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Lost Generation, Part II: Finding comics' 'lost generation'

Comic Books

Lost Generation, Part II: Finding comics’ ‘lost generation’

We asked some experts about bringing back comics’ so-called ‘lost generation.’

In the first part of this series, I introduced the concept of the comics industry’s “lost generation” as defined by Batman scribe (and recent Eisner Award winner) James Tynion IV. These are people who, for all intents and purposes, would read comics, but other hobbies and media have absorbed their precious free time. They’re people who love the lore and complex, longform storytelling of video games, anime, and all forms of genre fiction. But this love doesn’t translate to comics. 

In my ongoing fascination with the “lost generation,” I’ve decided to reach out to some friends, and AIPT writers, to discuss the phenomenon and comics’ place in the wider media canon. 

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When a Marvel Studios project drops, it feels like the world stops. Half of the fun of the MCU is the communal nature of sitting in a theater with friends, clapping and cheering and theorizing about what’s next. 

Comics, on the other hand, are a solitary hobby. It wasn’t until late 2020, and DC’s announcement of the Future State line, that I realized I had been missing the camaraderie surrounding comics. Sure, I was excited about Future State, but I had no idea what other comics readers were thinking. Was I alone in my anticipation? It certainly felt like it. 

It’s a goal of mine to be a sort of ambassador for the comics community. I want to know what can be done to make comics an accessible and exciting hobby to newcomers. In that search, I sat down (over Zoom, of course) with three friends, each with a unique take on fandom, to see what I can learn from them.

“Avengers: Endgame, that’s an event, that’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

– Jesse Vitelli, Editor at Prima Games

Jesse Vitelli is a close personal friend and editor at Prima Games. He spoke with me about the popularity of the MCU and the Marvel video games versus the comics. 

Avengers: Endgame, that’s an event, that’s a once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “You’re there that weekend, you’re talking about it, you’re tweeting about it. So it gets in the public consciousness in a way that comic books just don’t tend to.” 

Vitelli added, “The way they market the Spider-Man game is obviously way different than the way they market an individual issue of [Amazing] Spider-Man. You could not escape Spider-Man for PS4 commercials and advertisements.” We recalled when the New York City subway’s S-line trains were completely wrapped in Spider-Man images. 

Lost Generation, Part II: Finding comics' 'lost generation'

Courtesy of James Stevenson (via Twitter).

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the local comic book shops, there was a 6% increase in sales from 2019. In 2020, the comics industry brought in an estimated $1.28 billion. This follows the trend of year-over-year growth for the past decade. While the numbers pale in comparison to the film or game industries, it’s clear that the popularity of comics IP leads to an increase in comics sales. 

That growth will likely extend into 2021, where the premiere of shows like WandaVision and Invincible led to a surge in graphic novel sales, often leading to backorders. One one hand, this is incredible! Fans clearly aren’t afraid to jump into the comics that inspire the shows they watch. On the other hand, how can we keep these new readers around and make the transition from Barnes & Noble or Amazon to the LCS?

“It’s not necessarily the on-ramp part of it that I think is daunting. I think the biggest challenge is re-onboarding a player,” Vitelli told me, explaining the ever evolving nature of games like Fortnite and Destiny, where new gameplay hooks are added every few months. “You have a player who did play and then fell off, try to hop back in and has no idea what’s going on because 40 different things have changed.”

Comics

Prima Games staff discussing Fortnite via Twitch.

Vitelli added, “You will always garner new people on an on-ramp. How do you get them to stay, because if they fall off, they’re gone.”

It’s up to us, as hobby veterans, to extend that hand to others who show an interest in comics. The friendly reputation of the community is something that has pushed critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV into mainstream popularity, taking the crown away from World of Warcraft

“If you’re trying to get into [FFXIV], a lot of members of the community are willing to teach you or answer questions,” Vitelli explained, “I think comic books are something that might seem impenetrable to a lot of people, because there is so much of it, and the community is so large. It’s just about looking at the right places.” 

