I even wrote about it here at 2719 Hyperion back in July of 2008. It is two years later and I have to say that my disappointment in the endeavor is substantial.
At the time I noted:
"BOOM! Studios and Disney will most certainly need to somehow reach beyond the current comic book industry distribution status quo to reach those younger and hopefully receptive new readers."
Sadly, this has not happened. And worse, Boom! has chosen to follow editorial and marketing plans modeled after superhero and adult fare, which I believe are strategies wholly ineffective in attracting the desired young readers they are looking for.
It's a distinct and undeniable fact--comic books directed at younger readers have declined dramatically over the last four decades or so. To a baby boomer of the 1950s or 1960s, comic books were an integral part of your daily life. You ate. You slept. You attended school. You read comic books. Four-color publications were cheap, enormously entertaining and ridiculously accessible. And Disney comics were among the most popular on the market.
The most common explanation:
There is simply too many other new and exciting forms of entertainment for young kids to enjoy. Comic books cannot compete with all that is offered to children today.
Most definitely. The playing field has changed dramatically for young consumers, especially in the last two decades. Video games, computer technology, cable television, home entertainment, cell phones and portable devices all compete for the attention of that younger demographic. How can a simple mundane comic book compete? However, as valid as this argument appears to be, I feel that it tends to be greatly overstated and too quickly accepted.
Examine regular books for a moment. Though they face the same types of competition as comic books, their decline has not been so measured and significant. In fact, you could argue that the juvenile book market has enjoyed a sustained resurgence of sorts since J.K. Rowling introduced the world to her boy wizard a little over a decade ago. Kids still read books. Kids still want to read books, despite a world filled with electronic and high-tech alternatives.
It is also important to note that superhero-based comics remain popular, viable and culturally significant, despite the fact that they compete similarly with other entertainment media as well. In fact, the 16-30 age-group that drives the current comic book and graphic novel industry, are also the primary consumers of all the previously mentioned competitive media--i.e. video games, computers, portable devices, etc.
So then, what are the truly significant factors that have essentially diminished the kiddie comics market?
It used to be, comic books were everywhere. You could find them at newsstands, drug stores, five and tens, grocery stores and mom-and-pops, just to name a few. And that's not even considering the second-hand markets of yard sales, flea markets and your friends next door. It was rare that a kid did not live within walking distance of a venue that sold comic books. Thanks to what is known in the industry as the direct market, that is no longer the case.
Prior to the 1980s, comic books were handled by the same regional wholesale companies that distributed magazines and paperback books to local retailers. With the growing sophistication of superhero comics and the emergence of specialty comic book retailers, a new distribution system came into being--a direct market wherein specialty distributors such as Capital City and Diamond Comics sold directly to comic book retailers, notably on non-returnable terms, but at more attractive discounts.
Unfortunately, this dramatic shift signaled the decline and near-complete fall of kiddie comics. Comic book retailers gradually and effectively eroded the market share of the wholesalers. But being super-hero centric, those same retailers abandoned kiddie comics for more lucrative, fanboy-driven material. They were appealing to a new comic book-buying demographic that what skewing to a more older teen, young adult composition. Wholesale distribution of comics has all but disappeared in the last twenty years and where it has remained, it is greatly diminished. And even though wholesalers may have still have had some viable markets for kiddie comics, many chose to drop comics books altogether and effectively throw the baby out with the bath water.
Numerous comic book retailers attempted to keep the kiddie genre alive, but simply could not reach the kids they needed to support that category of business. Today, for the most part, kiddie comics are largely ignored and unsupported by comic book specialty stores.
Editorial and Marketing Mismanagement
Here's where I will likely offend quite a few industry professionals who I otherwise admire and respect.
It's a simple observation. You simply can't create, produce and market kiddie comics in the same manner as mainstream superhero comics and graphic novels. Yet, that is what is happening today, especially in regard to Disney Comics that are being produced by BOOM! Studios under their Boom! Kids imprint. To illustrate some of the points I'm about to make in this argument, let's compare two comic books--one published in 1954, another that was just released recently by Boom! Kids.
Publication date: August 1954
Retail price: 10¢
Total pages of content: 25
Average panels per page: 8
Content: 4 stories, 2 1-page gags, 2 text features
Publication date: September 2010
Retail price: $2.99
Total Pages: 28
Total pages of content: 22
Average panels per page: 3-5
Content: 1 story
First, let's get some basic premises out of the way:
- For nearly all young kids, comics are disposable entertainment. They are without a "collector's" mentality in this regard. They just want the fun and entertaining diversion that the content itself provides. Kids are very content to read and re-read their comic books without worrying about maintaining them in mint condition and keeping them stored in plastic bags.
