Back in 1996 or 1997, at the first or second Pro/Con, a pros-only convention that preceded WonderCon that year, there was a panel discussion spurred (though I didn’t know it at the time) by an essay written by John Workman. Gary Groth had written a response to John, and was presenting it at the con. Several of us were given Gary’s response, so we could respond to Gary, as part of a panel discussion on the subject.
The following was my response, slightly edited for print after I’d read the Workman essay—I don’t have Gary’s original essay, or John’s, but you can pretty much pick it up as you go. Anyone interested can find the whole thing in The Comics Journal #199.
Comics As A Mass Medium: Panel Discussion
When I finished reading Gary’s essay on whether comics have a future as a mass medium, the first thing I did was reach for the dictionary. Not because I didn’t understand the words Gary used—not this time, anyway—but because I want to make sure we’re on the same page, that we’re using the word to mean the same thing. So I looked up “mass medium,” and what I found is this: “A medium of communication (as newspapers, radio or television) that is designed to reach the mass of the people.”
I figure that’s worth noting, because at several points in his essay, Gary makes arguments or discusses goals for comics that I think have very little to do with comics as a mass medium, concerns with the quality of comics, or with our aesthetic reputation. Gary’s goals may be made more possible—or less so—in a mass medium, but the definition centers on popularity, pure and simple. So we’re not talking primarily about quality here—and for that matter, we’re not talking about profit, either. We’re talking about readers. Can comics attract the kind of large numbers they used to any more? Do we even want that?
Since Gary quotes me at the start of his essay, I might as well clarify the context of the quote. In saying that comics aren’t a mass medium, I was using “comics” as a shorthand for comic books, not comics as a whole. I think comics still are a mass medium, in the form of the comic strip, though not as healthy as it used to be even there. But the success of Dilbert, For Better Or For Worse and other strips points out something we shouldn’t lose sight of—this culture is still capable of reading and enjoying comics in enormous numbers, even if they’re not reading comic books. Comic books, though, are decidedly not reaching “the mass of the people,” and I’d argue that these days they’re not even designed to, so by the definition above, they’re not a mass medium. That said, I’m going to go back to using the term “comics” to mean comic books, but I think it’s worth noting the difference, since the fact that Americans don’t by and large read comic books doesn’t indicate that they’re comics-illiterate—large numbers of Americans know how to decipher the combination of panel art, word balloons, sound effects and captions. They may not be able to make sense of some of the stuff we produce, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the language; it merely means that the language is being used, in those cases, in a manner that’s unclear to those who haven’t trained themselves on successively less clear comics until they can decipher almost anything. The problem is not that people can’t read comics, but that people can’t read these comics. The solution, then, is not to decide that the language is too difficult, but to speak more clearly. But that’s Heidi’s panel, tomorrow, so let me go on.
Gary’s initial point argues for the idea that content—and specifically, the superhero idiom—is inhibiting comics from becoming a mass medium, arguing that comics exude an “oafish, slam-bang physicality that resists subtlety and nuance as well as the ability to communicate any genuine connection to human life.” That assertion could be argued, certainly, and I expect we’d disagree on the extent to which it’s true, but that’s not our purpose here. Instead, I’ve got to ask, even if we grant for the purposes of argument that this is so, does that constitute something that inhibits a medium from becoming a mass medium? Certainly, television, movies and popular fiction exude plenty of oafishness, slam-bang physicality and lack of nuance. Newspapers have been selling blood and thunder since Hearst and before. Lowbrow genre material and a lack of subtlety just doesn’t seem to be a drawback, not for other mass media.
Further, it hasn’t seemed to have held comics back in other cultures—the simplistic and humorous action-adventure of Asterix, the knockabout adventure of Tintin, the apocalyptic action-movie SF of Akira, the slapstick martial-arts romance of Ranma 1/2—you could argue, and I’d join you, that much of this stuff is better-realized and better crafted than the average American comic book, but I don’t think it supports the argument that genre holds a medium back.
