A “serious writer” might not like to think of themselves as being in the business of children’s entertainment. Yet our most profound reading experiences frequently occur when we are young. In my own experience, there was a powerful frisson, not easily replicated, in reading a book or comic that strayed into some new and adult territory that had, up until that point, remained uncharted. These readings were engaging in ways that they could never be again, especially when returned to as an adult.
For a long time — to my mortal frustration — I browsed my local library’s limited offerings of comic books and repeatedly passed over Niel Gaiman’s Sandman. Even when I learned that these were critically acclaimed the artwork remained, to my eyes, far removed from what I was looking for in a comic. (Conversely, I browsed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, felt the immediate need to read it). When I finally read Sandman (or at least the collected editions in the school library), I found the stories powerful in an unexpected way. Even the once off putting art offered something new. But much of this effect was lost as an adult when I started reading the entire series from start to finish.
It is perplexing to me that more writers and artists do not aspire to have their works read by such audiences. Yet at the very same time, it is clear that many are are trying to recreate that same quality of wonder for an adult audience, with confounding results. I don’t know how else to explain the DC Snyderverse, Disney’s Star Wars reboot, or modern Dr Who, other than as adults trying to recreate what they experienced as teenagers in comics, cinemas, or TV.
Comics are a particularly interesting, in terms of their actual readership, because the situation is in fact very different that you might expect. To judge on the strength of sales figures and the implied readership, the modern (American/English language) comic book industry is not dominated by Marvel and DC superhero comics. While tent-pole superhero movies are dominant in the cinemas, their star has fallen in their native medium. The most widely read comic books are graphic novels are written, marketed, sold, and almost exclusively read by a young adult audience.
Sales figures for books are notoriously difficult to measure; there are many different kinds of sales, including the direct market and digital. There is also something almost political about the way best-sellers are measured, with The New York Times even having its own secret source metric for producing its own best-seller lists. But this article from 2021 on graphic novel sales, for all its caveats, makes a good case for the overall picture. Scholastic and Viz are the biggest graphic novel publishers. Viz, contrary to all received wisdom about English speaking audience’s disinterest in fiction in translation, has no problem selling Manga to young people. Scholastic sells young adult books to school kids, often directly, within schools themselves via their book-fairs.
Depending on your exact definitions of intended audiences, it appears that each and every one of the top 20 is intended for children or middle readers. It won’t be until #22 that you can find a comic intended for a different audience ( “Strange Planet”, a collection of webcomics), and if you are looking for a “Marvel / DC-style” comic, you are not even in the top fifty. “Watchmen” finally shows up at #57 – after that the next aimed-at-adults superhero comic is “Harleen” way the heck down at #144. The earliest Manga in the charts are “My Hero Academia” at #18, the first one aimed at adults would appear to be… well, depends who you ask? I tend to think that “Demon Slayer Kimetsu No Yaiba” (#33) is probably rated “T”, so next after that would be Ito’s “Uzumaki” at #34.
The true titan of Scholastic’s graphic novel output is Raina Telgemeier whose autobiographical opus Smile covered her high school experience when she underwent dental reconstruction after an accident.
I first heard about her work here:
The New York Times has a good profile in which you can even see the process by which she writes, pencils, and inks her comics.
“Raina single-handedly created the market for middle-grade graphic memoir,” said Saylor, who is now the publisher of Graphix. “There was a common trope at the time that girls didn’t read comics and that was a boy thing, so the market wasn’t catering to girls and women.”
For my part I have recently made my own amateur foray into (very young) children’s books. In honour of my nephew’s birthday I wrote my own knock-off Mr Men book. It’s the first comic I have drawn in many years, and the first that I have done entirely digitally (using a very basic wacom tablet). Like they always say, it is not as easy as it looks. My big takeaway is a reminder of how much of the creative process is work. I suspect I broke a fair number of the rules for writing for children. Some things make complete sense to children and little sense to adults. It is hard to know what will capture an imagination.