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Alternative Comics

Revised July 6, 1998

Strictly speaking, comic books aren't. Books, I mean. They're magazines. I have another rant on that subject over at the "Comics and Comic Books" page. Let's just say that I think it's silly to call a flimsy 32-page magazine stapled in the middle a book. I call them comics magazines, and when I say comic book, I mean a book with comics - what we usually call a "graphic novel," despite the fact that some of them obviously aren't novels anymore than the magazines are books.

I know, I know. Nobody else is going to use these words this way. Not as long as the 32-page-flimsy-covered-staple-bound kind of comic book - the one I want to call "comics magazine" - still exists, anyway. As of this writing (July, 1998), it looks barely possible that it may die before the end of the century, but I don't really think that's going to happen. If it does though, it won't be as disastrous as most comics folks think. The medium itself - storytelling or other artistic presentation using a series of pictures with or without words - is not endangered. What seems to be in danger of dying is the traditional comic book. By that I do not mean just the 32-page magazine format, but what has been through most of its 60-year history the most popular genre of comics magazines: the superhero.

The "Death of Superman" event a few years ago was essentially a gimmick to sell comics, yet it was something else as well. In retrospect, it seemed a prophecy and itself a death knell for the industry. Coming as the climax of a long list of over-hyped "events" in the comics, this one captured the imagination of the non-comics-buying public in a way none of the others were able to do. They were actually going to kill Superman! (Actually, they weren't, or only sort of, but that's another story.) The year Superman died saw the highest overall sales in "modern" (which, for the comics industry, means post-1960) history, not just in his own magazines but across the board. Sure, #75 (the actual death issue) sold millions of copies, but sales were up on all four Superman titles throughout the run of the story, which lasted over a year. And other comics were selling, as well. The total sales figures for the industry were almost double the year before. Many predicted a new rebirth of the comics industry.

Instead, it was a last gasp. Comics sales have been sinking like a stone ever since. Where once the "Uncanny X-Men" and "Spawn" and half a dozen other books sold over half a million copies every month, now the biggest sellers barely top 100,000, except for occasional "stunt" or "gimmick" comics like a recent one with 13 different covers (and even those pale in comparison to the millions similar gimmicks sold ten years ago). A glance at the "Tops 200" sellers from Diamond Distribution shows continuing erosion, nearly every title losing, only a few gaining, over the previous month, and the threshold for making it into the top 200 sellers goes lower and lower and lower. The industry is shrinking.

Alternatives Are Growing

At the same time that the traditional comics industry is imploding, so-called "alternative" comics are booming, despite the fact they have no clearly defined market or distribution system beyond the comics shops, most of which still cater to pimply adolescents seeking garishly colored pictures of big-breasted women and men in tights. Most people have never even heard of Roberta Gregory - even most comics fans have never seen a copy of Naughty Bits, since most comics shops don't carry it and those that do usually keep it hidden away in an "adults only" section. But that magazine has gone from being an expensive hobby that Gregory supported by working at other things to being something that pays for itself and makes a profit - not much of one, perhaps, but enough for her to support herself. That has happened at the same time that the overall number of comics sold in the U.S. has shrunk by 1/3.

OK, "booming" is a bit of hyperbole. The circulations of alternative comics magazines are tiny, really - most of the "successful" ones sell in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 percent of the top-selling superhero magazines, or about 1/10 what a marginal superhero magazine needs to keep from being cancelled. But several of them have seen an actual increase in circulation, and more importantly their numbers have been increasing steadily - there are far more of them making enough money to survive today than there were five years ago.

It is these so-called "alternative" comics that I think hold hope for the future for the comics magazine industry. The geeky adolescents obsessed with power fantasies would rather play video games than read comics. The market has depended on them for so long because they were reliable, they always came in like clockwork every week and spent all their allowance on the latest adventure of some costumed men with muscles on their muscles and women with breasts bigger than their heads. Unfortunately, in catering to them, the market also drove away nearly everyone else. Now that a new generation of teenagers is finding thrills elsewhere, comics need to reach out to a new audience.


