Do American Comics still mean Superhero Comics?

My friend Don C. proposed an interesting theory to me last night when we were talking, he said that in his educated opinion (and he does know a lot about comics) the age of the Superhero Comic in North America was finished. That while there are still Superhero comics being sold, their future is as limited as their sales. (In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Marvel Comics were selling close to a million copies per title for their top tier, now they sell close to a million comics for their entire lineups!)

His thesis is that although it hasn’t become clear yet, Manga won. Not just in terms of sales, but in terms of being the comic form that captured the imaginations of the next generation of readers and creators. He sees superhero comics are largely running on inertia and nostalgia, and thinks that while they won’t disappear, that superhero comics will be a smaller and smaller piece of the North American comics landscape.

Now, this doesn’t mean all comics will become Manga, or even manga-wannabes (although the market does have a fair amount of both), but it does mean that a generation that sees comics as an open art form that can tell many different kinds of stories is now rising up. I myself agreed with this thesis when I thought about the current webcomics market. Those are the next generation of comic creators, and they’re producing slice of life, comedy, romance, drama, fantasy, sci-fi, and a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into any one genre, but they’re not producing much in the way of superhero books.

Right now, part of the reason we’re seeing so much in the way of superhero movies is because the current generation (my generation) grew up in the great Bronze Age revival of Superheroes in the 70s and 80s. They’re the ones ruling the Hollywood roost, and they’re drawing from their formative reading years in what they’re producing. The upcoming generation grew up on Harry Potter and Manga, so what will they produce when they rule in the roost in 10 to 15? And will Superheroes still hold a place in that world?

While I love superheroes, I have to admit that for a long time I think they’ve been the thing holding back Comics as an art form in North America. Only superhero books seemed to sell, so that’s mostly what got produced, and people came to associate comics with superheros so tightly that I think it was hard to differentiate the two. Given that superhero books are inherently 14 year old power fantasies, it’s been hard for comics to break out of the ghetto society has placed them in. It will only be when we break the comic=superhero link that the art form of Comic Books will truly flourish and they will become an accepted medium in society as a whole.

As Don suggested, that may have already happened. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Rob

One thought on “Do American Comics still mean Superhero Comics?

  1. >My friend Don C. proposed an interesting theory to me last night when we were talking,

    The man is a GENIUS!!!!

    >he said that in his educated opinion (and he does know a lot about comics) the age of the Superhero Comic in North America was finished.

    You make it sound so harsh…. It’s a tricky concept; and I suspect superhero comics as we know them are done, but there are some caveats.

    >His thesis is that although it hasn’t become clear yet, Manga won. Not just in terms of sales, but in terms of being the comic form that captured the imaginations of the next generation of readers and creators.

    Yup. The problem for the heroes starts a-ways back. The fifties, post-Wertham saw comic books relegated to kiddie fare. Come the sixties, and the Marvel era you had comics take a step forward; becoming “pop art,” and with Marvel leading the way there was a certain relevance that had been missing for decades…. hinging on Marvel’s “heroes with problems” template (making the characters more relatable) and their use of real world places and events in their stories. This gave them dominance in the market and gained them new readers; teens especially, but a growing number of 20-30 year olds. (I remember reading how surprised they were to get letters from college level readers in such abundance.)

    By the 70’s there was a marked decline in readership; evidenced by the big Marvel/DC purges of the day. There was also a small but noticable number of more “adult” (I hate that word but can’t think of a better one) books: notably in the horror genres. (Marvel’s black and white magazines being the most obvious.) No doubt this was to capitalize on the underground and burgeoning independent books of the day. The Marvel B&W books had an eerie (see what I did there?) similarity to the Warren books of the day. But Marvel and DC had become large companies by then, and couldn’t last on sales that the smaller companies could. The thing that saved them? Star Wars. (Which was discussed in another article.) Tie-ins became the thing, and licensing characters; notably to toy companies. The late 70’s saw another superhero boom, based on toys and a younger audience. Meanwhile, the growing independent comic scene was facilitating the establishment of comic shops, which sold material more appealing to an older, non-superhero crowd. (I can remember the Eclipse “I grew up, but my comics didn’t” ads.)