Perhaps it’s our responsibility as readers and as fans to be that sort of ambassador for the hobby and to re-create Final Fantasy XIV’s reputation of guidance and mentorship and actually make it visible to those outside the comics community.  

Matt Storm, a.k.a. Stormageddon, is a Brooklyn-based content creator. We met earlier this year through mutual friends over Discord. Between podcasting, DJing and Twitch, his work is all about embracing his hobbies and sharing them with his audience. That might sound like a lot for one person’s plate, but Storm leans into it.

“Things [coalesced] in a Kismet way that I could have never predicted… I feel comfortable doing this and talking to people this way,” he explained, referring to our Zoom call. “This is my home space.”

Storm added, “I think I’m a communal person, I like community and conversation. And so I think it’s hard for me to be solitary. Being able to share stories and bond with people you don’t even know, through their stories, I think is what keeps me coming back to [podcasting] the most.” 

https://twitter.com/CoolComicArt/status/948706262363004928?s=20

When it comes to comics, Storm told me he doesn’t collect individual issues much anymore. Instead, he gets trades and omnibuses of stories and runs he really enjoys to display on his bookshelf at home. He still finds a way to make even his bookshelf library a community space. 

“My favorite thing after I saw the Scott Pilgrim movie was recommending the comics… I loved handing people that first book, because then they’d [come back saying], ‘Yes, I read the first book you lent me and then I went and bought the other four.” 

It’s not a surprise to me that Storm gets this kind of satisfaction through sharing his favorite things with other folks. He told me that as a kid, his dad had given him two hardcover collections of Superman and Batman comics. It was a fond memory for the content creator, having read those collections. Not only that, but it was an early look into the communal aspect of comics that can oftentimes today be lost or obscured.

It made me think again about the community of people I’ve surrounded myself with, and how those seemingly small interactions early on can lead people on a path to new and exciting hobbies and interests and even careers.

One of my oldest friends, Jimmy Fraser, is a storyboard artist and animator in Los Angeles, and for as long as I’ve known him, that was his dream job. Fraser got into animation as any good 90s kid would, with Batman: The Animated Series and eventually Batman Beyond.

“That stuff had a little more complex storytelling,” Fraser said. “And those characters interested me more… I’m a sucker for ensemble casts.” Of course, the virtues of the two Batman series have been explored at length. As Fraser puts it, it was, “a saturated market, especially in the ‘90s when we had the movies and the TV shows, the action figures, the comics, it was a big booming time.”

But there was no show that exemplified those interests more than Teen Titans. The Cartoon Network series hit at the perfect time for us, and we saw ourselves on-screen, even though we weren’t yet teens. 

The ensemble cast of Teen Titans “allows for a lot of self discovery and exploration,” Fraser explained. In the early 2000s, it wasn’t quite as easy to explore the back catalog of comics as it is today, so we had turned often to wikis. 

“It’s such a low bar and an easy way to get people into [comics],” Fraser goes on. The jump from enjoying a TV series or movie to it’s comic book source material can be hard, but by doing a little research on one character he liked out of the ensemble, and Fraser was able to build out his own unique comics reading experience. 

“You’ll just pick up things as you go. And you’ll kind of learn about the universe and meet new characters… and then you just build your own experience out of it.”

– Jimmy Fraser, animator and storyboard artist

He tells me he still uses wikis today to fill in the gaps of his comics knowledge, adding that “a majority of what I read are summaries of old comics, of characters that I like because I’m not about to go back and read like, 40 years of comics… I don’t have the time for that.” Fraser is right — wikis are an excellent (and free) resource to discover what you may want to read. 

Comics canon can be anxiety inducing, especially for newcomers. A common complaint I hear from non-comics readers is that they simply don’t know where to start. There are many places to start and it’s up to the reader to decide what era of Batman or the X-Men (or any of the Big Two superhero, really) they want to start with. It’s a strange, nonlinear concept for someone who is used to self contained stories, like the manga published in Shonen Jump

“You’ll just pick up things as you go. And you’ll kind of learn about the universe and… meet new characters that you’re like, ‘Oh, this one’s interesting.’ And then you just build your own experience out of it,” it’s an extremely personal approach to comics reading that I hadn’t thought about before. That’s the philosophy Fraser takes with him into the animation world as well, “Have a good time and make the stuff you like, enjoy it… Just tell stories with bright, flashing colors and silly characters.” 

