A funny thing happened surrounding Batgirl #35. The announced redesign of Barbara Gordon was met with critical acclaim and celebration. With a new creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, the excitement carried all the way through to last week when the issue dropped.
Once it was released it was a very polarising affair, with some people absolutely loving it and others left feeling uncomfortable with the changes. I’ve thought about it myself and I think the reason is a lot more complicated than whether it was “good” or not. I believe what it comes down to is that for the first time in quite a while, comics aren’t just for regular comic book readers anymore.
To elaborate, the comic book market is tiny. We can point to the movies and the video games and shout about how influential they are but the actual amount of warm bodies buying comic book issues is a very small number. They are dribbles of water compared to the waterfall of consumers who run out to see comic book movies. While the movies walk an impressive line between accessibility and fan service, the comic books themselves have always been an insular club, despite the occasional casual effort to make something look enticing to the non-reader.
I’ve had people of all ages tell me they find comics intimidating. Where do you start? What’s worth reading? Do you need to read other series’ to understand this one? Where do you even buy these things? How often do they come out? There are plenty more questions but you catch my meaning. The point is because comics are so damn confusing to break into, the publishers have settled for telling us the same sort of safe stories because that’s what we, the current readers, will happily gobble up. Then we’ll sit back down ready for the next flashy meal of punching and in-jokes.
Except that’s starting to change.
It’s only happened recently but publishers are realising that they can siphon new fans by actually appealing to them directly, beyond just tossing in familiar characters to a tonally identical book. When you aim an entire line of comic books at adult men you’re missing out quite a chunk of the population. When BOOM Studios! Put out Lumberjanes they weren’t aiming for those men, they were going for new fans.
The book sold exceptionally.
Who would have thought? Aim a comic book at an audience starved for attention and they’ll actually buy it. We should all be rolling our eyes at how obvious that was but look at the output of most comic book publishers and you wouldn’t expect anyone to know it.
The super hero behemoths of Marvel and DC have started to realise this missing market too. Of course, they’ve had young readers and female readers since day one, but there was barely anything actually aimed specifically at either audience. It was all about the adult men first; everyone else is an afterthought or a bonus.
When DC announced they were re-launching Batgirl as a trendy, modern, young woman whose life would actually reflect modern young women, you can bet your ass they weren’t thinking about how may more adult men they could cram into the comic book shop.
They were aiming at the new readers. The people who’ve seen comic book movies, they’ve watched the cartoons, they’ve got the t-shirts, the figures, the clothes but they can’t get into the damn comics because all that the comic books are saying: “Boys club. Go away. You must know this much to enter.”
So Batgirl #35 came out, it sold exceptionally, just like Lumberjanes did. It was aimed at new fans, not the typical market. What happened is that a bunch of adult men didn’t like it and branded the book a failure.
See the problem here?
We comic book fans have become so accustomed to the same type of stories that the idea of a book offering something different, alternative to our interests, is unappealing. If it’s not aimed at us, well then I guess someone just wrote it badly right? We better call for it to be reversed and directed at us again.
No, wrong! As readers of this awesome medium we should embrace change. Embrace the diversity and new ideas. Embrace the idea that our tiny, dying market desperately needs new readers and Batgirl #35 is a damn fine example of the type of comics that are going to save the industry.
Next time we read a comic we don’t like, rather than bash it or assume that the creative team made a mistake, we need to just stop and consider that it may not be for us. It doesn’t have to be for us. The same way that TV shows, movies, and books all thrive because they create stories for many different audiences not just one. Not just adult men first and then everyone else as a secondary audience.
Comic books have been aimed at the same audience for an awful long time, isn’t it time we invite some new fans?
PS. I actually thought Batgirl #35 was great. It was a refreshingly different super hero story. I used it as it’s a great example of what I’m talking about, but this easily applies to other books like Gotham Academy and Ms. Marvel. If you like the usual comic book fare that’s great, there are plenty of other series out there that’ll give you that. Just remember that there are a lot of new readers who want to get into comics and what might not be amazing to the average reader could be a gateway for the new fan. Just look at the passion Captain Marvel fans have, it helps that the book is great, but it’s also a sign of how much of a void that series fills.
PPS. Yes, there have been some genuine efforts along the way to appeal to new fans that I’ve skipped over. Like DC’s Minx line for instance, but right now we’re seeing a total shift and a dedicated move from multiple publishers to grab new fans. This is a noteworthy time in the history of comics.
PPPS. I’m not saying all adult men like the same things, nor do all young women. I’m painting in broad strokes to highlight the cold marketing view point of aiming for demographics. Obviously people are more complicated than that but can anyone honestly say that they believe Marvel and DC don’t aim the majority of their comics at men first? If they didn’t I’d wager we’d see a much better gender divide in characters and in creators. Y’know, something to actually reflect real life.