Going Gold

Going Gold: Comix Zone

Christian Ward | 30 Oct 2008 21:00
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In a way, I grew out of comics. I'm not, as many do, dismissing comics as immature or childish (although, again like videogames, it has a tiresome idea of "maturity" meaning more boobs, blood and heroes who cuss and - gasp! - smoke). What I grew out of was paying an increasing premium for the same experience with diminishing returns. As a serious hobby, comics became just too expensive. Prices seemed to rise every month, and with it quality in places I couldn't really care about - holograms, all-glossy pages, special editions with multiple covers that came at a premium price. When it came time to spend money on artists with new visions or stories that actually led somewhere, it seemed the checkbook was put away.

By raising their prices as a result of a ridiculous dedication to the quality of looks, comics forced me out of the market. The comparison to today's HD consoles is not hard to miss. If I was a teenager now would I be able to keep up with gaming's increasing entry-point price, the $10 next-gen gaming tax and a subscription fee to online multiplayer?

Looking at some of the things that I accepted as normal when I was a comic book fan, I realized how ridiculous some of them are - and in the process, gained a little insight into how the average non-gamer must feel looking at our medium. Crossover events, company-specific "universes," and an outright refusal of characters to stay dead all make sense to fans, but they are so far beyond the narratives that most media consumers are used to, that they come off as being nothing more than nonsense.

In the case of comics, it's probably too late to change this public perception - the English-speaking populace associates the very word "comics" with material that is kids' stuff. Yes, of course there are exceptions, like Maus, The Watchmen and V for Vendetta - the comics medium absolutely can be used as a creative force offering possibilities impossible for other media - but the sad fact remains is that for the majority of populace comics means men in tights beating each other up.

But audiences in France, say, or Japan, might have somewhat loftier expectations for comic books, where they are accepted as a more "mainstream" medium. While it's slightly unusual for Japan's new PM Taro Aso to admit to being a fan of comic books, it's not something you could imagine either Barack Obama or John McCain admitting, much less building much of their popularity base on (and if any one of the three would countenance admitting to liking videogames, Brain Age would be the very limits).

And therefore it is not too late for gaming to learn from this history lesson - and realize that yes, the young male adolescent demographic is a powerful one, if we don't learn to sell our product elsewhere our medium has no future. The good news for gaming is that while much of this damage was self-caused, what ultimately killed the mass-popularity of comic books was not a lack of creativity, but the harsh limits imposed on the medium by the Comics Code Authority. For all the hassle adhering to the limits of the ESRB, PEGI and other ratings boards causes game creators, they are nowhere near as crippling.

Nevertheless, the path comics followed - finding a successful hook and a hardcore audience, and selling the same product over and over again - is one that is worryingly familiar when one looks at the endless stream of FPSs featuring burly men and the same concepts, with slightly different packaging, that line store shelves. So the next time someone complains about Nintendo "abandoning" them, remember the lesson - refuse to change and customers will abandon you first.

Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and now really wants a next-gen Comix Zone.

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