The harmful myth of comics for non-comics-readers

A panel from the wildly successful Walking Dead comic

Was this aimed at "non comics readers"?

Pretty frequently a rallying cry will go up in the comics industry for “comics for non-comics readers!” or “comics for kids!” or “comics for middle-aged women!” or any variation of the above. If the intent is to expand readership, move units and get more eyeballs, fantastic and good on you, but I have to wonder about the course of action being taken, because frankly, making comics for people who don’t read comics is no way to do any of that.

Taking as an example some semi-recent comics that have successfully broken out into a mainstream audience, how many of them were aimed at people who specifically don’t read comics? Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to think of even one. The Walking Dead, Criminal, Chew, Scalped – these were all comics made for people who LOVE comics. The same goes for more superheroey fair like Civil War or even DC’s New 52, which while ostensibly released to find new fans, still made certain to remember who was keeping the lights on (ie. folks who already read comics). These books didn’t get popular by appealing to some imaginary lowest common denominator, or idea of “what kids/moms/granddads/whatever” are reading – they became well-read, widely-respected books by first appealing to their base, which is, of course, comics readers.

While most people might not read comics, the overwhelming majority of folks knows at least a few people who do, and when enough people in their lives start to talk about a particular book or series, eventually they hit a saturation point and go pick it up to see what all the fuss is about. And wham, bam, before you know it: New brand advocate. This isn’t accomplished through ignoring, forsaking or looking down your nose at the base, because they are in fact, your absolute best tool in reaching the audiences you claim to be hungry for.

It’s the same in professional wrestling. Not everyone watches wrestling (though they should), but everyone has at least some type of passing familiarity with it – they know it’s scripted, involves a lot of muscley dudes and shockingly, Hulk Hogan is still involved. But generally speaking, those folks, whether lapsed fans or people who never really watched, don’t ever cross the aisle to check things out for themselves. That changed during the Monday Night Wars and Attitude Era of the late 1990s, however, and for a very specific reason: The wrestling fan base was riled up like crazy and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing someone talking about ECW, the NWO or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Eventually, folks who weren’t watching hit a saturation point, wham, bam, before you know it…New brand advocate.

But it’s not just wrestling and comics – it’s any medium of entertainment. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games didn’t become a success by aiming themselves at grown-ass men on subways, but by being the absolute best forms of Young Adult Lit they could be, they ended up reaching that audience anyway, even before there were any hit movies based on the franchises. Can you imagine “movies for people who don’t watch movies!”, “novels for people who don’t read novels!” or even “operas for people who don’t watch operas!”? They’re decent tag lines I suppose, but as an actual business strategy, at best they’re empty rhetoric and at worse they’re completely wrongheaded.

People don’t want to consume what’s made for them – they want to consume what’s good and just as significantly, what people tell them is good. That’s why Marvel and DC’s continued efforts to do kids comics never really pan out: Kids don’t want to read kids comics, they want to read whatever is newest, hottest and coolest, as evidenced by me and every member of my generation flipping the balls out about X-Force during the 1990s. The books of that absolutely awesome era didn’t become massive successes because they managed to tap into some mythical, fantastic demographic of non-comics readers, they became runaway smash hits by being the thing that everyone HAD to read (and a speculator’s market run wild didn’t hurt, natch). Everyone freaking out about X-Force #1 told his/her friends to get a copy or two, then wham, bam…New brand advocate.

Of course, the best comics can appeal to grizzled diehard fans, baby-faced new readers and everything in between, and painfully self-referential inside-baseball continuity-porn meta-comics are an issue unto themselves. But when people talk about wanting to make comics for “people who don’t read comics” or “new readers,” they’re setting up a dichotomy that indicates that ALL those other books are somehow inappropriate for newbies, which isn’t true in the slightest. Even worse, it implies that there’s an either/or proposition involved, and that the comics for these amazing, elusive “new readers” are geared specifically for them, and not meant for the already-converted. So, while new readers will happily pick up a book they heard about from the comic geek in their life, comic geeks will almost never flip through a book directed toward kids, or new readers or anything that is perceived as outside their specific, demanding demographic.

If it’s just a marketing slogan and piece of empty rhetoric, fine, I get it: “Comics for new readers!” I doubt it will work well, but whatever, marketing is always a gamble anyway. However, if a publisher, editor or creator actually takes this convenient soundbite as a guiding principle, they not only cut themselves out of a limited, though dedicated group of consumers, but worst of all they deprive themselves of their most valuable resource: Whammed, bammed, loyal brand advocates.

The way to get new consumers to comics, wrestling, novels, opera, kabuki theater or any other medium is to play to your base and let them do the advertising for you. That means treating your loyal, dedicated brand advocate right with both good product as well as thoughtful industry practices. Make good comics for people who like comics and then treat them well. Do that, and the problem of an expanding readership solves itself.

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