industry!"

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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