Skip to main content

Dissolving Comics' Boundaries by Neil Cohn

Let's face it: business has not been good in the comics industry during the last decade or so. However, despite this, there has been a swelling of diversification amongst genres, creators, and publishers, and maybe even a little upswing in the public's perception of comics. And, there is plenty of talent around too – arguably more than there has ever been. This summer, Scott McCloud quipped, "I'd be willing to debate that there is more talent now concentrated in people named 'Jason' than there were talented people in the entire industry when I entered it twenty years ago." So, if the industry now has a great deal of talent, diversity, and freedom of expression, why are things still only so-so for its status and prosperity?

This piece will propose new ways in which the comics industry can expand its readership, diversify genres, and reach to new markets through expanded marketing. In order to do this, though, we must first explore what is that is meant by "expanding comics" and how the industry currently exists.

I think that one of the keys to the survival of the industry lies in the unraveling the muddled definition of "comics" itself. McCloud's definition of "comics" in Understanding Comics was "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence..." As Dylan Horrocks pointed out in his 2001 essay "Inventing Comics", this definition isn't so much what comics actually are, but more 'the Definition According to McCloud'. He notes that McCloud has rhetorically latched onto the structural features of the comic medium – what Eisner termed "sequential art" – redefining it as "comics" itself. On the other hand, another position is R.C. Harvey's claim that comics are the blending of the text and images themselves. This echoes the attempt to push the term away from its humorous associations and towards Art Spiegelman's usage of "comix" as a "co-mixing" of word and image.

In my book, Early Writings on Visual Language and subsequent writings, I have explored another option for the definition of "comics", one which separates the notion of "comics" from the idea of the "comic medium" and the blending of word and image. This abandons the idea that comics derive their categorization from the manner of their form; like Horrocks noted, this is to say that the "comic medium" is not "comics". Rather, the idea of "comics" encompasses a social sphere – things like the physical books or strips, the industry that creates them, and the social culture(s) that surrounds them. Further, comics have become not only an entertainment venue, but a social identity, a way in which people categorize themselves based on their relationship to the broader community of "comics' culture."

The "comic medium" is something entirely separate from this. My perspective is that conceptually-produced sequential images (what is generally thought of as the "comic medium") actually form a language – a visual language – on par with any other language, though unique to its visual modality. Note that this does not state that, "comics are a language". Rather, comics (the social objects) contain two languages: a visual language and a textual (aural) language. The mixing of these two forms is merely a mental process, not some external art form. Embracing this, the comics industry and community can be thought of as the language group that uses these two intermixing languages. Since it is not important for this piece, I will not belabor any structural descriptions of the linguistic properties of visual language, which are available elsewhere. What is important though, is the categorization of comics and visual language as being distinct yet related concepts.

Given this split between the social and structural aspects of what is usually perceived as a singular concept of "comics", a clarification can be made about how they can survive or be expanded. There are thus two questions to be raised:

1) Do we mean that we want to perpetuate and expand the readership of the "comic medium" – the structures of visual and aural languages?
Or…
2) Do we mean that we want to expand the readership of the social comic book culture – i.e., the genres and community already found in the industry?

Only the first truly has a chance for expansion, while the second will remain a steady niche that reflects a matter of taste more than anything else. This, I believe, is also the stance that McCloud has taken, though he uses the term "comics" to describe both visual language and the social venue that uses it.

The knowledge of this split in definitions can go a long way, especially in terms of public perception. The line of thinking goes something like this: if people understood that this medium is actually a language, it does not need to be tied to any specific genre, style, or format. The logic would follow that this language could appear in any place that languages appear, which is just about everywhere. Comics then become just one of the plethora of places that visual language is used, alongside books, magazines, newspapers (in articles – not strips), textbooks, the Internet, etc. More so, as a language, it can be embraced as an innate capacity of the human animal. In a sense, visual language is a part of humans' natural cognitive inheritance – so why not embrace and relish in it?

However, though I think such a shift in perception could lead to radical changes, I'm not so naïve as to believe that this realization of visual language is the magic bullet that will save the comics industry. In fact, I think that the achievement of this shift in perception will be an extremely difficult task, especially if the comics industry continues on its present path.

Furthermore, I don't think that there is any such magic bullet. The most obvious of these sorts of approaches comes in McCloud's latest push for the growth of online comics, which is where he perceives the future of comics. While the Internet does pose interesting creative possibilities and a greater freedom of accessibility, I am dubious to jump at its potential as the savior for comics' ailments. Indeed, the current print industry is not going away, despite its troubles, and most likely, the Internet will be an extension of the current comics industry, though with noticeably expanded variation in commerce and genre (with unique possibilities for creation). Also, lately, the success of Manga sales have also been heralded as a saving grace for comics' future, though reliance on an external source for rejuvenation seems to me somewhat of a defeatist cop-out. Rather, I think that the solutions to the problems facing the comics industry (and the perpetuation of visual language) can only be illuminated by stepping outside of the "comics industry box" of thinking.

