“Who’s Reading This Stuff, Anyway?”

Note: The poll talked about in this column is closed. Please do NOT fill it out.

When I was a founding comics editor for Disney Adventure Magazine, I attended a large number of what is called focus groups. A focus group brings together a number of people who fit a certain parameter for the purpose and answering questions about a product, a movie, etc. Disney’s focus group people brought in kids, showed them articles intended for the magazine, showed them comics, and asked some very pointed questions. This helped the people in charge determine what the readership might actually want to see out of a magazine titled Disney Adventures, as opposed to what we might have thought they’d want.

About a half dozen years later, I worked for Modern Curriculum Press, an educational book company then owned by Simon & Schuster. We were going to produce comic books to help poor readers learn to read. To that end, we published 24 issues which were sold directly to schools. I was the series editor as well as a writer. Before we started, however, I attended a few of the LA based focus groups where we interviewed kids in one group and teachers in another. Again, this way we saw learned what people actually liked and wanted.
I cannot say this for a certainty, but I would not doubt that the number of focus groups done for regular comic books could be found on the finger of one hand. Probably the middle finger.

The usual reason given for not doing focus groups is it costs too much.

This is where you come in. Obviously, by the mere fact that you’re reading this column, you are among the cream of the elite readers of comics. Or, at least, you’re here and you’re all I’ve got to work with. Therefore, over the next few months I’m going to devote several columns to the questions - Who’s reading this stuff anyway? What do you get out of comics? What would you like to see in comics, and anything else I can come up with (or people suggest) that can help the companies know who their customers are.

Therefore, I have decided to recruit you to help me… and the industry… as my personal focus group. And, guess what? This one is going to cost the industry the vast amount of… nothing! Not even a penny. Now, I’m sure that’s exactly the value the industry will get out of this survey, but, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

By the way, if DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Crossgen, Image (and any other company, large or small) have questions they’d like to see answered, send them to me. Who knows, you might learn something about your customers. All seven of them who read this column.

Your first assignment: I will run this column once a month for the next several months. I’ll try to tally the answers as we go along and publish them when we’re done. But for this to be effective, we need as many people as possible answering the questionnaire. So part of your job will be to tell your friends about this survey, have them contact their friends, and get them all to fill out and send in their answers.
I’ll try to weed out as many of the stupid gag answers I know I’ll get written by people who think they have a sense of humor and believe that it’d hilarious to screw up the test.

By the way, even if my tone is humorous, I’m being serious. For years everyone has been saying comics are in trouble and are losing their audience. If you care about comics – and why would you be on this website if you didn’t – then let’s see what we can learn that might be able to stem the ebbing tide and attract new people to our ranks.

At the end of this column I will ask my first ten questions. These are pretty general, but they exist for me to have an idea who is answering the questions. If enough of you participate and I think it’s worth going on, next month the questions will become more specific. The month after even more so. Therefore, lurkers, stop lurking and join in. Don’t think of this like voting for the President of the United States. First, this is actually important and second, I want more than 33% of you participating.

Nobody has tried this before. I may be three kinds of idiot to try it here. But, because I love comics and feel that some sort of cosmic kick in the pants needs to occur to goose the industry into helping itself, I’m putting my column where my keyboard is and be the one to start asking the hard questions.

Remember, this will work best only with as large a sampling as possible. Go on other message boards and tell their readers to check this out. And lest you think I’m doing this because it’ll make me rich, if you double the amount of money I’m getting for writing this column – hell, go ahead, triple it – the answer would still be – pretty much zero.

So, anyway…

I was reading the latest issue of one of the Superman comics the other day, an excellent story by Joe Kelly. Even though Superman is still my favorite character, I only follow his books sporadically, so I’m not always up to date on current continuity. The story is about Clark – not Superman – trying to find the man who runs the corner newsstand but who has gone missing. It’s about those people who fall into the cracks. Superman wouldn’t normally involve himself with a simple missing persons story, but he does here because he knows him. Sort of.

I’ve actually written four different versions of Superman throughout the years: Julie Schwartz’s version; the first 12 issues of “Adventures of Superman;” the CBS TV animated version and, last year, this current take.) and though none of them are the Superman I’d do if completely left to my own devices (that would be an updated 2002 version of the 1938-1940 original) I’ve been able to enjoy all takes on the character. Hey! I’m a fan. For some reason I love the big blue boy scout.

