I had an interesting experience this weekend at a yard sale on my street. While digging through a bin full of kids’ clothes in hopes of finding some for my two-year-old son, I had a Spider-Man t-shirt thrust into my hands. “Trust me,” said the father of the boy whose old toys and clothes were being sold, “when he turns three he’ll be demanding that you get him one.”
It’s true; my neighbourhood is full of kids, and nearly all of the boys routinely wear clothing with logos or images of superheroes; Spider-Man is easily the most popular, but I often see Superman, Batman and occasionally Wolverine. Love of superheroes seems to be an almost universal phenomenon among boys of a particular age. At the same time, it’s almost certain that few of those boys will wind up being regular or even occasional comics readers. This presents us with a paradox: superheroes are more prominent in popular culture than ever (particularly kids’ culture), but fewer and fewer people are reading comics – and almost none of them are kids.
I don’t need to tell you what you’ll see if you go into a typical comics shop: adults, and not even particularly young ones. Sure, you’ll see a few teens, but odds are they’re there for whatever anime and manga the shop sells – and you certainly won’t see anyone under thirteen. This isn’t a new problem, and lots of people have discussed the reasons for it and possible strategies for addressing it. But I’d like to raise two points that I’ve never heard mentioned. First, that the loss of the children’s market is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what kids’ comics are for; second, that the paradox I describe above is not actually a paradox, in that the omnipresence of superheroes in media and merchandising is actually a cause of the loss of the children’s market.
Let’s start with the purpose of comics. Not the purpose of comics for you and me, or the purpose of comics for the kid who might theoretically read them, but the purpose they serve for the parents who might conceivably buy a comic for their child. For parents, comics are not an entertainment medium; they are a distraction device. Think back to your earliest childhood experiences with comics. Here are mine: being bought comics to keep me quiet at restaurants while we waited for the food; being bought comics to keep me quiet in the car while we drove to the cottage; being given comics in my Christmas stocking to keep me quiet while my parents slept a few more hours… getting the picture? So long as the content isn’t explicitly offensive (are you reading this, dismemberment fans?) parents don’t care what’s in a comic so long as it distracts Junior for a reasonable amount of time. Once you look at it that way, you see why comics for kids don’t work today. You need to go to a special store to buy them, and the price-to-value ratio is terrible – especially when you compare them to an in-car DVD player or an iPhone. (There’s a reason the NFB’s free library is one of the top iPhone apps.)
That covers the parent side of the equation, but what about the kids? Children can whine hard enough to overcome nearly any parental reluctance to buy something, so if they’re so keen on superheroes why aren’t they demanding comics? Because they don’t particularly want to read Spider-Man comics; they want to be able to project themselves onto Spider-Man as a fantasy figure, and they don’t care whether they get that fix from movies, TV, the Web, their t-shirts or Underoos. This is where it gets counter-intuitive: rather than leading kids to comics, the merchandising is satisfying a need that once only comics could meet (of course, it doesn’t help that in many cases the media versions are better than the comics ones.)
So what can comics publishers do to get kids reading comics again? Well, they’re not going to do it by publishing kid-friendly comics in the traditional format; as good as those individual comics may sometimes be, they don’t meet parents’ value-for-cost analysis, and they don’t meet kids’ need for superhero fantasy any better than do other sources they can access more easily. What they need to do instead is make printed comics that are bigger and cheaper (imagine a scaled-down version of Marvel’s Essentials line) and sell them everywhere: gas stations, convenience store, grocery stores – you know, everywhere you used to buy comics. Or they can give up physical comics and concentrate on the Web – or, what’s really the most rational option, give up on comics entirely and simply license the characters.