Comics—and digital comics—have been in trouble for some while. Their distribution is a shadow of their heyday, and sometimes it seems as though publishers only keep pumping them out now because they serve as grist for movie and television adaptations. Given that those movie adaptations take in literally billions of dollars in revenue, this makes comics’ anemic sales figures less of a concern by comparison. But what got comics into trouble, and can they be saved?

If you go by the conventional wisdom, the thing that really killed off comic books was a big double-whammy of bad business decisions in the 1990s. First came the Death of Superman, in which DC Comics pulled the cheap stunt of (temporarily) killing off its flagship character as a way to sell more comics.

The problem was that all the people who bought those comics thinking they would appreciate in value were in for a big disappointment…because of all the other people who bought the comics thinking that they would appreciate in value. With everyone buying Death of Superman comics and saving them, the market would be flooded with mint comics, and to this day, they’re only worth around $35, tops.

The other mistake had to do with Marvel buying comic distributor Heroes World and using them as its exclusive distributor, and failing badly. This was followed by DC going exclusive with comic distributor Diamond. When the dust had settled, they had managed to kill off just about every other comic distributor except Diamond.

But these business issues might just be a sideshow, according to Gerry Conway, co-creator of many popular Marvel characters including The Punisher. Conway holds that the real problem is that comic books aren’t attracting new readers, because they’re not aimed at the same market as they used to be.

From their origins up through the 1970s, comic books were mostly aimed squarely at middle-grade readers, 9- to 13-year-olds—the same age group as Harry Potter, basically. But Conway says that when he and other Baby Boomers came into the industry in the 1970s, they brought along their “Boomer self-obsession.” They didn’t want to create stories for kids, they wanted to create them for themselves. And so comic books’ target audience matured over the course of the next couple of decades, until now most comic book publishers aren’t really even trying to draw in new younger readers anymore—they’re just aiming their products squarely at the adults who buy them already.

When you think about it, this actually sounds pretty reasonable. Non-comic fans tend to think of comic books as “kid stuff,” but when was the last time you heard of kids getting excited about some particular comic book? Kids have been excited about print series, such as Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson, and so on, but I can’t remember that much noise about comics save from adult fans grumbling about the latest brand-wide continuity reboot.

Conway proposes that all existing comic book lines should be cancelled, replaced with a simplified line of 10-15 comic titles for middle-grade readers, with more simple storylines that don’t require in-depth familiarity. For existing adult readers, there would be a separate line of more mature graphic novels.

Would it work? Who knows? If you go by what Conway says, it’s literally been nearly half a century since comic books were actually aimed at the kids they were originally made for. Would kids return to them if they were aimed at them again? Well, it’s possible, I guess, especially if there was a big enough publicity push on that these comics actually are kid stuff. But there’s so much else competing for kids’ attention these days, including television shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that seem to have squarely taken over the kiddie-superheroes niche.

On the other hand, given how many kids have phones and tablets now, it would be easier than ever for them to buy comic books, assuming they had the money and the desire. They wouldn’t need to venture out of their homes, which is even more daunting than usual in this coronavirus era; all they would have to do is navigate to Comixology, which would be even easier if the tablet they were using was one of Amazon’s super-cheap Fires.

In any case, given how far comic sales have dwindled, something should be done to try to revitalize the industry. It doesn’t seem like there’s much future in a medium that only exists to inspire stories in other media.

Photo by Van Dos Santos on

If you found this post worth reading and want to kick in a buck or two to the author, click here.