Gary argues that the dominance of the superhero genre has contributed to the dwindling of the audience, and I’ve heard this from many sides. Now, I’d be the last guy to argue that we don’t need non-superhero stuff, but I question the assertion that superheroes are somehow responsible for choking off comics readership, as if they chased first other genres and then readers out of the industry. After all, as Gary himself points out, sales were dwindling even when romance, horror and ducks were strong sellers in the Fifties. The superhero resurgence of the late Fifties and early Sixties didn’t cause the dwindling; what it did, apparently, was practically the reverse—it slowed the decline it down. Nor did superheroes dominate and destroy thriving genres over the course of the sixties and seventies. Instead, as readers abandoned the other genres—abandoned the romance titles, the Westerns, the “mystery” books and so on—they abandoned the superhero and the humor genres more slowly, so that by the mid-Seventies, superheroes were virtually the last man standing. Far from chasing readers away, superheroes proved to be the best genre at holding onto readers, keeping them loyal to the capes and masks when the other genres were losing too many readers to survive.
Now, I know it sounds here as if I’m defending superheroes as the savior of the industry, and I’m not doing that, honest—I like superheroes, but I’m not that devoted. And I think it’s essential, if we’re ever going to be a mass medium again, for comics to offer as wide a variety of subject matter as possible to that mass audience, appealing to the great number of people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Batman and Spider-Man. No, the reason I’m pointing this out is that if we demonize the superhero, and pillory the poor caped sap as the reason comics aren’t a mass medium, then it’ll blind us to the real problem.
Gary argues that the predominant content of comics has poisoned the form, that the general public perceives comics as intrinsically juvenile, and a repository of sub-literate junk. I’d point out that this is the same general public that embraced Rambo, The A-Team, Three’s Company and Gilligan’s Island, and that a bad or lowbrow reputation hasn’t hurt the fortunes of cigarettes, pornography, candy, fast food or drugs. This is simply not a culture that avoids what they consider to be junk; instead, we wallow in it.
Beyond that, most comics historians date the widespread foul reputation of the comics form to the early Fifties, the Wertham crusade, the congressional hearings, the horror comics. Certainly, that’s how it worked for my parents—they flatly refused to allow my sisters and me to bring comics into the house, because they’d gotten the societal message that comics were harmful junk; and lest anyone think I’m contradicting the point I just made about a bad rep not harming things, they also refused to let us have television, cigarettes, pornography, candy, fast food or drugs. They were atypical of society in that they actually did have a distaste for junk, even if they failed spectacularly to instill it in me. But my point is that our negative reputation was created during a period that superheroes did not dominate the genre, and was solidly in place by the time the heroes rose again. Comics’ reputation as juvenile tripe simply did not arise due to superheroes.
Nor, I think, is it maintained by the superheroes. The idea that this culture dismisses comics because they’re superhero dominated doesn’t wash when you look at what they think of superheroes outside of comics. Look at the success of Batman, of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the Power Rangers, and of the amazing number of pseudo-superheroes out there in other media. Why would we, as a culture, sit enraptured by Xena and Hercules but refuse to buy comics because they’re just full of dumb superheroes? We eat superheroes up with a spoon, just like we embrace lowbrow tripe, so I can’t think the problem comics face is genre, and I don’t think it’s our lowbrow rep.
I think that we have one of the most accessible media in history—engaging, easy-to-read, attractive and enjoyable—and we’ve evolved an industry around it that’s inaccessible, unattractive and forbidding to newcomers. And while content is currently an important part of the problem, it’s not where the problem started. The problem with content is one that rests on a problem with distribution, and the problem with distribution is one that rests on a problem with format.
To explain that, I’ve got to bring up some history, the details of which are familiar to most of us, but the interpretations of which, I think, have become skewed by a “common wisdom” and a process of demonization that has little to do with reality.
