On many of the comics websites and fan magazines, I read quotes from executives at our favorite comic publishers, saying how sales figures are steadily declining and new readers are harder to come by. Maybe it's my interpretation, but it comes across in print as a sense of wonder, like they are completely confused by this.
Say what you will about drug dealers, they do have the economically sound notion of hooking people at the earliest age possible. I got hooked on comics when I was 7. In 1972, comics were pretty simple. Superboy featured Superbaby, Lois Lane still had her own title, and if you were lucky you might come across a 100-page super-spectacular. Remember these? For 60 cents DC would feature a new story, and 3 or 4 reprints. If you managed to stumble across a Justice League or a World's Finest, that was a motherload. They usually contained a pretty healthy variety of material.
But 60 cent comics barely survived the 1970s. Up until the early to mid '80s, comics were toys, meant to be traded, read, and traded again. It was something of a right of passage that Mom would someday dispose of them, along with the Matchbox cars and GI Joes. Comics were printed cheap, so they were pretty affordable to your average 9 year old.
Simple story lines were the norm. Once in a while you might have a two-part story. Superman #296-299 was a four-issue epic the likes of which I'd never seen before. Today you have stories that stretch for an entire year. That's quite a commitment to expect a youngster to make, especially since it seems that kids have a shorter attention span than ever.
If comics publishers hope to tap into the pre-teen market, they are going to have to make comics affordable, and if that means lowering the production costs on a few titles, so be it. High quality printing has inflated the cost of production. To many children, there exists a simple palette of basic colors, where Flash's costume is red, instead of varying shades ranging from magenta to burgundy
Publishers will also have to target the writing and illustration to reflect that market. Simpler storylines, perhaps more basic drawing. DC has already followed this trend with Batman Adventures, Superman Adventures, and Justice League Adventures. These three titles are all based on the Warner Brothers cartoons produced over the past 10 years. With Teen Titans due to debut on the Cartoon Network, I think we can expect to see a fourth title added to the line.
The benefits of titles such as these are far reaching. They provide a proving ground for journeyman artists and writers. Young readers have access to material they are familiar with from the show. They know the characters, and if the parents have seen the show, so much the better. They may be more comfortable knowing what their child is spending his/her allowance on.
I've seen many parents in my local comic shop, monitoring what their child buys. I wish more parents would take an interest in their kids' hobbies enough to care what they are exposed to. But it can put parents off when they see a significant amount of shelf space featuring scantily-clad women such as Joseph Michael Linsnser's Dawn, or Marvel's White Queen. Vertigo's American Century has also had a few racy covers. I'm not saying this material shouldn't be published and sold, but perhaps a separate area for more kid-friendly comics might put Mom and Dad's mind at ease.
Today, publishers seem to rely heavily on movies and television to help them cultivate audiences. It's worked to some degree. A friend of mine is now an X-Men fan thanks to the movies. But that may not always work. The success of the first Batman feature was countered by a straight-to- video Captain America feature. Smallville has wrapped its second season, while Birds of Prey didn't survive past Christmas. For comics to rely on fallout from Hollywood is placing their future in the hands of a very fickle industry.
So how do you get younger readers hooked on comics? The same way you get older readers. Give them storytelling that they can respond to at a price they can afford. Getting parents and teachers on board may not be a bad idea either. As long as it can be fun, comics may be a valuable teaching tool that will keep a child reading into their teens and adulthood. If that happens, that child may be buying some of those higher quality comics he couldn't afford so many years ago.