Are Comic Books Dying as a Hobby?
Updated: May 19
Comics prices are at all-time highs; movies starring your favorite superheroes are breaking all sorts of box office records. This may lead you to ask; why am I asking this question? Well, it's simple, new comic book sales are at all-time lows. The demographics for the hobby (in many forms) are not favorable. Japanese manga is becoming more popular than comic books in regards to sales (this previous April, manga was in the top 10 of all graphic novel sales). So does this mean that comics themselves will die?
This is a question that has been asked for as long as I have been collecting comics (over 20 years). While the characters are extremely popular, and the people who buy comic books are a dedicated bunch; the hobby itself is still niche. Sales are nothing to write home about (consistently on the decline). The movies might be doing great, but no one cares anything about the stories they are adapted from.
Why did this happen? Well, there are several factors to consider. The first one to look at is demographics. More often, comic collectors and readers are older (30+), and many fear as they pass on, that the hobby will become more and more niche and eventually die. After all, who will buy comics if all of the buyers are gone and a younger generation hasn't joined the hobby? Who will pay 3.8 million dollars for Action Comics #1 if the next generation of collectors is more concerned with Pokémon? These are all sensible questions.
By contrast, manga attracts a much younger reader (many of them target the teenage reader). This is important because it helps build new readers at a young age and helps make lifelong fans. Comics are not able to do this. Again, we have to ask why? What happened to comics that made them unappealing to younger readers? That is a million-dollar question, that has many different answers. I prefer not to specifically answer that question but will say that manga features younger characters with stories that younger readers can relate to (yes, I read manga as well). Does that mean that comics don't do this? Possibly. Or maybe they aren't doing it well.
We also need to consider that rise in popularity of video games and other media have taken the attention of potential new comic book readers. This leads some to believe, that the simple stories of superheroes aren't as fun when you're reading about it, but rather more fun to play in video games (superhero games are very popular). I'm not arguing here. We love swinging through the New York City skyline as Spider-Man on our PS4. I think we all agree, superheroes will always be popular, but the real question is, will they be popular in print format?
Now if comics aren't able to bring in younger readers does that mean that the entire hobby is doomed (collecting, reading, etc)? It's quite possible, but no one knows for sure. I will use myself as an example in this. When I was a kid, I watched a few Batman movies and the Spider-Man Animated Series and that led me to pick up my first comic book from the newsstands. This led me to a lifelong love of comic books that grew from reading to collecting and eventually selling (I'm still a very avid reader and collector). This shows that there needs to be a spark within someone, and if the movies aren't doing it for the current generation, it is hard to say what will.
This leads us to the next problem in the comic book hobby that it went through in the 1990s and is also experiencing today; greed. Comic books have become something to invest in, rather than appreciate as a medium. Many people who are buying comics to invest in, never read them when they were kids. To them, it is a monetary possession, rather than a fun item they enjoyed when they were children. That, as I outlined in my previous article about 90s comics, can lead to a massive problem with the industry as a whole.
I'll use a personal experience of this as an example. I was negotiating with a comic book reseller who wanted to buy some comics from me at a local convention, and we were only a few dollars apart on our deal. As a joke to myself, I told him that I would give him the book for his price, but he has to promise to read it (it wasn't extremely expensive so reading it was feasible). He would then allude to how he doesn't read comics but reads "books". This lead me to ask him if he ever read comic books, and he reluctantly told me how he did not, and they were merely an investment.
The final argument to make is that all print media is doing badly, and maybe comics would benefit from just going over to the digital format (which many readers have adapted to). This would work, but it would hurt the hobby as a whole. If there are no printed comics, then what will collectors buy? Will it make their old printed comics worth intrinsically less? Those are important questions, but first, we need to consider the following: Manga is a printed medium and still sells well as is (there are some digital readers as well). In fact, in Japan, more paper is used to print manga than toilet paper. To many fans, the feel of holding a book is hard to match, and it's understandable (I feel the same).
These stories are all an interesting way to help readers understand how comic books might be facing some rocky times ahead. But let's ask the same question again. Are comics going to die? Maybe. I know we didn't quite answer the question, because in the end we never know how the future changes. Comic book companies may find their footing and attract a younger reader who becomes lifelong readers or collectors, but this is hard to say for sure. The only thing we know for sure is that manga is popular, while comic books are not.