The marvel of the fantastic frames

Examining the role of the comic book in today’s culture and society’s ongoing love for books with pictures

Credit: 
Photo illustrations by Tyler Ball

When news of Archie Andrews’s apparent marriage to Veronica Lodge hit last May, Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses flooded with posts addressing the fate of the iconic Betty/Veronica/Archie love triangle. The passion with which people took sides on the issue was immense, with an overwhelming majority—myself included—in support of the jilted girl next door Betty Cooper.

What can be acknowledged as a clever public relations ploy by Archie Comics can also be used to showcase the mass appeal of comic books.

But does my love for Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang make me a true comic book fan? Do I have to have to have extensive knowledge of obscure characters like Sleepwalker or Karma to be rightfully deserving of that title?

According to Mark Streeter, an English Literature PhD candidate who’s researching the growth of the adult comic book market over the last 30 years, some critics are pointing out that the comics market is divided.

“There are industry watchers that have noticed that you have the direct market, which is the specialized comic book shops and the mainstream literary market like Indigo or even smaller book stores where you can purchase comics next to Dan Brown.”

Streeter said the comic book industry, which has been around for about half a century, has been experiencing growing pains in recent years. With the popularity of the superhero blockbuster movies and Disney’s purchase of Marvel Comics last night, comics have left their counterculture status and become more mainstream.

“It doesn’t seem so confined to a particular subculture anymore,” he said. “For a long time, the typical way to buy comic books was through a comic book store, so that’s in direct contact with a subculture. For some people that’s intimidating and for some people that’s being a part of a community.”

Streeter said people in the comic book community are somewhat reluctant to acknowledge this trend.

“We all like to think of ourselves as individuals,” he said. “I think that certain mediums at certain times go through this phase. I think that comic books are going through that moment and it’s this necessary moment for the evolution of any medium. Film went through the same process in the mid 1960s with the experimental film movement. … You have to build up conventions in order for you to take apart them and put them back together.”

Streeter said comic book culture maintains its exlusivity through its underground reputation.

“It’s like if you’re a comic book reader you have this special knowledge, you’re sort of ahead of the card, you’re more comic book savvy than other pop culture junkies. It makes people feel as though choosing to read comic books make them more of an individual.”

Streeter said comic books’ increased accessibility has led to a more diverse cross-section of comic book readers, which has traditionally been males between the ages of 13 and 25.

“There’s more potential for people from different types of markets,” he said. “One of the most interesting things that comes to mind is that people now have access to comic books without being confronted with that tradition, which has led to more diverse comic book market.”

Nicholas Chan, ArtSci ’05, turned his life-long love of comic books into a career when he decided to open up a comic book store in the hub.

“We intend for this store to be a community,” he said. “The store is primary designed to keep regulars. I have a huge big-screen TV at the back of the store that people can come in and play for free. I also have a large table set up which people use for playing card games or reading comics.”

Chan’s store, 4Colour8bit, opened in September 2007. With bright lighting and its sleek modern design, Chan intended his store to be unlike the comic bookstore stereotype—a stigma he said often deters people from entering the comic book community.

“We are definitely not what I like to call a ‘parent’s basement’ comic book store,” he said. “These are the stereotypical comic book stores. They’re dungy, they smell bad and the customer service sucks.”

Chan said his strategy has worked. As his store attracted a non-traditional market.

“Facebook says I have a 60-40 male to female split in customers. Do you know how ridiculous that is for comic books? There’s much more women there than on average.”

Chan said he doesn’t believe comic books should have the reputation for being a boys club.

“The cool thing is that we’ll often get the girlfriends of some of our regulars coming in, who don’t know much about comic books,” he said. “I’ll go to them, ‘Do you like to read?’ and then I’ll point out the fact that three comic books have won Pulitzer prizes.”

Chan said the appeal to the comic book medium is its open-ended nature with continuous storylines and characters.

“The writers don’t need to keep re-introducing the characters because their readers have been following them for 10 years,” he said. “Through this not having to continuously remind the readers who these people are, the writers have more room to work with creatively.”

Stephen George, ArtSci ’11, has been reading comic books ever since he picked up a copy of West Coast Avengers at a used bookstore when he was eight years old.

“For me, I’ve always been attracted to the stories,” he said. “Not, only are they a very interesting written storyline, you have very powerful visuals accompanying the text.”

George said his comic book tastes have evolved over the years.

“You get into those things that are more in depth, more adult like Watchmen, which is on the Time magazine’s top 100 comic books of all time. I moved on to more intelligent things. Just because it’s a comic book doesn’t mean that can’t be socially relevant.”

George, a 4colour8bit regular, said he enjoys being a part of the comic book community because it introduces him to people with the same interests as him.

“It’s like any sort of niche culture, it’s a whole bunch of people who share your niche interests,” he said. “We talk about the comic books that we’re reading or we’ve read. We ask questions like ‘Do we think that the particular motivations of the characters were accurate?’”

George said he also attributes the mainstream appeal of comic books to the recent popularity of superhero blockbusters, which he believes have opened the door for a new generation of comic book fans.

“It made people think, stop and talk about it, and say ‘Oh, it’s really interesting,’ and then refer back to the original text.”

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