the comic book industry


Econlog asks: why are American comics dominated by the super hero genre? Is it simply path dependence from an era when super heroes were popular? I don’t have the definitive answer, but here is some data:

1. Comic books in other countries focus on humor (Condorito/Latin America or Asterix in Europe) or historical drama (e.g., the Lone Wolf and Cub series in Japan).

2. Before the 1950s, there actually was much wider variety. It was not uncommon for kids to read comics about the wild west, war, romance, or crime. Some people claim that the McCarthy era Comics Code Authority encouraged “safe” genres like super heros, rather than political or socially charged genres like war comics or romances.

3. Throughout the post-war era, humor magazines - such as Mad - have been hugely popular and they are essentially comic books. Also, newspapers comics, such as the Far Side are routinely anthologized as larger comic books. These are rarely super hero books and they are even best sellers.

4. Since about 1990, there is a fairly serious genre of high art comics in America, such as Maus or Cerebus. Small market segment, but easily accesible to most people in cities or college towns. Some, like The Watchmen, are super hero, but most aren’t. [You ask, what is my favorite? Alex Robinson’s romantic comedy, Box Office Poison.]

What I gather from this evidence is that super hero dominance is partly a function of definition. If you expanded beyond “picture books sold at the supermarket,” you see that super hero books aren’t quite as dominant, even among youngsters. As you look over the years, you suspect that there’s a natural match between super hero stories, boys, and the visual medium of comic books, but you also realize that many other genres, especially humor and romance, have done very well. It’s also no secret in the comic industry that super hero books, while still the bulk of what’s bought by young American boys, are a declining genre. I’ll chalk this one up to historical contingency, not path dependency.

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the comic book industry