Free Comics Day: Too Little, Too Late?
Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2006
By: Jason Yungbluth
This past Saturday was Free Comic Day, a nationwide promotion held at comic shops around the country to entice new, hopefully preadolescent readers to pick up a comic book and become decade long consumers of same.
As I sat at my card table in front of Rochester's Comics Etc., and with my merchandise--a difficult to categorize anthology of drug and child molestation gags--moving about as well as it usually does under these circumstances, I could not help but reflect on the self-sabotaging nature of the entire exercise. Free Comic Day, though a noble effort to boost the sagging sales of comic periodicals (the word "sagging" was officially appended to the word "sales", where such relates to comic books, in 1994) is as benighted a promotion as Take Your Daughter to Work Day, Black History Month or "Support Our Troops" magnets; a feel-good desperation ploy that ignores the larger issue of why comics don't sell.
I had a lot of time to consider this question on Free Comic Day as I debated The Israeli/Arab situation with a wiry, white-bearded crank with his parka tucked into his pants who, though he was haunting an event meant for children, did not happen to be scaring away throngs of preteens. It is a pleasure to see any child buying comics these days. I am 34, and I rarely see two people younger than myself at any one time in a comic shop. They may as well be cigar bars.
But that is par for the course. The Big Two have, at this point, completely abandoned children as a market for the goofy, juvenile schlock that superhero comics are, were, and ever shall be. I'm not knocking it. I like superheroes! But they are stupid. They are meant for a stupid audience. An audience that hasn't discovered girls yet.
Back in the Golden, Silver and other metallic ages, before the idea that "comics aren't just for kids" had begun it's Hulk-like rampage through the industry, the major companies seemed to understand this. It showed in their advertising. Here is an ad from a 1965 issue of Wonder Woman:
Silly Putty! A perfect preoccupation for a boy or girl to waste their allowance on after s/he had bought a cedar chest full of comic books at the local drug store!
Even in 1991, Marvel and DC still seemed to have their finger on the pulse of their product's appropriate audience:
Console games! Just what you'd expect a dateless 12 year old to have a hankering for after enjoying a little Justice League!
And what will we find being sold betwixt the pages of a comic book these days? Behold what greeted me as I read the first issue of Civil War, this year's major league crossover event from Marvel Comics:
There's a million complaints I could make about Civil War itself--the hacky story cribbed from The Incredibles, the over-rendered artwork that makes the superheroes look like costume-contest entrants at Wonder Con, the allowance-busting $4.00 pricetag--but a Civic ad?? For fuck's sake, a new Civic wouldn't even be a person's first car! It would be their second! If you are pimping men in spandex with wings on their head to people who are refinancing their mortgages, you have pretty much lowered the flag on the comic industry.
From "comics aren't just for kids" to "comics aren't meant for kids" in less than half a generation. Now, I love mature, adult themed comic books, but I love making a buck off them too. That is impossible to do without a base of young readers growing up and looking for products like mine to graduate to. Comic books are like cigarettes; after a certain naive period of your life, you are not likely to pick up the habit.
So how can Free Comic Day be considered anything but a farce when the engine that drives the industry is deep-sixing it's own market? The problem isn't that children aren't coming to comic stores (finding nothing cheap enough or age appropriate enough for them to buy when they do); the problem is that they have to go there to find comics in the first place! The post-bubble mentality, where DC and Marvel do everything they can to pen in the fans they made 15- 20 years ago without investing a dime's worth of interest in farming a new generation for their product is the anaconda that is crushing the comic world. Comics are no longer sold where children are likely to find them by accident: convenience stores, pharmacies, video stores...these should be the comic shops, as they were in the past. Not some out of the way specialty store tucked away in the bad part of town, or a Barnes and Nobel that is locked up in a suburban strip mall, inaccessible except by Mom's whim.
The major players are helped in this effort by Diamond, the monopoly distributor which has done so much good putting comic books in the hands of new readers, by pricing independents out of their catalog, perpetuating a self-destructive no return policy, leaving major sales territories unexploited and keeping the Big Two wedded to them in exclusive deals. In collusion with the media giants that own the comics industry they have Pied Pipered juveniles away from comics almost entirely, leaving the future of a children's medium to a demographic of adult men who...how can I put this nicely?...aren't exactly repopulating the herd.
Now, I'm one to complain about an industry eating itself alive, right? I'm trying to sell black and white stoner humor in the era of South Park. The point is, if the major players had stuck to a strategy of selling to children instead of building Hollywood properties then at this point there would still be meat and drink for all. But the college kids who should be swarming the cons looking for adult material to graduate to from Spider-Man have not emerged in the last ten years. Maybe that's because so many kids' comics feature villains whose weapon is rape, not giant weather machines. I don't know.
So please, retire Free Comic Day. Desperate stores tossing a handful of children the scraps from their nickel bins isn't going to make a pimple's worth of difference at this point. Abandoning the Code wsn't a blow for creativity, it was a death knell for the market. We need comics sold to boys, not men; we need Superman racked in checkout lanes next to People and the Enquirer; and we need some competition for Diamond.
Short of this, expect to see Marvel running ads for Geritol in the not too distant future.
Jason Yungbluth is the creator of Deep Fried and Weapon Brown, and will never eat lunch in this town again. Visit his website at http://www.whatisdeepfried.com
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