All-Ages Week: What Format Do Kids Want to Read Comics In?

By | January 6th, 2015
Posted in Longform | 4 Comments

No two comic readers are exactly alike. Each has their preference in terms of titles, writers, artists, colorists, lettering styles, publishers and everything else, and that’s what helps develop the diverse and sprawling published product we see today. While we’re all in pursuit of the same thing – comics that are “good” – the vast majority of elements that comprise that idea are subjective, so they end up being pretty all over the place.

But one unifying factor for comics besides quality has long been format. The widely accepted way to read comics is in the traditional monthly floppy format that you buy at your local comic shop. That’s what comics have been more or less since their creation as a medium, and it’s not something we’re likely to see go away any time soon.

And that – the fact that the format really truly has stayed roughly the same since comics started – is a really odd thing. Reading a comic in 1950 isn’t really that different in 2014. Pages and panels, pencils and inks, staples and paper, that experience hasn’t shifted very much at all since the genesis of the medium.

That’s especially bizarre when you look at other entertainment mediums. How many different technologies has home video went through since its creation? Just off the top of my head, there has been VHS, Beta Max, Laserdisc, DVD, HD DVD and Blu Ray, and that’s six technologies that had some degree of prominence for a time. Granted, books – the most similar medium to comics – are still roughly the same, but even they come in all kinds of shape, sizes and looks, and certainly more varieties than you see in floppy comics.

Within comics, trade paperbacks and graphic novels have risen in popularity, and much has been made about the incredible growth of digital comics. Yet floppies are still considered the barometer of the health of the comic industry. Diamond’s monthly rankings come out and industry pundits, readers and creators alike look at them to read the tea leaves of the industry, which often are dominated by grim and gritty superhero titles. What you don’t see on there, or at least towards the top, are all-ages comics. And if that’s what the sales charts show, then perhaps the perception of comics not being for kids anymore is true? It could be, or maybe that’s not the case at all.

Maybe it’s just that floppies aren’t for kids anymore.

In ye olden days of the comic industry, kids would pick up comics at the newsstand or the gas station or the grocery store, typically from a spinner rack. That was where the commerce of comics happened, and the ubiquity of their appearance helped make comics a sensation. Circulation neared a million on the best of the titles in the 1960’s, and the lowest selling titles would still show up with six figure sales. That’s a number that is now considered a barometer of success for floppies, as selling 100,000 or more is a rare treat reserved for the best of the best. Such is the nature of the modern era, where the once pervasive nature of floppies have been relegated to specialty comic shops in the direct market.

A simple reason why comics have a difficult time reaching kids as compared to the past is they just aren’t as readily available. I remember when I was a kid – and this was in the late 80’s, early 90’s, so it was hardly a long time ago – when my family would go to the grocery store, I’d beg and beg to go check out the comics. Now? Those are gone, and if you want those individual, monthly issues I used to devour as my mom hopefully shopped very slowly, you have to go to a comic shop. Those are harder to find, and not always a place parents want their kids to be going by themselves, and not even a place parents intend to go to frequently.

So perhaps as a proportional element of that, all-ages comic sales have dwindled on the direct market, and many publishers have either abandoned that demographic or drastically reduced their output aimed at younger readers, fueling the idea that comics aren’t doing as well with kids in this era.

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Telgemeier's Sisters
But new releases from Raina Telgemeier like her book “Sisters” opened with an initial print run that most creators would sell their soul for. Jeff Smith’s “Bone” – a book that initially was released in floppy form but found far greater success in collected form – has over 6 million copies in print in North America alone. Graphic novels for kids like those books and Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet” so thoroughly dominate the New York Times best seller list for graphic collections that Image’s Jennifer de Guzman somewhat (but not really) facetiously threw in a note to the Times in her interview answers that she’d love it if they’d make a separate list for kids and adult graphic novels.

