What comics can learn from videogames

Why have videogames crossed over into the mainstream, but comics are still roughly where they were in the 80s? Joseph wonders if comics have a few lessons to learn...

Comics? Those are just for kids and geeks, right?

If you were young in the early 80s, chances are you spent a good few hours pounding buttons on a Dig Dug arcade cabinet or stuffing Pac-Man cartridges into your Atari 2600. Either that or you’d hop on your Rodney Mullen skateboard and skoot down to the local comics store to pick up the latest issue of The Amazing Spiderman. Looking around the shop, you might have spotted a few older customers. These were most likely Class-A geeks, complete with thick-rimmed plastic spectacles and unwashed Iron Maiden t-shirts.

It was the same story in videogame outlets: anyone over 18 who used their computer for Zork instead of spreadsheets was assumed to be a socially awkward misfit.

In 2010, things are a little different. As far as the public are concerned, comic books are still ‘just for kids and geeks’, but videogames are making serious inroads towards mainstream cultural acceptance.

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Pop into your nearest HMV and you’ll immediately notice the change. Over-excited 12-year-olds charge around the store brandishing DS Lites, accompanied by legions of twenty-somethings stocking up on the latest FPS, along with middle-aged dads hoping to buy a Wii for the family Christmas.

What was once the Palace of the Nerd is now home to customers and enthusiasts from a broad range of social castes.

Comics, aided by Hollywood and the rise of the graphic novel, have begun to nibble at the corners of mainstream entertainment, but still confine most of their trade to tiny boutiques. These shops are filled with passionate patrons who will spend hours telling you why Mister Mxyzptlk is the greatest ever Superman villain, but are evidence that the demographic hasn’t really shifted from 30 years ago.

In 1980, the two mediums shared the same customers and the same sideways glances from conventional society. So, what can comics learn from the success of their videogame cousins?

1. Approachability

In the most recent console generation, Nintendo has taken up the torch of accessibility. The Wii has become a true crossover hit, attracting everyone from old school Mario fans to Wii Fit converts. Over 67 million diminutive white boxes have been sold worldwide, 28 million more than the 360 or the PS3.

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Nintendo marketed its latest creation as an affordable console featuring games that everyone can enjoy. The oblong Wiimote motion controllers were met with derisive sniggers by established games journalists, but ultimately proved perfect for introducing games to the millions of potential customers unfamiliar with the medium.

Comics have remained anything but accessible. The marquee titles for the industry are still big superheroes like Batman and Iron Man. They may pull in the punters on the big screen, but that hasn’t translated into millions of new fans queuing round the block for the latest issue of Detective Comics.

These key characters have developed hugely convoluted back stories and spun off in different directions. To new fans, it’s not at all obvious which dimension or universe this character is in or why Sabretooth hates Wolverine.

I don’t need to know anything about the SNES to enjoy Wii Sports, but I need to know a whole chunk of Batman history to fully enjoy the current Batman & Robin run.

The most heinous example of the industry’s introverted nature is the huge crossover events that occur every few years. Marvel fans are currently staggering out of Seige, the company’s latest attempt to tie all of its various key titles into one big storyline. These kinds of mash-ups are never going to be accessible to anyone who isn’t already mired in Marvel lore.

If any of the big hitters in the comics industry are interested in broadening their appeal, they would do well to take a leaf out of the Nintendo manual and spend time, money, and talent creating a range of top titles that can be fully enjoyed by anyone new to the medium.

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2. Sharing

In many cases, games are for sharing. The success of World Of Warcraft and Modern Warfare rely completely on their strong multiplayer focus. Whether you’re teaming up to throw magic at a Golem or shooting your friend in the face, modern games have the ability to connect people around the world.

This kind of shared experience solidifies the place of videogames in the cultural mindset, bringing them closer to full mainstream acceptance.

Despite not possessing that kind of inbuilt collaboration, comics can still make good use of human interaction. Established comic fans can do a lot to promote the medium among their circle of friends and break the lingering geeky stigma. The Internet can also be a powerful tool.

The ‘One Book, One Twitter’ initiative recently launched its first worldwide book club, choosing American Gods (a fiction work by comics doyen Neil Gaiman) as its first title. The idea is to get huge numbers of people all around the world reading and discussing the same book via social networking site Twitter. This kind of project translates wonderfully to comics and would go some way to aping the shared experiences that have helped videogames become so popular.

3. Independent Platforms

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Indie game developers have seen their stock rise dramatically, thanks to the success of Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Steam. These games-on-demand platforms have provided a space to house small titles that might otherwise have never seen the light of day.

Games like ‘Splosion Man, Darwinia, and Puzzle Quest no longer need to spend money they don’t have on distribution and promotion. The indie comics scene would also benefit from a platform or publication that brings these disparate creatives together. On their own, talented independent artists and writers are forced to showcase their abilities online and hawk their wares from tiny convention booths.

It’s encouraging to learn that some intrepid entrepreneurs are trying to do just that. The biannual anthology of alternative comics Solipsistic Pop just released its second volume, rammed full of quality indie produce from the likes of Marc Ellerby and Luke Ferenc Pearson.

The team and We Are Words + Pictures are also toiling hard to highlight the work of unsung comics creators. They host events at various exhibitions, fairs, and club nights to provide an outreach showcase that springs indie comics onto an unsuspecting public, many of whom are unaware of the treasure trove of delight bubbling under the superhero surface. They also put together the Paper Science ‘zine, a newspaper-style collection of alternative comics, the second version of which was recently available as part of Free Comics Day.

If the comics industry wants to catch up with videogames, it will have to innovate. Sticking to the same tried and trusted formula might appease the converts, but is unlikely to attract many new customers. The raw materials are ready and waiting.

There’s plenty of quality in stock superhero titles and a huge range of diverse content available to anyone willing to scratch beneath the surface.

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By looking at the successes of the videogame industry, comic creators and executives can learn to push the medium they love onto the next level and create a world where the release of the next X-Men issue is as anticipated as the new GTA or Gran Turismo.