Last month I was running off at the typewriter about the future of the comics industry. I mostly examined "our side"-- the production side of the comics. This time I want to look at your side, and by "you", I mean the reading public. Without you to demand our product, we will be out of business, plain and simple. Yet I fear certain trends which threaten to cause our future relationship to dwindle.
The first of these trends is all our fault, the fault of the comics industry's ever-increasing quest for "sophistication", and our sometimes alarming failures of craft. This trend is overcomplication and inaccessibility. Our comics are becoming more and more difficult for a casual reader to pick up and be able to tell what is going on. I believe if you can't understand what you're reading, you're less likely to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, I believe that you're less likely to want to read another and potentially begin a lifelong comics buying habit. Some of our books are such that you have to have been reading them for a while to understand what's going on, if even then. If it's easier to stop reading the books than to start reading them, then I fear we're writing for an ever-diminishing audience. I think most comics today need to be better crafted (plotted and scripted and drawn) in order to draw more civilians into the comics reading fold. I have high hopes that the new Disney and Voyager lines of comic books targeted for a younger audience will assist our own Star line in creating "entry-level" comic books in order to attract new readers from the ranks of the young.
That brings me to the second trend that I see as devastating to our industry's future, and unlike the first one, this trend is almost totally out of our hands. The trend is America's declining literacy rate. Put simply, it means growing numbers of Americans are not learing how to read. The Curtice Circulation Company meeting that my colleague Bob Budiansky attended provided some sobering statistics about the decline in reading that has implications for all branches of the publishing world. In 1970, every household in America purchased an average of 1.07 newspapers per day (that means, every home bought at least one). In 1988, that figure's dwindled to an average of .65 per day (only 2/3 of all households buy a daily newspaper). Circulation for newspapers, magazines, and books is way down, despite our ever-growing population. What ails publishing in general, I figure, bodes ill for comic book publishing as well.
As I see it, there are three major enemies of reading today that are largely responsible for our nation's growing illteracy problem: drug use, television, and videogames. If you happen to be a partaker of any of the aforementioned commodities, hear me out before you form you lynch mob. I'll take them in order.
Drugs: Reading can be an escapist activity, so can taking mind-- and mood-- altering drugs. I have to believe that those who need to escape from the rigors of reality choose one of the other, seldom both. The illicit drug culture, from what I know of it, does not appear to be much into reading. The drugs apparently are sufficient escapsim unto themselves. Drug use in America is growing tremendously. While the phenomenon, according to government law enforcement agencies, was once confined to the fringes of society, it has invaded the mainstream and drug use is now commmonplace in all walks of society. From what I've read, the lifestyle choices made by frequent drug users leave little room for other leisure activities. If drug use begins early enough, essential reading skills or habits may never be developed. This is one reason why I think the literacy rate is what it is.
Television: According to figures I recently read in TV Guide, the average American television viewer watches seven hours of TV a day. This is an average. So for every person like me who watches one to two hours a day, there is another person who watches twelve hours per day to make up for me! This is an incredible amount of time to devote to any one thing-- particularly a relatively passive activity like TV viewing. Now I don't know if this means people give seven hours of undivided attention to the tube or not, but I do not know many people like myself who actually read while semi-watching their requisite two hours of TV a day. I believe that watching this much television leaves very little time (if not inclination) to read. Reading is a heck of a lot more work than watching television, and to judge by how lethargic I get when I exceed my TV viewing allowance for one day, the nation as a whole must be getting lazier. And another thing, it costs to keep one's self in a steady supply of new reading material. Buy something to read and it costs you money. Take out something from the library and it costs you the energy to go and get it. You can get a steady supply of new TV shows pretty much for free, and all it takes is a push of the remote control to get it. That's another reason why I think the literacy rate is what it is. 99% of the nation has a television.
Video games: There is nothing wrong with playing games of almost any kind, video or otherwise. I sincerely doubt, however, that one can read while playing a game. Before video, game-playing was primarily a social experience: there was far more games you needed other people to play than you could play by yourself. Video games you can play by yourself, for as long as you feel like playing. Though not a video game player myself, I'm told that the games are quite engrossing and many people spend many hours a day in play, mastering the intricacies of the game. Not only is this time that previous generations might have spent reading, but I also have to think that reading and video game playing have little in common skillwise. While today's kids could be honing their eye-hand coordination and reaction times. I think this is the third major phenomenon that accounts for our nation's alarming drop in literacy.
If we're cultivating a nation of non-readers, I have no reason to think that non-readers will make exceptions for comic books. While comics are easier to read than unillustrated books (I could follow the gist of a story in a comic looking at the pictures well before I could figure out all of the words), they are still reading. You don't acquire a taste for reading, you won't want to read anything, even flimsy books with colorful pictures. I sometimes hear folks debating if comic books are legitimate literature. I say yes, though I don't think that comics are great literature just yet. But you know something? The literary values of a story don't have to be all that great and they'll still have the capacity to stir imaginiative minds and make them want to read. I believe sophmoric material has the capacity to whet one's appetite for more meaningful material, at least for some people.
In the 1950s comics were seen as the enemy of young minds, leading the impressionable young to cultivate useless if not downright harmful fantasies. I predict that in the 90s this same medium of youthful corruption will be hailed as the friend of young minds, the best hope for getting the impressionable young into the habit of reading, and the last bastion of literacy in America. We're going to need all the readers we can get, not just for the sake of the comics industry, but for the sake of our nation's future.