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Comics Woo Adults (And Kiss Off Kids)

Category: 300 News
Article Date: February 27, 2007 | Publication: | Author: Mike Antonucci

Posted by: DaisyMay


In 1989, the average age of a customer at Joe Field's comic book store in Concord was 18.

Today, it's almost 30. Moreover, Field estimates that buyers under 18 account for less than 20 percent of his sales.

Field's experience at his shop, Flying Colors Comics, is anything but unique. The comics business has learned to survive and grow by appealing to adults instead of kids. And that has opened the door to increasingly mature and edgy material, some of it within famously mainstream comics.

In recent years, for example, many DC Comics stories featuring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have been influenced by the 2004 ``Identity Crisis'' miniseries, whose unsettling plot included the rape of another superhero's wife. Marvel Comics' recent ``Civil War'' miniseries didn't address anything as sensitive, but its themes were somber and starkly violent, with subplots involving fractured relationships among close friends and families.

The intensity of such story lines helps fuel events such as WonderCon, the annual comics and pop culture convention taking place Friday through Sunday in San Francisco. But WonderCon is almost equally about movie and TV attractions -- some rooted in comics, some not -- and that magnifies the challenge of getting kids to read.

``Comics,'' Field says, ``are still a flea on the rear of the entertainment elephant -- including TV, movies, advertising and video games. Comics creatively dominate the other media, but they're far behind from a business standpoint.''

Almost no one talks any longer about comics being a sneakily artful way of getting kids to read. There is even some fear that the current waves of adult customers represent the last generations of comics readers.

A recent article on that topic in Wizard magazine generally dismissed the idea that comics readership is headed off a cliff. But it also revived the debate about the impact and appropriateness of including a rape (albeit discussed, not shown) in a costumed heroes tale like ``Identity Crisis.''

Brad Meltzer, the novelist who wrote that miniseries, said by e-mail that ``the best part of comics has always been the mix'' of stories.

Even if young kids were the biggest comics readers, Meltzer notes, ``I'd still tell the story I want to tell. That's the only story I should tell. Sooner or later, they'll grow into it, or make it themselves.''

Some recent research by DC Comics may include insights on readership by age, but the company declined to discuss its findings. And Field is among the shop owners who says retailers tend not to dwell on exactly who is buying comics as long as sales are growing overall.

Brian Hibbs, owner of the Comix Experience store in San Francisco, makes the argument that cultivating adult readers is ``better for the maturity of the medium'' artistically.

``The common wisdom, when comics were considered something for kids, was that the audience turned over every three years,'' Hibbs explains. ``You could tell a story, and three years later you could tell the same story again.''

The adult audience is more demanding, although Field and Hibbs believe that some of their older regulars are buying for children as well as themselves. Many retailers argue that kids are reading even if they're not buying, and anyone who spends time in large bookstores has noticed the packs of youngsters sprawled in aisles while reading manga (translated Japanese comics).

Manga, however, is only one slice of the comics business. Capitalizing on that niche interest, or creating kid-branded comics as Marvel and D.C. have done, strikes some observers as evidence of an oncoming crisis.

Douglas Simpson, store manager of Paradise Comics in Toronto, raised an alarm in the Wizard story and said through e-mail that he believes the industry will ``constantly decline'' without younger readers developing a ``common history'' as comics fans.

``That a special line of books has to be produced for kids shows that even the major companies know their readership is aging,'' Simpson writes. ``I am really convinced that the monthly periodical version of comics will steadily decline and that the trade paperback will be the only print survivor comics.''

The power of graphic novels -- lengthy, illustrated stories published in paperback or hardcover -- is evident in the upcoming film ``300,'' which is meant to be a live-action translation of author-artist Frank Miller's visual style. But ``300,'' which is being prominently promoted at WonderCon, also exemplifies the age-appropriateness challenge -- it's rated R, which means no one under 17 is supposed to get into the movie without being accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Lee Hester, owner of the Lee's Comics stores in Mountain View and San Mateo, says comics have become a specialty market instead of a mass medium and that the trend is ``to go more adult.''

The danger of being unable to replace aging customers is real, Hester says. But the scales are somewhat balanced by understanding how to cater to his select market.

``We have a small readership base, and I'm okay with that,'' Hester writes in e-mail. ``I'm so small that Wal-Mart will never try to crush me.''


The Upshot: This pop-culture convention celebrates comic books and almost all things pop culture, including movies, television, anime and toys.

Where: Moscone Center South, 747 Howard St., San Francisco.

When: Noon-7 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m-7 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: At the door Friday and Saturday: $15 adults, $8 junior and senior. Sunday: $10 adults, $5 junior and senior. Children age 11 and under admitted free with paid adult. Juniors are 12-17 years old; seniors are 60 and older.


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