To put it bluntly, it seems to me that the comics industry is filled with illogical businessmen. First off, it is remarkable that in such a strong print culture the most major companies do not actually serve as publishers. Put simply, the job of a publisher is to serve as a middleman between a creator and the audience. However, the comics industry's main players do not fit this dynamic. Rather, the companies own intellectual properties (comics characters), which they look to propagate through the hiring of a "creative" staff. His own practices aside, this is why Todd McFarlane took to calling them "plantations", because, generally, their business goal is to perpetuate themselves and their products – not to connect an audience to an individual's creative vision (unless of course that vision falls within the boundaries of their products). This style of industry holds back both artistic freedom of ownership, as well as stymies the potential avenues for creative growth beyond what properties the companies already hold. Further, this method creates a sort of inbreeding with regard to both genre-type and creative methodology, where everything within the industry follows the lead of the larger influential companies (hence creators who gain their independence from such a system often make it anew with themselves at the head, as in the case of many of the original Image Comics partners).

A revolution against this form of "comics manufacturing" has been going on for quite a while. As it stands, many smaller publishers do actually serve as legitimate publishers – though they have to face the problem of extremely limited distribution. However, no matter how monumental the growth of small press in the industry, comics in America are by and large still perceived by the public through the lens provided by the largest companies, and thus by the products they manufacture and market.

Furthermore, the audience that those comics companies market to is fairly limited in scope. There seem to be two major strategies that comics companies take in reaching out to readers. The first perception looks at who previous buyers were, and tries to market further to them. For instance, with their "Ultimate" line a few years back, Marvel knew that children have classically been an audience for comics, so they created that line to bring more children into comics. This is echoed every time nostalgia is sold as well, such as the latest throwback to 1980's titles such as G.I. Joe and The Transformers. The other tactic is like what CrossGen seemed to do from the get go. They saw the comics market as a good place to make money, so they figured out the most consistent selling genres and then came out with more of the same.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they do not create new readers in new markets, but only attempt to bring new readers into an old market (or to draw in buyers from within the existing readership). In terms of the previous partitions, these strategies are attempting to perpetuate the second type – the genres and culture(s) that comics currently represent.

Moreover, these tactics also do no good towards progressing the majority's public opinion of comics beyond the stereotypes inherited from over four decades ago. While this may be liberating for the industry artistically, it pales in the importance that it serves for those who face legal consequences determined by this broad scale ignorance. Perpetuation of stereotypical genres and markets does no use in changing the public's perception of comics.

"Small press" publishers (who are actually publishers) seem to be taking a generally different tactic. Generally, these look to further the equation of "comics as literature" by marketing to broader bases through bookstores and extending beyond the reach of the "status quo" mainstream market. While targeting bookstores signifies a good step towards furthering the market, this approach is merely a small step towards perpetuation of the form. However, the same kinds of people are reading comics that always have. To truly bring in new readers would be to appeal to markets that do not know that they would even enjoy reading this form.

Perhaps a hypothetical situation can illustrate this best. Having grown up in coastal Southern California, I have always been surrounded by a fairly rich surf culture. Most of the surfers I knew did not read comics. This is not to say that the two cultures are diametrically opposed; only that the two don't stereotypically mesh as well as say, comics readers and video game players. The lack of readership from surfers was not because they didn't know how "great and wonderful" comics were, or were on some "I'm too cool for comics" high horse. Indeed, when I gave them books to read that I thought they'd like, they did enjoy them.

Rather, the biggest reason that they didn't read comics was the simple fact that there were no comics written for them to read. These people already had a huge interest in surfing, why should we expect them to suddenly develop a new interest in sci-fi or superheroes? Why not create a comic about surfers and surf culture? Why shouldn't the comics' genres adapt to change with them?

For a long time, I had wanted to do just that – create a surfing comic that would do the culture justice. Now, lets suppose that I actually did write this comic. And, for the sake of argument, lets say that it was utterly fantastic – a masterpiece that would be loved by virtually every single surfer that would read it. And who knows, maybe some non-surfers would like it too. Now, there still remains the big problem of getting it into the right hands.

Currently, the main place to get comics is at a comics shop, and some bookstores. However, business-wise, it would make a lot more sense for my surf comic to be sold in surf shops if I want surfers to read it than if it was sold in comics shops. And, it could be advertised in surf magazines and other avenues within surf culture, with easier and more direct retail access to its intended audience than a comics shop would have. Comics shops, by and large, are another symbol of comics' social standing as a niche community.

An additional point should be made about the example illustrated above. Not only does the creation of a surf comic bring in new readers, it also potentially leads to new creators. Given time and inspiration, perhaps those new readers would either turn into or breed people who would want to create their own surf comics.

