How did you find out about comics? Did your parents subscribe to a newspaper, where you followed the funnies every day? (Sundays in color!) Was there a comics rack where you shopped? Did your friends go to a comics shop that you eventually located?
In the 1940s, comic books and strips were everywhere: on racks in grocery stores, newsstands, department stores, and train stations.
Mind you, comics were pretty much regarded as entertainment fit only for kids (if then) or as a break from the serious news contained in the rest of the newspaper. While comics were everywhere, providing a common experience for kids all over America, many potential readers were put off by that attitude: that comic books were meant only for kids and people who couldn’t handle text without pictures.
These days, comic books and strips are everywhere: on clothes, in games, on bookstore shelves, in movies, on cable channels—and, yes, at comics shops and conventions. But, strangely, many potential readers these days are actually intimidated by the perception that comics are too adult and complicated for an average reader to follow.
In other words, we still need to reach out to those who Don’t Quite Get Comics. How do we do that?
In 1966, in a small newsstand in Cleveland, Ohio, Don and I overheard a boy of 10 or so exclaim excitedly to the adult with him, “I didn’t know they had a book about Batman!”
Frankly, that’s one of the best devices we still have to spread the word about comics: Movies, games, and TV shows give potential readers the news that there are books about these licensed entertainments.
Nevertheless, there are surely many other ways we can let people know that comics can be a source of endless pleasure for us all.
Two outreach programs have been put in place by the comic-book industry itself, and they work pretty doggoned well: Halloween ComicFest (scheduled for its third outing this October) and Free Comic Book Day (the 14th of which will come in 2015). The first trial of the Halloween idea was, I think, the “Marvel Treats”1987 mini-comics project. It offered packs of “16 mini comics per bag” for $2.95: “The Safe Halloween Treat for girls and boys!” There were four each of special issues of Star Comics’ Heathcliff and Care Bears and Marvel’s Spider-Man and Captain America. (Marvel’s Carol Kalish joked privately at the time that the promotional tag might be, “Rot their minds, not their teeth.”)
Many comics shops now offer Halloween comics in an event similar to Free Comic Book Day: Basically, the two events are industry outreaches by comics shops, which have to pay for what they give away to folks who enter their stores.
Which means there are two special shop celebrations per year, but we can’t just leave it to the generosity of Diamond Comic Distributors and the shops. We all need to help. Do you visit a comics shop often? Have you considered making a weekly party out of your trip? Do you bring your friends or meet them there? How about the kids? If you can’t get there for New Comics Day (Wednesday) every week, have you considered making your comic book store visit at least a monthly event?
There’s some sort of comic book for virtually every potential recipient on your list. Ask whether you can order an existing book through your comics shop: The more we can help the shop, the more likely we are to have the shop. Then, if it can’t help, ask your bookstore: The more we buy from bookstores, the more likely we are to have bookstores. And, yes, you can also spread the search to auctions, Amazon, eBay, conventions, flea markets, and ever more spots where you can find otherwise-unavailable, oddball, or novelty items.
Yes, even these days, there are some who don’t know “they have a book about Batman”! Or many more great comics. You might think that, with “Comic-Con” on magazine covers, everyone knows about comics, but everyone doesn’t. Yet. Share the knowledge.
If you’re a fan, do you read your comics in public? If you’re a creator, are you willing to work occasionally in public spaces? (Yes, many creators are introverts. Or work at their best in private. And, yes, convention fatigue is a reality. Nevertheless, the more you make it clear that comics aren’t a secret, the more you make them public.)
Did you read a great story, new or old? Can you Tweet memorably (humorously, intriguingly) about it? People increasingly add pictures to their Tweets, and we’re all about communicating with pictures. (Hey, you can also stay in touch with many of your comics favorites by following them on Twitter. Just a thought.)
Show your family, school buddies, friends: This cartoon is terrific! That website made me laugh! He’s one of my favorite writers, and you should see his blog! She’s a fantastic artist! I just met this animator! I’ve linked to this online strip, and I’ve printed a copy to put on my refrigerator!
You can support comics in many ways: buying what you love from writers and artists and companies whose work you enjoy, buying what you love from comics sources that have served you well, buying back issues from sellers who have provided what entertains you. (There are so many! You can start with sellers you meet at conventions; remember, they’re selling all year. You can find great auction sites, store sites, and more.)
Link to reviews by critics whose advice has served you well in the past.
In fact, the very variety and quantity can be intimidating—as intimidating as the Internet used to be. (As intimidating as the Internet still is to some.)
If you participate in other popular-culture fields, consider introducing a comics topic at events devoted to those areas. At the 2014 WisCon science-fiction convention, for example, creator Stacie Arellano, appearing on a “Comics Creators Talk Shop” panel, advised recommending your favorites in whatever electronic social media you may find yourself. “Share the love, share the link,” she said.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!