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Four Color Reality, or Lack Thereof

August 3rd, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

I attended the Four Color Reality Panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2009. It was described like this:

6:30-7:30 Four Color Reality: Making Comics Relevant to Readers Across Cultures— Comic book stories have become the core of American pop culture—is there a big-budget spectacular that doesn’t in some fashion owe its existence to comic book roots these days? But sales of traditional-format comic books themselves have been in decline for years. This panel explores one reason for this shrinking market: the divergence between the identities of mainstream comic icons, who are typically straight, white, male, and American, and the demographic makeup of a new generation of readers. How can the comic book industry connect with changing audiences—not just of diverse races and backgrounds, but of different cultural and national origins as well? Moderated by Jeff Yang (editor-in-chief, Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology). Panelists include Dwayne McDuffie (Milestone Comics, JLA, Ben 10: Alien Force), Gail Simone (Wonder Woman), Gene Yang (American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile), Stuart Moore (Wolverine: Noir, The 99), and Jai Nitz (Blue Beetle, El Diablo). Room 3

Jeff Yang had a powerpoint presentation that kicked a few facts to start off the panel. One was a comparison of readerships between now and fifty years ago. Back then, comics were read by both boys and girls, at about a 50/50 ratio. In 2008, or 2009, I forget the exact year he quoted, it’s 90/10 in favor of boys. 90% of comics readers. He also showed a few quotes. I have the Paul Levitz quote exactly, since I took a picture of it, but I may have slightly paraphrased/cropped the Gary Groth quote.

Like all American media, [comics have] reflected the culture, which means there were things in the 1930s and the 1940s and the ’50s I’m sure we’d be less proud of today…
But in modern times, there have been either heroes or supporting characters introduced in our line that represent different ethnic groups and the world.

-Paul Levitz

It’s the chicken-and-egg question. The market is mostly teenage white boys. The reason is that the content has been aimed at white teenage boys. That’s why women and black adults don’t read comics. Most literate, intelligent people don’t read comics. We’re trying to change that, but it’s really difficult to do.

-Gary Groth.

Near as I can tell, Yang pulled the quotes from Facing Difference, a text book that was written in… 1997. The specific article is from the November 14th, 1993 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

One more time: November 14th, 1993. That’s sixteen years ago, give or take a few months. So, let’s get into my problems with the panel, and then loop back around into specifically talking about those numbers, and what they mean.

My (former) biggest problem with the panel is the way it seemed to conflate superheroes with comics. I didn’t quite believe it, but I took the 90% number at face value during the panel, despite my reservations. But even then, there is no way that number is accurate for comics in general. Maybe, maybe, for superheroes, but not for comics, which cover a range of genres and interests. Even leaving out manga, which is a dumb thing to do but something people do anyway, you aren’t going to see 90:10. You aren’t seeing 50:50, but you definitely aren’t seeing 90:10.

And even then, should we be looking at superheroes for racial sensitivity, anyway? This past year has convinced me that the only sensible answer is… no. Superhero comics, by and large, aren’t built for nuance. They are built to punch bad guys, be deconstructed occasionally, and to have large explosions. Nine times out of ten, superheroes are going to approach a subject from a black and white point of view, there is right and there is wrong, and that really isn’t how race and racism works. You can’t beat up racism. There are too many shades of gray, too many varied experiences, and too much baggage for that to ever happen. Sorry. Time to look elsewhere. There’ll be the occasional gem, but then there will also be Superman making proclamations and an entire generation rolling their eyes so hard that they go blind.

My new biggest problem with the panel, the problem I didn’t have before I started doing research with this post, is the research that apparently went into those figures that helped to set the stage for it. Numbers (with no sources) and quotes on the state of the industry from 1993 have about as much to do with the numbers and state of the industry in 2009 as the murder rate in New York City in 1936 has to do with the crime in NYC in 2009.

It’s irrelevant, and using those numbers, comics or murder rate alike, to bolster your point is intellectually dishonest.

