A History of Censorship
For better or worse, comic books in the United States are almost synonymous with super heroes. While the idea that graphic fiction is so overwhelmingly focused on one particular genre is interesting in and of itself, it’s made even more fascinating because of its isolation. Whether you’re talking about French bande dessinée, Italian fumetti or Japanese manga, the international comic markets are far less hyper-focused.
“As to what kind of manga the Japanese people polled typically read, the most popular genres for men are sports, comedy, fantasy, and sci-fi. Women also enjoy comedy and fantasy, but enjoy love story and shojou manga even more.” – Kotaku
While there are a number of contributing factors, the singular popularity of super heroes in the United States is due in large part to the witch-hunt brought on by the publication of the anti-juvenile delinquency screed (and factually flawed) SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and the creation of the censorious “Comics Code Authority.” One could argue that the code did it’s job too well. As it choked the life out of comic diversity it left itself with almost no purpose, becoming increasingly irrelevant. After atrophying for nearly fifty years the code finally rolled over and died. Interestingly, while super heroes became overwhelmingly dominant in comics, other forms of genre publishing weren’t so hobbled. Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Romance and other areas of fiction continued to grow and evolve outside of comic books.
Like most “solutions” based on scapegoating, the ultimate failure of the comics code was inevitable. However there was another significant factor that played a critically important role in the reintroduction of genre diversity in comic publishing: the internet. The 1990s saw a surge in original digital comics created specifically for online reading and distribution, circumventing not just the established distribution system of the print comics Direct Market but also the conventions and audience it relied upon. Webcomics were able to connect directly with new audiences based on a wide variety of very specific genres; for example, video gaming, dark humor, relationships, sex (NSFW), or math.
“Webcomics are great because they create communities of like-minded people interested in similar topics and genres. Whatever you’re into, there’s a webcomic for you.” – Tim Gibson (MOTH CITY)
While print comic publishers were experimenting with digital distribution of their backlist through platforms like comiXology webcomics were proving that original digital comics worked and they weren’t limited to super heroes.
The Shift in Focus
Meanwhile, an interesting thing started to happen in book publishing. As tablets and eReaders became more widely adopted a noticeable shift started to occur in the types of stories that were downloaded. According to a 2013 Book Industry Study Group report, genre preferences significantly differ when comparing print to digital.
While “comics” readers still seem to prefer print, readers of romance, erotica, thrillers, mystery, science-fiction and other forms of genre specific fiction are quick to adopt digital platforms. However, it could be argued that listing “comics” as a genre in an of itself is, at best, an oversimplification. While understandable from a book market perspective – most graphic novels are still grouped in a “graphic novel” section instead of being spread throughout the appropriate genre specific sections of the book store – it does cloud the data with regard to graphic fiction that falls solidly within the genre boundaries of its prose counterparts. Regardless, the digital boom of genre fiction is so apparent that traditional print publishing houses, like Random House and Harper Collins, have launched digital imprints focused specifically on genre fiction.
“Publishers have focused much of their attention on genres like sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and romance fiction – markets that have traditionally lagged behind “literary fiction” in terms of sales.” – Wired
The comic industry finds itself in a unique position; faced with a surge in mainstream interest for genre driven digital content fueled by the increased adoption of tablet, eReader and mobile devices but somewhat fragmented between genre rich independents that are primarily web based and larger print publishers that are, for the most part, invested heavily in a deep (and profitable) super hero catalogs. However, while the starting points may be different the ends are the same. Opportunity abounds. It’s a good time to be making comics and creators both large and small would be well served to avoid the trappings of nostalgia and take advantage of the growing trend toward diversity.