- Kids perceive and appreciate value, though not entirely from a monetary standpoint. Thus a comic book with multiple stories and features is considered a better offering than a comic with just one longer story.
- Kids prefer self-contained content to serialization. They want to pick up a comic book that is free from prerequisite reading. Kids do not have the patience to track down and purchase issues #1-3, just to be able to read #4. Unless it's incredibly compelling and attractive, they'll simply toss #4 back on the shelf and look for something different.
But wait, you're going to say that the production values of comics today are far superior to the cheap newsprint of Casper's day and thus justify the higher prices. I can certainly concede that point, but in doing so, must raise another. Why do kids comics, disposable and content-driven, require such high production values in the first place? Do kids really care about high quality glossy paper? Do collector-market incentives such as variant covers and zero issues possess any real appeal for young kids? What matters to an older, collectible-savvy fanboy does not necessarily make good marketing sense when applied to a more practical 10 year-old consumer.
When you pick up Toy Story #7, or any other Boom! Kids comic, it is noticeable how slight and flimsy it is. Well, it is in fact 22% smaller than what has long been the 36-page size for normal comics. While it may come closer to Casper in page-count content (three pages less), it still doesn't exactly make a great first impression when you lift it off the store shelf.
But let's also consider how art style and presentation can devalue the product. Toy Story #7 if chocked full of artistic and design bells and whistles, but its actual story content is considerably less than Casper #23. By maintaining an average of 8 panels per page, Casper #23 provides almost twice the story and a longer reading experience than Toy Story #7. While it's not immediately noticeable due to the page count, a kid reading the book will find himself finished with it in very short order, again diminishing the value of his $2.99 investment. In fairness, panel counts vary across all of the Boom! Kids titles, but in general still tend toward less content than more.
While Toy Story #7 did present a self-contained story, numerous other Boom! Kids titles seem to be serialized on a consistent basis. As an experiment, on a recent trip to the comics shop, I arbitrarily picked up two Boom! comics, Donald Duck and Friends #350 and The Incredibles #4. Both contained serialized chapters that required the reading of previous and/or subsequent issues. I was disappointed and I can't help but feel that many kids would be similarly frustrated.
What becomes clear from this comparison is the previously stated tenant: You simply can't create, produce and market kiddie comics in the same manner as mainstream superhero comics and graphic novels. But that is clearly the approach that Boom! Kids has taken with its line of Disney Comics.
Boom! Kids Editor-in-Chief Mark Waid (recently promoted to Chief Creative Officer) is one of the most respected individuals in the comics industry. And rightly so. I have long enjoyed his contributions to the superhero and adult comics market. But unfortunately in applying the superhero/comic collecting marketing dynamic to the Disney line of comics, he and his fellow Boom! executives continue to contribute to the diminishing state of kiddie comics. For a viable business plan in regard to Disney-based comics, Waid should instead focus on successful kiddie comics publishers of the past, rather than emulate contemporary adult market publishing strategies. I chose to use the Casper comic book for good reason; Harvey Comics is truly an excellent model to follow in regard to both editorial direction and marketing strategies.
Take Advantage of Your Large Canon of Characters
Harvey Comics certainly did this. Characters were interchangeable throughout the various titles. Wendy stories appeared in Casper titles. Richie Rich comics also featured Little Dot. This cross-pollinating was both shrewd and highly successful. Dell was similarly successful with its Disney Comics by employing the same strategy to titles like Walt Disney Comics and Stories and its various Disney Dell Giants. Apply these same ideas to the current Disney/Pixar canon. Mix it up. Be character focused rather than brand focused. Imagine some of the possibilities for giant-size anthology titles in a Disney line, similar to what Harvey successfully marketed back in the day. Woody's Round-Up, Lightning McQueen's Road Rally, Mike and Sully's Laugh Factory, Donald Duck's Duckburg, are just a few suggestions. And for heaven's sake, why hasn't Boom! produced any Disney Princess comic books? Juvenile book publishers have certainly exploited this lucrative brand. Methinks the very entrenched male-bias of comic book publishing may be a factor here.
Produce Short, Self-Contained Stories. Avoid Serialization.
Realize that serialization is potentially more damaging than it is beneficial. You are looking to appeal to the broadest audience possible and you can do this with self-contained stories and issues. Kids do not support subscription-driven marketing that is prevalent among older fanboy consumers. Create, promote and sell each comic individually, much in the way that Harvey, Archie, and even DC did in the old days. The closest that Boom! has come to this type of editorial direction has been its Muppet Show series which has proven to be one of its more critically-celebrated titles.
