Written By: Zach Champ,
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THE UNIVERSAL APPEAL & POPULARITY OF COMIC BOOKS
No matter what neighborhood or city you grew up in, no matter whether you were rich or poor, kids from all over the world love superheroes, cartoons, and comics!
The community of comic book fans around the world and in America is a growing and increasingly diverse and welcoming crowd.
Traditionally the demographic focus of comic book publishers has been young, adolescent, primarily white males. However, these days that is no longer the case as publishers are beginning to reflect the changes that have occurred in society and culture over the past few decades.
In today’s comics, the most popular superheroes are more likely to be female and Black or Hispanic.
In 2017 a panel presentation based on a University study found that 63% of comics and graphic novels were purchased by men, whereas 37% were purchased by women (Alverson, 2017). The study also revealed that 57% of comics and graphic novels were bought by individuals aged 13–29 years-old (Alverson, 2017).
It is predicted that the percentage of women that buy comics and graphic novels will increase over the next few years as publishers cater to these audiences with characters and themes relevant to these groups.
These changes reflect how nerd and geek culture has gone mainstream.
Today there is widespread recognition and popularity with the Marvel and D.C franchises. Superheroes that everyone can recognize today used to be only niche characters that you would know about if you were a die-hard comic book aficionado.
Let’s be honest- no one would recognize characters like Ant-Man or Aqua Man if these weren’t franchises produced into big-budget Hollywood films.
While it’s true that the adaptation of these comics into box office flicks partially explains the rise in popularity of superheroes in popular culture, there is still something enchanting that gravitates us towards these characters and stories.
The Mono-Myth and Heroes Journey
In 1949, the American comparative religion & mythology professor, Joseph Campbell, published his famous and seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The book would become widely popular in academia and would even go on to influence individuals like the future Director of the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas.
In his book, Joseph Campbell argued that underlying the majority of the world’s greatest myths, legends, and folk stories was the same essential drama that he referred to as the monomyth.
In Campbell’s explanation, the mono-myth also called the “Hero’s Journey” or “Heroes Cycle”, refers to a series of steps representing the archetypal saga all heroes must undertake. Campbell was influenced by the psychological principles of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and made references and comparisons to their theories throughout his writing.
Joseph Campbell described the Heroes Cycle as consisting of 17 successive stages broken into 3 acts or broad categories.
These 3 acts are in order: The Departure, The Initiation, and The Return
During the first act of a mono-myth, the hero or heroine typically receives a Call To Adventure, which they may or not Refuse. They then will usually receive further Supernatural or Technological Aid that will allow them to Cross a Threshold that they previously were unable to. While confronting this threshold, they will end up in the proverbial Belly of the Whale scenario- an uncomfortable circumstance that they must recover from somehow.
During the second act of the mono-myth, known as The Initiation, the hero or heroine will be further tested with a Series of Trials, often in a series of three successive tasks or challenges, before they meet with a Goddess or Wise-Woman that will give the hero or heroine items or knowledge they need to complete their quest. Sometimes during the second act (but not always), there is a further Woman as Temptress plot element where the male hero will be seduced and lured away from his quest by a mistress.
The hero/heroine must then progress in their journey to the next stage, the Atonement with the Father/Abyss. During this critical stage, the hero or heroine must face the ultimate authority in their life which is generally presented as a masculine or father-like figure. According to Campbell, facing the father pushes the hero into a psychological conflict where they must reconcile the competing forces of the id and ego.
When the hero/heroine is able to balance the turbulent forces of the id and ego, they are able to emerge with a newly developed consciousness. This consciousness is the super-ego and represents the enlightened and self-aware state of mind that allows an individual to critically analyze and understand their actions and motives. An individual who has control of the superego is the transcended, righteous and morally just hero/heroine.
At this point, the hero/heroine has reached the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, the Apotheosis, or climax.
Now that the hero has achieved the goal of their quest, they receive the Ultimate Boon, the transcendent reward of their efforts. Generally, the hero or heroine obtains a ‘god-like’ state or status, or they receive immortality, finally conquering death. At this point the mono-myth transitions into its final third act The Return.
