A Future for Comics?

World Wrestling Entertainment introduced this month a new magazine for their younger readers, aptly called WWE Kids. My pal Paul Kupperberg was hired as a senior editor largely to help them beef up their comics material and contribute his vast experience in magazines and pop culture.

The first issue boasts material from Craig Rousseau, Rick Burchett and John Byrne so it looks and feels like familiar comic book fare. Overall, the slick magazine looks like fun and you’d think kids would bodyslam their parents for a chance to own a copy.

Unlike comic book publishers, no sooner was the first issue published than WWE hired someone to hold a focus group to assess their efforts. A group of 10 year olds were brought into a room, they read and discussed the magazine and notes were taken.

One finding was that the kids didn’t like the comics material. Based on these comments, the comics material, which WWE had hoped would be the beginning of something they could grow, will now vanish and Paul was let go.

Is it because the pages that could have been devoted to more photos of Rey Mysterio and Stacey Keibler were spent on drawings of unfamiliar wrestlers? Is it because sports don’t always translate well to the more static medium of comics? Maybe. I have other ideas.

Is it that despite the rise of graphic novels in school libraries, there’s still a substantial percentage of younger readers who don’t like comic books? Why? I’d wager that it has a lot to do with the fact that since the 1980s, comic books have been moving further and further away from where the readers are.

Kids love the animated adventures of the comic book heroes but since they don’t walk into comics shops and the newsstands outlets are few and far between, they have nowhere to find comics and therefore don’t become comics readers. The overall failure o figuring out how to put comics material where the kids are has been one of my frustrations with the entire field.

Scholastic took some nice steps with Bone and related projects but the major characters, except Archie Andrews, are tough to find in print. Kids don’t know to look and statistics show that kids heavily influence parents purchases so if they don’t know there are comics, they don’t ask their parents, and the adults don’t always know where to find comics material.

If we’re really losing the 10 year olds, a prime age for comic books (or at least it used to be), then we have some serious problems. I don’t know of any publishers who have done focus groups or market research or product testing to figure out what package, price point and delivery method would be optimal for these younger readers. I don’t even know if publishers take advantage of the non-comic readers attending comics conventions to talk to the kids and find out why they’re there, what they might like and so on. As more cons have kids days, the more opportunities exist to learn.

There are great comics for younger readers ranging from Amelia Rules to X-Men: First Class to Teeny Titans but it remains important to have these available in the widest markets possible.

The kids are our future and without them, the comics won’t have one.

6 comments

  • It’s not just the lack of comics shops that’s a problem; the price, too, is a sticking point. Kids simply can’t afford $3-$4 comics, especially if they read more than one or two titles. (Hell, neither can this college student.)

  • Bob Rozakis

    I am presuming that there are no TV cartoons featuring these wrestlers, so the magazine’s readers have no frame of reference for seeing comic book versions of them. Perhaps a fumetti version of stories would have worked better for this audience.

    There is a much bigger issue, however. Since the 1980s, comic books have been created BY fanboys FOR fanboys, ignoring the fact that the fanboy market is aging and decreasing. Never-ending story arcs that tie into a dozen other titles alienate the casual reader (and, it appears, many regular readers as well).
    Ignoring all the tie-ins and crossovers, DC’s 52-issue COUNTDOWN costs more than $150 to follow the year-long story! For “chapters” that take less than ten minutes each to read! I can get a year of HBO or Showtime, see a dozen first-run movies, or buy 20 paperback novels for less than that.

    But maybe there’s hope… Judging by the reaction from younger kids who get copies of DC’s WB books and Disney comics when they trick-or-treat at our house, there is potential to grow the younger audience again. A couple of the kids that my daughter Sammi babysits have become avid readers of Scooby-Doo and other books after she gave them a couple of issues.
    But these kids are not going to spend $3 for a 32-page pamphlet. Their parents, on the other hand, would spring for a $5-$7 book that would keep the kids reading for a couple of hours. It doesn’t all have to be one character, either. DC has 70 years of inventory to use: Sugar & Spike, the funny animal stuff, etc could fill out a Scooby-Doo volume. The 60s super-hero stories, aimed at 10-year-old future-fanboys, could back up any Justice League Adventures volume.

