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(Not so) Funny Business

While companies not specifically associated with kids--Nike, Mcdonald's, etc.--make millions off them, the industry that practically created the children's market is no longer reaching it. DOUGLAS WOLK looks at children's comics.

Kidscreen cover Left: The cover of Kidscreen: Reaching Children Through Entertainment, one of several trade magazines devoted to helping marketers reach the children's market. The cover of this January 1997 issue, illustrates--with Batman and Superman brags about their TV shows/movies/action figures/amusement parts--how the focus on kid's comics has shifted to merchandising deals.



Comics are traditionally thought of as being mostly bought by or for young kids, particularly ages 3-11. But it's no secret that the comics-for-kids market is in the toilet right now. While the big comic publishers, DC and Marvel, have concentrated on creating and selling comics for older readers, their original core constituency has almost entirely fallen away. It's also no secret that the comics market in general is in disastrous shape at the moment: when the speculative boom of the late '80s and early '90s collapsed, so did the industry. Marvel, purchased by cosmetics magnate Ron Perelman, saw its stock plummet to a tiny fraction of its IPO price, and recently filed for bankruptcy; distributor after distributor is dying as a result of exclusive deals the big companies made; and a lot of small comics stores are either gone or coughing up blood.

Out of a mixture of desperation and common sense, comic-book publishers are trying to market their wares to younger readers again. But it's not easy. "It's just dreadful," says Heidi MacDonald, the comics editor of Disney Adventures magazine and one of the founders of Friends Of Lulu (a women-in-comics advocacy group). "The newsstand comics were traditionally sold to kids, but the newsstand system has broken down since the beginning of the direct sales market"--the system, founded in the '70s, that sells new comics on a heavily discounted, nonreturnable basis to specialty stores, and is now almost entirely controlled by a single distribution company. "I've spoken to a lot of retailers. On a recent trip to California, I spoke to two of the most prominent comics shop owners, and both of them said that their percentage of children [customers] was negligible, and that they don't want to sell comics to children."

The result is that kids can't find comics aimed at them, and don't really care, anyway--and that means that they probably won't get into the habit of buying more (and more profitable) comics later in life. "I was recently given access to some focus-group testing of kids, and I was shocked," MacDonald says. "Out of fifty kids, only two bought Marvel or DC comics. All the kids said they loved comics, but they were talking about newspaper strips for the 7-11 age range, which you'd think would be the core comics reading age. What they're really into is Goosebumps books. I've read them, and I don't think they're much better than the average kids' comic of twenty years ago. But right now, comics are so badly written that they can't even compete with a Goosebumps book."

In fact, there aren't many comics left that even can compete with Goosebumps. Super Friends is gone, Casper the Friendly Ghost is gone, Spidey Super Stories is gone, Richie Rich is gone, Sugar & Spike is gone, DC's line of digest-sized comics is gone. Virtually no mainstream superhero comics have self-contained stories in any issue. The kids' horror anthology comics of the past are all history; House Of Secrets is a mature-readers series with nothing but its title in common with the '70s version. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories is now a $6.95 squarebound magazine aimed at older, hard-core Disney collectors.

The one line of comics that kids do seem to pick up is Archie. "Archie's sales on the newsstand are a lot higher than Marvel or DC," MacDonald said. "[Through] direct sales, Archie sells 10,000 copies tops, but their circulation on the newsstand is closer to 6 figures. They're sold everywhere--airports, bus stops, auto rest stops on the Jersey turnpike."

The rest of the comics business, though, is out of luck, and prompted by its recent downturns, it's come to the realization that it needs to recapture the audience that once fueled it. Marvel recently hired a vice president in charge of marketing to children (she didn't return Stay Free!'s phone calls). And everyone's trying to figure out what makes kids buy comics--and parents buy comics for their kids--at a time when newsstand distribution is pretty much financial suicide and no self-respecting parent will take a child to most comics specialty stores.

"We're just beginning to market," DC's senior vice president of advertising and promotion, Bruce Ehrlich, says. "We're trying to motivate major retailers like Toys `R' Us and the mass merchandisers--wherever kids congregate--to start buying comics from us and featuring them. Retail-wise, they make a lot of sense, because they take up very little room and the profits on them are quite good. We're also starting to do programs in schools where we target school organizations to try to convince them, `hey, this is a great way to get kids to read.'

"That's where we're looking to embark. We would love to create a line of comics that are used in the schools that have our characters in adventures with a science background that teach and `edutain'--we're talking to groups like Lifetime Learning Systems, Scholastic, and other companies. We're just beginning working all that out right now."

The first part of the plan involves actually starting to publish comics for kids. The Batman & Robin Adventures--self-contained stories written and drawn in the style of the TV cartoon--were successful enough that they've been joined by a Superman Adventures comic and the new Adventures in the DC Universe, both in the same style. And, in an attempt to give kids something they can identify with, a couple of recent series have teenage or younger lead characters, particularly the critical favorite Impulse and--prepare yourself--Superboy and the Ravers. DC parent company Time-Warner's alliance with Ted Turner, who owns Hanna-Barbera, also means that there will be Flintstones and Scooby-Doo comics by this summer (in addition to the unreadable Looney Tunes and Pinky & the Brain series).

Beyond that, Ehrlich says, "there will be incentives, and promotional hooks as well--because I own the rights and I'm the licensor, maybe we can do `buy 2, get a Superman tattoo.' Something that will motivate kids in the traditional promotional sense. We have to produce the right material, make it cost-accurate, I call it.... In the early stages, we're going to make it a buck and a half, a buck-75, which is very traditional."

Marvel has already gone that one better, by introducing a line of 99-cent comics with self-contained stories, printed on the crappy newsprint that was the industry's standard before collectors became its predominant force. (One of them, Untold Tales Of Spider-Man, is actually pretty good.) Since newsstands tend to point and giggle at anything with a cover price of a dollar, most of them have separate newsstand editions as "twofers," with issues of two different series bound together back-to-back for two dollars.

But all the cheap pricing and promotional gimmicks in the world won't get kids to buy comics that aren't to their taste. "I work for a magazine that's published by a very large company," MacDonald says, "and we do a lot of focus group testing, because I don't know, I'm not a kid."

She does study the results of Disney's testing, though. "Kids are, until about the age of 11, very literal--they don't get irony at all. They take anything that's a little satirical as threatening--they don't get that next level of meaning. Then at 11 or 12, they break away--that's when they get into Mad." [Mad itself is getting an overhaul this spring to appeal to a new generation of readers--which, judging from advance photocopies I've seen, should bring it into roughly the early '60s, humor-wise.] "We did a takeoff of Jurassic Park when it came out, and kids just didn't like it--they were scared and threatened 'cause it was making fun of it. That's one of the main things in dealing with children: they're very... childlike! If you're even sometimes criticizing something, they take it very personally, because they don't know that that's just one person's opinion. God forbid we make fun of the Spice Girls! Or Marilyn Manson!"