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World Comics:

A Panorama

Venice International Airport:
A sharply-dressed businessman in his fifties is picking up some essential reading material for his flight - a quality broadsheet newspaper, the latest issue of Fortune, The Economist and a copy of Tex, the world’s best-selling cowboy comic. What better way to wind down from all that high finance and wheeler-dealing than to travel back to the Wild West?

The heart of Paris:
Teenage kids flock to the Tonkam store to snap up the coolest comics and animation videos from Japan. Not for then Asterix and Tintin, their parents’ favourites; they prefer Dragon Ball Z, Angel and Sailor Moon. They’ll happily buy the original untranslated imports, and then alongside the pictures they use the ‘rubi’ or pronunciation keys next to all the difficult ‘kanji’ characters to decipher the stories, learning Japanese in the process.

South Africa:
The townships outside Johannesburg. The Storyteller Group distribute their free sponsored educational comics on everything from AIDS prevention to guides to investigating and reconciling wrongs perpetrated under apartheid, and adaptations of South Africa folklore, reclaiming their people’s legends forgotten by a generation.

Sotheby’s auction house, New York:
Some of the rarest American comic books come under the hammer and well-heeled dealers and connoisseurs send prices soaring to new records. What once cost a mere ten cents back in the thirties and forties can top $50,000 or more today. Like fine antiques, condition is everything and some of these readers will actually never read their investments, double-bagging and slabbing them in Mylar plastic and stashing them in safe deposit box.

From just these examples, it should be clear that it is hard to generalise about the typical comic reader. The audiences for comics around the world are as diverse as their formats, contents and inventions. Over the years, moral guardians and cultural elitists commonly dismissed comics as, at best, escapist trash for the young and poorly educated or, at worst, as dangerously subversive primers for juvenile delinquents and sexual deviants. Their tarnished reputation in Europe and America, due especially to the unbridled American horror and crime comic books of the late forties and early fifties, persists. A French survey from the nineties found that half of those who have never read comics still think that they have a corrupting influence.

Teachers and librarians had been among the campaigners against comics, so there is some irony in the fact that today some of them keenly endorse them as a way to stimulate youngsters who have given up books for videos and computer games and to get them to read at least something. Historically comics were invented by a boarding school teacher, one Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) in Geneva, Switzerland. The first comic readers of his L’Histoire de M. Vieux-Bois (translated as The Adventuresof Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck) were Töpffer’s own young students, and the first comic fan was none other than German genius Goethe, whose enthusiastic reaction spurred Töpffer to create further ‘histories en estampes’, translated and imitated across Europe and in America.

From Töpffer’s lead, comics as a truly mass medium - and an international one aggressively exported by syndicates - blossomed in the Sunday colour supplements which came free with American big-city newspapers from the 1890s. The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, Buster Brown and more proved to be hugely successful circulation boosters, with broad appeal to immigrant urban populations, often still grasping the English language. The Sunday ‘funnies’, as they were affectionately called, are still much loved today in the States. A 1993 Belden Study, commissioned by Metropolitan Sunday Newspapers, found that 86,323,000 adults - roughly a third of the population - had read the comic strip section in the previous four weeks. Three quarters of these said that reading comics is a good way to start people reading the newspaper, and 87% agreed that comics can help children to read. Of children aged 8 to 17, 75% of boys and 71% of girls had read the Sunday comics in the last four weeks.

As a mass medium and entertainment industry, the American comic book has not weathered nearly so well. During and after World War II, circulations could top one million. The seminal crime title - Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay - claimed 6 million readers (allowing for copies passed along). A demographic survey by Edward Feder of the U.C. Berkley Bureau of Public Administration in the late forties, based on users of the San Joaquin County Library, found that in the 8 to 14 age range, 96.5% of boys and 94.7% of girls read comic books. Of adults aged 21 to 30, 42.9% of men and 51.0% of women read comic books. From the fifties, more and more readers switched over to television and gave up buying comic books from newsstands and drugstores. This decline seemed unstoppable and by the early seventies some were forecasting the death of the comic book.

It was only saved by selling comics on a ‘firm sale’ basis, with no risk of unsold, unresellable copies being returned, supplying them instead to specialist distributors who serviced a growing network of comic book shops. This meant catering to the tastes of the committed fan and collector, typically a young male with a preference for superheroes. A quarter of a century on, after booms and busts fueled by speculation and greed, only a handful of the best-selling American comic books approach 100,000 copies a month. Some media events can still create an occasional best-seller, notably the (short-term) death of Superman or the Hollywood blockbusters. But from their peak, less than half of the stores remain, ordering from only one surviving major distributor.