    But will they do it? Or will they remain locked into the fanboy mentality? And are we living through the Final Age of Comics?

  • Doug

    First off, my thoughts go out to Kupps on this one. It’s not directly his fault it didn’t take. Comics does need to find a way to adapt. My kids are all comics fans, but they have their dad’s influence pressed upon them. The digest volumes seem to be the right size, price point and length, but they get overshadowed in bookstores by Manga and are criminally underordered by comic book retailers who have no idea where or hwo to display the things.
    I almost think the publishers need to consider crafting new content exclusive for the mass distribution outlets that then empower or enable readers to “discover” monthlies at the LCS.
    Free comic book day is a nice jump, but it needs more than the hidden LCSs to broadcast its existence, especially if people don’t know WHERE to look for the LCS.
    A nice can of worms the industry has here. I just hope they can figure out what to do with it.

  • Melissa Singer

    I’m a fan, my dad was a fan . . . my daughter? Reads manga, not comics.

    And it’s not for lack of trying–I run her into comic book stores on a regular basis and lord knows there’s tons of graphic stuff around the house. Comics simply do not hold her attention or interest; even her favorites are take-it-or-leave-it items for her. Manga, on the other hand, is devoured voraciously and she demands regular visits to bookstores in order to stock up.

    Most of her friends who read any graphic stuff at all are reading manga–boys and girls.

    Price-wise, manga is more economical, too.

  • Brian Peterson

    I’m glad there is someone else who has noticed the fact that you need easy access to the product to get customers! I said when the big two stupidly handed Diamond a monopoly that the industry was headed down the drain.

    We lost 5 stores in town when Diamond became a monolopy and cut discounts and the stores also had to absorb increased shipping costs. Many of the collectors I knew quit buying when they couldn’t walk down the street for the weekly stack. From then on the stores started dropping like flies. The one I shopped at held on the longest and closed 3 years ago after having been there for 20 years.

    The closest shop to me is now 10 miles away in a neighboring town. I detest the owner so I refuse to shop there. Sadly 3 years ago my days as a collector ended.

    I think some college professor needs to turn the industry into a case study. It’s death has been one of the most spectacular blunders I have ever witnessed. Obviously the PTB never understood just how the consumer/shop level worked or they wouldn’t have killed it off.

  • Melissa Singer

    I think Brian makes a really good point. When I was a kid, I bought all my comics at a corner store that sold all sorts of stuff from newspapers and magazines to school supplies to OTC medications to candy and cigarettes. They kept comics in the magazine rack and later added a spinner rack. And I’d go in once a week and buy whatever was new.

    Later, in my neighborhood, a comic book store opened. I almost never shopped there because I was treated badly by staff and by other customers (something I still run into from time to time, alas). It’s too bad, because I had a heavy habit at that point. I then switched over to getting my comics by mail–a nice big box every month–which got me through college and into adulthood.

    By that time, the comic book store in my neighborhood had closed, and no other stores sold comics. My office was near a good comic book store, which I visited occasionally, but even though they had a pull service, I preferred the convenience of the Big Box in the Mail.

    Now, if I want my daughter to see comics, our choices are pretty limited. There is again a comic book store in our neighborhood in Queens, but they display more collectibles than comics and are as much a base for gamers as they are for comics readers. If we’re in Manhattan, we can visit any of several good comic book stores, but we have to make a special trip to get to any of them–they have to be chosen destinations as opposed to places you just drop into.

    Other than that, some B&Ns carry some comics–many of them shelved above eye level of a child–but the selection is very limited.

    So there’s no way for my daughter to build the habit, even if she had a stronger desire. Unlike the bookstore, which she visits at least once every two weeks, she gets to a comic store about three times a year.

    Heck, we went to NYCC this weekend and she didn’t buy any comics! Manga, books, and stuff, but no comics.