Sometimes, it isn’t the certified classics that leave a lasting impact. 

“The sad part is, the movie that got me into actually buying floppies was the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie,” said Ben Morin, a fellow writer. “I went to the comic shop after I saw [the movie], I started looking for Green Lantern books. The New 52 had just started, that was a great jumping on point for me.” Morin was in the right place at the right time. 

On the ride to school in Knoxville, Tennessee, Morin passed the local comic shop on a daily basis, but it wasn’t until seeing Green Lantern in 2011 did he step foot inside. Eventually, he would help them with their social media offering up weekly recommendations on the store’s Facebook page. “It’s nice to have a small, little community there,” he added.  

 

In his role as a sort of tastemaker, whether that’s here on the site, at his LCS, or with friends, Morin has noticed a fear of missing out in some prospective readers. People who feel they may not get the complete story if they aren’t reading everything. Maybe you can only pick up one book a month, maybe you wait for the trade, maybe you hope something good shows up at your local public library. Regardless of your situation, comics FOMO can be real, but it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a good story now.

“I go back and read some of the books that I haven’t bought. And going back and doing that I realize you don’t miss out on a ton,” he says. Morin advises that if you want to understand the overarching story in DC or Marvel comics, while still being on a budget, “buy the big, key events.” 

Morin’s advice mirrors my own getting-into-comics story. As a kid, I would read whatever I was given. But it was when DC’s Infinite Crisis event wrapped up in 2006 (and led into the weekly 52 series) that I actually started caring about the ongoing, overarching narrative in comics. A huge event book tends to have a huge ensemble cast, and interesting new status quos for that cast. 

Big event comics serve as the inspiration for the massive crossovers of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. If the epilogue to Endgame and the subsequent success of the various Disney+ series are any indication, the average viewer is totally down for the branching paths of the current MCU. And for those average viewers to become average readers, we comics fans should point them in the direction of the latest big event, who knows what character or story line they’ll fall in love with next. 

When a new episode of WandaVision came out, it was time to log off Twitter for the day, because folks knew spoilers were inbound. But, silver lining, that’s a ton of people who will go out of their way to keep up with the MCU. That’s a ton of people who, if given guidance and direction from readers, would probably fall in love with these same characters’ ongoing adventures in the comics.

“The real draw for reading these books every week is so that you can talk about them with your friends, right,” says David Brooke, the media and content manager at AIPT. “Or be in the know. And that’s not very accessible to a casual person.” 

It’s like I stated above, reading comics is a very solitary hobby. The average comics buyer probably goes to their LCS to pick up their pull list, and heads back home to read. And now, with digital comics, you can cut out the socialization aspect of the hobby altogether. Comic shops often go beyond just selling comics in order to keep people coming back.

Brooke’s own LCS, Comicazi, won an Eisner award back in 2017. He adds, “The reason why it won wasn’t because they ‘sell comics good’,” Brooke goes on, “It’s because it became friendly to all sorts of people who enjoy different things. It became a community hub.” 

A quick look at Comicazi’s site shows their priorities immediately. It’s not a storefront to buy comics online, instead you see photos of folks in the store, a Google Calendar of upcoming events and links to their socials. It’s a tough task for comic shops, not only to be the place people go to get comics, trading cards, or games, but they also have to be the social hub for all of these disparate hobbies. What Twitter and the theatergoing experience are for movies, comic shops have to do that and more. 

As more shops are opening their doors and more people are getting their vaccines, I hope there’s a renewed interest in the social hub of the LCS. I hope that those same folks who watched WandaVision earlier this year and subsequently caused trades of House of M to go on backorder, are taking what could be their first trip to a comic shop. And I hope when it’s time again for a comic con in person, we can bring those new readers into the fold and expand our own personal universes.

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