American culture in general disdains comics magazines, classing them all as silly. For the most part, this is true. Superheroes are essentially silly. If you get bitten by a radioactive spider, you will not gain the ability to climb walls. In all likelihood, you will die. You can have a serious story featuring superheroes, but you have to work at it, and it's often not worth the effort. If you want to applaud the 1970s Iron Man comics with its continued story of Tony Stark realizing that he's an alcoholic and coming to grips with it (and I still own that entire run), you have to ask how the Iron Man suit added to the story. Tony Stark's alcoholism helped make Iron Man "relevant" to the real world, but Iron Man's constant intrusion kept the alcoholism from really being relevant to any of the readers' lives. I could say the same for any of the other "relevant" storylines introduced into superhero comics over the last 30 years, going back to Harry Osborne's brush with drugs in the famous non-code Spider-Man comics.

But superhero comics are the only kind that sell, argue the men-in-tights supporters. That wasn't always true, and is true now mainly because of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most people both within and without the comics community associate "comic books" (i.e., magazines) and superheroes so closely that they find it hard to think of them apart. A superhero movie like Darkman is thought of as a "comic book movie" despite the fact the character was original, and never appeared in comics until the movie was adapted in that medium. Conversely, comics depicting ordinary people doing ordinary things are thought of as "alternative" - while really, in any other medium, they would be the mainstream.

(Not that all alternative comics are about ordinary people. Some of them are fantasy, some science fiction, some crime melodrama, some romance, just about everything, in other words, but superheroes - including some interesting takes on beings that might be regarded as superheroes, but without the colorful costumes.)

Only in the comics community could a subject matter and a style that appeal to an extremely limited number of people be regarded as "mainstream." In fact, superheroes are anything but, despite the success of the Batman movies and a few others. Superhero fans cite the numbers, hundreds of thousands of folks buying superhero comics while only two or three thousand buy this or that alternative comic, but the fact is more people will buy collections of newspaper comic strips this year than will buy collections of comics magazines. Dilbert has more fans than the X-Men ever will.

My favorite example is Twin Peaks, the cult TV show that had such lousy ratings numbers that even though great audience demographics kept it alive for a while, it just couldn't justify its existence to the network brass. At its lowest point, near the end when every one knew it was being cancelled, it was still being watched by several million people - I think the lowest rating estimate was 6 million. The most popular single comic magazine at the time - The Uncanny X-Men, had a circulation of about half a million.

I've seen generous estimates produced at the peak of the industry's popularity that a million and a half people are regular readers of "comic books" (i.e., magazines). The true figure is probably half that. Many multiple copies were being purchased for "investment" purchases during the boom, and a large part of the collapse in the market these last few years has been the realization that those "investments" have not paid off, and never will.

Still, even if there really were a million - even two million - regular readers of comics magazines, that figure is pitifully small, in modern mass media terms. When you realize it's a base number that then must be shared by all of the hundreds of comics magazines and books published each month, the industry appears marginal indeed.

Nobody reads comics.

Oh yeah? Tell it to Dilbert.

Who Reads Comics?

Few people read comics magazines, but lots and lots of people read comics.

The distinction between "comic books" (magazines) and "comic strips" is mostly artificial. There are some differences in the comics magazine page and the basic daily three panel format, but the latter is only the most familiar format for newspaper strips. There are weekly strips that more resemble magazine pages, like Linda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek or Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World, not to mention the great Sunday strips of the 1930s which were, in fact, whole pages and inspired many of the more adventurous page layouts seen in the magazines.

Whenever people talk about the "comics industry" they always talk about "comic books" (magazines). When they talk about "graphic novels" they often discuss things that are definitely not novels (like Give It Up, a 64-page collection of unrelated short stories or Understanding Comics) but exclude collections of newspaper strips that tell a continuous narrative (collections of Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse, for example). This is nuts. Pictures deliberately juxtaposed for narrative, explanatory or artistic intent are comics, no matter where they appear. If they appear in a bound book, they're comic books.

Lots of people read what I call comic books, enough to put Dilbert and Garfield collections regularly on the New York Times Bestseller List. If books filled with comics, available in real bookstores, became the only outlet for the medium of juxtaposed pictures, it might actually be a good thing, in the long run. There are many economic reasons why this might be disastrous for many of the creators of today's alternative comics, but it might be the only way the medium can finally be taken seriously, to move out of the ghetto of the comics shop, with its big-breasted posters and geeky clerks* and into the real bookstores.

