This is a dreadful, harrowing time in my country, and such a harrowing, wonderful time in comics. It's a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time, promise-crammed despite the body blows that comics retailers, publishers, creators, and readers have had to endure and continue to endure. At this moment of real change in the American comics business, I am reminded that I founded KinderComics precisely to learn new ways of looking at comics and to challenge my own tastes and habits. That experience keeps on going, more dizzying and eye-opening with each passing month — and, speaking selfishly, that's a continuing gift to me. As a comics scholar and critic, I'm blessed to have an "object of study" that just won't sit still.
Please forgive a bit of navel-gazing:
KinderComics covers children's and young adult comics from a perhaps unusual angle: I'm a comics fan weaned on (first) newsstand and (then) direct-market comic books, a reader of superhero comic books for nearly fifty years who wavers between nostalgia for and impatience with that genre, and, on the other hand, an adherent of alternative and art comics in the post-underground tradition. At the same time, academically, I'm a scholar-teacher of children's literature and culture. These different experiences and commitments sometimes come into conflict, hopefully in a stimulating, useful way for my readers. I come at young readers' graphic novels with great enthusiasm but also a dose of, I hope, healthy skepticism regarding how they are promoted and judged. This skepticism has been stoked by both my knowledge of the long history of comics and the academic study of childhood as a cultural construct. More than anything, though, I'm just interested in good comics, no matter what audience or bloc they are marketed toward. As I say on this blog's About page,
I'm strongly invested in the idea of comics as a form of art and of text with its own traditions and aesthetics, and...I'm less concerned about work that is "good for" or improving for children, more concerned about work that I find artistically startling and enriching.
In other words, I have an abiding interest in comics' aesthetic form that tends to outweigh even considerations about what works for children and adolescents as readers. And I tend to look at contemporary comics for young readers against a long backdrop of historic comics for and about children, including comic strips and comics magazines; that is, I resist the presentism of the graphic novel era. Further, I resist questions framed in terms of "age-appropriateness" or didactic agenda. As a teacher of children's literature, I often have to field such questions — for example, what age is this book for? — but I tend to fence with such questions rather than answer them outright. A bad habit, maybe — probably a frustrating habit for my students! — but that's me. I'm interested in young reader's comics as an aesthetic revolution, not just a social and educational one. That, for me, is what KinderComics is all about: following a new source of good comics.
With all that in mind, I'm keenly interested in news about the shifting markets for comic books and graphic novels in the US, especially the news that sales in my beloved direct market (that is, the network of comic book specialty shops) are being overtaken by comics sales in the mainstream book trade — plus the news that kid-oriented original graphic novels are surpassing superhero and related comic book serials in sales. Now, these are not very surprising bits of news; in fact, I founded KinderComics with the expectation that this would happen, that it was only a matter of time before the stats reflected these changes. Lately, the stats have been dramatic: if comics sales enjoyed something of a record year in 2019, it was books aimed at young readers that drove that sales spike. Here are a few recent sources that confirm these trends:
One concern of mine — a concern further stoked by the pandemic emergency — is that direct-market comics shops are in a poor position to compete with mainstream bookstores and online retailers when it comes to selling original graphic novels. This is not because comic shops lack expertise or good customer service; in fact, many comic shops do a good job of hand-selling comics graciously, with a personal touch, because they tend to know their customers. But comic shops within the direct-market system do not enjoy the advantages of returnability and deep discounts that an entity like Amazon takes for granted. Structurally, they simply have a hard time competing with high-volume retailers that can afford to sell some books at a loss in return for customer loyalty and bigger returns down the road. As the balance of sales shifts from traditional DM floppy or pamphlet comics to original graphic novels, the decks are somewhat stacked against comic shops. Bookstores, Amazon, and the Scholastic book fairs (Scholastic is by far the number one comics publisher in the US right now) work by different rules. What were advantages when dealing with a fan clientele in the direct market have become liabilities as comics shift their footing to different retail channels. The huge upsurge of comics in children's and YA publishing has everything to do with this sea change.
Even before COVID-19, the challenges of returnability and working with multiple distributors were insuperable barriers to many direct-market comic shops. Rolling with the changes is not easy. The commercial dominance of original graphic novels for young readers requires new arrangements and new thinking, lest comic shops be shut out of comics' most explosive growth spurt in generations.
I'm watching in the shadows of COVID, anxiously, hoping that my favorite comic shops — the kind that combine expertise and passion, carry and promote most genres, and work hard to serve a diverse community of readers — can survive and find the means to adjust to a potentially bright, yet differently structured, future. Beyond outlasting this pandemic, I think adapting to the rise of young reader's graphic novels is the greatest challenge facing North American comic shops today. This is not simply because comic shops tend to be more welcoming environments for adults than for young readers (some shops have already sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere). It's also because the terms of the business make it hard for comic shops to compete for original graphic novel readers. Negotiating new terms and risking new forms of outreach will have to be part of the comic shop toolkit, going forward.
As I said, a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time. I think I created KinderComics as a way of thinking through this time. Thanks, readers, for joining me.
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