    Now, I’ve long suspected that the reason for the ebb and floe of the N. American comic scene has to do with the audience. The kids of the 50’s and 60’s became the older readers of the 70’s. Unfortunately comics as a viable medium never quite catches on here, so eventually things peter out…. until the NEXT generation of kids gets a little older. This is what I suspect happened in the late 80’s; the kids who got into superheroes in the 70’s were older and wanted suitable material. They weren’t into the independent comics of the day ‘cos they were too young to have been socialized into them. Likewise, the independent fans had long since outgrown the heroes and didn’t care about “mainstream” books. This rift was bridged by the B&W glut of the 80’s…. which forced shops to stock more mainstream material ‘cos it was the safer sales bet; and the coming of more mature fare from the Big Two: books like “Elektra: Assassin” and the ubiquitous “Dark Knight Returns.” Another BIG push for mainstream comics was the establishment of the speculator; people buying books as an investment instead of for entertainment. The speculators fuelled the new boom well into the 90’s, when “designer comics” were the thing. Folks would buy ANYTHING with Jim Lee’s name on it, ‘cos it’ll be worth something some day! This of course didn’t happen, and when the speculators cut and ran the bottom fell out; leaving the diehard fans and nobody else.

    Manga moved in to this environment and won by catering to NEW fans; that is, kids. Just like the 70’s boom. They also brought comics out of the comic shop, making them readily available to the average person.

    It’s the ciiiirrrrrccccllleeeee of lllliiiifffffeeeee!!!!

    As an aside: I think one of the reasons the Japanese stuff moved in so easily was that the N. American stuff had been ghettoized in the comic shop. Non-fans never went there, so you had a whole generation of kids waiting to have the very CONCEPT of “comic book” defined for them.

    >He sees superhero comics are largely running on inertia and nostalgia,

    ….and whiney, obsessive fans….

    >this doesn’t mean all comics will become Manga, or even manga-wannabes

    ….but you can see a lot of the Japanese influence creeping in; such as the idea of collections. The Big Two-Ish have even started publishing the monthlies as extended stories, broken into 22-24 page bits but meant for collection into trade paperbacks. ‘Course they’ve run ito some technical problems with this: namely the fact that superhero books are perpetual, so keeping the old stories in print solidifies your timeline. In a Japanese book characters can age, develop and even die. (For reals…. unless it’s Dragonball) Superheroes can’t do that. Bruce Wayne can’t REALLY die; the marketing department wouldn’t go for it.

    >it does mean that a generation that sees comics as an open art form that can tell many different kinds of stories is now rising up.

    Yup. Just like the 80’s.

    >part of the reason we’re seeing so much in the way of superhero movies is because the current generation (my generation) grew up in the great Bronze Age revival of Superheroes in the 70s and 80s. They’re the ones ruling the Hollywood roost, and they’re drawing from their formative reading years in what they’re producing.

    I agree. I think this is why you get stuff like the X-Men movies that SORT OF draw from the major stories of yesteryear, but squish the currently popular characters into them.

    >And will Superheroes still hold a place in that world?

    They will. EVERYTHING is cyclical. Entertainment relies heavily on novelty, and since there are only so many ideas to go around novelty = whatever I haven’t seen in a while. Someone will do SOMETHING that gets people’s attention and it’ll all start over again. (Remember: superheroes weren’t doing so well prior to the mid 80’s boom.)
    >people came to associate comics with superheros so tightly that I think it was hard to differentiate the two.
    ….try doing your own, non-hero comic and watch people’s reactions when you mention it. *sigh*

    >Given that superhero books are inherently 14 year old power fantasies, it’s been hard for comics to break out of the ghetto society has placed them in.

    ‘Course, the irony HERE is that a lot of the Japanese stuff that’s been perpetuated is the superhero equivalent…. so the template is still there. Lurking, like a disease…. waiting to ravage the industry again….
    Don C.

Comments are closed.