The biggest thing that came out of our trip to Brussels, Paris and Angouleme at the end of January was the decision to learn to read French. It was a practical decision, based in large part on the fact that a great number of books that I wanted to read have yet to be translated into English. It is a commitment, yes, but a commitment that is fairly easy to adhere to because the only person hurt by my lack of rigor is myself.
In almost every way, this additional language becomes the gateway to another world – a different way of looking at comic book culture, a different comic book market and a wider variety of titles and genres to choose from. And, to be honest, if I am to regard myself as a serious comic book reader – which I do – learning to read French so that I can read some of the best work that the medium has to offer is a logical decision.
In addition, I regard the more mature Francophone comic book market and culture as something that the American comic book market and culture could (and should) aspire to. The reading base of the former is broader, encompassing a vast demographic that cuts across gender, age and economic lines. In our culture, comic book readers are a narrow demographic by default. There has been a belated understanding that other people might like comics as well, but there have really only been partial attempts to court those readers with material aimed at them.
Part of me is convinced that translating and importing select titles from the French market would be enable the American comics market to jump-start a marketing campaign to attract readers outside the default demographics. After all, these are books of proven quality and known sales figures. Many of them have extensive back catalogs. Startup costs for importing these books are different than paying authors and artists to create books from scratch.
If nothing else, the addition of choices to the market should increase buy-in from those readers who like comic books as a medium, but are less than enchanted by the current selection available. After all, the French market is vast – much larger than the contemporary American market. Their back catalog contains books that have been in print since the 1920s and are still being read heavily today by almost everyone. The American books from the 1920s – Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, among others – are being read by connoisseurs and not the standard comics reader.
The lesson I took from the Manga explosion and Harry Potter is that there are a lot of readers out there. The received wisdom that people simply don’t read anymore is false; Harry Potter had millions of people willing to pick up 800 page novels. Manga had people tripping over teenagers in Border’s – teenagers who were unwilling to go into comic book stores because those stores simply didn’t have what they were looking for. Readers want to read, but faced with the vast amount of choice available in today’s entertainment market, readers can afford to be selective. If there is nothing available that they want to read, they will not buy just to buy something.
All things being equal, though, I really don’t have a lot of hope for the maturation of the contemporary American comic book market. Chances are very good that it will continue to plod along as it always has, slaves to dedicated genres and narrow demographics, hoping to squeeze more dollars out of an increasingly depleted monetary pool. And the popular culture in this country will continue to regard comic books as something that is primarily for children – mostly because the big publishers probably will not change their marketing tactics in an attempt to counter this assumption.
Change only happens when it is necessary. The bigger an institution, the less impetus there is for change. If there is a revolution in the way that the comic book medium is perceived in this culture, it will not originate from the largest companies currently publishing comic books. Their business model was cast in the mid-sixties and has not changed significantly. From time to time, they branch out into different genres, but with the notable exception of DC’s Vertigo imprint, these experiments have not borne a lot of fruit.
If there is genuine desire for a more mature comic book market in our culture, it will have to be driven by people whose current marketing plan has not already been decided for them. It will be most likely be aimed at demographics that are not the standard 18-35 year old male readers. And it will probably not be driven by French publishers – they already have a very healthy market, thank you very much; an English market may be vast and relatively untapped, but it is not necessary.
As a result of this frank examination of the state of our comic book culture and market, I feel safe in concluding that if I want to read the kinds of comics that are interesting to me, it’s in my best interest to learn to read French. Or start my own imprint, importing translated comics to this market. On the whole, I think I’m going to have to stick with the option that doesn’t require a boatload of money that I just don’t have.