In short, kids aren’t just reading comics. They’re devouring them in great number. They’re just not reading monthly floppies; they’re reading collections and graphic novels. And that’s not just at bookstores, but on the direct market as well, I found.

“Younger readers seem to be far more interested in graphic novel series than single issue comics,” shared Patrick Brower of the Eisner winning Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago. “Maybe they learned that from school reading formats, or from mainstream booksellers, but far and away our all-ages sales are focused on graphic novels.”

He estimated that 70% of their sales for all-ages books were in graphic novel form, and graphic novels aimed at kids are very popular at other shops I spoke with as well.

Steve Anderson at Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, Maryland said, “Raina’s most recent book, ‘Sisters’, we sold through over 60+ copies within the first 5 days of release. That is one heck of a following, and the audience is eager and hungry for more books like that. I’d love to have a hundred more Dramas, Smiles, Amulets, Ghostopolis’s, and Bones to recommend to kids and their parents.”

Ralph DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics in Rochester, New Hampshire has seen the same trend, and he said a big part of that how quickly word of these books spread to families through various outlets, especially when compared to floppies.

“The problem is that the all-ages books have more of a random sales history than traditional comic sales. Relatives will grab runs of entire series and then not return for 2 to 3 months or longer,” he said. “OGN (original graphic novel) sales are better on quality all-ages books thanks to libraries, book clubs, best seller lists and reviews. Once the word is out about a quality all ages OGN it spreads like wildfire and everyone wants it. In general terms this does not happen with floppies (though there are a few exceptions).”

DiBernardo had a solid theory as to why that is, as well.

“The problem with monthly issues is that they try to form a story arc that can be collected in trade form. I truly believe that all-ages floppies would increase in sales if the stories were all stand-alone,” he said. “You can’t put the same expectation on a non-driving audience that you do on the ones that can transport themselves.”

To move this past strictly anecdotal evidence, I looked through the entirety of the top 1,000 comics and graphic novels in 2013’s direct market sales charts (per Comichron) and highlighted the floppies, graphic novels and collections that made the cut. The results underline everything that has been mentioned so far and then some.

All Ages Comics by Format in 2013’s Top 1,000 Sales Charts

While neither number is large, it is interesting to see that in terms of format, all-ages graphic novels/collections quadrupled the total amount of floppies ranked on the chart. There are considerations to take in as to why that may be – there are less collections/graphic novels released which decreases competition, there are more of them aimed at all-ages readers, the top floppies are released 10 to 12 times a year (or more) thus will dominate that list – but it’s still a shocking disparity.

“Mouse Guard” creator David Petersen has seen his Eisner-winning series perform well in multiple formats, but none better than in collected form. Part of that comes from the fact that the collections of Petersen’s work are gorgeous, as Archaia has long put together some of the finest hardcovers in comics, but it goes beyond that in his mind.

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“(It’s) partly because I think collections are growing in sales while issues feel to be cutting back across the board (with the exclusion of collector covers, event issues, or #1’s). But with ‘Mouse Guard’, because it feels like an old world story and folk tale, I think having it in a hardcover collection feels the most logical way to want to own it,” he said. “And if you missed an issue – of anything, not just ‘Mouse Guard’ – it can be tricky to go back and try to find it just to read the story. So collections offer a complete reading experience for non-collectors who don’t want the thrill & expense of the hunt.”

Penny Dora and the Wishing Box
Image, for one, has increasingly focused on serving younger readers with all-ages books in issue form like the delightful “Oddly Normal” from Otis Frampton as well as Michael Stock and Sina Grace’s “Penny Dora and the Wishing Box”, but the question of collected format is an important one for them in how they approach these younger readers. I asked de Guzman about whether they expect books like those two to perform better in collected form, and whether or not they’d look to approach their positioning in bookstores differently, and her answers were illuminating.

“Yes, in fact, we’re doing a push to market these as children’s books to the book market — they’ll be digest-sized and shelved in the children’s area rather than the graphic novel area. We want ‘Oddly Normal’ and ‘Penny Dora and the Wishing Box’ to be near Raina Telgemeier’s and Hope Larson’s books because that’s where kids will be looking for books to read — and those books are for kids.”

