The Kid Connection
Important audience segment too often forgotten


This originally ran in Joe's "Big Picture" column in Comics & Games Retailer
magazine in June 2002.


The sign on the door of the comic book store read "No one under the age of 18 admitted without parent." It wasn't that the retailer was a smut peddler in a seedy part of town. Far from that, actually. In his off-hours, he regularly volunteered with youth programs. He didn't even carry many titles from the "adults-only" listings, but he was uncomfortable with the constant increase of mature content in previously all-ages comics. To stave off the potential problems in selling comics to kids that would occasionally return with belligerent and potentially litigious parents, he simply decided the only way to run his business was to treat his store like a theater showing nothing but R-rated movies. 

That was more than five years ago. Since then, it seems to me, comic book retailers have become too complacent with what we're offered from publishers. New versions of previously all-ages characters continue to sell to our ever-older clientele. What was once considered "mature readers" fare because of what happened off-panel now seems to be readily accepted as general audience fare, with little left to the imagination.

This isn't a screed against today's comics because, as a reader and retailer, I still love many current comics. Rest assured I know the demographics and tastes of our core audience are always evolving. The market is graying, most notably among the retailer base and our die-hard readers. Many current best-sellers are merely old concepts in new packages. The 20-year demographic cycle has brought forth nostalgia for material of the late '70s and early '80s. There's nothing innately wrong with that---as long as we recognize it as a short-term trend and ride it carefully.

The summer of 2002 has seen great sales but there are still definite holes in our market. And there's not enough magic Spackle in the comics' biz to patch those holes. Our recent media and promotional successes may have provided positive jolts for our business, but sustaining those increases in awareness and dollars is proving to be quite tricky.

Old news I know, but the Spider-Man movie performed phenomenally, giving many retailers a strong start to the summer. Even though that flick was targeted for the 13 and older crowd--- many retailers still saw a steady stream of kids 12 and under coming into our stores. Many were with their parents, many came in on their own, and all were looking for a way to get in on the cool factor that the Spidey movie ignited.

That's where we were caught fairly unprepared. For kids (and parents buying for kids) looking to get in on super-hero action, there just hasn't been a lot of material that kids are attracted to and that their parents still find age-appropriate. The titles that won this summer because they fit those criteria are DC's "Justice League Adventures", "Batman: Gotham Adventures" and Marvel's "Spider-Girl" and the "Giant-Size Spider-Man" mini trade paperback. At Flying Colors, we sold hundreds of back issues of "Spider-Man Adventures" and "Spidey Super-Stories"(most at less than current new comic prices) trying to fill the void. That was a stop-gap measure at best since back-issues are not always easy to replenish. 

In selling to the under-12 category, it's crucial to appeal to the parents first. Parents can strongly influence younger kids when it comes to comics---and when they do--- our chances for future long-term readers go up exponentially.

A primary answer continues to be Archie Comics, the market's leading reader-breeder, especially for appealing to younger girls. Archie was the surprise hit of FCBD here. By the time the summer 2002 came to a close, our Archie racks were so depleted, even with solid ordering and mostly futile attempts at re-ordering, I went the extra mile and ordered direct from Archie Comics for a complete restock. One thing about Archie Comics that is so unique in this market---sales are not time-sensitive, Archies actually seem to be time-resistant.

With many retailers shooting for 90% first-week sell-through on mainstream super-hero comics, Archies buck that ugly trend and sell continuously for months, not just days. The same is also true with DC's Adventures and Cartoon Network lines and Bongo's Simpsons-related comics. We sell a lot of "Bone" and "Usagi Yojimbo" trade paperbacks into local elementary and middle school libraries which leads us to sales later, but the harsh reality is that many parents want four-color comics when buying for their kids.

Archie and DC could use some company to give parents more choices for their kids. Knowing that it's an expensive market to enter, I'd like to see some timeless favorites return to revitalize the market for younger comics' readers. Here's a short wish list:

Disney Comics. Parents ask all the time about Disney comics, not only Donald, Mickey and Scrooge related, but also comics from Disney animated series of the last decade. The Disney duck comics are still some of the best selling periodicals of any kind in Europe and Scandinavia. But once Gladstone dropped the domestic Disney license several years ago, no publisher has been able or willing to strike a deal with Disney to give it another go in this country.

Little Lulu.The Holy Grail of kids comics for me (and many other retailers) is "Marge's Little Lulu." Many of the stories are timeless which is critical for appealing to parents and kids simultaneously. The stories are also often inventive, intelligent, very funny and great for reading aloud. I'd love to see a program that would offer an occasional Lulu comic sampler that would be supplemented with an affordable ($20 or less) trade paperback program.

In addition to the return of old favorites, I wish TV companies like Nickelodeon, Saban and even Children's Television Workshop would get interested in the comics' biz.

The major problem with kids' comics has been the lack of available retail venues and the low profit potential of the traditional comic book format. The answer lies in a hybrid format that would include comics' stories with some coloring pages, puzzles and activities packaged in cheaper trade paperbacks. I've got to believe these would sell, not only in more progressive comic book stores, but also in places like Wal-Mart, Target and media stores like Blockbuster, Media Play and Suncoast. The other option, especially with classic reprint titles, would be a series of trade paperbacks that could be "gang-printed" for many foreign markets at the same time they're produced for English-speaking countries. Fantagraphics has done this successfully with its Prince Valiant series of graphic albums, as an example.

Look, I know this is a tough sell. Many in this business simply don't care to make the investment to make the kids' market stronger. It's easier to preach to the choir instead of converting a new audience, including kids. Rather than constantly selling ever more of the same stuff to a select few I believe it's good business to be accessible to the widest potential audience.

We seemed to go from the wide open "Comics aren't just for kids anymore"to an almost closed-door policy of "Comics aren't for kids---period."If we believe in a future with comics for everyone, now's the time to re-think that strategy.

(Joe Field runs Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd, Concord CA 94518. He can be e-mailed at

Last updated: 07-Aug-2005 11:26 AM  
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