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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, November 9, 2012


Posted this on a thread which, like many, tended to blame "the Big Two" for their scurrilous promotion of the Superhero Cult, which alone is to blame for dwindling sales of the entire comics-medium:

To the subject of the OP: I'm possibly in the minority here, but I don't think there's an Iceman's chance in Hell that our beloved medium could ever make a return to newstands in the pamphlet format.  There might have been some small chance to regain a toehold for serial comics in bookstories, had the Big Two pursued the TPB format for original comics; the equivalent of how the Japanese compile ongoing serials into the *tankobon* format.  But they didn't.

I've encountered any number of fan-writers asserting that what killed the rep of comic books with big distributors by the 1970s was the fact that the majors reduced page-count in the 1950s to keep prices low for their juvenile fan-base.  The JOURNAL even devoted a whole issue to the topic in the late 90s.  By the time the 1970s rolled around, the price-point on comics was no longer competitive.  It wasn't even worth it to distributors to bale a few comics in with their usual stuff, because the comics yielded so little profit for the distributors.

Part of what we're dealing with is perception.  People expect candy bars to increase in price; if one wants a candy bar, one pays the current price.  But outside of hardcore fans, I don't think the average "comic browsers" were willing to pay more for what comics offered.  As long as the pamphlet cost under a $1.00, it was still feasible junk-reading.  Past that point, most people didn't care for comics enough to pay the going rate.  A lof of people who might've once bought comics migrated to videogames, which offered more continuous bangs for the buck.

Yes, it's a dirty shame that comics-fans focused so hugely on the superhero.  But without that concentration on one genre that you couldn't get from other media with any consistency, the fandom of the burgeoning DM might have drifted away and found other toys.

And the form of comic books might have fallen into the same disuse as Big Little Books.


Richard Bensam said...

For what it's worth, I think this is exactly right.

The only point I might add is to flip it over and look at comics from the POV of a creator rather than a consumer. While the physical medium of the printed comic book periodical might have become as archaic as the Big Little Book, artists still have an unquenchable passion for the comic page as a storytelling form. The range and beauty of current webcomics is stunning; the drive to create is that strong and would find expression one way or another, minus the bloated corporate framework. Perhaps if the printed monthly pamphlet were allowed to fall by the wayside, new forms of commercial presentation could flourish in their place.

(And I say this as the most nostalgic and sentimental comics fan you could ever find! But I'm nostalgic for what those things once meant as a thriving medium, not for their outward form.)

Al said...

I can't argue against the idea that comic books might well have died out had superheroes not played such a huge part in the medium. I just wish that some other genres were better represented. Or, more accurately, more commercially viable in the industry. Granted that there are all genres represented overall when one looks at what all publishers, not just the big commercial concerns, have to offer. Other genres are well represented in movies, TV shows, novels, short stories, etc. Which makes me wonder what will happen when superheroes finally saturate the movies, and even the few people who read them now in the comics die off.

Gene Phillips said...


Quite correct; the pamphlet's survival is not that of the medium. The opinion with which I disagreed was that the comic book could still make a comeback on American newstands if it just got away from the superheroes and did lots of non-superhero genres.

There are some non-superhero works, not least BONE, that sell vigorously in the TPB market. But it's not like everything that's wildly creative in the TPB market sells through the roof, and that's with a format that, unlike the pamphlet, offers some bang for the buck.


I don't think superheroes are going to saturate movies any more than they do now; it wouldn't be economically feasible. Unlike some doomsayers I don't think a few unsuccessful superhero flicks will spell the doom of the film-genre. Hollywood never forgets any genre that makes big money, though sometimes they have to come back in some combined form (the "pirate film" coming back as the "fantasy-pirate film.")

Even if a new superhero movie came out every month,keep in mind that movies can't capture one of the chief appeals of superhero comics: they can't develop the characters soap-opera fashion. I don't even think television shows, though capable of using the same narrative devices, would be capable of pulling off the same appeal.

Whether future generations will contain enough superhero fans to sustain the comics is anyone's guess.