In the third act, the hero/heroine having obtained a higher level of being may sometimes find themselves at peace. They may characteristically refuse to return back home where their journey began. This is known as the Refusal of the Return. At other times, the hero/heroine while finally obtaining The Ultimate Boon will realize that it is guarded or that taking it into their possession is risky. This will result in a Magic Flight where the hero/heroine must escape and flee back to their starting point.
Sometimes the hero or heroine will receive a Rescue from Without where they receive assistance from a fellow ally or a guide to help them get back on track with their quest and return home to their starting point. As the hero/heroine returns home from their journey, finally having completed their quest, they must encounter The Crossing of the Return Threshold. Now that the hero/heroine has obtained enlightenment, they must learn how to take their experiences and the wisdom gained from them and apply it to everyday life.
It is here that the hero/heroine becomes the Master of Two Worlds having a transcendental understanding of both life’s spiritual nature but also its mundane and material nature. The hero/heroine now obtains the Freedom to Live, no longer fearing the unknown and death.
The Mono-Myth and Comic-Book Superheroes
We are all familiar with the drama and the sagas of legendary characters like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and their respective alter-egos.
These characters resonate with us- we look up to them and pretend to be them as kids; we collect toys and purchase all types of merchandise with their likeness. We constantly make reference to them in our daily lives, and probably will until we are old and have children or grandchildren of our own.
It should come to no surprise that these same modern-day superheroes have stories that easily follow the pattern and typical phases of the Hero’s Journey and mono-myth.
Consider for instance the plot behind the widely popular and recognized Iron Man franchise created by the former great comic book legend Stan Lee.
In both the comics and films Tony Stark is an arrogant, genius, ultra-rich billionaire who profits off of the weapons and arms manufacturing industry. While visiting a foreign country, he is attacked and abducted by terrorists and forced to live in captivity. Eventually, he concocts an escape plan by building an invincible iron suit which allows him to fight his captors and free himself. Once free and back home he goes on to develop a more advanced super-suit that allows him to fight enemies and combat evil, eventually becoming the illustrious Iron Man!
During the course of the series, Tony Stark faces several ordeals that force him to better himself physically, mentally, and spiritually. These ordeals are the same archetypal problems faced by history’s mythic and legendary heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Beowulf, King Arthur, and so on.
Through these challenges, Tony Stark eventually becomes not just a superhero, but a better person- the Uberman of the philosophical traditions of great academics like Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Mono-Myth in Manga & Anime
The mono-myth’s various themes can also be found represented in the stories of various popular Japanese manga and anime franchises like Naruto, Bleach, and mature series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop.
Dragon Ball Z is a critically acclaimed and award-winning Japanese manga and anime series created by Akira Toriyama that premiered in 1989.
The story follows the adventures and sagas of the main character and hero, Goku, who is a Saiyan, a race of super-powered humans. The series starts with Goku being a young kid, learning martial arts and developing his skills and powers. He is led by a sensei called Master Roshi who puts him through a rigorous training regimen. As Goku grows up and matures, he and his friends go through several adventures fighting various bad guys and villains, often who are super-powered and alien themselves.
Throughout the series, Goku and his team known as the ‘Z Fighters’ have to travel around the Universe collecting the mysterious artifacts called Dragon Balls. Individuals who can find all of the Dragon Balls are able to summon a giant dragon named Shenron that can grant wishes. The story focuses on Goku’s efforts to collect the Dragon Balls and defend Earth from the different villains intent on causing trouble. In the series Goku dies several times, only to be successfully brought back to life through the use of the Dragon Balls.
Dragon Ball Z, just like Iron Man, shows us the similar struggles and challenges that all heroes must face as they master their powers and confront evil. Even though Dragon Ball Z is a Japanese cartoon, American audiences and youth were still willing to eagerly embrace this classic.