In the Forties, comic books were a mass medium in this country. They were predominantly lowbrow junk, as most mass media are, but that didn’t hold them back any more than it held lurid paperbacks and Andy Hardy movies back from popular embrace. And in the late Forties and early Fifties, we saw the decline begin, and begin at a time when we did have lots of comics for girls as well as for boys, when we had humor and horror and mystery and adventure and romance and more on the comics shelves. It wasn’t the superheroes that caused the decline; they weren’t dominating. It wasn’t Wertham; he wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t comics’ bad rep, since that movement hadn’t caught fire yet. It wasn’t the Code, either; that, too, was in the future.
So if it wasn’t any of the usual common-wisdom answers, what was it?
I don’t know what initially triggered the decline, whether it was television, or the move to the suburbs, or what, but I can point to something that changed right around that time, and contributed to the decline. It’s the price. Or, more accurately, the price is what didn’t change. During the period that we were a mass medium, comics were a thick, satisfying package that cost a dime; that cost the same as other magazines. And in an effort to keep comics affordable to children, the comics publishers chose to cut pages, to make the package smaller, rather than increase the price. John Workman, in his very incisive essay, which Gary’s reprinted, makes the same point, along with discussion of the rise of malls and television and such, but I think the price factor is enormously significant all by itself. Because what we did, by holding the price line at the cost of content, was to begin the ghettoization of comics. When comics cost the same as the other magazines, newsdealers had no incentive to favor Time over Captain America Comics; a sale was a sale, and they brought in the same profit. Comics were simply a part of the product mix in the shop, without prejudice. But when Time costs more than the comics, Time brings in more profit, so it gets preference. Comics became second-class citizens, and we did it to ourselves.
I recently had a direct encounter with this phenomenon, when I agreed to write Untold Tales of Spider-Man, one of Marvel’s 99-cent titles. “Lower the price,” had long been the cry of those who wanted to see comics appeal to a wider audience again, so we lowered the price, and what happened? The newsstand retailers refused to carry the book. They flat-out refused. The price was too low for them to waste a rack slot on something that’d bring in less profit than something else that could go in that rack. So for newsstand distribution, two 99-cent books were printed together, at a $1.95 (and later, $1.99) price, to get them on those racks, even at the cost of destroying the price-point advantage that was the reason to offer the books in the first place. The 99-cent books were offered, at that price, only in the direct market, where they were not, for the most part, being put in front of new readers.
So a lower price-point was actually a drawback for newsstand retailers two years back, and I can’t imagine the situation was drastically different in 1949. That which filled the till got preference, and comics weren’t on an equal footing any more. And as the price gap widened, comics’ fortunes fell further. They moved from the magazine racks, which were to be reserved for stuff with a decent profit margin, to those wire spinner racks that took up less space and could be stuck in a corner at the back, to grow neglected and dusty and in many cases eventually to be removed from the store entirely.
And this decline was not merely a decline in sales, but a decline in distribution, a decline in the number of places that actually sold comics and in the prominence with which they were displayed in the places that remained. And that kind of loss is extremely hard to recover from. Even if sales go up in other stores, the retailer who’s given up on comics isn’t likely to notice, and thus isn’t likely to bring them back into his store. This problem reached crisis proportions in the mid-Seventies, around the time that DC tried Dollar Comics, perhaps on the theory that a thick package at a price competitive with other magazines would result in higher sales. But by that time they were distributing the books into a fraction of the shops that used to carry them, and racking them away from the other magazines; the customers they were intended for—the browser—largely didn’t see them.
And then the direct market blossomed, and we mistook a lifeboat for a continent. The direct market was great at selling comics more efficiently to customers who already wanted them, but it wasn’t so great at exposing the product to potential new customers. And we largely abandoned the newsstand in favor of this lucrative new system, ignoring or perhaps not realizing that the customers shopping in the direct-sales shops had discovered comics on the newsstand. Newsstand sales dwindled further, and we became more dependent on the direct market’s limited ability to bring in new customers. And a generation later, we have a comics audience that is much older than it used to be, and much smaller, since the DM didn’t bring in the youngsters in numbers enough to balance out the readers who either got older and stayed reading comics, or who dropped out of comics entirely.
