In the 1930s and ’40s, comic books were largely the province of youngsters who plopped down their dimes at the corner drugstore for the latest issue of Superman or Batman.
Nearly a century after publication of those first mass-market treasures, new issues continue to be released each week — comics that now cover a host of genres.
Yet one thing has changed over the decades: Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. Maybe not even primarily.
And in this digital age, you hardly need to go to a drug or specialty store to find something that piques your interest.
How does one explain the continued appeal of comic book characters across a host of platforms from print to gaming to the big screen?
Ask Jonathon Smith, owner of Cameron’s Comics Stuff in Bowling Green. He thinks the connection comes once a reader is able to find a writer he or she enjoys reading and an artist who has the ability to add to the comic book story through images and various color patterns.
“You would never think that would be the case, but it most certainly is,” he said.
It helps, of course, that there seems to be a genre for just about every taste. Whether superheroes, horror, crime, or stories for children, mainstream and specialty imprints exploit nearly every literary avenue.
While Hollywood has long mined comic books for plots, the past 20 years have seen a tsunami of movies and TV shows based on such material. Iron Man? The Avengers? Wonder Woman? The Walking Dead? All based on comic books or graphic novels.
In 2017, films like Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarak, and Wonder Woman helped boost comic sales and attract fans to Steve Shufritz’s Toledo store, Monarch Cards and Comics.
“The movies are helping a lot to put these characters out in front of people,” Shufritz said. “Eventually they actively seek out a place like our store and stumble on [a comic book] and say, ‘This is cool.’”
In 2016, print and digital comic book sales in the United States totaled $1.05 billion, according to the research site Comicron.com, up 5 percent from 2015 and 32 percent from 2011 sales of $715 million.
That doesn’t include the high-end auction market, where people buy and sell the world’s most expensive comic books. Action Comics #1 — the first appearance of Superman — sold for $3.2 million on ebay in 2014. Fewer than 100 issues were released in June, 1938, and it cost a dime to purchase.
The shift in comic book readership from youngsters to adults is exemplified by Toledoan Dirk Manning, who has been writing comic book stories for more than 15 years and is known for his series Tales Of Mr. Rhee (Devil’s Due) and Nightmare World (Image Comics/Shadowline).
Manning became fascinated by comic book storytelling and dialogue as a teenager. He said there are now more adults reading comic books and visiting stores than children. Yet because of mainstream superhero movies, parents are bringing their children into local comic book stores to show them character authenticity.
“They’re recognizing, ‘Wow, that was based on a comic book?’ It’s building awareness of the genre,” Manning, 42, said. “The medium still exists. It’s really introducing younger artists [to the fact] that comic books [exist]. We went through a phase where the industry was not reaching a younger demographic.”
Smith, who opened his Bowling Green store in November, said superhero comics are the most popular, specifically Marvel. He said another popular comic seems to be Doomsday Clock, which is published by DC Comics.
He’s also seen an increase in women readers stopping by his store. He said many are interested in comic books like Snotgirl, Paper Girls, and Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle, all published through smaller printing companies and among his best sellers.
“They don’t pick up superhero [comics]. They like story-driven or fantasy-driven,” Smith said.
Toledo comic book collector and writer Jim Beard, 52, sold a story to DC in 2002 and has since written official Spider-Man, X-Files, and Planet Of The Apes fiction. He’s also contributed content to Marvel.
Beard said the comic book industry had a lot of diversity in the beginning, especially during the 1950s, exploring such genres as romance, western, war, mystery, horror, and superheroes. By the 1960s and ’70s, he noted, superheroes seemed to take over, generating most of the sales and getting much of the attention.
Today, he suggested, the field is rediscovering its early diversity.
“This is a cool time,” Beard said. “We’ve kind of come back now [to] where there is everything and anything, even though comic books are at a low point in their overall history. It’s still an incredible time for them. That’s why females are getting into comics. There’s a lot of diversity out there in what you can get.”
While adults are reading more comic books today than children, Beard said that’s likely because kids today are dealing with so much technology they no longer take the time to sit down and read a physical book.
“It’s so hard because kids today are coming out of the womb and reaching for a cell phone,” he said. “They’re not seeing what we saw as kids, where comics were still cool, colorful. … Now, if you like Iron Man you just pop in the movies. Why sit there and read a static series of images that don’t do anything?
“What it takes is an adult who will put these comics in front of the kids and try to show them why they’re cool and why it can be fun, and why it would be something to look forward to,” he said. “It’s an adult market.”
He said the real stars of comic books aren’t the characters these days, but the artists and writers. For Beard, who has always been an avid Batman fan, he will drop a comic if the writing isn’t to his liking or the colors and art aren’t appealing.
“People are looking for that art again and what appeals to them,” he said. “We’re more sensitive today. We want to have our characters do and say things [that] we agree with.”
Contact Geoff Burns at [email protected] or 419-724-6054.