Today Goku is as popular and recognizable a character as Batman or Superman. This just goes to show how the mono-myth is an excellent concept for helping us explore and understand the universality of our common creative human heritage.
Today’s comic book superheroes are simply the legendary gods and goddesses of ancient history’s past myths!
COMIC BOOKS, LANGUAGE, AND LITERACY
Comic books have been shown to help improve the literacy rates of different cohorts of children in various academic and comparative studies It has been shown that comic books can help not only just children learning English as their first language, but that it can also help students learning English as a second language (ESL) who are transitioning from other countries & cultures.(Baker, 2011).
The same principle holds true in the reverse for older students who are learning foreign languages… comics can be a great tool to help these students master fluency for those languages!
It’s no surprise that comic books help engage children and young adults with literature and reading.
Comics today often have amazing story-telling with deep and fantastic plots that really captivate and entrance audiences. As a result, comics are great at helping children develop what is called “visual literacy”, the ability to visually process and comprehend the meaning of symbols and pictorial representations, and derive communicated ideas from these depictions (Tiemensma, 2009).
Visual Literacy is a core competence in developing reading comprehension in children. Children will often master visual literacy before they master reading books. Visual Literacy is often a stepping stone for helping students learn because it provides an additional context to written speech that lets children figure out the meaning of the written text.
Because comics are such great examples of visual story-telling they are often adapted into big-budget Hollywood movies, quickly becoming classics of popular culture and entertainment. Yet, comics help children with literacy where movies can’t through the necessity of reading captions, speech bubbles, and text effects that reinforce critical reading and comprehension skills.
Children can learn about the common narrative structures of story-telling through reading comics and graphic novels (Baker, 2011).
Comics are referred to as a form of ‘sequential art’ meaning that images are used in a consecutive and congruent manner to help visually tell a story (Tiemensma, 2009).
Sequential art requires that readers interpret images and symbols while using that knowledge to make meaning from the page and written text, even if they do not have fully developed reading comprehension skills (Tiemensma, 2009).
With sequential art, kids can gain a grasp of complex narratives and develop their visual and reading comprehension.
Reading comics can act as a gateway for getting children to read more dense and sophisticated works of literature. Often at times, many graphic novels themselves are sophisticated works of art and literature that allow children to imagine powerful dramatic scenarios and learn important moral and ethical lessons.
Mature graphic novels like V for Vendetta and Watchmen by the famous comic book legend Alan Moore can help high-school students comprehend complex political and social themes such as authoritarianism and civil rights.
Graphic novels like the award-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman can help adolescents grapple with horrific historical events like the Holocaust.
GAMES TEACH AND HELP US GROW
Another big feature of the typical local neighborhood comic book shop is the rows and rows of fantasy-based and science fiction themed card and board games available.
As a kid in elementary and middle school, I would spend countless hours before, during, and after school, playing the latest games that were all the craze. I fondly remember growing up playing trading card games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Nothing was more exciting as a kid than getting a booster pack of Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and opening them up to reveal what was inside. Finding rare holographic foil cards was like winning the lottery, and nothing felt better than showing off my coolest and rarest cards to fellow friends at school.
Games and play are great experiential learning opportunities for children, providing them with fun and engaging real-life scenarios to gather knowledge and expertise.
Trading card games and board games can help developing children learn and master mathematical competencies such as number recognition, number sequencing, counting, ordinality, relative size, addition and subtraction, and other key important math skills (Vogt & Others, 2018). It has been shown that children who master these concepts at an early age are more likely to perform later in middle-school and high-school math courses.
Collectible card games like Pokemon by their very design can help kids become more analytical and reasoned thinkers by forcing kids to utilize ‘systematic analysis’ to determine which cards to collect, trade, and use in their decks (Vasquez, 2003). Kids have to assess the value of cards and make comparative decisions based on their understanding of the value of the cards. This is done by interacting, playing, and talking with other kids. Practicing skills like this can be the foundation for teaching kids how to develop critical opinions about topics through experience and observation.