This strategy does not bring new readers into existing comic genres, and there are no guarantees that these hypothetical readers would want to buy more comics of different types of genres. This is the key: rather than trying to draw a larger populace into the smaller niche comics culture, it dissolves the boundaries of that enclosed industry into the larger populace. Indeed, as I see it, this is the only true type of integration possible: dissolving the boundaries of comics into the other print cultures. By maintaining segregation of comics from other types of books, all the while espousing their equality, the comics industry and culture merely perpetuates the difficulties that they face.

However, this type of approach does fulfill the first type of expansion: it expands and propagates the readership of visual language. It brings the "comics medium" to a new audience on their level, and even leads to the possibility that there would be the creation of more surf comics from within the community itself. To think that outsiders should for some reason magically become interested in comics without actually branching out to what those other markets might themselves enjoy reading about is simply pretentious and bad business.

This expansion of genres can go in any number of directions. A short list could include sports (basketball, baseball, football, skateboarding, surfing, rodeo, etc.), music genres (rock, punk, indie, country, hip hop, etc.), religion (pick any – they all have built in stories), non-fiction (politics, self-help, any academic field, etc.), and just about any literary genre imaginable. There are so many things in this world capable of writing about!

There are a myriad of hobbies, lifestyles, and activities out there, each with their own lifestyle and culture, all of which can make for great comics. This, perhaps, has been the problem with previous sports comics done in this country. Rather than create a gripping story about a sports team and their struggles, or about the trials and tribulations that an athlete undergoes (such as the approach taken on ESPN's drama Playmakers), sports comics have generally tried to take a recognized celebrity athlete and turn them into a superhero. This does nothing to adapt to a new audience – only to perpetuate the same superhero genre mold, trying to pull new readers into an old market (with a gimmick no less). The same goes for any other genre. Making a comic about a music genre does not mean giving a popular band super powers – only creating a story that is accessible as a reflection of that culture, for that culture.

McCloud talks about this same sort of expansion in Reinventing Comics, though the problem he faces lies in his keeping the unity of the comics' social sphere with its medium. His vision is for comics shops to have a wide and diverse selection of genres to appeal to everyone, and that is a fine goal. However, I would prefer to see a bookstore without a "comics" section at all. Rather, in an act of complete non-discrimination, comics would find their places amongst the books in whatever genre section they belong. Write a history comic? It goes in the history section. Write a science fiction comic? It belongs in the sci-fi section. How about a comic on politics (like the one I'm currently working on)? Politics section. Notice a trend?

This can be extended further by throwing further marketing into the mix. Why not create sports comics and sell them in sports stores and at sporting events? Why not create comics about music culture and sell them at music stores and concerts? The easiest way to create readers would be to bring them their product at places they will be.

It should come as no surprise that the Japanese comic market taps into just these same ideas. Comics, or manga, in Japan spread into all sorts of genres, are published by real publishers, are discussed often and prevalently on television (and not just through coinciding anime), and are consequently read by everyone from old ladies to overworked salarymen. This is not a collectors market either: every week you can see stacks of phonebook sized manga out on the curb ready for recycling, because space does not permit keeping them. Further, they are sold all over the place (though in bookstores they have their own sections – even if it is about half the store). There is even a current trend now for manga rental shops, where people can come, sit down, and hang out while reading the store owned manga. It's no wonder that manga have enjoyed so much success in Japan! And that success has led to even higher quality, which is now pervading the American markets as well.

Idealistically, by integrating comics (the social objects) indiscriminately amongst other books and printed matter, the very concept of their being "comics" dissolves as well. They simply become another type of book, written in two languages instead of one. While this might seem scary to most in the current industry, it harkens back to deciding what we are trying to propagate: the social culture ("comics") or the visual language? If what we truly care about is the latter, then letting go of its attachment to the former is hardly a price to pay for the gains of expanding the medium itself.

Altering the American comics industry like this would be no small feat. Quite apparently, the result of such changes would radically alter the way in which comics are considered throughout America, as well as the very industry itself. In some sense, this plan would require the dissipation of the broader sense of the industry in order to further the form itself. However, there can be no real gains without some real risks for the long term good. Unless the comics industry truly considers what its place, and its future, should be, it will remain hobbling along as a marginalized niche community, inaccessible to the vast populace, though with a language burgeoning with the potential to do so much more.

Neil Cohn is a guest contributor for the Comixpedia. He has a lot to say about comics.

Illustrations by Vince Coleman.

Re: Dissolving Comics' Boundaries by Neil Cohn

Excellently written! Neil seems to get at the heart of the matter regarding the insularity of the American comics industry. Now, if someone with the dosh could come up with a marketing and business plan to enact it, or if a hell of a lot of independant publishers get really creative with their distribution, we could see if this can work!

Re: Dissolving Comics' Boundaries by Neil Cohn

I agree with a lot of the points going on here, and wrote a little on it in one of my blogs. I think that bookstores are a great place to see this kind of boundary-breaking, though probably the most useful place to have this kind of boundary-blurring occur is at places like Amazon.com.

Seriously, when I am looking for new things, I start looking on Google or Amazon to get an idea before I walk in the store, or I don't even go to the store and just buy it online.