Firstly I’d say that’s not really the case, and hasn’t been for some time – but we’ve got perceptual distortions that make it hard to see the whole equation. Yes, superheroes are huge pop culture and movie properties, but they are no longer the be-all-and-end-all of Western comic books. If you look at the New York Times bestsellers list, it’s Robert Walking Dead Kirkman and Raina Telgemeier’s cartoon realist stories and memoirs. Neither of them are doing superhero comics. What’s really making the running are things like Saga and Paper Girls.
- Comics 2017: Whatever you see in the multiplex, it’s not about superheroes any more
And it’s not true, for instance, to say that superhero comics were only ever for men and boys, even in the 1980s. There’s a false narrative, an occluded history, that girls don’t like or want superhero or adventure or fantasy comics disproven, very clearly, every day, in all markets. What happened was, at some point, we just stopped making them for girls. When you begin to treat women – as my wife [comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick] says – like sexy lamps then maybe women are not going to find so many things to inspire them or identify with. “Oh, maybe this isn’t for me anymore.” Maybe you don’t want to be the princess put up in the tower over and over again while guys fight over who gets to fuck you. Maybe that’s not the greatest formula for repeat business from female readers. But it has changed. You go into a bookstore on a Saturday now, the graphic novel and manga aisles are full of girls and boys reading ten dollar books by the pile. The New York Times runs them in their bestseller charts these days. Something’s not just happening, it already happened.
For the big two publishers, Marvel and DC, superhero books are the default. And there’s a belief that this was a market-driven decision made simply because they sold. That’s not entirely the story. What happened was in the 1950s – when comics were actually incredibly diverse in the creative sense – we had a moral panic about horror comics and then the imposition of the Comics Code Authority which meant, in effect, that comics were not allowed to be too interesting anymore. EC, who put out the best and most challenging comics – including Mad Magazine, which was just as controversial – was shut down, so were its many competitors, and work with any whiff of sophistication or maturity was no longer permitted. The public panic over comics and their content were a phenomenon composed of equal parts quackery, political expediency, prolonged legal assaults on organised crime, and so on and so on. The punchline is, to continue the proud tradition of comic books and their courageous moral choices, we censored ourselves rather than risk negative exposure.
“Comic outlets are made to sell well-known pop properties like Batman, and they do that very well. But comics that don’t do that grew their own audience away from the comics stores.”
Over the subsequent decades comics started to be sold in dedicated comics stores – the ‘Direct Market’ – instead of the corner store or the newsstand. There’s a lot of money and market history and demographic stuff involved in this that can’t be unpacked simply. The short version is, direct market comic outlets are made to sell big, well-known pop properties like Batman, and they do that very well. But comics that don’t do that have gone out and grown their own audience away from the comics stores. You saw it with graphic novels like Maus and later Joe Sacco’s Palestine, you saw it with the manga explosion, you saw it with Chris Ware, Los Bros Hernandez, Dan Clowes and Charles Burns. You can draw a line from Robert Crumb’s baby carriage full of ZAP #0 at Haight and Ashbury, to the loft where Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly made RAW, to Ben Katchor’s Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, to where “comics” are today – a mass-media medium with a plethora of thematic concerns. Basically the party started without the direct market, because the direct market was its own party. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to sell car parts at a butcher shop.
- How the alternative became the mainstream: (l-r) Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes
And there’s a reason why these things are so popular and varied around the world and yet so limited – or were so limited – in the United States. When we did mature comics, that just meant superheroes with swears. Grim and gritty is not really mature or adult at all. It’s a facsimile of maturity. American comics have long mistaken enormity for gravity, and a niche for an audience.
Why did the audience change, and become more diverse? Because fundamentally comics are a great medium to articulate ideas, to have thematic concerns. There are unique aspects to comics that books and films just can’t do. Comics are incredibly powerful and personal. You don’t even have to be able to read in order to read them. With a movie, you’re in a theatre with hundreds of other people experiencing things at the same time and pace. A comic is entirely dependent on you to make it work. No other person is ever going to read a comic the way you read it. The only other visual storytelling that functions the way comics do is our dreams. It’s an incredibly personal experience where time doesn't move and you’re hearing sounds that aren’t really there – and it’s entirely reliant on your intimate interaction with the art to work.
“Grim and gritty is not really mature or adult at all. It’s a facsimile of maturity.”
If the direct market goes away tomorrow a lot of us writers and artists are in trouble. But Raina Telgemaier ain’t. She won’t even notice. The truth of the matter is that, as with everything else, the boys got to have fun first. There’s a whole history of women’s work being suppressed in comics. Fantagraphics just put out an incredible collection of comics by women, great lost important works, and I’d not even heard of 90% of it and this is, y’know, kind of my thing. In Britain, there were three weekly comics that were aimed solely at girls that have just been written out of history.
- Erased from history: mainstream comics for girls, from ’50s US romance books to Britain’s weeklies to the classic girls’ horror weekly Misty, recently reissued.
Look what happened at Angoulême International Comics Festival last year. A diverse audience has always been there. The American superhero comics mainstream just stopped selling to them. Comics became an adventure in diminishing returns. And there is a reason too why our numbers among people of colour are as anaemic as they are: if you don’t see yourself reflected in your fiction, you might not read that fiction. And yet Luke Cage crashed Netflix, it had never happened before. There is an audience starving, dying to be talked to. People need myths, they need dreams, and they need myths and dreams in which they star.
It’s not even that comics are ‘cool’ any more. We’re not cool. We went around that loop. Now we’re part of the mainstream at this point. We’re boring. Comics had a moment of hip cultural relevance – now it’s just cultural. We’ve gotten out of the crib and we are now a medium in which some stuff is good and some is bad, some is cool and some isn’t. It’s no different than television. You’re no longer surprised to see anyone read a comic on a plane or a bus.
The new hardback ODY-C: CYCLE ONE collects the first 12 issues of Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s update of Homer’s Odyssey.