15 May 2009

The Myth of the Fall of the American Comic Book

Last July, Jim Henley at Tor took issue with a standard history of American comics publishing.

The medium of comics has a Myth of the Fall that [Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics] touches on, and that one finds elsewhere among critics, advocates and certain practitioners, and goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience--especially children--to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that's what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them.

As a result, circulations plummeted, the mass audience tuned out, and "pop" comic books lost their general-issue appeal, becoming the preoccupation of a dwindling audience of aging fanboys. Only once the independent comics (aka "comix") movement gathered steam from the late 1980s to early in the new millennium did at least a portion of the industry dare to provide the variety of sequential-art narratives that would appeal to a large audience.

This myth is very nearly completely backwards.

When I think of the 1970s, I think of the major comics publishers trying like hell to stay viable in the general-interest market and failing. The long-term trends in comic-book circulation. from the 1940s to the 2000s, move almost inexorably downward, except for a speculator-driven bubble for a few years around 1990.
The top-selling comic books of the 1940s and early 1950s (Captain Marvel, Disney) had circulations of well over 1,000,000 copies each month. But the data I pointed to in my discussion of the legend of the "New Look" Batman show that in the 1960s the top magazines were selling under a million, even with the boost of the Batman TV show. Henley had found the same data source:
By 1969, the top two comics, Archie and Superman, barely break the half-million-copy mark per issue, and the average circulation is about a quarter million.

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics tried publishing sword & sorcery titles (licensed from the estate of Robert E. Howard), monster titles (Wolk offers a lengthy appreciation of the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Tomb of Dracula in Reading Comics), war comics (Combat Kelly seems to have failed in 1972), jungle adventure (Shanna the She-Devil sputtered out after two attempts), even Romance--Millie the Model lasted until 1973.

DC tried science fiction (Kamandi), horror (House of Mystery and House of Secrets), war (as late as 1979 they debuted All-Out War, which appears to have lasted six issues). Marvel tried an entire line of black & white full-trim magazines, tending towards horror and science fiction.

None of it worked, except--sort of--the superheroes. . . .

Newsstand distributors and retailers gave up on comics because the low price points made them unprofitable compared to other things they could be selling--one reason Marvel tried to become a magazine publisher. The comic-book industry fled to the direct market just ahead of a cave-in. They took refuge in superhero comics because nothing else worked. . . .

Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?

I think it's because superheroes really did remain comic books' competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn't.
But now digital imaging allows superheroics to appear on the movie, TV, or videogame screens. And the latest comic-book sales figures say that in March no magazine sold more than 100,000 copies through the Diamond distributorship, even DC and Marvel's heavily promoted "event" titles.

Comics publishing is therefore becoming more like prose-book publishing. There's a wide range of styles, genres, subjects, and reading levels on the market, from a variety of creators and publishers--few of whom are very profitable, or profitable at all. Even so, the medium's biggest long-term potential seems to lie outside monthly magazine publishing, in some combination of digital and book formats.


AliceB said...

You know, I bought into the myth completely. I think because when I was growing up -- 60s and 70s -- there seemed to be more variety, even if the numbers didn't reflect more sales. I distinctly recall starting with Harvey Comics (Casper, Hot Stuff, Wendy, Baby Huey, etc.), ignoring the Romance and War comics as I moved to superheros and the occasional Archie Comics, discovering Mad Magazine and even more superheroes, and then, in the early 80s discovering the work of Alan Moore in Swamp Thing, and then Neil Gaiman, and well, going on from there.

It had the feel of a progression -- as though the titles were always there, ready for my next level of maturity. (Of course there are some who would question whether "maturity" is the right word.) So from my limited personal experience, I extrapolated that, yes, there used to be a lot more out there. Which confirms the old saw: beware the single data point.

Gideon said...

In my perception, neither the myth nor the anti-myth are relevant. What happened is that they ran out of ideas. If there's nothing new, and it's not a pounder, why buy the comic? It all comes down to newness.

I started reading comics in the early 40's. Once they got past the mere reprinting of newspaper strips they turned out some innovative and interesting stories. By the early 50's even the duck and the mouse were engaging in increasingly gritty and or hilarious situations. Square eggs! About the time the Big Red Cheese, the Bat, Supes and Plaz started repeating, the threat of censorship kneecapped it all.

By the late 50's all the innovation was happening in science fiction. Comics had become repetative and boring. Then science fiction ran out of alien weirdness and started going into psi and sex, and wandered on off into fantasy.
The underground comics were good but even outrageosity gets old after a while.
Some good new perspectives in manga for a long time. But it's run out too.

From forever there are only a few authors of anything able to come up with consistent new and interesting stuff. And even the good ones have to watch out that they don't run their series into the ground. There's not much out there now. Willingham may be able to keep it going. Pratchett's a marvel even with brain fuzz. Green, Fforde and Butcher seem to be on the bare edge though I hope not.

Most of the American giants are dead. Sandman ran out of gas before the series ended. The Baroque Cycle trivialized why Newton invented calculus. That kind of simplification is the bane of newness.

The innovative authors have shrunk to a very few and only a pittance of them are doing graphics. The youth market still has some newness and grotesqueries but it tends to be a bit bland.

In short, I have to scratch to feed my reading habit. Too much potatoes and too little gravy. And with a few notable exceptions, comics have been dried out french fries since the 50's.