Bryan Caplan

Superheroic Dominance in U.S. Comics: A Case of Path-Dependence?

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Hal Varian on Googlenomics... Who Are the High Earners?...

Scott McCloud is often called "the smartest man in comics," but how does he measure up in economics? In his Reinventing Comics, McCloud re-invents the wheel of path-dependence to explain the dominance of superheroes in the American comics industry.

McCloud's basic story: If some genres start to dominate in the comics market, stores will emphasize those genres. But this discourages people with minority tastes from frequenting comic book shops, which in turn leads stores to offer fewer titles that appeal to minority tastes, which in turn alienates these potential customers even further. Thus, suppose superhero comics aimed at young males overshadow romance comics for young females. This makes females less eager to stop by their local comics shop, which encourages vendors to put more emphasis on superheroes, which narrows selection... etc.

I'm not buying this story. I'll admit that it could explain why places called "comic book stores" focus on superheroes. But if there were really a lot of demand for non-superhero comics, they would simply be sold in other venues. Romance comics could be stocked by grocery stores next to Harlequin romances, for example... if they would sell. More plausibly, places like Borders would not only carry the disfavored genres, but shelve them outside the "comics" section to reach their eager but alienated audience.

McCloud's right, of course, to point out that the comics industry is far bigger and more diverse outside of the U.S. But if path-dependence is at work, it's path-dependence of consumer demand itself. Part of the reason why Japanese adults read comics today is that when they were kids, the Japanese saw adults reading comics; in the U.S., in contrast, many still believe that comics are "just for kids." This is just another example of the human urge for conformity - but it's conformity over time, rather than at a given moment.

The bottom line: Changing the way vendors sell comics isn't going to make much difference. If there's a "lock-in" problem, its source is the consumer, not the producer.

Of course, if Scott could get my graphic novel illustrated and published, I might be willing to rethink my position. :-)


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

The answer is actually much simpler: Superheroes dominate American comics because of comparative advantage. Up until the 1950s, many genres were reflected in American comic books: superheroes, sci-fi, horror, romance, history, "Classics Illustrated," comedy, etc. But in the '50s, two things happened: the Comics Code came along and ruined comics' comparative advantage in horror, and TV came along and started chipping away at comics' advantages in everything else, except superheroes. It wasn't until CGI came along that TV and the movies could really duplicate the dynamic action of superhero stories. Superheroes, simply put, were comics' last resort.

Funny that this follows the Varian thread, because it was path dependence that Varian and I (and David Friedman) were debating back in 2002.

Dan Weber writes:

One problem is that the comic book market, over all, is shrinking. It's hard to find comic books outside of comic book stores. (Traditional book stores still carry comics, but they're used to catering to a whole collection of niche markets.)

I haven't seen a comic book in a grocery store for over 10 years. It's easy to see when you look at it from the store's POV. They sell for -- what, $3 these days? For the same shelf space, a store can put a magazine with a cover price of $6 to $10. And from what I understand, returning unsold magazines is easy, while the comic book industry hasn't really accepted that yet.

As another nail, why would a woman spend $3 on a romance comic that she she'll read for 30 minutes, when a $9 romance novel will last around 6 hours?

Hei Lun Chan writes:

Re: path-dependence of consumer demand, video games used to "just for kids" too, but now adults who grew up playing them when they were kids for the most part still do. How do you explain why adults keep playing video games but stop reading comics?

Matt writes:

Maybe it has to do with the juvenile story lines, grammatically incorrect sentences and typos?

I tried comics again as an adult, but I couldn't justify shelling out $3 for 15 minutes of reading a wooden story with a predictably lame plot.

Ted Craig writes:

Since super heros shoved almost every other type of comic out in the 1960s, long before comic book shops, I find McCloud's theory to be extremely weak. True, Westerns, science fiction and kids' comics did survive for years after that, but they were, for the most part, from second-tier niche publishers. In the '80s, indepedent publishers like First tried to build business on non-super hero titles (e.g. American Flagg, Jon Sable). So did Epic, which had all the resources of Marvel behind it. None of these titles is around today. If anything, comic book shops are reviving the other genres, with non-traditional titles like Y the Last Man or the new Lone Ranger series.
McCloud is very knowledgable, so maybe I'm missing a point in his argument, but I'd have to agree with Bryan and other posters who offer alternative explanations, mostly being a lack of consumer demand.

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