Trade High Concept Presentation for Value
Don't worry about fancy paper, high concept art and variant covers and zero issues. Squeeze as much content into 25 pages as you possibly can. Multiple stories per issue. More panels per page. One-page gag stories. Activities and special features. Make kids feel like they are getting a lot for their money! Kids do not require top-of-the-line print quality. It would be no sin to return to (gasp!) newsprint and reduce prices appropriately. Your products would be more affordable and desirable to the readers in your target demographic.
Think Outside the Direct Comics Market
Go Beyond Comic Book Specialty Stores
This is certainly the tough one. Earlier Disney licensees Gladstone, Gemstone and even Disney Publishing itself have all desperately tried to step outside these very restrictive and too narrowly focused distribution and sales channels, but with little to no success. But perhaps there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. Digital comics are quickly becoming very viable, especially in regard to the very comic book-friendly iPad. Boom! does in fact have an iPad Comixology-driven app, but it is currently only focused on their adult titles. Archie Comics is very aggressively pursuing the digital platform with their own iPad app, and significantly, they are maintaining very kid-friendly prices of 99¢ an issue. That is half of what the mainstream superhero publishers are typically charging per digital comic issue .
Think this is all pretty questionable? Well, one contemporary comics company has employed many of these editorial and marketing strategies with great success. Upon examining Bongo Comics, it is remarkable how similar its line of Simpson Comics is in design and presentation to Harvey Comics and other vintage kiddie comics publishers. And they have maintained success in a difficult environment for nearly twenty years. Bongo has managed to expand beyond the direct comics market by creating trade paperbacks (the equivalent of old school "giant" issues that distinctly remind us of the old Harvey and Dell giants) and making them available at large chain book stores and other retailers. Though nothing has been officially announced, I can't help but feel we'll being seeing a Bongo iPad app sometime in the near future. Bongo's approach has always been decidedly retro, yet they are perhaps the most mainstream of all the major comic book publishers.
A recent Simpsons Comic:
Simpson's Comics and Stories #170
Publication date: 2010
Retail price: $2.99
Total pages: 36
Total pages of content: 25
Average panels per page: 6-8
Content: 1 story
In fairness to Boom!, I must also criticize the $2.99 price on regular size Bongo issues. But like the older Harveys, Bongo delivers more page content and more panel-per-page story content.
Similar to Bongo, Boom! also produces trade paperbacks of its Disney line that have been stocked at mainstream retailers such as Borders and Barnes and Noble and online with Amazon. They are however slighter in size and page counts than comparably priced Simpsons editions. (Boom! titles are typically $9.99 and non-discounted on Amazon; Bongo trades average around $12.99-$14.99 on Amazon but are typically discounted down to around $10. Bongo trades also usually contain about 50% more content than their Boom! counterparts.)
On a related note, here is another example of publishing kiddie comics with a mistaken adult market mentality. The Incredibles: City of Incredibles collected Mark Waid's own four-issue arc into a 112-page $24.95 hardcover. Huh? It appears that Boom! consistently publishes $25 hardcover editions of its trade paper compilations. Why? I'm not familiar with many young kids willing drop that kind of cash on an item that costs more than twice the sum of its parts. I guess the easy answer is that this item is solely directed at the adult collector. (In comparison, Bongo Comics published the oversize 208-page Simpsons Futurama Crossover Crisis hardcover for the exact same $24.95 price. In design and size. their product was much more substantial and worthy of the price point and could smartly appeal to both kids and adults. It made it onto the shelves of mass merchants such as Borders and Barnes and Noble. Boom Kids! hardcovers--don't typically make that cut.)
But wait, let's add even more insult to injury. Here's what a quick scan of the Boom! Kids online store revealed:
Toy Story: Tales from the Toy Chest #1 (Cover C) - price: $9.99
Darkwing Duck #4 (Cover C) - price $9.99
$10 for single-issue comics normally priced at $2.99?!? Is Boom! applying questionable back-issue markups on what they are advertising on their site as new releases? Sadly, this is a company clearly mired in collectible market dogma and is in turn squandering the potential of some of this generation's most popular and beloved entertainment properties.
All of this ultimately begs one primary question: just who is Boom! Kids wanting to sell comic books to? Mr. Waid, with all due respect and courtesy, there is no shame in creating and selling comic books to a strictly younger demographic. And if you do it smartly enough, you can still reach adult buyers without having resort to direct market gimmicks and $25 hardcovers. You do not need to oblige adult buyers in regard to this material at the expense of properly marketing to your younger readers.
C'mon, kiddie comics should be for kids. Quit letting specialty retail, fanboy-driven marketing hijack this still high potential genre of four-color fun.