As I say, I thought this story was well written, very touching and it was about something. Which most comics aren’t. There was pretty much no action to speak of, which didn’t upset me in any way as I prefer character stories. By itself, this issue was great. Superman should always be this good. No complaints.

I then looked at a few other comics. I read the Captain America story where he takes his mask off at the end, revealing his secret ID. I think it was written by Brian Bendis and it was really well written. I read the issue after Daredevil’s secret ID was exposed (I haven’t been following Marvel lately – are all Marvel heroes exposing themselves, so to speak?). Well done story. I read a number of other books (it’s amazing how many comics you can read standing up at Borders while your wife is looking through craft magazines) and I began to notice something.

Maybe it’s because I don’t much follow series issue by issue any more that it’s taken me awhile to see the current trend, but today’s approach to story telling is drastically different from the stories of the 90s. Far more so than the stories of the 90s, 80s and 70s were from the stories of the 60s. Many of today’s comics are generally being written with greater maturity and more skill than ever before.
Which begs the question: who’s reading these comics?

A few weeks ago when I was in New York I asked several friends in the business two specific questions: 1) Who are comics being written for these days, and 2) who do you think are buying the comics?

Although everyone had a somewhat different way of phrasing their answer, they all came down to one answer, wonderfully summed up by one of the people I spoke to: 45 year old white guys.

Forty-five year old white guys.

I know it was a facetious answer, but not really. They certainly aren’t being written for kids any more. Kids, and even teens, sadly, aren’t buying comics. Not like they used to when 95% of all comics were written for kids and teens. We know this is true. Kids and teens haven’t been buying comics for many years now. It could have something to do with the price. It might have something to do with the material. They are primarily buying video games and going to movies.

Video games and movies… about super-heroes.

The kind of thing that used to be found only in comics. Hmmm.

If you go to a comic shop you primarily see people between the ages of 25 and dead. 90% male. 75% of them white.

The average: 45 year old white guys.

So, my next obvious question is: if we know who’s buying comics, is the material being published in comics actually aimed for that audience? What is speaking to the ‘average’ 45 year old white guy? What are they getting out of a comic these days? In other words, are these 45 year old white guys buying comics out of love or habit? Or both?

Is this just nostalgia or do they enjoy what they’re reading?

Next month we’ll get into some of my thoughts about what comics are about. The month after we’ll talk about possible changes that could help comics reach a larger audience (remember a few weeks ago I said if the industry follows my advice they could have a massive sales jump from 30,000 copies a month to 30,001?). Here’s where we’ll discuss finding that make-or-break reader, wherever he or she may live (I actually do know who this person is, but that will have to be revealed after we get the proper clearance).

And so, onto the first series of question (Hey! You with the hair! My interactive Bulletcam with the Stealth 6.4 software lets me see you trying to sneak away so you don’t have to fulfill your civic duty. Get back in your chair and type, you miserable ^&%$#).

Focus Group Questions. Series one:
1. A description of who you are.

A: Age.
B: Race.
C: Gender.
D: National Origin.

2. How long have you been reading comics?
3. How many comics do you buy each month (stop counting them, an approximate number is acceptable).
4. Without listing titles, what kinds (genres) of comics did you buy when you were younger?
5. Without listing titles, what kinds (genres) of comics do you buy now?
6. What percentage of the comics you buy each month do you read each month?
7. What percentage of the comics you buy do you actually look forward to reading each month?
8. What are your reasons for buying comics? Pick all the reasons that are really important to you.

A: The story.
B: The art.
C: The character.
D: The continuity.
E: The overall comics world it resides in.
F: Other (please explain)_______________________

9. If there are comics you buy that you either don’t read or no longer enjoy, list the reasons you still buy them:

A: Habit.
B: Keeping up the collection.
C: The book might get good again someday.
D: Resale value.
E: To discuss with friends.
F: Other (please explain)_______________________

10. Why do you read comics and what do you get out of reading comics that you don’t get from other media? (Please explain 100 words or less)

This is only the first of my focus group columns and, as I said, the questions asked here are preliminary ones, designed for more general answers. If you treat them as seriously as I do, perhaps you, the readers, will truly make a difference in where the industry will be five years down the line. If you have ideas for future questions, please send them to me.

See you in seven.
Marv Wolfman

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