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Monday, July 18, 2005
Ah, what a swirl of emotions as I head into my final full day of controlling the Isotope. This has been a huge thrill, an incredible workload, a rush of the happiness that comes with success... and now I'm getting a touch of melancholy, not wanting this to end.
But it doesn't have to. Not yet. Because we've got one last ace up our sleeve.
Here's the last question we asked our comics professionals in the e-mail interviews you've read below:
What audience do you think is missing most from the current comics market? How should we get them back?
JOE CASEY: Kids. And I honestly don't know how to get them into the stores. Because it's not like any kid wouldn't love it inside a good, well-run comicbook store. I know *I* did when I first went into one. I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven! But I suppose it's tough to get their parents to take them there. And without comics being mass distributed, it's hard to know if the newest generation of kids even knows that comicbooks exist, not to mention the existence of great stores like Meltdown or the Isotope that are packed to the gills with them. I know they'd love a lot of the material being produced right now, but they've got to find the stores to be able to get at it.
The audience should always be refreshing itself. That's the only way comicbooks have survived all these years and if this latest generation of late teens/20-30-year olds are the Final Generation to really buy and support the business as we know it, then it's only a matter of time before that audience moves on and there's no one new to come in and replace them. I don't want to work in a dinosaur medium. I love comicbooks and I want my kids to one day experience them with the same joy that I've always gotten from them. Believe me, I'm looking forward to taking my kids to the best comicbook stores all over the country... I just hope they're still there when I *have* kids...!
JAY FAERBER: Kids, from 10-year-olds up through teenagers. So many of today's current readers got hooked as kids, but we don't seem to be hooking many kids these days, and I think that's a distribution problem. The answer is to get comics back into grocery stores and 7-11's and stuff, but that's far, far easier said than done.
ROSS RICHIE: Kids and women, most obviously. Marvel's making a push into 7-11s, that's a huge deal and I applaud them. I'd love to see DC do the same thing. They're well-capitalized companies that can make an investment and draw kids in to the direct market and into bookstores. They're the only companies in the marketplace that can pull it off -- it's a tough job, but in order to bring them in, the companies have to go to where they are in the right format at the right price point. I have no idea what that is.
Pretty consistent response, eh? Everywhere you turn in this industry, people are freaking out that there aren't enough kids reading comics. Now, if we want to change that, everyone has to do their part, from creators making comics that are appropriate for kids, to publishers marketing their books in ways that will reach them, to...
Well, to direct market comics retail shops.
The move into 7-11's is critical, yes - I know that from personal experience - but those spinner racks are a contact point, an introduction - the real comics experience is in shops like this one.
It's time to stop bellyaching about creators and publishers and do our own part.
It's time to get kids into our stores. And we're just the people to get it done.
My first thought in trying to bring children to the shop was: How the hell are we gonna get kids into the shop? I mean, you can't exactly rely on them to get themselves here. They don't have cars. They're probably not allowed to go to weird new places by themselves. Their parents are at work all day and don't want to drive around to some damn weirdo cartoon store just because their kid saw a flier.
You know how you CAN get a whole bunch of kids together at one time, with an adult to organize them and transportation of their own?
Step #1: You talk to schools.
So, once we had that figured out, I gave my mom a quick call. Turns out she's a school principal out in Daly City. We're in the midst of summer, so our options are limited a bit, but there's always summer school going and there are always kids who'd rather go on a field trip than sit in the classroom all day.
So mother dearest put me in touch with a teacher working in San Francisco, and she put me in touch with the teacher she knew who she thought would have the best class for this sort of thing. Turns out the fellow's got a class of about 15 children, ages 11 to 13, with learning difficulties that place their reading level at around 3rd or 4th grade.
Oh. Holy. Crap.
How perfect is that? What an incredible opportunity are comics! The images reinforce the meanings of the words! It's a perfect transitional learning tool.
We have to sell it that way, for now. Because, y'know, we're not going to have a lot of success convincing parents that it's OK for their kids to be reading comics instead of textbooks, and for the moment we have to accept that and play to it. The comics will speak for themselves when the kids get in here, and the immense fun to be found in the medium will get them reading more. But up front, that's a tough sell.
They're in school. They're supposed to be studying, not having fun. Right?
Well, that part, I don't have to worry about. The comics are gonna provide all the fun by themselves. I don't have to do much on that end.
So, in order to get this to work for the school - so the principal doesn't get a bunch of angry phone calls from parents - we have to make this trip WORK.
And frankly, that's easy. But I've got the cart ahead of the horse, here, because there's something I'm forgetting to do.
Step #2: Pick a book that's appropriate for the age group you're dealing with.
We've gone with Phil Hester's Firebreather, because the concept of a teenager whose dad is an evil dragon seems like a good fit. There's a great moral backbone to the story, some fun action (that only gets gory for about one page), a kid dealing with tough, real issues, and of course, it's Phil Hester so you don't have to worry about it being good or not. Other good possibilities we can up with were Bone, Daisy Kutter, Usagi Yojimbo, DEMO, Hench, and Street Angel. We chose Firebreather because we figured it would appeal to the Fantastic Four movie fans, it dealt specifically with a teenaged character, and the language was just about a spot-on match for the kids we're working for. If you try something similar, you'll want to be sure to do the same - tailor the books you choose to the audience you're targeting. Don't just pick a personal favorite because you are a grown-ass man and not a kid. Even the stuff that you liked when you were a kid may not be a good fit for today's kids. If you're having trouble picking something you're confident will be appropriate, try running it past someone who works with kids - I discussed every book I was considering with me ol' mum and after flipping through each one and discussing it with me and Nora, she agreed that Firebreather was the best choice. I'll admit that I had an advantage through knowing, well, my mom, but if you don't have this kind of connection, just try talking it over with the teacher you're working with - they'll surely have an idea of what works for their students and what doesn't.
Step #3: Make it academic.
Look, the school's gonna get in trouble if the kids are goofing off at the comic book store during a school day.
So after you pick the book, find a way to make it an assignment. Customize the assignment to the book; I'm having the kids do something called "choral reading," which is when they all read aloud as a group. I'll be assigning diffferent kids to different characters, and maybe periodically having them all read a passage together. In my mind, this is a lot like when we read Shakespeare in high school. After they're done reading, there will be a book report (the laws of the paper trail apply to schools just as much as they do to legal proceedings). I'm trying out a one-page Word file with questions like:
- Who were the main characters in this story? Use a few words to describe each one.
- What was the setting of the story? When did it take place?
- What was the main conflict or problem that the characters faced?
- How was this conflict or problem resolved?
- Did you like this story? Did you dislike it? Explain why in at least three sentences.
Thing is, I didn't come up with any of these questions. I got them by discussing what to do with the teacher.
Y'see, good teachers are always looking for a new way to educate their kids. And they'll recognize that comics are a great way to do that if you pitch it right. Me, I just told the truth - comics were a big part of how I learned to read, and I'm excited about the possibility of sharing that with other kids.
You get a teacher on your side, he or she is gonna be your best resource for counsel and assistance. I've tried to take care of as much of this as I could, so as to make it easy for the guy - after all, he had to fast-track his permission slips, etc., to fit my schedule and make it in before Old Man Sime comes home!
I've got no idea if this will work. Could be these kids will hate me and hate the book and not find any comics they like and not be able to read any better than when they came in. I've never taught kids before. I've only done public speaking on a few sparse occaissions.
I'm throwing the dice. Tomorrow morning, I'll see how they come up.