The most important speech given to a comics industry audience since 2004, part 1

This is the first post in a two-part series. In 2004, I was lucky enough to hear Michael Chabon give the keynote speech at the Eisner Awards. He spoke powerfully on the need for more and better comics for children. At the time I thought it was one of the most impressive speeches I’d ever heard, because of the rhetorical force with which he identified the comics industry’s failure to serve its traditional target audience, and challenged the creators and publishers in attendance to do better. Ten years later, the problem Chabon identifies is still far from being solved. However, Chabon’s speech seems to have captured a widespread feeling that the comics industry needed to do a better job of attracting younger readers, and the industry has made significant efforts to do that, both through traditional comic books (Boom, IDW) and graphic novels (Scholastic, First Second, Papercutz).

On Friday, Eric Stephenson gave a speech at ComicsPRO which I think is equally important, and for the same reason: because it powerfully argues that an audience which has historically been neglected is in fact central to the mission of the comics industry. The key passage in the speech is as follows. I’m sorry for the long blockquote but I think this is worth quoting in its entirety:

Right now, the fastest growing demographic for Image Comics, and I’m willing to speculate, for the entire industry, is women.

For years, I’ve listened to people talk about bringing more women into the marketplace.

Over the last few years, with your help, we’ve been doing exactly that.

You’ve seen the audience that’s building up around SAGA. You’ve seen how female readers respond to books like SEX CRIMINALS, LAZARUS, VELVET, PRETTY DEADLY, ROCKET GIRL, and RAT QUEENS, and one of our best-received announcements at Image Expo was Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new series BITCH PLANET.

We’re not the first to put out material that appealed to women – there’s a whole roomful of incredible people I wouldn’t be able to look in the eye if I made that kind of ludicrous claim – but I think we are among a select group in this industry who realize that there’s more to gain from broadening our horizons than by remaining staunchly beholden to the shrinking fan base that is supposedly excited about sequels to decrepit old crossovers like SECRET WARS II.

It is comics like SAGA that get new readers in your door.

I know this, because I have met SAGA readers.

They read SAGA, they read RACHEL RISING, they read Julia Wertz, they read FABLES, they read Nicole Georges and Kate Beaton, they read Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, and LOVE & ROCKETS…

They read all of that and more, but even better still:

They are hungry for more.

There is a vast and growing readership out there that is excited about discovering comic books, but as long as we continue to present comics to the world in the Biff Bang Pow! context of Marvel and DC, with shop windows full of pictures of Spider-Man and Superman, we will fail to reach it.

The biggest problem with comic books is that even now, even after all the amazing progress we’ve made as an industry over the last 20 years, the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever about how much the comics medium has to offer.

As an industry, we still cling to the shortsighted and mistaken notion that presenting ourselves to the world as Marvel and DC, as superhero movies, is the key to reaching a wider audience, and it’s just not.

People know what Spider-Man is. People know what Superman is. They know Batman. They know the X-Men.

And you know what? They’ve already made their mind up about that stuff, and that’s why the success of those movies has yet to translate into an avalanche of readers into our industry.

We have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes.”

And the world has stayed away.

We need to fix that.

If we want to reach out to new readers, to different readers, we need to look at what we’re pitching them.

More than that, we need to look at who our customer base is – not just who is coming into the stores, but who ISN’T – and ask what we can do to make our marketplace more appealing to them.

ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience.

THAT is who we want coming into comic book stores, and it is new creativity that is going to pave their way to your door.

Stephenson’s basic point here is that if the comics industry is going to survive, it needs to look beyond its target audience of people like me and to attract new readers, particularly female readers. I’ve believed this for many years and it seems like an uncontroversial notion to me. Yet even a few years ago, one could argue with a straight face that publishing comics for women did not make business sense. In 2008, when DC’s Minx line was cancelled due to low sales, Andy Khouri wrote: “Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.” This was obvious bullshit: Minx was cancelled not because there was no audience for it, but because DC failed to market it effectively or to get Minx comics onto the shelves of big box bookstores. Yet in 2008 it was possible to plausibly claim that there just wasn’t a market for comics directed at young women.

Now in 2014, the publisher of one of the largest comics companies in America is publicly claiming that his company’s fastest-growing and most important target demographic is young women. That is a sign of a paradigm shift in the way the comics industry sees itself. And that paradigm shift is visible even in recent publications from Marvel comics. Marvel’s top-selling digital comic in February was Ms. Marvel. And the shower scene in Loki, Agent of Asgard #1 was an obvious example of fanservice directed at female readers, something which was completely absent from Marvel or DC comics until quite recently.

I would argue that it is because of Image’s success in capturing nontraditional readers that they are currently the industry leader, not necessarily in terms of sales but certainly in terms of creative quality and relevance. And Marvel has remained relevant, while DC has stagnated, largely because Marvel has actively sought to capture new audiences while DC has remained entrenched in a by-fans-for-fans mentality.

I have more to say about this speech — specifically, I want to examine Stephenson’s controversial claims about comics based on licensed properties — but I think that deserves a post of its own.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jim MacQ
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 15:18:40

    I think the Minx line failed for a lot of reasons, distribution being a big one, as well as a tedious sameness to much of the material, and really poor branding, starting with the name. “Minx” means “an impudent, flirtatious or scheming woman.” It’s almost always used in a derogatory manner, often as a more polite alternative to “slut,” and it carries more than a little sexual baggage. Whoever thought that it was an appropriate name for a comic line targeting teen and tween girls was a moron. Even if the girls in the audience didn’t know what it meant (it’s a bit of an obsolete term except for occasional usage in soap operas), their parents did, and they were not about to buy it.

    Reply

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