R. M. Rhodes wrote a lengthy post for Gutter Brawl on what he calls “The Scarlet Genre.” He’s talking about superhero comics and asked if I wouldn’t mind commenting on his thoughts.
Though he doesn’t directly explain it in the article, it’s obvious that Rhodes picked the title of his piece in reference to the scarlet letter that kept prejudiced people from interacting with Hester Prynne. His assertion is that the comics medium has become confused by mass audiences with the superhero genre and - like Prynne's embroidered mark - it keeps people who don’t like superheroes from interacting with all comics, regardless of genre.
Rhodes talks about how comics creators, publishers, and vendors need to market comics differently to correct that misperception and let the mass audience know that they have other choices. That’s all good and I agree with him to a certain point. Comics marketing is traditionally poor when it comes to reaching people who don’t already read and love comics. We can do better.
I disagree with him on a couple of things though. First, with the idea that mass audiences are turned off by comics because they think that all comics are about superheroes. The crazy successes of movies like The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises show that mass audiences do, in fact, love superheroes. That adoring audience almost never translates into new readers of superhero comics, but that doesn't mean that there's a problem with the genre. As Tom Spurgeon points out, comics people love to analyze this stuff and figure out What's Wrong With Us, but it's really as simple as "a lot of people like superhero movies and not as many like superhero comics." I talk to superhero fans all the time who love these characters every bit as much as I do (often more than I do), but simply prefer to watch them in movies or on TV. They're just not into comics.
In fact, what I said about movie fans not becoming comics fans seems to be a problem limited exclusively to the superhero genre. The success of The Walking Dead alone proves that there's a huge audience willing to check out the comics that inspired their favorite TV shows and movies. Comics retailer Mike Sterling has written about how comics movies do in fact drive interest in the comics they're based on (especially if they're written by Alan Moore, but there was also huge demand for Sin City and Hellboy comics when those movies came out).
Where non-superhero comics have the advantage (specifically, non-corporate-owned superhero comics) is that it's much easier to find the story that directly inspired the film or TV show. Every time a new Marvel movie comes out, we see a gazillion lists posted (all different from each other) about which comics to buy if you want to read more about the character. Corporate superhero comics are fun for people willing to invest some time in them, but they're impenetrable to casual readers. That's a much more significant cause for disinterest than simply not liking superheroes.
My point is that superheroes don't equal comics. I agree with Rhodes that it's often the first genre that comes to mind in most people's minds, but it's a perception that's a) easily changed with some quick pop culture references and b) is changing more and more every day. In fact, I suspect that the perception problem isn't one that mass audiences have as much as a certain segment of comics fans does. I keep reading articles in which superhero comics are referred to as "mainstream," but I wonder if that's true anymore. I'd love for someone who isn't me to run the numbers and compare sales of all corporate-owned superhero comics (and graphic novels) to sales of everything else across all distribution outlets. I bet we'd be surprised at the results.