Where Do We Get the
Next Generation of Readers?

As those of you who read my profile piece in the front of CBG are already aware, aside from reading comics, I also read a great deal of non-fiction, focusing especially on history. I am presently about halfway through a thoroughly depressing book called COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond. The basic premise of the book is relating tales of how given societies of humans have devastated their local environments to such an extent that everything ultimately falls apart, and they frequently end up resorting to cannibalism and/or mass genocide in order to survive. Easter, Pitcairn, and Henderson islands in the Pacific, the Anasazi and Maya in the Americas, the Vikings and Norse in Northern Europe, and Rwanda in Africa are cited as particular negative scenarios. The one commonality that runs through each of these examples is that people are shown as being frequently unwilling to change their own personal behaviors, even when those acts ultimately lead to the destruction of the world that they leave to their children.

Before I go any further, I need to express that I fall very heavily into the pro-environmentalist camp. As the owner for the past 16 years of a 32-acre organic vegetable farm, I deal with resource management each day, and spend a great deal of my time trying to improve our soil fertility, and water availability. I pioneered our local civic composting programs in the Boulder area during the early 1980's, and have also worked diligently to improve wildlife habitat during our stewardship of our farm. All of the previous having been said, I must also confess that I am also an active member of the greater American economic machine, contributing daily to the burning of massive quantities of fossil fuels, and making my living selling comics that are created through the cutting of tens of thousands of trees each year. By my very existence within such a high consumption economic system, I am well aware that I add to the degradation of the planet in many ways. Because we frequently cannot see them, it is easy to ignore the toxic and/or destructive impacts of refineries, open pit mines, paper mills, and chemical factories, yet we are completely reliant upon them for the gasoline, metals, paper, and plastics which are critical to the functioning of our lives.

To this point, I don't think that I've enlightened you to any great extent. I think that all of us feel some degree of guilt these days about the climate catastrophe that is rapidly unfolding due to global warming. There may still be a few nay-sayers lurking among those of you who read this column, but I think that even those who have the greatest doubts about human impact on climate change are now willing to accept small personal sacrifices, just in case all those wacky scientists might be proved to be right. In the end, however, my own personal read on the situation is that we've already screwed the pooch (to borrow an apt phrase from Thomas Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF), as it would appear that massive changes in the weather are already into motion that are impossible for us to reverse. Whatever the ultimate climate outcome, we're now just along for the ride, regardless of what remedial efforts are frantically being undertaken.

So how does this all impact the world of comics? Quite differently than you might assume. I'm not going to make any kind of impassioned pitch for switching comics from paper, and or printing them with non-toxic inks. Nope, I'm just not that pie-in-the-sky in my thinking. If recycled paper could be used for some applications I think that would be great, but major changes in actual production methodologies are just not on the horizon for comics. My greater concern actually is with the behavior of individuals and corporations within the overall comics economic system. Specifically, I am concerned with a seeming lack of future-oriented perspective on the part of many publishers, dealers, fans, and creators.

To explain, I've written before that I am very concerned because I perceive that our art form is in real danger of dying out. Ironically, this has not come about because the comics of today are not worth reading. Just the opposite, in fact, as many of the comics being written and drawn today are the best that have ever been produced in the entire history of the medium. Yet, we are increasingly becoming a niche art form, supported primarily by "Baby Boom" readers who are beginning to pass away at a disconcerting rate. As the increasing number of auctions on eBay and other online auction sites clearly illustrates, the number of long time comics fans who are currently dumping their collections on the market at distress prices is growing steadily. Unless we somehow offset this exodus with new readers, we are already engaged in an end game, with comics becoming only a cult market within our lifetimes

To get to the nub of my question for today, I would ask you to consider what you are personally doing to try to save the comics world. I realize that there is not a single one of us who can have any measure of a significant impact solving this kind of dilemma alone, but I do fervently believe that great numbers of people working toward a common goal can create an astonishing level of positive change. To be a bit more specific, I would ask what kind of outreach you have done of late to try to bring new readers into comics? All of us have favorite stories that particularly resonate with us as an individual. Have you tried passing that book and/or comic on to a friend? How about giving comics to kids? I always have a big stack of coverless older comics that I keep on hand specifically for the children of visitors to our warehouse. Whenever possible, I try to pass these books out for free in order to stimulate interest in a potential new generation of comics readers. I also used to make it a policy during our live auctions that kids who attended always went home with some particularly great deal. How about speaking about comics before groups of young people? I've been to numerous elementary, middle, and high schools during my career, speaking to young people about the merits of graphic storytelling, and passing out free samples. These are just a few of the ways that all of us can help encourage new readers.

