Invisible Readers

I enjoy the insights into the creative process and the business of comics gained from good interviews with comics creators and professionals. I’m not comfortable with the trend of parsing random interviews with comics professionals like policy briefs from the American Enterprise Institute. Even if the subject of the interview is giving well-considered responses, there’s always a risk that something will be expressed in a less-than-perfect manner. It’s the price that we pay for candid interviews, and I think it’s worthwhile. I don’t expect or want perfectly phrased and focus group approved responses. That said, there’s something about this portion of Image Publisher Eric Stephenson’s interview with the Comic Beat’s Heidi MacDonald that unsettled me.

“I think people kind of take for granted how much comics have changed over the last 15, even 13 years ago. Comics fandom didn’t look as it does now when I was growing up, or even when I first started working in comics some 20 years back.”

I appreciate that Stephenson meant well. He’s trying to explain to the interviewer (and readers) how Image Comics (and American comics publishers in general) can use diverse content to cultivate a broader, more diverse audience for their books, which will increase both the demand for and supply of creators with a wide range of backgrounds. I wish that he was a bit more interested in a formal and sustainable diversity and inclusion strategy (which could be a dynamic contributor to Image’s long-term success). It’s important to distinguish strategic diversity management from the kind of crude quotas that were common thirty years ago (and are still common in the NFL). There’s a meaningful difference between setting aside a percentage or number of jobs for non-white, female or transgendered creators and having a proactive approach to working with creators with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas.

On Twitter, Cheryl Lynn Eaton helpfully suggested (I’d quote her twitter account, but her account is protected and I don’t want to repost w/o her permission) that the notion that diverse audiences are showing up at comic stores and conventions for the first time gives publishers the freedom to assume that workforce/creator diversity is a problem that will take care of itself. Stephenson argues that the “more diverse readership we have, the more diverse the people breaking into comics will be in the long run”, but it’s important to realize that diverse audiences are a necessary but insufficient step towards having a lineup of creators that reflect the world. The idea that a demographic shift can result in substantive change is a very attractive idea, but reality is stubborn. If the barriers of entry to an industry are too high, they create a disincentive for potential entrants (the reader from a ‘non-traditional background’ who wants to write and/or draw comics). Those would-be comics writers and artists pursue other fields. They never submit a pitch to Image Comics or have fewer opportunities to gain the storytelling chops and experience that would make their pitch more attractive to the publisher. There needs to be something that links the first idea (diverse readership) to the second (diverse people breaking into comics) and I’d argue that the ‘something’ should be a proactive development/recruitment strategy from the publisher’s side of the table.

That quote shouldn’t bother me. It was a casual interview with a journalist after a demanding product expo, not an official press release or report to investors. It’s entirely possible that Stephenson was simply thinking out loud. It’s possible that Image will come up with a strategy in the coming years, after all they do seem to be more interested in workforce diversity than their competitors. So why does that quote bother me?

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When I first started reading comics in elementary school, everyone I knew – male, female, black, white, Latino – read comics. We didn’t all read the same comics, but everyone picked up something from the local newsstand.

Charles "Teenie" Harris, Girl Reading Comic Book In Newsstand, ca. 1940-45.

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Girl Reading Comic Book In Newsstand, ca. 1940-45.

The first comics store opened in my neighborhood on Flatlands Avenue in the early nineties, right around a high school and a junior high school that were racially and culturally diverse.

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It was during one of the speculator eras – multiple chrome covers, comics in special sealed bags and overpriced back issues. The store was always crowded, especially between 1:30 and 4:00. The high school crowd came early and the younger kids came late. The older kids were in and out. The junior high and elementary school kids hung around the store, arguing over trading cards and surreptitiously reading the comics on the shelves. There were fewer women, and many of them read different comics, but they were there. I still remember having to navigate through a sea of brown faces to pick up my copy of Rob Liefeld’s X-Force.

1991 conventions!
My dad took my brother and I to a bunch of comics conventions in midtown Manhattan when I was a kid. I awkwardly chatted with the pros of the day. All were generous with their time. I think I still have a composition book full of sketches in my mom’s apartment. My brother was awed by the art. I’ve always wondered if those experiences helped spark his passion for art and design. I loved the art, but it was the stories that got me. I spent (what felt like) hours digging through long boxes in an effort to find an issue (or many issues) that would complete a story I was reading, and frequently got sidetracked by some compelling new book. My dad would reminisce about the good old days with the creators that shared his memories for comics in the fifties and sixties and the creators that made the comics from that era. The three of us weren’t in the majority, but we weren’t alone.

I know that my experiences may not be typical. I know that anecdotes are no substitute for hard data. I know that from the perspective of the so-called Direct Market, the typical comics reader is a white male somewhere between the ages of 18 and 49. But I can’t completely disregard my lived experience, which tells me that I saw plenty of African Americans, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese and Korean people at stores and at conventions. Even though there were far more men than women, there were always a fair number of women there. I’m sure that there were a decent number of people from the LGBTQ community. The audience for comic books has become broader over the last five years, but when people blithely state that comics fandom was traditionally composed of white guys, it suggests that all the people who crowded the stores and conventions of my youth were invisible. I know it wasn’t intentional, but it’s still a little heartbreaking.

More on this later.

 

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