And what did we do, when we started losing readers again? Did we try to bring in new readers? Not really, or at least not effectively. Instead, we focused on finding ways to keep existing readers from leaving, or to get more money out of them. Up the ante. Tie the stories together more tightly. Make ’em never end, make ’em sprawl across a whole line of magazines. Pump up the excitement for the faithful, even if the page layouts and story structures that result are so adrenaline-drenched that comprehensibility and accessibility for new readers gets squeezed out of the mix. Jack up the price on special covers, on tie-in mini-series. And it all worked, for a short time. But it made the books more forbidding to new readers, making us more and more dependent on hanging onto the existing ones. And it grew more and more obvious that we were squeezing money out of those existing readers by any means possible, and they started leaving in disgust. And now we have a “mainstream,” such as it is, that can’t attract new readers, and whose creative and editorial corps has been trained to respond to sales dips by cranking up the adrenaline rather than the accessibility. And the Catch-22 of that is that it’s not an insane response in the face of the fact that comics are for the most part never seen by the unconverted any more. Accessibility thus becomes an intramural question—Captain America is trying to win readers from Spawn, not from the ranks of the non-comics readers. So if effort is put into making Captain America more accessible to non-comics-readers, rather than more exciting for the already-converted, the target audience doesn’t see it, so sales drop and the focus goes back on holding the existing readers. Editorial produces the content, after all, they don’t control distribution. And if existing readers are the only ones who the comics are distributed to, then the content’s got to be aimed at them.
And there you have the real content problem—but it’s a symptom of the distribution problem, which was caused by the format problem.
But how do we test this hypothesis? Is there a control group that didn’t change their prices, and didn’t ghettoize themselves away from other magazines?
I think so, but it’s over in Japan.
I’m not as conversant with the history of Japanese comics as some, but based on the descriptions in Fred Schodt’s Manga Manga and Mangajin’s Bringing Home the Sushi, there are some strong similarities between our comics industry and theirs, at least as the start. We both developed a healthy industry based on selling multi-feature anthologies to young audiences. We both branched out from general-interest magazines to include magazines aimed first at boys, and then more magazines aimed at girls. And then we chose to cut our prices, and they didn’t. And their industry continued to be healthy, competing with other magazines on the same footing. Generations grew up with a healthy manga market. But still, like ours, it was a market generally thought to be primarily for youngsters, not an adult medium. In the Sixties, a few comics were aimed at older audiences, as an alternative to the mainstream, and in the late Sixties and early Seventies, more aggressively commercial comics were aimed at those who were outgrowing the traditional manga. Thus, the manga audience had stuff to move on to as they got older, so they didn’t give up the habit, as teens did here. At that point, the manga industry was attracting new young readers, and retaining readers past the traditional age for outgrowing comics, but still had a large population which had already given up comics before the upper age limit started to grow, and which still thought of them as kid stuff. The solution to this, though, didn’t turn out to lie in getting rid of the slam-bang juvenile stuff that fostered that reputation.
In the early Eighties (I think it was), nonfiction titles like Japan Inc. appealed directly to those older audiences, giving them something they found useful and intriguing, and it was that—comics aimed at them, not the discontinuation of comics aimed at others—that overcame their resistance and won them over to comics readership. Kids, young readers, adults—it’s a thriving, healthy mass medium.
So we can see that they dealt with the perception that comics were juvenilia, and overcame it, even while they were publishing an astonishing number of action-adventure, lowbrow humor and sci-fi stuff that I’m sure would register plenty high on Gary’s “oafish slam-bang” meter. I think that’s strong evidence that public perception and genre content weren’t unconquerable obstacles.