One problem is that "real" bookstores, if they carry comics material at all, usually don't know how to handle it. I've seen Maus under "Humor." I've also seen it under "Science Fiction."

Of course, the fact is that superhero comics magazines are not likely to vanish entirely. And more and more comic shops are realizing that a clean, well-lit shop promoting alternative comics will bring new readers into the store, while the kids will still grab the Spawn and X-Men comics, even if they're hidden away in the back. And every week another shop stuck solidly in the "superheroes are all there is to comics" mentality goes under. My guess is that the industry will be transformed from within, gradually, until superheroes become a small part of the market - maybe not the 10% or so they probably deserve, but probably 30-40% of what's sold, instead of 90%.

Now, to a certain extent the curious distribution system that Phil Seuling first thought up as a way to lure Marvel & DC into selling comics directly to him instead of just the big distributors is responsible for the explosion of alternative comics creators. People operating on a shoestring can breathe easier knowing that the comic shops can't return orders (well, as long as you deliver on time anyway). They would be hurt by the collapse of the direct sales market.

On the other hand, bookstores are beginning to catch on. The mainstream press is also beginning to "get it." While articles about comics for grown ups still often express surprise at the notion (nearly twenty years after the first chapter of Maus appeared), at least they don't all have headlines like "Pow! Bam! Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore!" as they did a few years ago. There are serious examinations of comics and comics creators showing up in magazines and newspapers. Norman Mailer has praised Sandman.

The World Fantasy Award committee may have changed the rules after Neil Gaiman won best short story to keep comics from being nominated, but Maus has won a Pulitzer Prize. Peter Kuper's Eye of the Beholder recently ended a weekly run in the New York Times, which had not run a comic strip since early in the century. More recently, the N.Y. Times published a piece by scholar Greil Marcus praising the two-part comics series Uncle Sam by Steve Darnell and Alex Ross that did not dwell on the "comics aren't just for kids" or "comics aren't just superheroes" themes. Marcus took it for granted that comics are a legitimate artistic medium.

Slowly but surely, things are changing. I would predict that if the "comic book" as we know it did indeed die, along with the direct market and 9/10 of the comics shops (those that rely almost exclusively on superhero sales and could not adapt to anything else), there would still be a market for what we now call "alternative" comics. By the middle of the next century, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the term "comic book" refers to a book with comics. If perhaps a third of the comic books around portray the adventures of costumed superheroes, I wouldn't be surprised. I'll only see that if I live to be close to 100, but it could happen much more quickly.

Finally, I must say that I do not detest or dislike superheroes. There are several superhero comics on my reading list. I grew up on superhero comics, and will always have a fondness for them. But I acknowledge that there is an essential silliness to them. It can be overcome, just as J.R.R. Tolkien overcame the essential silliness of stories about elves and dwarves by crafting the immensely serious and powerful Lord of the Rings. Watchmen, is certainly a serious work, just to name an obvious example. On the other hand, it need not be overcome; not every work must be great, enjoyment can be its own reward - I greatly enjoy the Batman comics based on the animated TV show, which are certainly not High Art, but are delightfully entertaining.

But as long as "comics" and "superheroes" are linked in the common mind, the medium will be lightly regarded by the general public.

Two of my favorite comics magazines are Cerebus and Sandman, although the latter is no longer being published as a magazine. My list of Recommended Comics includes some superheroes, but mostly alternative fare. I also have a list of recommended Comic Books (what most folks call graphic novels).

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"big-breasted posters and geeky clerks": By no means do I believe this represents all comics shops. Any complaints by e-mail that "my store's not like that" will be ignored. Your store may well be an oasis in the desert, like Star Clipper, the store I shop at, or Page 45, which I've only read about but which sounds wonderful. The fact is that there are not more than a hundred shops like this in the entire world - and the number is probably closer to twenty or thirty. Out of four or five THOUSAND shops in the U.S. alone. Another few hundred are not my ideal, but are at least clean and well-lit and not immediately offensive. However, I've been in dozens of comics shops in several different cities from the East Coast to the Midwest and the vast majority of them were uninviting places for folks not already committed members of the comics fraternity - especially women.