As regards publishers, I had a very wide-ranging interview with a writer from FORTUNE magazine last week, with the primary topic being the differences between Marvel and DC. In many regards that interview became the catalyst for this column, as I came to realize during our discussion that (somewhat in a reversal of roles from the 1970's...) DC is now in the forefront of innovation and outreach in the comics world, while Marvel seemingly exists only to milk the genius of past creators, while contributing almost nothing to the future. As a specific case in point, while DC regularly supports comics conventions all around the country, Marvel refuses to participate except under the most minimalist terms. Now I will grant you that DC has to absorb a significant cash flow loss with each convention they support, as there is no way to attribute any specific growth in sales to a particular convention. Yet, in making the decision to invest some of their marketing funds into helping comics conventions survive, DC is trying to help guarantee future markets for it's products. Marvel, on the other hand, is acting solely in a self-serving manner, letting DC do all the heavy lifting, while refusing to contribute their fair share. I'll grant you that Marvel's behavior is short-term smart, as it lines their owners pockets just a little bit more, but it certainly isn't the behavior of a corporation that intends to be in the comics business years down the road. Much like the doomed inhabitants of Easter Island during the 1500's, Marvel's management seems more than willing to cut down the last surviving palm tree on the island, if it will warm their cave tonight.

Before you think that I just want to bash Marvel today, nothing could be further from the truth. While current management at Marvel doesn't seem to have much of a future-oriented mindset as regards the entire comics industry, they have managed to create some entertaining storylines of late that have actually caused their unit sales to rise for the first time in a decade. I think that is great! My only concern is that many of the "new" Marvel readers are oftentimes previous fans who are being drawn back into the new comics market by all the positive publicity Marvel has managed to generate. That's a good development, but it really doesn't solve the problem of where we get the next generation of readers. For that I still come back to the premise that we all have to work together. For a couple more concrete examples, I think that comics dealers need to really consider how accessible their stores are to young people. I know that kids can be a pain at times, but when you think about it, so were we all at one time. Accepting occasional bouts of unruliness is just a part of the price we have to pay for building the future of our business. A similar truism exists for convention organizers. I attend many conventions each year, and I know that the difference between profit and loss at these shows oftentimes hinges on just a few more tickets being sold. Even with that being the case, however, I think that kids under 15, when accompanied by a paying adult, should get in free to all conventions. They may not be paying to get in this year, but if attending a convention once again becomes affordable for a families, I cannot see but how that would help build future attendance.

I could go on and on about specific practices that I think would help make the future of the comics world more secure, but I'll stop here for today. I have an enormous amount of respect for the vast majority of people that I've met in the comics world during the past 37 years, and I believe that all of you reading this column have more than a few ideas of your own about how you could be helping to contribute to enhancing the potential future of the comics world. The one clear message that comes from the book I'm reading right now, however, is that most societies that fail do so because there is a lack of collective will to do anything to change pre-existing negative behaviors, even in the face of imminent catastrophe. I would, by no means, characterize the current situation in the comics world as being an "imminent catastrophe," but I can see signs that we need to all do just a little more outreach to gain new readers today, or the future may not bode well for comics. I certainly don't expect anyone to undertake any kind of radical effort after reading this column, but if you could at least give some consideration to helping me grow comics readership within the context of your own place in the comics world, I would be very grateful. As trite as it may sound, I genuinely believe that only by working together can we make the future a better place for all of us, and our children and grandchildren. I dearly want my own grandchildren to live in a world where there is still a vibrant world of comics publishing. How about you?

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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