There have been some interesting comments made lately about the state of the comic book audience. In an Entertainment Weekly piece, screenwriter and comics scribe Kevin Smith stated, "Marvel, it would seem, accepts the fact that kids don't read comics anymore. I can verify this sad fact, because I also own a comic-book store (Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, in Red Bank, N.J., plug, plug). The only time we see kids in there is on Halloween, and they're looking for free candy."
Surprisingly, Smith is understating the Marvel perspective. Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has chimed in with the comment, "A year ago, when I took that job, that's what I was concerned with. I heard comic-store owners saying 'Where are my 8-year-old readers?' You know what? I don't think they were ever really out there."
It's one thing to recognize that the kids aren't buying comics now; it's quite a leap to say that they never did, mainly because it's a patently false assertion. There might not be many eight-year-olds buying comics now, but there certainly were a lot of them in the past. It's self-evident - there's a market out there, but you've simply been doing a lousy job of reaching it, to the point where it's dwindled to very low numbers.
Marvel isn't solely to blame for this, of course; DC bears culpability for abandoning the kids market, too. If you look at the industry trends, you'll see a gradual shift in the audiences for these books over time. It's a really simple concept, folks - the demographics of your audience never shift just for the sake of shifting. There are always contributing factors, and it's incumbent on responsible business executives and planners to identify those factors. Once you understand the various forces at work, you can take steps to promote and/or deflect specific factors in support of your overall business plan.
Over the last twenty years, the audience for comics has shifted away from kids. That's a given. The challenge for comics publishers is to figure out how to serve that demographic segment - one that hasn't been adequately served in a long time - and in so doing, expand the overall size of the aggregate comics audience.
It comes down to three elements: content, availability, and awareness. Content is the easiest of the three, where the publishers come up with books that have a tone more suitable to kids than most current fare. DC's various Batman/Superman/etc. 'Adventures' books fall neatly into this category, along with James Robinson's wonderful 'Leave It To Chance' series (new issue on sale in July!). This is on top of publishers having warehouses full of appropriate inventory material, everything from Disney to Dell and back again.
As for availability and awareness, those two are linked since they're complementary aspects of the marketing function. Back when the eight-year-olds were buying these things, the books were inexpensive enough for kids to be able to afford them, and the main distribution outlets - the convenience stores - were places that saw a lot of kids' foot traffic. Today, the books are comparatively much more expensive - out of the reach of your typical eight-year-old - and we all know that convenience stores aren't much of an outlet for comics anymore.
If DC and Marvel want to get the tykes back into the fold, they're going to need to figure out two questions: who would be buying the books (parents being the intuitive answer) and how can they best get the comics in front of the parents to inspire an impulse buy.
I'm thinking of stand-up display bins packed with comics, in the giant chain toy stores. Book stores. Theme parks. Airport lounges. Anywhere parents and kids go together either where the kids will see it and start begging, or where the parents want to distract and pacify the kids for a while. I'm talking from personal experience on the latter - new issues of Superman Family and World's Finest always accompanied me on family road trips when I was that age.
If I sound frustrated, it's only because I just don't get Marvel's willingness to write off a market segment as if it never existed. It did, it was profitable, and in large measure it's a segment whose patronage is largely responsible for there being an industry for Quesada to work in today.
Let me put this in more business-like terms. There's a niche market of young potential comics readers that isn't being adequately served. If DC and Marvel don't reach out to it, someone else - say, CrossGen, perhaps - will. Why is this a big deal, you ask? Well, consumer behaviour is driven in large measure by brand awareness, and brand awareness is bolstered tremendously by grabbing mindshare as early as possible. In other words, you snooze, you lose.