By Pete Mortensen
I couldn’t agree more with Rob Walker‘s assessment of a recent spate of attention for AD, Josh Neufeld’s epic graphic novel of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. A blog, upon learning of its existence, posited that comics might have a “new role” of chronicling serious matters in an accessible and immediate form. As if Maus weren’t published 20 years ago.
Serious comics are still far from mainstream, however. I’ve been enjoying the recent series of manga that chronicle the development of notable Japanese innovations, such as Cup Noodle or the adaptation of 7-11, but these are not bedside reading for most people in business. I know about the many uprisings of Louis Riel thanks to Drawn and Quarterly Books, but it isn’t exactly a conversation-starter, you know?
So why is this? Why do comics remain the ultimate fringe medium? I don’t think it’s any of the typical issues around the diffusion of innovations. Comics do look like real books now. Some even ship in identical formats and bindings, and a boring, weighty comic about the civil war shouldn’t be any more embarrassing to read than a boring, weighty non-fiction prose version of the same, but it is.
More interestingly, translations of Japanese manga are by far the most popular and acceptable comics in the United States at this point, and they look very different from western notions of either comics or books. To read them, in fact, people have to learn how to read panels and speech balloons from right to left. Why is manga a more readily adopted innovation than the serious graphic novel is?
Somehow, I bet it’s Batman’s fault. Or the fan culture of comics. One of the two. I’m only kind of kidding. For years, Apple faced a real challenge. It had an insanely loyal customer base who defended its practices and products against fierce critics in the darkest times, but these same loyalists scared off PC users contemplating a switch. People still rail against the lunatic fringe of Mac-dom, even though we’ve mellowed a lot. Apple overcame that stigma in part through the Switch ad campaign, but much more through the release of the iPod and consistent, good products that people could understand easily. Once it became mainstream to own a Mac, freakish behavior looked less freaky.
I wonder if this is the challenge facing publishers of western comics who really want to break out of the tiny and fiercely loyal fanbase who read superhero comics. These fans can and do buy every comic with Wolverine and Spider-Man in it (I know, I’m one of them), but their strident views are intimidating to new readers. The Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons is funny for a reason, you know? So when a company like DC Comics releases a fairly serious comic about the Reconstruction, like Loveless, it’s hard to distinguish that work from the 4-color adventures of Superman. More to the point, DC isn’t all that interested in changing the way things are done. They do very well by being a niche publishing company with a bunch of very hot media licenses.
Perhaps Manga is able to avoid the stigma simply because it looks and feels totally different from what people think of as comics. It has benefited from tremendous interest in comics over the last decade, but it doesn’t carry the same stereotypical burdens. People who don’t want to walk into a comics store full of action figures and cartoon T&A posters can walk into any bookstore and buy a Manga paperback. It’s a model that really works.
The western publishers are trying to respond these days. DC just launched an imprint called Minx that will sell black-and-white Manga-sized comics aimed at young women, and the first book, “Plain Janes,” is fantastic. But how well Minx catches on might have less to do with the quality of the product or the shape of its package, but with whether DC can hide the product’s origins enough so that customers view it as being a safe buy like Manga, instead of a fringe buy like Batman comics.
I’m sure there’s a lesson for defining new products and services or building new businesses, but I’ve lost my way a bit. Anyone spotted my conclusion here?
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