Sun Ra - Column for 5/27

Fear of a Dying Art

So, I went to a science fiction convention this weekend, at the behest of my lively fiance. She had gone to this convention many times over many years - but last went many years ago. Having moved back to this area, she figured it would be worthwhile to see if she could meet some old compatriots. Sort of like a chess club reunion, only spacier.

Well, the convention was almost eerily grey. Not only were we (attending for one day - Sunday - only) recipients of badge numbers 1,475 and 1,474 (at a con which had once been perhaps thrice the size), but the con-goers were heavily weighted (oh God were they, and I'll get back to that) towards the 'dead' end of the spectrum. And remember, at 30, I'm still on the 'born' end myself. It was like some sort of AARP auxiliaries meeting.

That you get old people at a sci-fi convention is not surprising. After all, logical discourse and discussion of literature is the province of maturity. But one of the key aspects of sci-fi is that it also appeals to the young and impetuous in it, who aren't interested in the bounds of reality as it stands, and who want to imagine themselves boldly going where no one has gone before. And who like to run around convention halls and try to impress each other and generally be obnoxious in a genre-specific way.

They were barely represented. There were a handful of teenagers there -outnumbered by the outright children, in fact, and those youngsters not only didn't come of their own volition, they certainly will rebel against their parents by never coming again as soon as they hit the 'I hate you' age. So not only did the con look ossified (and, don't forget, small) at present, the future looked worse.

It happens, to hobbies. Wargaming is the same, a handful of old men (at least the sci-fi fantasy types are better gender balanced) playing games and reminiscing when their hobby was large and vibrant. I can't speak about model railroading, or quilting, or any other thing I wouldn't try if doing so were the entrance examination to Heaven, but I daresay many pastimes have grown old and then fallen off the map. And I'm not even going to make a crack about reading, writing, or arithmetic here.

What worries me, of course, is that my hobby, comics, is in the first stages of the same disease. The majority of comic book readers are males of post-college age. Comic books are no longer sold in non-comic-specific markets. You have to want to read comics to find them, because you can only get them in comic stores. Super markets, though for some reason they can find space for not only Teen People but those little 'Cat Happiness Foods' and 'Seven Astrological Signs and their Lives' books, don't carry comics. Book stores carry graphic novels, but not comics. To get comics, you have to want comics specifically. Which means that new folks aren't getting roped in.

Comic books are very much part of the popular culture, sure - thanks to movies and television. Not only did the Spider-man movie make more than the largest comic book publisher sees for all of its titles in a year, many more people saw it than actually have ever read a Spider-man comic book. But television and movies don't generally lead to people reading comic books, and won't save the art form from the dustbin of history.

I'm not sure, of course, what precisely will. I doubt there is a silver bullet. The price ($2.50 per comic) is too high - but the cycle is currently in its evil mode, with fewer readers leading to higher prices, rather than the reverse. If comics were $1 (which, given printing costs, would require unattainable print runs at present) then kids would find a lot more of them in their grubby little hands. Still, $2.50 is a limp but not an amputation; books cost upwards of $7 these days at any rate.

My feeling is that comics need to find where the kids are, and hitch themselves there. And the young market, at least the one comics used to have, has a new love: video games.

Which make for an interesting prospective relationship to comics; they are two very different entertainments, each offering one something the other does not. Comics offer stories. Games offer achievement. I am not sure how to hitch the two together, but I imagine it could be done. If Warcraft III appeared and a Warcraft III series appeared at the same time, there would be cross-selling. The closer the links (hints in the comic to game secret areas, references in the game to backstory only available in the comics), the more cross-selling.

Comics of course would have to stand on their own, with powerful writing and good art. But they can, and they do. What they aren't getting is people to pick them up for the very first time. And unless that's solved, I'm going to be one of the grey beards in a small hotel conference room reminiscing.

And I really don't want that.

- Sun Ra

P.S. As promised, a note on the sheer size of the sci-fi con goers. OH, MY, GOD. I had recently been to Pennsylvania, where the locals, concerned with dwindling American influence in the world, are trying to offset it by securing as much of the world in their own bodies as the available eating time will allow. THIS WAS WORSE. Sweet Jesus, there were some fat slobs at this con! People warping the gravity around them as they wobbled along on their canes or wheelchairs which they had for no reason other than they couldn't not eat everything they saw. People that would singlehandedly bankrupt a smorgasbord in one terrifying afternoon, and then burp up the steam trays. People who had obviously never seen several of their own orifices for years. People who.... you get the picture.


Columns by Sun Ra