Matthew Pustz, author of Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers, argues that any serious comic book reader can remember his or her very first comic. Many readers recall a surprising amount about the book and how they got it. I remember the bright yellow and blue sign in front of the Kay-Bee toy store in the Bridgewater Commons Mall advertising a free comic book with the purchase of any X-Men action figure. At the time most first graders, including me, had no idea who the X-Men were, but the added bonus of a free comic with a cool new action figure seemed too good to be true. The book was X-Men Classics #60. I read comic books through my elementary years, but with age and the closing of the local comic book shop, I lost interest.
My interest in comic books was reborn during my junior year of high school when I rediscovered Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I had to keep my love of comics a secret out of fear of ridicule for having an interest in this “juvenile” or “nerdy” hobby. Comic books have long had a negative connotation, being regarded as trash that distracts young readers from “real” literature and art. Comic book readers often fit the stereotype of the “fanboy,” with their thick framed glasses, bad hygiene, and lack of a social life. Despite many prejudices towards comic books and comic book culture, comics have had a significant impact on the modern world, through their evolution into a respected entertainment.
The Smithsonian Museum, one of the most respected cultural and educational institutions in the country, released a hardbound collection of excerpts taken from key works of graphic literature. In 1992, comic book artist Art Spiegelman was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and that same year, he won a special Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus, about his late father’s memories of the Holocaust. Throughout Pulitzer Prize history, Spiegelman was the only graphic novel author presented with a special citation for his work. The world renowned Pulitzer elevated the status and respectability of the entire medium. Museums like the MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) often hold exhibitions featuring popular artists, writers, and significant works. MoCCA offers classes on the many different aspects of comic book creation, production, history, and comic book analysis.
Countless scholars have analyzed comics from an academic perspective. Ray Mescallado’s column in The Comics Journal, “Fanboi Politik” applies literary theory to contemporary superhero comics. In his book, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geof Klock applies complicated psychological theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud to The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.
With academic analyses of comic books and graphic novels available, comic books are also used as educational tools. Rosen Publishing features historical textbooks and biographies of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman in the form of graphic novels. Rosen includes lesson plans with their products that have already been put into successful use in classrooms across America. Diamond Comics Distributors advertises the same concept of a comic as an educational tool by suggesting that they help a child use “visual cues in the art or the context of narration and dialogue,” when confronted with unfamiliar vocabulary in a comic, or readers are more motivated to look words up. Diamond also explains how comics are a good start in leading young readers towards more advanced reading, by attracting them to the library. A press release quote from a 1981 School Library Journal article, “Spider-Man at the Library” by L. Dorrell and E. Carroll shows a study where “the mere presence of comic books in a collection increased library use 82%, with a 30% increase in the circulation of non-comic book material,”. This study was conducted in 1981; just imagine how these numbers are likely to have increased today given the noticeable popularity of characters like Spider-Man and Batman.
Ken Scrudato of Wizard Magazine explained that his publication sells 185,000 copies a month, typically to 18 to 34 year olds, and the readership is 83% male. Scrudato stressed that the large number of comic-relating magazines that are sold reflects the vast amounts of issues and graphic novels being purchased, and that these demographics are an accurate indicator of the general audience (telephone interview). While young men are the biggest group of comic book readers, they are also the most challenging demographic for educators to reach. In press releases geared towards schools and libraries, Diamond Comics Distributors used a 2004 study conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education to show how 10th grade males were “found ‘proficient’ at reading 31.6% of the time, compared to 36% for females,” and “28.5% of males were assessed as ‘advanced’ compared to 36% of females,” (http://bookshelf.diamondcomics.com/GN_and_YM.htm). Diamond explains how comics “draw in young males” with a “blend of stylistic action, familiar characters, and dynamic stories.” Similar to the 1981 study, comic books are used to reach this troublesome demographic.
Major bookstores like Barnes & Noble not only have racks of recent issues on display towards the front of the store but have devoted an entire section to graphic novels and trade paperbacks ranging anywhere from ten to sixty dollars. The sales of graphic novels in book stores like Barnes & Noble combined with the sales in specialty comic shops reached $110 million in 2002, $165 million in 2003, and $207 million in 2004 (Reid, 15). Comic book popularity in America is clearly at an all time high, demonstrated by the success of blockbuster Hollywood movies, sales in major bookstores, and merchandise featuring comic book characters like Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Writers from other genres are crossing over the mediums to get in on the action and write comics. Novelists like Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), Charlie Huston (Caught Stealing, Already Dead), and Stephen King (It, Pet Sematary), television writers like Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, and popular film directors like Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) are writing top titles for DC and Marvel.