Everyone knows kids need to be able to connect and play with others that share the same hobbies as them… and for good reason!
Many of the popular trading card, role-playing, and board games that are available today are excellent at helping both children (and adults) exercise not just strategy and decision-making skills but also teamwork and social skills.
Playing games has also been shown to provide significant psychological and emotional health effects for children, including reducing stress, helping improve self-expression and self-identity, and reinforcing positive emotional development (Toy, 2006).
Card games and board games are great extracurricular activities because they can help children gain new skills, become more self-confident, become thoughtful communicators, become more analytical and critical thinkers, and allows them to have safe and healthy outlets for relaxing and reducing stress (Toy, 2006).
THE DECLINE OF COMIC-BOOK STORES
We all agree that comic book stores are great! So why is there so few of them left?
The decline of comic book stores is a topic that has been given serious attention by all types of economists, publishers, fans, and local business owners.
The majority of comic books and graphic novels are sold and distributed through large retail book stores like Barnes and Nobles, Books-A-Million, and stores within other related retail markets such as Gamestop and Moviestop. Smaller regional chains and local stores also will sell comics and graphic novels.
What about the traditional comic book store though? As of 2019, there are currently about 2000 comic book shops nationwide in the United States (O’Leary, 2019). The vitality of comic book shops is often associated with the yearly total sales of comics and graphic novels to stores.
During the 1990s the demand for comic books, trade paperbacks, and graphic novels was at an all-time high. In recent years that demand has waned, with a dramatic drop in sales for the year 2017 that signaled hard times ahead for many local shops.
The main culprit for this decline is often blamed on the rise in popularity of online retailers and websites like Amazon and eBay.
Amazon and eBay have made it hard for local shops to compete because they can offer lower prices and often offer a larger selection of titles than the average store.
Another trend that has severely impacted the growth of neighborhood comic book shops is the focus on large publishers like Marvel, D.C, and Image comics on offering their catalogs of comics as digital subscriptions versus printed issues.
These companies encourage fans to purchase digital subscriptions which allow them to read and enjoy their favorite comics on their computers, smartphones, and tablets versus print subscriptions which would require them to mail out printed copies of comics.
Digital subscriptions are popular with publishers because they cut costs in the publication and distribution of their comics. Not only that but with newly available technology and faster internet speeds, digital subscriptions have become a more viable option over the past few years for providing consumers access to high-quality scans of their favorite comics.
“The Video Game Effect”
The kids today are different. It doesn’t seem as if they enjoy the same kind of childhood experiences that many of us millennials and baby boomers are accustomed to. The kids of today, “Generation Z”, have significantly different lifestyle behaviors and attitudes that make them sharply distinct from their predecessors, the Millenials.
Generation Z youth are more likely to enjoy time doing things online than in person. They also have different attitudes towards marketing and advertising that influence their shopping behavior. Finally, they prefer to spend more time playing video games than Millenials, accounting for a large share of their available free time for hobbies and extracurriculars.
Today everything is dominated by online gaming, social media, and popular culture.
Generation Z’s perspective on social activities and gaming has led to dramatic effects on the comic book industry. The idea of going out to a local business to hang out and play games with others for several hours doesn’t make as much sense to the youth of Generation Z as it did to us Millenials.
Why go through all the effort when you can just as easily turn on your PS4 or Xbox One and play Fortnight with your friends all from the comfort of your home?
THE COMIC BOOK STORE OF THE FUTURE
The comic book store of the future will be a place for more than just comics.
In order to remain competitive and to maintain relevancy, the comic book shop of the future will have to expand its retail focus to include other hobbies that are similar such as video games, retro items, and other types of collectible merchandise such as sports memorabilia.
Comic book shops are community hubs. All great comic book shops often sponsor in-house events and competitions for games like Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, and other popular franchises.
When comic book shops sponsor local game nights, they are doing much more than just providing opportunities for children to have fun.
Local game nights are a great extracurricular activity for children because it lets them meet, interact, and learn together in a common shared space outside of schools. Bringing kids together over a shared hobby like this allows them to bond and create lifelong friendships.
