|January 16, 2012||Posted by Jess under Comics|
(What kind of nerdy comics blog would this be if I didn’t start with a terrible pun, right? Right.)
My little brother likes comics.
No big, right? That’s sort of what little brothers do. They read their big sisters’ diaries, argue over whose turn it is to walk the dog, and geek out over superheroes. And since this blog is the closest thing I have to a diary and we don’t own a dog, superheroes are all Little Brother’s got left. Poor Little Brother.He’s been into superheroes for about a decade now – about as long as I have. (That’s not a coincidence – who do you think got him into them?) And as a white, straight, cisgendered, sort-of-Christian, middle-class dude just shy of 18, he’s part of that oh-so-coveted demographic (usually expressed as just “males 18-34,” but come on now) that comic book companies love to target.
So for the past 10 years, I’ve observed his engagement with superheroes, and the companies that own them. See, even though I’ve spent hundreds of dollars and thousands of words on comics, DC and Marvel have made it pretty clear that they don’t particularly care whether I’m their customer or not. But Little Brother is fertile ground, as far as they’re concerned, or at least will be in about six months. So it’s interesting to me to see how they target, or fail to target, Mr. Prime Demographic over here.
1. Comics do not believe the children are the future.
This isn’t so much of a problem with Little Brother now, but boy, buying comics for kids is hard!
At first it wasn’t that bad. If nothing else, DC always puts out a tie-in comic to go along with their current cartoons, and since Little Brother loved the show Teen Titans, it was easy enough to get him a couple of digest collections of its four-color cousin, Teen Titans Go!. When those ran out, I could always pick up some older digests of Superman Adventures, based on the 1990s Superman cartoon.
But then Little Brother entered middle school, and things got a bit trickier. He was too old for digest paperbacks based on cartoons. On the other hand, the “grownup” version of Teen Titans, the book that fit into the main comic continuity, regularly featured half-naked teenagers being mutilated – the first arc had a 16-year-old girl stab her own eye out, and it only got more gory as the series went on. I was not about to hand that to my 11-year-old brother.
Middle school is a time when kids start seeking out what they want to read, as opposed to what’s handed to them by teachers or parents. It’s when tastes are shaped and lifelong fans are created. And there’s a tremendous gap in the superhero market. For younger kids, Marvel has their wonderful Marvel Adventures line, and DC begrudgingly puts out an animated tie-in book for every show and occasionally additional gems like Tiny Titans or Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade. For adults, there’s dozens of books.
But for middle school kids? Well, in the late 90s/early 2000s, there were books like Impulse and Robin and Superboy and Young Justice, which were all part of the main continuity but featured young heroes, appealingly youthful art, and age-appropriate storylines with mild teen angst and lots of humor. Now I’d be hard-pressed to find an ongoing comic from DC that I’d hand to a pre-teen. Even the books about kids tend to be kinda gory or gloomy or feature way too much of the heroine’s ladyparts (ahem, Supergirl). It would help if DC bothered to adhere to their own ratings system, but they just slap “T for Teens 12 and Up” on everything, including images of children being tortured and Wonder Woman decapitating a horse with a sword. A 12-year-old or a parent would have a hard time finding something appropriate without guidance.
Look, this isn’t me clutching my pearls and saying, “Think about the children!” This is me slapping my forehead and saying, “Think about the children’s money!” This is a huge, crucial demographic that is being absolutely ignored by the mainstream comic book industry. Kids can go elsewhere for their entertainment, but DC’s beloved males 18-34 demographic only has so much money to spend, and that alone won’t keep the industry afloat.
2. Synergy? Fuggedaboudit.
DC is astonishingly bad at identifying successes with their properties in other media and applying them to comics. Again, look at that Teen Titans example up there: imagine a parent of an eight-year-old spotting the main continuity Teen Titans book on a spinner rack at Barnes and Noble, saying, “Hey, my kid likes this show!” and opening it up to see Kid Flash being kneecapped or Wendy and Marvin being mauled by a demonic dog. It’s a safe bet that eight-year-old won’t be getting a Teen Titans comic that day, or for many days to come. (DC’s also bad at transitioning their kid-friendly properties to something for young adults who’ve outgrown them, as this Shortpacked! strip points out beautifully.)