Okay, back to Gary.
Gary talks about efforts to get comics into the bookstore market, pointing out that “high-quality graphic novels by unique cartoonists could not make any headway into the ‘mainstream’ book market,” and comparing Gilbert Hernandez’s and Will Eisner’s work to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isaac Bashevis Singer. But I think you’d meet similar, if not worse, results if you took Garcia Marquez’s and Singer’s work, packaged them in nice trade editions and tried to sell them in Blockbuster Video or Sam Goody’s. This just isn’t how a mass market works.
Mass media are defined, as noted, by their appeal to the masses, by popularity. The mass medium of movies doesn’t reach those masses with the films of Wim Wenders, or even those of Mike Leigh or Woody Allen. It reaches them with Independence Day and Batman Forever and Sleepless in Seattle. The mass medium of television doesn’t hook mass audiences with The Singing Detective, but with Urkel. And the hallmarks of the mass medium of prose fiction aren’t Garcia Marquez and Singer, but Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel and their ilk. So when I think of comics as a mass medium, I’m not imagining our equivalents of Garcia Marquez as the vanguard, but our equivalents of Danielle Steel.
The trouble is, we don’t have any. Most of our material is created and packaged for a dwindling niche audience, and the stuff that isn’t is either never seen by anyone outside that niche audience or thrown onto an unprepared marketplace, as in Gary’s examples.
The way mass media work, at least as I understand it, is that the popular stuff keeps the structure in place, keeps the stores open, keeps the publishers in business, keeps the customers coming in—and that creates a venue in which specialized or literary work can be made available, circulated and celebrated by the inevitably-smaller audience that appreciates it. The major difference between that and what we have now is that the popular stuff in bookstores is broad-appeal commercial fiction and non-fiction, and its closest analog in the comics stores is X-Men, which isn’t exactly bringing a broad range of foot traffic into those stores.
The reader who buys a Garcia Marquez novel is the end result of a process that’s gone on for years; she is likely to be someone who started reading in their earliest years, developed a taste for it, and sought out more challenging material when Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew didn’t cut it anymore. That reader is a lifelong reader who may well disdain Koontz and Steel, but who buys her books in a store that depends on the bestsellers and genre material to keep the doors open. 100 Years of Solitude is part of a functioning structure that creates, develops and serves its consumers; it’s part of a mass market.
But Poison River can’t simply be plugged into that mass market as if it and Solitude are interchangeable; the process isn’t there. The reader we just described has not been reading comics all her life, and has never developed a taste for—or even an awareness of—comics of this sort. The bookstore isn’t shelving Poison River on the shelves our hypothetical reader habitually scans; odds are it’s sitting next to either the latest Doonesbury collection or, in a more enlightened store, a Star Wars adaptation. Too bad for Poison River.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for comics to become a mass medium again, merely that books along the lines of Poison River or A Contract With God may not be the best choice for lead-off hitter. Too many of us, in this industry, want to turn comics into a mass-market success overnight, to achieve that “breakthrough” that everyone was lusting after in 1985. But it doesn’t work that way. The reader who follows Garcia Marquez or Singer is, as noted, a lifelong reader. Take someone who stopped reading fiction when they were 11, and toss 100 Years of Solitude into their lap, and odds are they won’t get into it. Not because they can’t read—they’re no more illiterate than someone who reads Dilbert is comics-illiterate—but because they’ve never developed a taste for this sort of thing. And it’s the same for comics.