Since 1993, we’ve seen an industry contract and nearly collapse. We’ve seen the rise of graphic novels and trade paperbacks as a viable way of reading and producing comics. We’ve seen a burst of movies based on comics. We’ve seen Time Magazine give Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home book of the year. Not Comic Book of the Year– Book of the Year. We’ve seen an explosion of fandom thanks to the internet. That explosion led to an explosion of female fandom online, with Scans Daily, Girl Wonder, and When Fangirls Attack probably being the three highest profile sites focused around girls’n’comics. Manga wasn’t a going concern in 1993. “Real” publishers didn’t care about anything but Maus in 1993. Bone hadn’t sold several million copies in actual book stores. Batman: The Animated Series was just getting going. And so on, and so on, and so on.

1993 isn’t 2009, and you cannot, absolutely cannot, use 1993 to make points about 2009. Those numbers? They were valid, once. Then that time passed, we moved on, and we’re in a different world now. 90% of comics readers being male in 1993, which I feel is already a dubious number but that’s just off gut instinct, has zip to do with whatever the ratio of male to female is these days.

I can understand where Yang was coming from with this. Race and gender and comics? It’s better than it was in the ’40s, yes, but it could always be better. But, pulling out figures from 16 years ago and using them to frame and position a discussion about the comics world of today is a mistake. It’s dishonest. It’s arguing against, what, a strawman? It was true at one point, perhaps, but isn’t now. It’s not a valid position to argue from.

And I mean, I’m ostensibly on Yang’s side. Should comics do better with regards to whatever ism comes to mind? Yes! Absolutely! Let’s get that range of portrayals going. But, to argue from data from 1993? That’s not how it works. If I’m on your side, and I have huge issues with your data, imagine what a theoretical nay-sayer is going to say.

Things are, and have been, getting better. I’d like to think that readers are getting smarter and more, for lack of a better word, diverse. My personal experience has certainly suggested that, and the experience of the circles that I run in.

But, really, we’ve got to do better. Halfway research and outdated figures don’t cut it, not even remotely. It doesn’t prove anything, and it doesn’t say anything beyond “Man, yesterday sucked, didn’t it?”

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4 comments to “Four Color Reality, or Lack Thereof”

  1. You don’t even have to go back as far as 1936 in your example. The murder rate in NYC fluxuated an insane ammount between 1993 and 2009.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NYC_murders.PNG

    Unless you’re taking a long view of the social situation, or using it to correlate against more recent studies, data from 16 years ago will NEVER cut it when you’re making a cultural argument.

    Dude shoud have taken a sociaology 101 class or something.


  2. Hi David–

    I dig your site, and I don’t mind the criticism, though I think it begs some clarification.

    The presentation at the beginning was abbreviated because, as I announced at the top of the panel, a PowerPoint preso by me wasn’t exactly the main draw for attendees, so I may not have elaborated on this–but if you looked at the quotes from Groth and Levitz in context, they were meant to establish alternate/opposing viewpoints from key comic book figures, not to establish any kind of statistical ground. (Neither quote even referenced statistics, in fact–they were both statements of opinion.) While they are dated quotes, I couldn’t find anything that suggested either Groth or Levitz had altered or recanted their opinions since then.

    Groth quote: “It’s the chicken and egg 
question. The market is mostly teenage boys. And the reason is that the content has been aimed at white teenage boys. That’s why white women and black adults don’t read [superhero] comics—most literate, intelligent people don’t read [superhero] comics. We’re trying to change that, but it’s really difficult to do.”

    Levitz quote: “Like all American media, 
[comics have] reflected the culture, which means there were things in the 1930s and the 1940s and the ‘50s I’m sure we’d be 
less proud of today….

But in modern times, there have been either heroes or supporting characters introduced in our line that represent different ethnic groups and the world.”

    Here, meanwhile, are the sources for all the ACTUAL statistics I cited, which as you can see do not originate from 1993. (You may certainly challenge the sources’ validity, of course–but trust me, they’re all 2007 or later, except for the ones referencing the 1940s):

    1940s, evenly split between boys and girls, average age 13: From the book “READING COMICS” by Mila Bongco. Sorry, no readily available web citation!