Or how about Jaime Reyes? He was one of the most recurring characters on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the young, inexperienced character that kid viewers could identify with, and plastered all over the merchandise. At the height of the show’s popularity, rather than try promoting his wonderful, kid-appropriate comic to the show’s viewers (Would it be so hard to put an ad on the Cartoon Network website along with all the games? DC’s money goes into your pocket, WB!), they canceled it. Now that Brave and the Bold is over, there’s a new Jaime Reyes comic, but instead of making it appropriate for the kids who’ve just grown out of the cartoon, the last page of the most recent issue features our hero accidentally shoving a giant claw through his best friend’s torso, with all the blood and unpleasant sound effects that implies. Who do you think the market for Jaime Reyes is, DC?
Here’s a similar, and more my-little-brother-specific, example: Justice League debuted in 2001, when he was seven, and ran until he was 13 – prime fannish years. His favorite character – and, in fact, the breakout character of the series – was Wally West, the young, wisecracking Flash.
In 2008, when Little Brother and his Justice League-watching cohort were about 15, DC brought back Wally’s predecessor, Barry Allen the likable but thoroughly square 1950s Flash.
In other words, they sold Wally West to a whole generation of kids and then, just as those kids were getting spending money and driver’s licenses – just as they were getting ready to go to comic book stores on their own and spend money on whatever they wanted – DC took Wally West away.
This used to make me frothing-at-the-mouth frustrated. Why would you ever do that? Why would you bait the trap and then throw the trap away entirely? Why would you why would you why would you???
But you know what? It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it. After all, Little Brother’s perfectly happy to spend the money on video games instead.
3. Not every white dude needs heroes who look exactly like him.
This is probably the most important lesson. Yes, Little Brother’s favorite characters are Wally West and Ralph Dibny, lanky redheads like him, and that’s fine. I have no problem with white dudes relating to characters they physically resemble.
However, since the vast majority of Western fiction is about white dudes, non-whites and non-dudes spend an awful lot of time learning how to relate to fictional white dudes. So it’s no bad thing when white dudes learn how to relate to people who aren’t exactly like them, too.
Like all right-thinking people, Little Brother loved the Blue Beetle trades I gave him – the ones starring Jaime Reyes, who, if the name didn’t tip you off, is Mexican-American. But what really made me smile was a conversation I had with him this past December, while I was still trying to pick a Christmas present for him. (I no longer worry so much about appropriate subject matter, but I’m super picky about what I give him because dammit, I’m his big sister, and what good is that if I can’t indoctrinate him into the things I like?)
Me: I think I’m out of Blue Beetle trades to give you. Hmm…how would you feel about something with a female lead? Like Batgirl or something? Or would you rather read about a dude?
Little Brother: Sure, I’d read that. If it’s a good comic, I don’t care who it’s about.
Please note that as of this writing, Little Brother has read a trade and a half of Bryan Q. Miller’s outrageously good Batgirl and has not yet contracted Terminal Cooties. Although he did grow up with two older sisters, so he may be a lost cause.
The takeaway here is that including female characters and characters of color – and depicting them as well-rounded and awesome heroes – won’t shrink the comic book audience. Well, okay, yeah, I guess a bunch of racists probably dropped Ultimate Spider-Man once Peter Parker was replaced with Miles Morales. But comic book companies, do you for serious want to court a handful of hardcore racists and misogynists over, oh, I don’t know…17-year-olds with open minds and potentially decades worth of comic book reading ahead of them?
Actually, please don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know.
1. Three cats, but they don’t really like being walked.↵
2. Speaking of prime demographics, I recently had brunch with a bunch of childhood friends, including four male lapsed comic book readers, now 27 years old, all with disposable income – exactly who DC’s recent reboot was targeted at. Only one of them had even heard of the reboot, and I – an icky gurl who never read comics as a kid – had to explain it to them. I’ll admit I chuckled to myself in a pretty mean-spirited way. Way to reach your audience, DC! Maybe next time you’ll do some market research before you relaunch your entire line? And possibly not be so quick to dismiss other demographics? No, that’s crazy talk.↵
3. I see nothing wrong with adults reading kids’ comics – I happen to love them for myself – but a middle schooler doesn’t want to read “baby books,” and at that kind of formative age I’d rather he read something that challenged him a bit, anyway. Yes, I am the least fun sister ever.↵