Robot 6

Quote of the day | Are comics like jazz, and not in a good way?

This week on Thursday’s Jazz Alternatives [on New York radio station WKCR] there was an interview with a member of the New York Jazz Initiative, an organization that holds workshops in New York area high schools to get kids interested in jazz. The idea is to have them play with professional musicians, and in doing so create a new audience for the music. Their plan is “to educate and inspire the next generation of performers and listeners.”

During the interview there was a lot of talk about how the golden age of jazz has passed and now schools are churning out jazz musicians with nowhere to play. There are more players than listeners, really, so a new audience for the music has to be created lest it become “museum music.”

I couldn’t help but think about comics while I was listening to the interview. This might be a new “golden age” of comics but what if the audience just dries up in the next decade or so? Jazz was dominant on the radio and in nightclubs in 1960, but by 1970 jazz musicians were running out of places to play. I thought, “What’s going to happen when all the comics shops close?” That won’t happen, you say? Well, they said that about record shops, too, and now they are just about all gone.

Cartoonist and critic Frank Santoro, writing on the future of comics for The Comics Journal. Santoro is writing as a partisan of independent/small press/alternative/art comics published by entities other than large corporations, and as such I wonder if his concern is a valid one. From Peter Laird shutting down the Xeric grants for self-published comics to DC going same-day digital for its entire line, the assumption made by people all across comics is that the replacement of print by digital is a difference in degree, but what if it’s a difference in kind?

Comic shops play an educational role in growing the next generation of comics readers, not just an economic one. The shop I went to as a kid noted my interest in Frank Miller’s Batman and introduced me to Sin City. Yes, that’s different than introducing me to The Acme Novelty Library or whatever, but it was my introduction to the idea that comic books could be about something other than superheroes, and that its artwork could have graphic values independent of action spectacle. From there, the distance to Acme and its ilk was a lot shorter than it otherwise would have been. Frank’s complaint is that the existing feeder system for new readers, Free Comic Book Day, is geared primarily toward getting young people who are interested in superheroes from other media to read about them in comics form; no similar infrastructure exists for other comics, and the advent of digital makes it tougher for one to be established.

Santoro’s partial solution? Comics-literacy festivals like Toronto’s TCAF and Brooklyn’s BCGF, where admission is free — thus opening up the proceedings to more than just the comics lifers who some say are the sole audience for shows like MoCCA and SPX — and the wares appeal to a wide variety of arts- and literature-interested readers — as opposed to the superhero/SF/fantasy/action/nerd-culture conglomerate of Comic-Con and the like. But is it enough to avoid a future where, as with jazz, there are “more players than listeners”?

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How about more efforts aimed at people who are already avid readers of prose? There are countless book review blogs out there, some with pretty impressive audiences (I’ve seen blogs where /every single recent post/ has over a dozen comments, even on non-review or giveaway posts.) The readers of those blogs already adore one kind of reading, and are constantly looking for a new story to try.

And yet, for some reason, comics publishers don’t seem to be pursuing that audience. I’ve seen handfuls of graphic novel and manga reviews across book review blogs, but judging by when they were posted in relation to when the comics were published, it seems unlikely that copies were provided by the publisher.

Publishers should try contacting these book review blogs and offering them GNs/collections/volumes in the in the relevant genres (most reviewers list their preferences alongside their contact information,) along with “How to Read Comics” guides to ensure that reviews, positive or not, take into account not just the dialog and how pretty the art is, but how good the visual writing is as well.

For that matter, why not put “How to Read Comics” guides right inside the books themselves? Manga publishers already do it to explain right-to-left reading, and a concise explanation of “don’t expect comics to feel like books, pay attention to the pictures, don’t just skip from word balloon to word balloon” wouldn’t take up more than one page.

As for shops themselves, perhaps they could reach out to local book club groups – recommend discussion-friendly comics, offer slight discounts to club members, maybe even provide a meeting place?

