It is completely without shame that I confess I loved comic books as a boy. (And have been known to read some of them in my adulthood with satisfaction.) In the 1970s, I regularly read such comics (or black-and-white comic magazines, which were my preference) as The Shadow, Doc Savage, Planet of the Apes, Tomb of Dracula, House of Mystery, Sherlock Holmes (sadly, never lasting more than an issue or two), and even The Hulk. And, to this day, I have a deep and abiding affection for Superman. Even as a boy, I thought Superman was the great American success story. An immigrant raised in America’s heartland, he took our national myth to heart and made himself into the embodiment of all that is good about us. (I was also beglamoured by visions of his lost planet Krypton, which was often portrayed as a 1930s art deco-inspired wonderland. If heaven exists and mirrors our expectations, for me it would resemble Krytpon to no little degree.)
Clearly, the argument that reading comics in one’s youth “ruins” one for adult literature doesn’t seem to be airtight. I distinctly remember reading the Planet of the Apes comics and Balzac at the same time … in fact, I would heartily endorse anything that encourages young people to read at all.
When I was a boy, comic books were available in every corner newsstand, in drug and convenience stores, and sometimes in five-and-dime stores, such as Woolworth’s. Comics were ubiquitous – read in school lunchrooms, in the park, and often found crumpled at the bottom of book bags or rolled in back pockets.
Then, something strange and terrible happened to the comics industry. (WHAM!) A new form of sales – comics direct marketing – changed the way comic books were bought and sold. Instead of being available everywhere, comics were now sold primarily through comic book specialty stores. (And today, it’s nearly impossible to find comics anywhere else.) Where comics were once the common currency of kids everywhere, they became a specialized commodity of interest to only those in-the-know.
The effect of this decision was two-fold. First, it saved comics when they probably would have disappeared completely in competition against laptops, video games, and other youthful time drains. However, what it also meant is that the audience changed primarily from all children to a devoted (fanatical!) band of devotees. And – more significantly – this audience has aged, taking comics with them. By and large, comics are not for children anymore.
To my mind, saving comics also killed them. Whereas comics reading amongst children once numbered in the many millions, it now numbers in the many thousands among adults. In addition, it has perverted perfectly delightful adolescent fantasies – such as Batman or Superman – in the misguided struggle to make them “adult,” an aesthetic miscalculation and intellectual dead end. If you treat much of this material in an “adult” manner, it often becomes even more risible. What are the recent Batman films, really, other than Lethal Weapon in a shroud?
These thoughts came to mind as I stepped, on a whim, into a comic book store while visiting friends in Long Island. There were very few young people on hand – though, I must confess, most were younger than I. (Not all that difficult a proposition these days.)
The thing that struck me the most is that many (many, many, many!) things on the shelves were recreations of things I saw or had as a boy. Aurora monster model kits; Sean Connery/James Bond model kits; hardcover collections of Superman from the 1970s; figures from the movie Mad Monster Party? (1967) at nearly $25 a figurine; action figures of characters from the sitcom The Munsters (1964-1966); bendable toys of Huckleberry Hound (1958); a Flintstones (1960-1966) watch …. I could go on, but you get the idea. No one under 50 would have any point of reference for most of the wares on parade. And it dawned on me … comic book stores really don’t even sell comic books anymore --- they sell tired Baby Boomers the youth they so desperately miss.
If ever there was a recipe for extinction, it would be this. While comic books still operate to a degree as the research and development arm for bloated, senseless “event movies,” the idea that they are a thriving and viable medium is, sadly, no longer correct. It’s often amusing and even instructive to revisit the passions of one’s youth, but it’s an awful plan for building an ongoing artistic legacy.