Thursday, March 03, 2005

SwanShadow's Master Plan for saving the comics industry

Marvel Comics honchos Peter Cuneo and Avi Arad announced this week that the company has struck a deal with 7-11 to sell Marvel's merry mags in the ubiquitous convenience stores.

Anything that makes comics — which in recent years have largely been relegated to comics-focused retailers, with the result that only the people already reading comics ever see a comic book — more visible to more potential purchasers is good for the industry. Whether the 7-11 gambit will produce a huge boost in sales for Marvel remains to be seen, but it's a nice start. It's a partial return to the days when spinner racks filled with comics stood in practically every supermarket in America, where kids had easy access to them. My very first comics almost all came from the twin racks at Snider's IGA Market in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where my mother bought groceries when I was six years old.

No one asked me, of course, but allow me to suggest a simple four-point plan the major comics publishers could enact if they really wanted to dig their foundering business out of its rapidly deepening grave:
  1. Make comics more visible by putting them in places where kids congregate. Here's one idea: Practically every shopping mall in America rents kiosks in its open spaces, where exposure-dependent impulse items like costume jewelry, sunglasses, license plate frames and such like are sold. Rather than having comic book shops hidden away in the darkest corners of urban downtowns, why not support retailers in selling comics from brightly colored, visually striking, user-friendly kiosks near the food courts of shopping malls?

  2. Get comics back to their roots. Superhero and adventure comics have become so insular in recent decades that it's practically impossible for new readers to develop an interest in them. Catering to the fanboy crowd has resulted in much darker, less pleasant fare dominating the industry. I'm not saying abandon that core audience, but comics publishers ought to try putting out more books in the lighter, more engaging style of comics' boom times. What might happen is that parents and grandparents who grew up in comics' Silver and Bronze Ages (the '60s through early '80s) might be more readily inclined to put in the hands of kids the style of comics they themselves grew up reading. When my daughter was learning to read in the early '90s, I wouldn't have dared tried to interest her in the sort of gritty, graphic comics then available. But had there been more "fun" comics around, I'd have probably given her a few — even read them with her — and maybe she'd be reading comics today.

  3. Make better use of the success of comics-derived films. When a new Spider-Man, Batman, or Tomb Raider movie hits the multiplex, the company publishing the source material should have huge racks of comics featuring the film's characters right there in the lobby. Heck, give 'em away with the purchase of a ticket. Put Spider-Man comics in video stores and give 'em to everyone who buys or rents the Spider-Man DVD. Leverage the huge audiences for these films into promotion for the comics on which they're based.

  4. Seize the educational market. When I was a kid, we had Weekly Reader, a mini-newspaper for kids that was distributed in schools. Why not develop a system of using small-format comic books to present current events and school subjects, and make them available as adjuncts to the core curriculum? This could be accomplished so inexpensively that every family could afford to subscribe — maybe a dollar a week, just enough to cover production costs. You could put hordes of currently unemployed comic artists and writers to work developing the books, and at the same time expose millions of schoolchildren to the wonders of sequential art and storytelling.
I'm sure more brilliant heads than mine could come up with a dozen other ideas, if they simply dedicated some brainstorming time. But this would make a nice start.

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