Comics should be for everybody and around the world they are. A wide range of subjects for both sexes and all age group has proved to be a key to Japan’s extraordinary manga market - one of the two biggest in the world. Out of the total volume of sales of all books and magazines surveyed in March 1996, a staggering 40% were manga - representing $6-7 billion, an annual expenditure of over $50 for every person in Japan. Among the 265 different manga magazines regularly published in 1995, most of them cheaply priced with 200 to 1,000 pages each and circulations from a few thousand a month to over six million a week, there were 23 for boys, 45 for girls, 37 for men and 52 for women. There are whole manga titles devoted to business, tips on childcare, Japan’s slot-machine craze of "pachinko", even three on golf, and this does not include the non-manga general magazines which now include comic stories. Reacting to demographic shifts in the ageing population, publishers are preparing for a growing sector in "silver" manga for the over-fifties. Throughout Japan’s current recession, manga have maintained their popularity and been successfully exported across Asia and into Europe and the States.

The other huge consumer of comics is Mexico. While more recent figures are hard to come by, in the late seventies comics were the country’s second leading mass medium after radio, with television still a distant third. Some 26 firms published low-priced comic books with monthly print runs ranging from 280,000 to 8.4 million copies. These figures fail to show the numbers of readers of each copy reached, as it was passed along to family and friends, sold second-hand, rented out or provided in barber
shops or at juice stalls. In addition they were read out loud and performed in some towns with literacy problems.

Relatively high illiteracy levels can only partly account for Mexicans’ passion for comics. For example, masked wrestling heroes like El Santo and SuperBario have become the people’s champions, played by real-life prizefighters. Comics are populist, disposable and unpretentious, enjoyed by Mexicans of all ages and walks of life.

In contrast, following the almost complete disappearance of cheaper band dessinée (BD) magazines, the Francophone market has become focused on the higher priced hardback album format, a gift book for children or an art book for adults. A 1994 survey by the Angoulême International Comics Festival found that the typical French BD reader is a young man, aged between 15 to 34, educated, city-dwelling, who buys less than 10 albums a year but reads more than 4 every month - evidently borrowing them from friends. But comics are read by all ages in France. Not surprisingly, it was found that nearly all youngsters aged 8 to 14 - around 92% - read comics and while the percentages drop as the age groups get older, as many as 38% of 35-49 year olds read BD albums. Interestingly, 60% of the largest consumers of ‘proper’ books - those who buy 25 or more a year - were also BD readers.

Elsewhere in Europe, readers tend to choose less luxurious formats than the French and Belgians. The Dutch, Flemish and Germans, for example, prefer softcover albums, sold in huge numbers from newspaper kiosks. Half a million Italians - young and old - enjoy heroes like the cowboy Tex and supernatural investigator Dylan Dog in complete 100-page paperbacks-size fumetti, while the Italian Mickey Mouse comic - Topolino - sells over 400,000 copies. In Scandinavia, Disney comics, especially the ducks of Carl Barks can sell 300,000 copies to a population of only 5 million. Then there are the peculiar local successes that often fail to cross over to other countries, such as Suske en Wiske albums by Willy Vandersteen, the Breughel of comics, which have sold over 5 million copies in Flemish, or the rude, crude Viz, which once topped 1.5 million readers in Britain, making it the second biggest selling periodical in the country.

So next time you pick up a comic to read, pause for a moment and listen. All across the planet, millions are doing just the same as you, reading tebeos in Spain, quadrinhos or gibis in Brazil, beeldverhaalen in The Netherlands, lianhuanhua in China, manga and gekiga in Japan, komiks in the Philippines and Indonesia, historietas in Argentina, sarja in Finland, fumetti in Italy, banda desenhada in Portugal, benzii desenate in Romania. In India people can follow the whole Mahabharata adapted in Classic Illustrated style. In Egypt, Mickey Mouse and Beryl the Peril jostle the comics’ pages alongside new homegrown children’s favourites. The collapse of Soviet power has finally ushered in a struggling but distinct comics renaissance in Russia. The medium is everywhere.

Beyond nation states, the internet is our new shared global territory and comics are evolving new paperless formats. Comics creators anywhere in the world are designing their work online and reaching consumers directly, freed from almost all of the middlemen - the publishers, printers, distributors, retailers and perhaps the censors. The potential readership for comics within this new virtual environment is as limitless as the millions of computer users worldwide. Nokia have been supporting wacky minimalist text-message comics circulated via mobile phones, while in Japan Adobe’s new electronic book player is being promoted as a new way to read full-colour manga. It seems safe to say that, as long as we humans posses that primal appetite for visual stories about our real and imagined selves, the world will be reading comics, or whatever comics continue to evolve into.

Posted: September 28, 2008

This article was originally published in the Pro Helvetia magazine Passages in Switzerland in 1999 and revised and updated for the web comics magazine Borderline #2 in September 2001.

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