A little more on the subject of bookstore distribution—Gary mentions in his address to retailers at Atlanta that we’re still waiting for that breakthrough, and that “everyone’s tried to crack the bookstore market and no one’s succeeded.” I think he’s wrong, because he’s looking for a breakthrough, a moment when the floodgates open and comics are suddenly, magically accepted by all. That didn’t happen, even in Japan, and it’s not going to happen here. The growth of the Japanese marketplace into adult acceptance took twenty years, and they started with a healthy children’s marketplace. We started with a ghettoized industry, so the fact that we’ve accomplished what we have in the last ten years is impressive. The gates opened a crack, a decade ago, and a toehold was established. Since then, comics have been trickling into bookstores against entrenched resistance. But there are more comics there today than there were then, and in many bookstores, graphic novels have been moved out of the humor section and into a graphic novel section, usually positioned next to the SF/fantasy section. People at DC tell me that their trade paperback program is growing, doing steadily better in that uncrackable bookstore market. That’s not a breakthrough of the sort we all hoped for, but it is progress. That handful of trade paperbacks in the humor rack expanded into enough to justify their own rack. And when and if that rack does enough business to justify divorcing it from the SF/Fantasy section, that’ll happen too.
So okay, maybe I’ve established myself simultaneously as the cynical hack and the enthusiastic doofus that Gary refers to in his essay, for waving the banner of Dean Koontz over that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and for expressing a hope that the bookstore program is actually making headway. I’m doomed. I’ll go on anyway.
I’d argue that if we were to make comics a mass medium again, Gary will hate it. We’ll be selling tons of whatever our equivalent to Dean Koontz is, and Gilbert Hernandez will be off to the side, not as recognized as he should be. Literary and experimental stuff will be lionized by The New York Times Comics Review, and ignored by Entertainment Weekly in favor of the latest commercial blockbuster. We’ll be moving loads of crap and talentless yahoos will be raking in millions while unique artists with something to say don’t get the same kind of bucks, promotion or readership. In short, it’ll be a lot like the publishing, film, television or movie industries are today; like any other mass medium.
Is that worth achieving?
I think so, yes. Because it’ll increase the opportunities for everyone. We’ll sell more crap, but we’ll sell more well-crafted genre material, too, and we’ll sell more literary and experimental stuff. Chris Oliveros will still have to convince readers of the merit of the material he’s putting out, but he won’t have to convince them of the merit of the medium at the same time. And I think that, in itself, is well worth it.
So, is it possible?
Maybe. But I don’t think it can be done by saving comics as we currently know them.
The problem we face now, in everything from Venom to Palooka-Ville, is that we’re trying to find a way to bring tons of new readers to a format that evolved out of the perceived need to keep the cover price at a dime, something that has long since failed, and what’s more, a format that was declining in sales from before it was even invented, and has been, over the long term, declining in sales ever since. It’s a format that has never been economically viable, and we’re trying to sell it through a distribution system that is not designed to create new readers.
I’ve been arguing for some time now that reaching out to new audiences is a fourfold process, involving content, format, distribution and promotion. You have to produce material the new target audience will like, put it in a package they’re willing to pick up and look at, place it in stores that the target audience actually goes into, and then tell them it’s there. Right now, we’re failing on all four fronts, but we’re too often looking for a solution that involves making a single change. But that won’t work. We can publish the greatest instructional bass-fishing comics on the planet, but if we publish them in a 32-page pamphlet, distribute them to direct-market outlets and advertise them in Wizard, we’re not going to sell many, no matter how many bass fishers there are out there who’d like to improve their skills.
I don’t mean to knock the direct market here; I don’t think the direct market is a bad thing. Rather, I think it’s an incomplete thing. The direct market is made up of specialty stores, which are destination stores, not unlike record stores, bookstores or video stores. I once saw a store called Just Socks—that’s a destination store, too. These stores fill a need, and service a market, but they don’t create it. There’s a progression, from, say, hearing a song on the radio, to buying a record at the department store or supermarket, which has other things to bring you in but exposes you to music, paperbacks and videos in the process. And if you like what you find in that market, eventually the shallowness of the selection isn’t enough for you and you seek out a specialty store that offers depth and service beyond what you can get at K-mart. But you don’t go to Just Socks if you haven’t already decided you need socks. Something has to create the desire for the material a destination store sells, before the customer seeks out that destination. Now, comic book stores can make efforts in that direction, from Don Thore, of Thore Comics in Virginia, including coupons as part of his local Welcome Wagon package, to Brian Hibbs and Larry Young of Comix Experience in San Francisco distributing their Top Shelf Sampler along with the area alternative newspaper, but a feeder market is organic; it’s that natural other half of the structure. I think the direct market could thrive if we could only create that other half—the mechanism that exposes people to comics without them having to hunt for them.