I am an adult and teacher. I read comics. I have children. I teach children. I pass on my love of comics to my children and the kids I teach. Ta da. The jazz analogy is terrible for one reason that comes to my mind: jazz has influenced other types of music, it has evolved.

I hope not, but it does seem that way. One of the things I wonder is if people really read long-form works any more. I have no figures and am only speculating on my experience, but I know from talking to my friends that none of them read fiction. A few of them will occasionally pick up a nonfiction book that pertains to their political interests, but that’s about the extent of it. Their reading consists primarily of articles online. Mind you, these are all college-educated people in their mid twenties with plenty of free time on their hands.

I even have a few acquaintances in creative writing programs, and whenever I ask them what they’re reading, it’s always Raymond Carver or some other short stories by somebody else. Again, speculation, but I feel like people don’t have the attention span for heavy reading any more. So when you say “appeal to a wide variety of arts and literature fans,” I think “Okay, that sounds good, but is that just calling to another shrinking audience?”

God, I sound so old.

Cass, given the phenomenal success of recent book series – Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I’d say long-form works are hardly dead. Say whatever you want about the quality of those books, but there’s no doubting they’re very popular titles with big honkin’ page counts.

There’s also the continuing popularity of TV series with ongoing storylines – perhaps the closest equivalent to periodical comic books – such as Glee, Mad Men, and True Blood (itself based on a long-running book series.)

The only thing is, that same function is also done by machines nowadays. Amazon can see “Frank Miller” and tell me “Neil Gaiman” as easily as my retailer, and Amazon always has time to do so, even when it’s busy.

This is a pretty myopic view of the comics industry, and the analogy doesn’t really even work. Jazz is a genre, and comics is a medium. It’s like saying “If Jazz dies, then all music is gone.”

I guess in a way, though, that holds up to a pretty common view of the comics industry with those entrenched in the ways of the comic book store/direct market. It’s true that the DM has been waning, but it’s been waning for years, and any growth we see in comics as a medium has been generally circumventing an old system. The audience may dry up for the old guard, but that hardly means we’ll see comics disappear.

What about webcomics? The popularity of delivering comics on the internet has changed the dynamic of the independent/small press/etc publisher forever. What about all those teens that were introduced to comics through manga? What about those 8 million copies of Bone that have sold? What about all the kids getting into comics through libraries and book fairs?

There are people who were introduced to comics through plenty of other ways, and are thirsty for more content, but are turned away by the unwelcoming atmosphere of the Direct Market. Thankfully, though, they’re creating their own way instead. Is it really a bad thing if that type of “jazz” dies, then, if there are people who are interested in comics and finding new ways to get them? The medium isn’t going anywhere.

Please no, and never to “how to read” guides inside of adult books. If they can’t figure it out, begone with them. it’s not rocket science. The balloon points to the speaker, one reads across the page from left to right, etc.

I don’t mean “how to read” guides detailing the /mechanics/ of comics – enough people have had exposure to short-form comics like Dilbert and Calvin & Hobbes to pick up on that – but there /are/ many readers who expect graphic novels to feel just like books, then get disappointed when it doesn’t take ten hours to read. They don’t get that comics are a separate medium where half of the story is told in the visuals.

These readers aren’t stupid by any means, it’s just that the only other picture+word combos they’re familiar with are picture books where the illustrations, lovely as they are, are generally additions to a full text rather than a part of the story itself.

I seem to recall a similar comparison made years ago that compared Marvel/DC comics to Jazz, and Manga to Classical Music. The claim was that Jazz, like most S-hero comics, were full of subtle allusions and deep meanings. It also made it extremely difficult for most people to really “get” into their lyrics, since they were too complex to analyze, unless you were a devoted fan like Harvey Pekar. By comparison, Classical Music is pretty basic by itself, and very well orchestrated. These works manage to stand up against the test of time, despite newer forms of music vying for competition, and you don’t need to know other preferences.

