The year 1953 was the height of comics in the United States. Children that year bought 1 billion new comics — that’s just over 30 comics per school-aged child. Most comics sold at 10 cents a copy, had a first run of around 500,000 copies, and would end up in the hands of five to eight different children per copy. Want to take a guess at how that compares to the top-selling children’s book that year? Black Stallion Returns was the top-selling book in 1953, and it sold only 60,000 copies.
Yet the American comics industry as we know it today — and that includes all types of graphic novels and comics and manga — sold only 80 million new comics in 2012. That’s fewer comics sold than in a single month of 1953.
This rise and fall of comics in the United States was the topic of an outstanding talk by Carol L. Tilley on Saturday, January 26 at the ALA Midwinter meeting. She delved into the reasons for the decline in comics readership, the state of the comics industry today, and the relationship between librarians and comics over the years.
The comics industry exploded in the late 1930s and continued to expand rapidly throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. The majority of children in the 1940s were comics readers, and comic book sales outpaced children’s book sales by about 500 percent. Americans spent $10 million on new comic books in 1940, but only $2 million on new children’s books.
Children got their comic books from drug stores and gas stations, but had no access to comics through their local libraries. In fact, librarians during this time strongly opposed comic books, labeling them as “poisonous mushroom growth,” “graphic insanity,” and “a national disgrace.” The American Library Association’s opposition to comic books, as well as public opinion against them, even led to U.S. Senate hearings in 1954 about links between comics reading and juvenile delinquency.
This public recrimination scared the comic book industry, and so the Comics Magazine Association of America formed the Comics Code Authority in 1954 to self regulate comic book content in the United States. The CCA was extremely restrictive, limiting everything from depictions of violence and sexual innuendo to “disrespect for established authority.” The Comics Code Authority remained active until February 2011, if you can believe it, although many comic-book publishers stopped submitting their work to the CCA in the early 2000s.
Today, the comic-book and graphic-novel landscape looks completely different. Only 80 million new comics were sold in 2012 — a fraction of the number sold in 1953. And DC Comics estimates that only about 2 percent of its readership is under the age of 18.
Tilley identified a number of trends leading to this shift, including:
- Serialized comics moving online as a cheaper and easier venue for distribution
- Major comic book companies marketing to adult collectors as their primary readership
- The increased price of serialized comics (a 10 cent comic should cost about $1.10 today but instead costs closer to $4, and most are significantly shorter than the comics of the 1950s)
- Lack of librarian advocates for children’s comics for many decades (this has changed over the past 10-15 years)
- Continued skepticism among some librarians, educators, and parents about whether children should be reading comics
Tilley challenged librarians to think about how to become stronger advocates for comics today. She also pushed librarians to think about what trends they’re missing today, pointing out that if librarians had stepped in to quell public hysteria around comics in the 1950s, the market could look very different today.
So, readers, I pose these questions to you: How can we better promote comics to readers, administrators, parents, and communities? And are there any opportunities (e.g. ebooks) that we’re missing or steamrolling today that we need to reexamine?
— Annie Schutte, currently reading The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen (coming out June 4, 2013)
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