Often times, some of the best inspiration comes from the most unlikely of venues.
As I rode the bus home from work today, I found myself engaged in a conversation with my fellow riders on my favorite topic—comics, of course.
As usual, I lamented the flagging numbers of children who are picking up comics today. I had recently engaged in a Twitter debate with Comixology’s Ron Perazza on whether comics are competing with video games for consumer dollars and found myself lamenting that this treasured pursuit of generations past was giving way to a habit whose only benefit is a superficial increase in hand-eye coordination.
I taught myself to read with comics. My mother still loves to tell the tale of how I sounded out the letters on the cover of a Superman comic until, with an excited shout of glee, I shouted the name of the title character.
Flash forward to today. The average comic book reader is in their 30s. The allowance dollars of children go not to brightly colored newsprint but to the latest Madden, Mass Effect, or Diablo games. If you see a child reading something, it is likely to be Game Informer or (god forbid) one of the Twilight books. Their young minds are filled with thoughts of moody vampires rather than being taught the value of intuition and reasoning by an issue of Detective. Their eyes are bombarded with images of slick space soldiers who pulp their enemies in a rain of automatic weapon-fire instead of being taught the responsibility that comes with power.
Younger readers are slipping through the industry’s fingers, despite their best efforts to “revitalize” and “re-imagine” their lines. Despite some of the best storytelling in years being released by amazing writers like Hickman, Vaughn, Hill, and Kirkman, these books are failing to capture the hearts of America’s youth.
So, what does this mean for our culture moving forward?
It means generations of children who will lack that critical stepping stone from picture books to literature.
Comics targeted to the youth are, in many ways, a “gateway drug” to deeper and more mature forms of writing. The first full-length novel I purchased with my own money was a copy of Roger Stern’s The Death and Life of Superman. I had spent more than a year consuming the epic battle between Superman and Doomsday, following the decay of a Metropolis rife with grief and finally the triumphant rebirth of the Man of Steel. Like so many fans, even after all that, I wanted more. And so I turned to prose to give me my fill. In Stern’s pages, I found the internal monologue that had no room on the splash pages. As I read his descriptions of scenes that I had come to know so well after dozens of re-readings, I began to understand that words alone could paint the same pictures on the canvas of my mind, using only the paintbrush of my imagination.
I was hooked.
Without the open door of comics, I would never have noticed or cared about the old Spirit pulps buried in my dad’s bachelor boxes. I never would have lifted them out and found the treasure trove of novels buried beneath. I would never have felt Stephen King’s terror of a world’s end decades before Kirkman made it cool. I would never, never have given a thought for what might become of a star-striding human Foundation in the future, never have believed in the untapped potential of children that is imbued in all of Card’s work, and never have turned my eyes skyward wondering whether man would walk on velcro-clad feet as he hurtled through the cosmos by the time we reached Asimov’s fateful date.
This is the cost of comics’ failure to reach the youth of today. They are being slowly robbed of their heritage, of stories that speak to every child who has ever felt alone, alienated, or lost. And yet they don’t even notice.
That treasure trove is there, waiting for them. Despite the mortified cries of aging fanboys, no one can erase the stories that have filled longboxes for decades. They are, in fact, easier than ever to discover. With the digital revolution well underway, issues that used to require months or years of searching through musty bins to be found can now be added to one’s virtual collection with the swipe of a finger from the comfort of a couch. The great stories of Harry Osborn’s struggle with drugs, the conflict between Lois and Clark as she struggles to understand his years of dishonesty, or Steve Rogers quixotic quest to rid himself of the stigma of performance enhancing drugs are all to be had (in many cases) for less than they would have cost on the news stand the day they were released.
If only we could get them to pay attention.