Not being much of a musical enthusiastic, I can’t really speak for whether those metaphors hold up, but it seems pretty close. I personally consider comics to be “visual music”, and can tell from the layouts alone whether they’re American, European or Japanese. It all depends on how the characters and panels align themselves across the page, and how much is being conveyed.

Great article. He’s exactly right… comics are in precisely the same position. The only part he’s wrong about is thinking literary festivals will help at all. Comics are dead except as a niche item unless they enjoy a massive, across-the-board resurgence in a digital medium. That’s the one and only thing that will save them and if that doesn’t work, a vast, vast majority of comic book stores and publishers are done for, with the last remaining publishers sticking to high-priced, highly in demand niche items and the corporate entertainment outfits (Warner Bros. & Disney) using IP originated in comics for other media.

I wish Frank’s column had a comments section! But it doesn’t, so I’m going to leave my short and sweet thoughts on it here:

Kids read wecbomics. Same medium, different format. You can’t go to a record store and buy jazz as easily nowadays, but you can go online and buy as many jazz mp3s as you want. Same goes for reading comics (although the purchasing aspect is still a little iffy for webcomics, of course).

In some ways, it is not surprising that new indy comics creators try to advertise their works to the mainstream comics audience – they are the only group that actually identifies as comics readers, after all. It is equally unsurprising that these books are not read – mainstream readers are superhero readers, for the most part. Marketing non-genre material to genre readers is like trying to get a fan of Westerns to read Romance novels – it ain’t gonna happen.

For myself, I think that it’s a better idea to identify the larger group of potential comics readers who are obviously not interested in superheroes but may not know that other genres exist. If we are going to educate people on the fact that there are other genres, it makes more sense to educate non-comics readers because then we gain a new reader.

My wife suggested a comics salon, which is a good idea that I haven’t followed up on (bad me). This would provide a “safe place” for those who are curious about comics, but don’t want to deal with comic shops (which sounds funny, because DC actually has helpful LCS) to find out about what kinds of material is out there. The only rule would be: no superheroes. There are plenty of places where you can go to have that kind of conversation.

See also: http://bit.ly/ppFPTb

I’m going to have to agree with those of you that mentioned webcomics as a natural evolution of comics (and not just because I do a webcomics blog). Yes, I think superhero comics are stagnating in a pattern that tries too hard to hold on to the past, and comics now struggle to sell 100K anymore… but not everything is superhero comics.

On the other hand: webcomics. The Oatmeal and Penny Arcade each generally attract 1 million to 3 million readers worldwide a month. OK, that’s not exactly comparable, since short-form gag comics are closer to the replacements that you find in the newspapers.

Then here’s some numbers from notable long-form comics: Gunnerkrigg Court – 38K, MS Paint Adventures – 88K, Girl Genius – 62K. Those are great numbers, especially when you consider that they have less promotion than your typical Marvel or DC comic and that they’re created owned and operated. You know what else is great? They’re not about superheroes. They’re about other things. And they’re gathering an audience.

A comics salon – say, that does sound like a cool idea! Or maybe a “comics house party,” like those Tupperware parties or style product parties or whathaveyou.

Jazz may well be on its way to ‘museum music’ if you are talking about playing standards from the 1940s and 1950s. But successive generations of young musicians are taking lessons from the past and merging them into new forms. Listen to new recordings by Super Human Happiness and tell me that music is dead. No, it’s not Stompin’ at the Savoy; it’s the grandchild of that, a grandchild who has traveled the world.

And as long as pictures and words together can tell a story better than just words alone, comic books will be alive. And that will probably be for all time. Just look at the safety pamphlet in the seat pocket of an airplane. That’s comics. They’re everywhere. We just have too many glowing screens around us, and too many people conditioned to look at them, so that traditional comic books may end up little more than promotions for the next movie or video game.

We’re running some stories about jazz legends from the 1940s comic book Jukebox this month on Mars Will Send No More if you want to drop by and see some comics about jazz. Keeping both jazz and comics alive!

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