I used to catch all kinds of grief for my love of reading, especially when it came to comic books, which were associated with the once-shameful state of nerd-dom that my bookishness reflected. So when a Publishers Weekly article reported that Diamond Comic Distributors saw comic book sales this year jump 19.9 percent and graphic novel sales increase 16.9 percent, I felt a sense of validation.
This literary form and the stores that serve as its anchor have long and healthy lives ahead of them. Those unfamiliar with comics might wonder what their appeal is.
Comics provide an avenue for storytelling as compelling as any other literary form. The superhero archetype is the most visible of the medium, and superhero books often initiate newcomers through derivative video games, TV shows, movies and novels.
Comic books rely on sequential artwork for story movement. Time passes in the gutters. Apart from that, there is no limit to the stories that can be told.
Because comics rely more heavily on artwork than writing, people are attracted to them at a very young age. I was reading them at age 7 and had nearly 200 single issues by the time I was 14.
With time, the medium has become the message. I now recognize that its distinct visual language and dialects are suited to a narrative spectrum so diverse that no one feels alienated.
The influence of films like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy and “The Avengers,” along with bold marketing strategies, cannot account solely for the boost in sales figures. Likewise, cartoons still invite younger audiences into these narratives, some of which are more than 70 years old. This is because the characters and plot lines are so enduring.
Comics, as an industry and a medium, provided a degree of accessibility to fans decades before the Internet. Readers maintained contact through snail mail in hopes of reading published replies in the following month’s issue.
It’s also very likely that the crash in comic’s profit-driven collectability renewed emphasis on production quality, which has improved, according to one Publishers Weekly source.
Publishers Marvel and DC comics used to dominate the market. Now, the creator-owned model that defines independent comics has entrenched itself in the forms of BOOM! Studios, Dynamite Entertainment, Image Comics, IDW Publishing, Fantagraphics Books, Avatar Press and many others aimed at more mature audiences. You now can find noir, zombie stories, comedic horror, historical vampire dramas, fantasy and autobiographical nonfiction.
Artists who never took an interest in the worn and weary—though often appealing—superhero tropes were always around. Katsuhiro Otomo, Daniel Clowes, Will Eisner and a host of others blurred or obliterated many of these distinctions—good versus evil, distressed damsels, happy endings—to create multi-faceted works. These men have done great things with books like “Akira,” “Ghost World” and “Dropsie Avenue.”
The artistic integrity of comics is also a factor in their social acceptability. The 2011 StatiCCreep exhibit at Chicago’s Las Manos Gallery suggested comic art is edging toward the legitimacy of fine art. Skeptics should refer to Alex Ross’ paintings, Jeremy Bastian’s exquisite ink and the signature double-page spreads of J.H. Williams III.
Creators with diverse influences are now able to join with larger publishers on flagship titles and draw readers into the broader spectrum.
Lastly, comic shops remain crucial outposts. They are spaces where fans coexist. They are establishments where an artist’s work or that of a certain publisher, title or time period can be measured against others. It has been that way for a while now.
All these elements nurture an evolving culture complete with its own conventions and institutions. I sense this cultural history when I am caught up in the novelty of psychic girls and living planets.
If comics maintain the same level of depth and variety I rely on them to provide, I’m sure culture won’t slide into the tar pit any time soon.