At the 2005 Wizard World Boston comic book convention, I asked Dan Didio, Senior Vice President Executive Editor of DC Comics, why he thinks comic book popularity has increased so much, especially in recent years. He responded with a simple, “There is a better quality of comics.” I asked Joe Quesada, Marvel Editor-in-Chief, the same question at his panel and he said:
Not long ago, comics went through some bad times, coming close to hitting the bottom. Comic book shops across America were forced to close, and Marvel even filed for Chapter 11 at one point. Many people blamed videogames for taking attention away. In truth, a lot of the recent success is from a better quality of comics. If there is a good, compelling story, maybe even a story with a lesson, then people will read it. But it’s tough, one of the toughest parts of the job is keeping characters fresh, and keeping the stories compelling. (Quesada, convention panel interview)
This improved quality is apparent when comparing recent and ancient comics. The newspaper quality pages of older issues were easily smeared, torn, and not fully capable of displaying intricate details and rich colors to their fullest extent. Now, the thick, glossy paper is durable and able to show off lavish illustrations to their maximum potential. Artists today create illustrations of immense intricacy, detail and aesthetic pleasure, especially when compared to the simplified, elementary and often abstracted work of their predecessors. Older work seemed primitive in its story and base dialogue, while current writers introduce compelling and sophisticated plots that keep readers coming back for more. Comics today have reached a whole new plateau in production value.
While production value has certainly created a much better product, there is more to discuss when exploring the success of comics in recent times; there is something that draws the reader in besides a good quality product. What is it that gives a comic book better quality? Is it the lavish illustrations? What is it that makes a story compelling? The strongest explanation dealing with why comic books appeal comes from popular culture theorist and author John Fiske who writes:
Popular selection, then, performed not by a universal aesthetic criteria of quality, but by a socially located criteria of relevance. Rambo was a cultural resource that Australian Aboriginals could use in making sense of their identities in a white society; they saw similarities between the white officer class in the movie and the Australian government officials who regulated so much of their lives, so the movie was useful to them in making their sense, as opposed to the white sense, of the paternalist and demanding bureaucracy with which they had to deal, (Fiske, 327).
Here, Fiske explores the idea of popularity through a relationship that is shared between a character and his or her audience. Characters can be used as a cultural resource to make sense of one’s own identity. Much popularity is derived from the identity that fans believe they share with comic book characters and/or stories. It is a combination of Fiske’s “socially located criteria of relevance” with an increased production value that has made comics the popular culture phenomenon of today.
Understanding the meaning of production value requires a definition of what a comic book is, as well as several terms surrounding the genre. Learning about different aspects of comics, like the unique interaction of word and image, set this medium apart from any other. Differentiating between terms incorrectly thought to be synonymous like “comic book” and “graphic novel” in addition to establishing several production, reading and analytical terms is essential for analyzing and appreciating developments in the industry. Discussing areas of comics that appeal to readers is possible through an awareness of comic book vocabulary.
The superhero genre characterizes mainstream comics, because this type of book brought attention to every other genre. The superhero genre was born with in 1938 when this type of comic book was in high demand spawning a plethora of superhero themed titles. The superhero genre began to fade away as other genres such as horror, western, science fiction, fantasy, comedy, and romance became more prominent. From the beginning, comics were regarded as trashy, but it was Dr. Frederic Wertham who made his theories on comics leading to juvenile delinquency a mainstream belief in the 1950′s. Although Wertham succeeded in censoring and spreading negative attitudes about comics, the superhero genre experienced somewhat of a renaissance immediately after his attacks. This rebirth of the original mainstream genre saw the start of a culture surrounding and participating in the medium. Comics would continue to develop throughout the 1960s from the crudely drawn ten-cent adventures sold at newsstands into lavishly illustrated works of literature being sold for four or five dollars an issue at special comic book shops.
Direct distribution led to a much larger amount of money circulating through the industry, which allowed more funding to be directed towards increasing the production value. Popularity would only increase as direct distribution encouraged specialty shops to emerge across the country resulting in a community complete with fanzines and conventions. Writers and artists were better able to portray elements of the real world that readers could relate to.
As a result of industry expansion from direct distribution profits, a new breed of comic emerged and the industry began to cater to a larger and more intelligent audience. Dark and complex characters were introduced that complicated the idea of a hero, and many new writers and artists produced work targeted at a mature adult audience. The 1980′s saw the creation of several important works that set milestones in achievement. The production value increased and comics turned into a speculator’s market, where issues predicted to eventually become valuable were collected in abundance. Many felt betrayed when the predictions were found to be inaccurate, leading to a major decline in readership and popularity. The success of movies and merchandise sparked new interest in comics allowing money to once again flow throughout the industry. With money to spend, publishers concentrated more energy into creating better work that would appeal to the audience.
After tracing developments of the industry and comic book popularity, Fiske’s theory of “socially located criteria of relevance” is applied to Batman to see what he has in common with his fans. Several important Batman texts are used to identify him as a vulnerable mortal man with interesting relationships and serious mental issues. These aspects demonstrate the similarities Batman shares with his fans. Similarly, Spider-Man is another character with a similar “social location” to his fans, and Fiske’s ideas can be applied to explore his appeal and popularity.
The quality or production value has increased significantly over the years. Comic books have become something respectable, valuable and interesting as opposed to “juvenile trash.” Comic book readership has risen and fallen several times over the decades. Tracing a history of the industry displays how the product has developed over time, but exploring the actual product shows the relationship between comics and their fans. The success of today’s comics is derived from a combination of a high production value and the way fans relate to their characters and stories (Fiske’s theory of “social relevance”).