    90% male: http://occasionalsuperheroine.blogspot.com/2008/01/demographics-of-mainstream-comic-book.html (found through Heidi McDonald’s THE BEAT; the cited source is needlessly mysterious, sadly–if it’s a public company and not secret info, why not say where it’s from? oh well.)

    average age 29: No single source here, as the estimates are truly all over the place. Restricting myself to 2007 and later sources, I saw everything from 24 to 39 (!) and ended up splitting the difference. (A Google search will easily reveal this spread. I can’t defend my methodology here, but rigorous, canonical empirical surveys seem to be absent in this industry. That said, “late 20s to early 30s” seems to be the consensus.)

    manga demographics: http://www.amuniversal.com/ups/features/tokyopop/demographics.htm

    Harlequin romance readers: http://www.helium.com/items/1353345-romance-novels

    Maxim readers 30% female: Mediamark Research Intelligence, 2008 (obtained from work; not available on web, but you can readily find earlier cites that say, for example, that Maxim’s readership was 23% female in 2007–http://www.foliomag.com/2007/who-s-reading-magazines)

    Demographics of U.S. and World; muslim, English-speaking population, etc.: I’m not going to throw in the citations here as these are all from readily findable public data (Census, U.N., etc.) and probably not under dispute.

    Anyway, critique of the panel is welcome, but the point you’ve hit upon–that the statistics are all old–is inaccurate. My bad for not reading my sources out loud or putting them in the preso in bigger font!

    Thanks for coming to the panel,

    Jeff


  3. @Jeff Yang: Thanks for responding. I don’t want to seem like I’m down on the entire panel, but the 90% number still just doesn’t feel right. I wish Valerie had cited her source, or at least been less opaque and coy about it. I know that she’s talking about Marvel there, but can’t find her source for the numbers. The closest I’ve found is this, which covers similar DC numbers from 1993. This site seems to suggest otherwise, as well, with the split being closer to 60/40 for Marvel.

    I can see how the Levitz and Groth quotes helped frame the discussion, and I can totally see the benefit of that. I just think that, in an industry which has definitely made strides since 1993, more recent quotes would’ve served that purpose even better. In 93, DC’s sidekicks and legacy characters tended to be white almost to a one. In the past few years, that hasn’t been true.

    I did appreciate the panel, overall, it’s just that that data rubbed, or rubs, me the wrong way. It doesn’t seem accurate, but of course, all I have to go on is anecdotal evidence. I hope that you do another next year or at Wondercon 2010.

    Thanks for posting your numbers. I was kicking myself for not taking notes, because I am dumb and spend so much time on computers I keep forgetting how to hold a pen, so it was nice to see.

    Thanks for the panel.


  4. Twitter is everyone’s notepad, LOL.

    I appreciate the appreciation of the panel! There’s a whole larger discussion around how exactly to frame the question of diversity and comics–as noted in Vince Moore’s slam on the Davis “Black Panel.”

    I personally think that the most interesting way is to look at what the legitimate business considerations of a changing demographic are for comics, and perhaps superhero comics in particular (thus the comparison of manga demographics to superhero demographics).

    I agree that things have changed, maybe dramatically–but I would be very surprised if the numbers for superhero comics in particular are anything close to 60/40. (That chart isn’t exactly robustly sourced either. Also, it references not Marvel Comics sales or readership, but users at Marvel.com–not clear how they’re tracking gender there either.)

    Note that I reference superhero comics because, really, we’re NOT just talking about comics as a print publishing industry–the bulk of the big movies being made today, which reach many, many more people than floppies or GNs, are superhero movies. So as the twig is bent toward diversity–and new demographics are reached by superhero comics, raising the profile of a more representative mix of characters–you would likely see the entire tree of pop culture incline.

    Anyway, that was the point of the panel–to NOT beat up racism, but instead to lay a trail of carrots out in a path away from it. If that wasn’t clear, I guess I WILL have to do the panel again! :)

    Take care,

    Jeff