That highlights one of the main differences in the all-ages market, and a big part of why collections and graphic novels do so much better with that demographic: bookstores are the closest thing we have to the old grocery store experience, as parents trust their kids to go into the children’s section in a Barnes and Noble or a Books-A-Million and not find anything that they shouldn’t. We covered this at length earlier, but it’s where they can discover graphic novels aimed at them, and the fact that these stores often carry a limited selection of floppies but expansive collections of graphic novels helps further the drive of younger readers towards that format.

It helps that there exemplary graphic novels being published to target that demographic, of course.

“‘Bone’ and Raina Telgemeier’s titles represent a shift across the publishing world of the re-prioritization of middle grade readers,” said Stella Williams from Brooklyn’s Strand bookstore. “R.J. Palacio’s ‘Wonder’, which was published a year ago and was directed at the middle grade audience, is still one of Strand’s bestselling titles.”

Whether it’s at comic shops or in bookstores, comics for kids are successful. It just appears that instead of the traditional floppy format, collections and graphic novels are what appeals to kids and, perhaps most importantly, their parents.

One important aspect we haven’t really talked about yet is digital, and there’s a good reason why: it isn’t as big of an aspect as you’d expect for all-ages readers. At least not yet.

“The digital market is increasing, but at the moment, kids and consumers seem to prefer the physical book rather than the ebook,” said David Saylor of Scholastic/Graphix.

Petersen, for one, has seen success with his book digitally, and he for one thinks that digital is the future of monthly comics – “I think individual issues will probably shift to almost entirely digital in the future,” he said – as they could provide young readers with an option that offers comics at a “low price, (with) instant gratification (and) huge browsing potential.”

Chris Roberson, the man behind Monkeybrain Comics, views digital comics as an important aspect of the future for younger readers for another reason.

“A large part of it is discoverability. Those kids that are lucky enough to (a) live in a place with a good comic shop and (b) know some helpful adult that is willing to take them there, can just walk in and find the comics that they want to read on the shelf,” he said. “But for many kids, that’s not as easy. Smart phones, tablets, and computers, though, are often easier for many kids to lay their hands on, and so putting the comics where those kids already are, rather than hoping they’ll end up where the comics are normally available, means that those kids will have an easier time finding something that they might be interested in reading.”

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For now, they’re a smaller part of the mix, but one has to imagine the future of digital comics is especially bright. These kinds of devices are growing increasingly ubiquitous in the daily lives of children, and at a certain point tablets and smart phones will be as integrated into their lives as print reading material has been for older generations.

To answer the question in the title of this piece, to me, it’s fairly obvious: graphic novels – or at least collections – are the preferred format of the kids of today. It makes a lot of sense, as that’s what the majority of all-ages comics are released as, they’re in the places that parents and kids most often go, and they fit time and budget constraints of the modern family far better.

Does that mean that there’s no place in the future for the floppy comic, as this generation grows up with comics told in larger volumes? They will almost certainly continue on going forward, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more publishers recognize this trend and start publishing their all-ages material in chunks rather than monthly form.

In a way, it makes a lot more sense to move in that direction. The most successful comic market in the world is Japan, and they sell manga in graphic novel form that is serialized like monthlies are here. They just come out more infrequently and come in at greater length, which might be part of the reason why you hear stories about comics over there selling millions of copies on a regular basis (well, that and the fact that they’re just more widely adopted).

That’s not to say that if all-ages comics all switched to the graphic novel format comic mania would take over the nation. But if I were a publisher like Marvel or DC, I’d look into publishing all-ages friendly, continuity free digest sized graphic novels that star their most popular characters. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see those types of books being key in publisher’s attempts to unlock that market, both for today and tomorrow.

//TAGS | All Ages Week | Multiversity 101

David Harper


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