But to do that, we have to regain that broad distribution we used to have, and to get that, we have to rethink the package—which is the subject of the next panel, so I’d better not go into it here. Suffice it to say that we have to tailor the package to the audience as surely as we tailor the material to them. And distribution and promotion, too; it’s all of a piece. We have to stop hoping that all we have to do is fix one thing, or even one thing at a time. There are efforts being made—DC’s Paradox Press, Acclaim’s Classics Illustrated reissues, Disney Adventures—and I hope we’ll see more. The mountain won’t come to Mohammed; it’s up to us to go to them.
And we’ll have to capture readers while they’re young, give them something to start out on, give them something to go on to when they’re older, give them something else to go on to when they’re older still, and so on until some of them reach It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken and Poison River, prepared to accept, digest and enjoy them. It’s a longer process than converting adults to comics readership overnight, with sudden breakthroughs, but its a more realistic process, as well. It’s the process that other mass media follow. It’s the process that the Japanese market follows so successfully, though they have an advantage over us, since they didn’t kill off their children’s market fifty years ago.
What it boils down to, ultimately, is starting over. Not saving the industry as it now exists, but backtracking to before we made the mistake, and taking new runs at it until we can make that connection with the mass audiences. It’ll be expensive—starting from scratch always is. But I think that’s what it’ll take.
So. Back to Gary, but I’m almost done, honest.
If the problem with comics was truly all those awful superhero books giving us a bad name, then getting rid of the superhero books would improve things. But I just don’t think that’s what would happen. The superhero books are selling, to the degree that they’re selling at all, to an audience that wants them. All that would be accomplished by removing the superhero titles would be losing those readers too. If you want to sell to another audience, you’ll be much better served by offering them something that’ll interest them than removing something they have no interest in, just as taking away the action-adventure stuff that so permeates Hollywood wouldn’t result in larger audiences for Strangers In Good Company, but creating more movies that will appeal to that audience, alongside the action-adventure stuff, will please two audiences instead of one. I do think we need to package and distribute even our oafish, slam-bang stuff better, to overcome the barriers we’ve built between ourselves and new readers, but I don’t think getting rid of it will help; it’s a negative step, not a positive one, not an outreach.
Gary doesn’t think it’s worth the bother to crank up the machinery of pro-growth strategies, market-driven creative efforts and schemes calculated to appeal to the greatest number of people. I agree with him only if we view that target mass audience as a single mass with a single lowest denominator taste—if ‘reaching out to a mass audience’ is merely code for trying to sell more Venom: Lethal Protector to architects and grandmothers. If we don’t do that, though, but instead see the outreach of comics into a mass market as a means to appeal to many different audiences by offering lots of different kinds of material, designed for these many difference audiences that make up the “mass of the people” the dictionary referred to, as surely as book publishing or movies or TV aim their wares at multiple audiences, then I think that itself is a goal worth reaching. And beyond that, the more different kinds of interests we can satisfy, the more readers we can draw in, and the more creators we’ll inspire in the next generation who can take the process further, and the more readers they’ll reach and the more creators they’ll bring in, giving us a mass market full of different voices, different styles, different genres, from the worst commercial crap you can imagine to the finest of experimental and literary work.
My interests’ll lie in the middle somewhere, and that, more than anything else, is why I’d like to see this happen. I don’t want just one end or the other. I want that range of stuff, I want the variety. I want to work on it. I want to read it. I want to see it all happen.
Okay, I’m done.
©1997, 2009 Kurt Busiek