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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/11/2000
Column 67

There seems these days to be a great deal of questioning among both fans and professionals about the future of comics. But the medium has always led an uncertain existence, fluctuating wildly between high market demand and shrinking circulation. During the heyday of the comic book as we know it, which was the late thirties, comics were doing quite badly on the whole. Publishers were having difficulty paying their bills, artists and writers were badly paid and sometimes not paid at all. And then, almost out of nowhere, that changed and comics became a successful and rich medium, even though those riches were not equitably distributed between creatiors and publishers. But that's the same story as the record industry, and an entirely different question which I may take up in a future column.

We know what brought about the sudden success of comics. It was the advent of the superhero, first with Superman, and then followed by Batman. And then bolstered by a whole rash of similar superhero books. In these columns, I have already discussed the other elements that gave the superheroes such importance among the swelling ranks of comic book fans.

After the war ended, comics went into another of its cyclic declines, again for reasons I've discussed here. And the cycles of up and down continued to the present day, although, it must be noted that the high cycles never seemed to attain the same heights as the high cycles preceding. In other words, the general kurtosis (a jargon term used by market researchers for a curve) seemed downward despite the continuing ups and downs.

All sorts of things have been tried by publishers and creators to stir the medium into new life. But nothing seems to work. Newsstand circulation has now come to a virtual halt, comic book stores are folding and nothing much is happening on the Internet to bring any income to comics creators even though the new medium is swamped with ingenious new comics. But nobody is actually buying them. So what are comics creators to do? For the artists, there are opportunities in advertising and illustration. For the writers-another question. Turn to the paper back book? Throw everything into the hands of the prose fiction novel? Forget about the Web. Ebooks aren't a factor in the market yet, although being positioned there now may be a good idea for tomorrow. For some, maybe these are the ways to jump ship and get a new start.

But before we abandon everything, let's see if we can't take a good hard look at the comics audience. Do comics creators really know their audience and what that audience wants? Not too clearly.

The research doesn't tell us much we don't already know. Movies are taking a slice of the audience. The decline of the newsstand and poor distribution in drugstores, supermarkets and other retail outlets, reflecting a decline in print media, are also taking their toll.

But I'd like to offer another suggestion for finding out more about the present comics audience.

In a small way, I'd like to try another method for examining that audience, so that larger more statistically valid studies can be made. Because somehow, the comics publishers may not be giving the public what it wants. Or perhaps there really isn't any public anymore, except the steadily shrinking group of nostalgic boomers that we know.

Here's what I propose. How much do we really know about the reading habits of comics fans outside of comics? What else do they read? What print media, besides comics, do they spend their disposable income on? Do they read fiction, non-fiction, other magazines, newspapers and print media? How much of that other reading represents a shift away from comics?

If they read fiction, what kind? Romance, science fiction, adventure, literary mainstream?

What kind of non-fiction do they read? Political, economic, psychological, historical material?

Are they reading more or less today than say five or ten years ago? Are there any print media they turn to for bolstering their beliefs and values? How many regularly visit the library? What kind of books do they take out?

Now along with these questions, how much of a drop in any kind of reading can be atrributed to television and movies? How much to the Internet?

I have no intention of developing a questionnaire in these pages. I'm merely suggesting that these are the questions that can lead the publishers to an understanding of where the comics industry is going. I notice that in Tony Isabella's column on this same site, Tony is raising the question of the viability of comics in a different way. As a creator, this is something he needs to do, since it involves his future, and the future of all creators, especially writers.

My approach is a little different. I'm not asking about good or bad comics, about what kind of comics might give the whole medium a lift. Remember, it was apparently the accident of one comic, Superman, that lifted the medium into its most successful period. So Tony's approach has validity. Except that no one could have known in advance that the Superman strip would have seized the public's imagination as it did.

I'm trying to get a response on reading habits in general through the questions I propose. I don't of course intend to do the study, although I'd be willing to direct it if I were asked. But in the meantime, I would like to get more of a fix on my approach by asking those of you who read this column to write in to the Round Table and describe as fully as you can what your current reading habits are, what shifts from one medium to another (say, from comics to books) your reading has undergone, whether you read more or less today, and whether you have switched to other print media? And why! In short, look at your own reading habits, describe how they may be different than say five or ten years ago, and let's see what we get.

Remember, if the response is strong enough, we may be able to get a real study started that can make a big difference in the way comics are created and distributed. We should surely try to find out at least whether the medium is likely to continue its downward slide, or whether new approaches, new kinds of stories can be developed that will initiate a change in direction.

I know this column enjoys a lot of lurkers. Come out and tell us about your reading habits. If the response to these important questions is paltry, then quite likely it will somehow reflect the continued decline of comics. At the same time, it would suggest to me that there's not much point in continuing this column.

Alvin

<< 08/07/2000 | 09/11/2000 | 09/18/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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