The Trouble With Comic Books…

It’s an interesting paradox -of sorts- these days: Until COVID-19 came and disrupted our lives, some of the biggest box-office hits were movies based on comic books.

I’m referring, of course, to the Marvel Comics films and the DC Universe films. Each release seemed to bring out audiences (some, granted, more than others) and bring their studios, Disney and Warner Brothers, huge returns on their investments…

…and yet…

Comic books themselves -or graphic novels, if you prefer that term- seem to be floundering. Sales have been falling for decades now. Hell, I recall interviews with artists/writers from the 1980’s where they talked about how in the 1970’s they were certain the comic book field would die out.

It didn’t, of course, but the scariest thing to realize is that sales of books back in the 1970’s, again, a decade where many thought the industry was on the verge of elimination, was incredible considering sales of books nowadays.

Back then, comic books were present in many places, from drug stores to supermarkets to large stores like Woolworth or K-Mart.

The first comic books I bought way back then were indeed in these places. In fact, Swamp Thing #10, still my all around favorite comic book and the one that made me realize comic books could be art, I found in a local drugstore one day in 1974 (its cover date release is June of that year).

During that time, comic books that sold less than 100,000 copies were considered failures and cancelled. Nowadays, its not unheard of that a relatively popular book sells no more than 20,000 copies and some struggle to sell even 10,000.

Compare this, by the way, to sales figures of comic books in the 1940’s, where some comics boasted sales approaching one million copies!

So, yes, there has been a downward spiral here of sales of comic books over the many years and, nowadays, that number is becoming downright scary and, considering how popular many of these characters seem to be on the big screen, its rather perplexing, no?

There is no lack of opinion as to what’s wrong with the comic book industry and what can be done to aid it.

Writer/creator Gerry Conway, perhaps best known for creating The Punisher and writing the Gwen Stacy storyline in Spider-Man, offers his perspective on what can be done to help the comic book industry:

His plan isn’t new. Artist/writer John Byrne has expressed similar sentiments for quite some time now.

But what gets me is that people like Gerry Conway and John Byrne are somewhat responsible for the predicament comics are in today, even if they correctly point out how things could be made better.

John Bryne, for those unaware, is probably one of the bigger influences on film. He worked on X-Men when they started to go nuclear, making Wolverine (who, it should be noted, he didn’t create) into the character we’re familiar with on the screen. He also had well received runs on both The Fantastic Four and Superman, among others.

Mr. Byrne, as Mr. Conway does in this statement, has noted that one of the biggest problems with comic books occurred when the fans became the creators. Before, up to perhaps the late 1960’s, comic book work was considered a proper job and many of the people involved in them worked them like a 9 to 5 affair, showing up, doing their work, then clocking out when done. They may not have had any special affinity to any of the characters or stories, doing their best each time they were assigned a job and finishing it in its proper deadline.

Books back then also were simpler: A story would be told usually in one issue (rarely more than one) and when the next issue came out, just about anyone could pick it up and get enjoyment out of it.

Not so for more recent books. There has been soap opera levels of backstory ingrained into just about every book nowadays to the point where you are expected to know far more about a character, side-characters, villains, etc. etc. to get enjoyment out of books.

Frankly, even as a fan of many characters and someone who picks up the odd book here and there, its not easy nowadays to just pick some random comic book and get your money’s worth.

Often, the book will be but a part/chapter of a bigger story. This is the result of trade paperbacks (TPBs) which are increasingly popular nowadays but have rendered the individual comic less and less necessary.

Why would I pay for a single comic book issue, say a part of a 4-part story, rather than simply wait for the book to be collected into a TPB?

One of the better comic books runs of the 1970’s, IMHO, was the Michael Fleischer written Jonah Hex. For some 12 years, Mr. Fleischer wrote issue after issue of Jonah Hex, a western book, and each issue was essentially a self-contained story. Anyone could pick up any issue of his run and get a complete story presented, with a clear beginning, middle, and ending and get their money’s worth.

The stories, by the way, weren’t simplistic. They were often quite adult. There was a longish storyline snaking through the books for maybe a year or so, but as a reader you were never confused or left wondering what the hell was going on. Recaps were clearly presented and you were rarely, if ever, left with a “to be continued” blurb at the end of any one particular issue.

Not so with comic nowadays.

Mr. Conway -and Mr. Byrne before him- laments this fact, that you can’t just pick up a comic book and get enjoyment out of an individual issue, that you somehow have to get up to date with so many storylines and concepts that turn off any first time reader.

I think they’re not wrong but, again, it seems to me some of the books they worked on in the past were guilty of this as well.

Mr. Conway, and again Mr. Byrne beforehand, also feel comics should cater to younger audiences. Mr. Conway notes that when visiting the offices of DC comics in the 1960’s and before he became a pro, he talked to editor Julius Schwartz about some story idea and when asked his age -and telling Mr. Schwartz he was 14- was told he was “too old” for the comic book audience of the time.

So Mr. Conway and Byrne feel that comics need to cater to younger audiences, that they cater to people who are older.

To which I say: They should cater to younger audiences and its a shame they currently do cater to older readers, it seems, almost exclusively.

And yet again, Mr. Conway and Byrne, I feel were participants in the way comics were molded in the 1970’s and 80’s to cater to older readers. Their stories (not all, granted) tended to be more “mature” in their perspective. Certainly Mr. Conway’s best known story, that involving Gwen Stacy -and her fate- was a hard-hitting story involving loss and grief. Mr. Byrne, for his part, molded what was arguably one of the first of the bloodthirsty anti-heroes with his portrayal of Wolverine.

Still, even if they had a hand in the way things have shaped up today, they’re not wrong.

Comics should cater to younger audiences and they should once again be available in all the venues possible rather than simply in specialty comic book stores.

They should remove the barnacles of continuity and become less complicated/complex and more new-reader friendly.

Thing is: There’s nothing to say we can’t do both and in this I also agree with Mr. Conway: Have TPBs released which cater to older readers and have regular books which target the younger reader who is curious about the character but finds themselves overwhelmed and unable to just “dive in” to any book without becoming overwhelmed by backstory.

It’s a way forward, certainly, but can it bring back the comic book industry?

Until and unless its implemented, we won’t know.