When we have children from different backgrounds working cooperatively together we are creating conditions and an environment where we can sponsor and appreciate differences across cultures, embrace diversity, and create future solidarity for a community as the kids become adults.
Children and teenagers growing up all over America do share much in common, and by bringing them together through community events like local game nights at the neighborhood comic book shop we can enable them to realize and appreciate this shared culture.
Overall, it is this type of community outreach and engagement that makes comic book shops truly unique and so dearly loved by everyone. Multiple generations of American children have enjoyed the benefits that the neighborhood comic book store provides.
What neighborhoods would benefit from having a comic book store?
The neighborhoods that would benefit the most from the addition of a neighborhood comic book shop would be low-income neighborhoods in both the inner-city and in rural communities with a significant youth population.
Bringing comic book shops to these neighborhoods can help enhance the community landscape by providing a creative, fun, and engaging form of entertainment and recreation to local youth.
In addition, neighborhood comic book shops can help stimulate economic opportunity as a small business.
Comic Book Shops can be used to help enhance the image of neighborhoods and make them more family-friendly. Alternatively, they can be part of community main-street revitalization campaigns that bring life to small towns again.
The possibilities are endless just like the fantastical stories of our favorite superheroes…
Maybe it is time we let these superheroes do what they do best and help save America!
Check out your local neighborhood comic book shop today and show your support by purchasing a trade paperback or two.
Or maybe go play a card game of Pokemon with some young kids and tell them about all the original 150 Pokemon from the 1st generation that they probably know nothing about. Then enjoy their response as they excitedly educate you on all the latest Pokemon that you know nothing about!
Taking the time to visit your local comic book shop is the perfect opportunity to positively interact with your local community.
INSPIRE appreciates our local comic book shops and will always cherish them. We hope you do as well!
CITATIONS & REFERENCES
“A Demographic Snapshot of Comics Buyers”. Written By: Brigid Alverson. Published by ICv2. (October 2017).
“ Are Comic Books an Effective Way to Engage Non-majors in Learning and Appreciating Science?” Written By: Jay Hosler and K.B Boomer. Published online by The American Society for Cell Biology, CBE Life Sciences Education Journal. Volume 10. Issue 3. (Fall 2011)
- “Batman as Monomyth: Joseph Campbell, Robert Jewett, John Shelton Lawrence, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and the Hero’s Journey to Gotham” Written By: Andrew Ford Thigpen. Published online at Liberty University, College of Arts and Sciences. (April 2017).
- “Comics and Graphic Novel Sales Down 6.5% In 2017”. Written By: Milton Griepp. Published by ICV2. (July 2018).
“Comic Characters: Campbellian* or Not?” Written By: Samantha Matos. Published by Southeastern University FireScholars- Classical Conversations. (Spring 2019).
- “Comics Is a Market In Transition” Written By: Shannon O’Leary. Published by Publishers Weekly. (February 2019).
- “Learning Through Play- Pedagogy and Learning Outcomes in Early Childhood Mathematics” Written By: Franziska Vogt, Bernhard Hauser, Rita Stebler, Karin Rechsteiner, & Christa Urech. Published by European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, Volume. 26, Issue 04. (June 2018).
“Using Comics To Improve Literacy In English Language Learners” Written By: Amy Baker. Published online at the University of Central Missouri, Department of Educational Leadership and Human Development. (May 2011).
- “ Visual Literacy: To Comics or Not To Comics? Promoting Literacy Using Comics” Written By: Leone Tiemensma. Published by the World Library and informational Congress: 75 IFLA General Conference and Council. (August 2009).
- “ What Pokemon can Teach Us about Learning and Literacy” Written By: Vivian Vasquez. Published by the National Council of Teachers of English . Language Arts Journal, Volume. 81. Issue 02. (November 2003).
- “Why Play, Toys, and Games are Important” Written By: Dr. Toy. Published by The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Volume. 10, Issue 03. (September 2006).