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Comics & Games Retailer

Part 1: The Youth Movement

By Oliver Chin

Know Your Market

Michelle Williams. James Van Der Beek. Katie Holmes. Don't recognize the names? Shame on you! These are merely the adolescent stars of the hottest teen show on American TV last year. Of course, now Dawson's Creek is now the most imitated one this season.

If you don't know what kids like, how can you hope to attract any?

Lately much has been written on how teenagers' buying power is bringing mass media to their knees. Wielding a collective bargaining power more feared than labor unions', teens skew today's direction of entertainment. Younger and younger, pitchmen plumb. From TV networks cloning Felicity, movie studios churning out Scream 3 sequels, to music labels recycling Menudo graduates, media moguls (like hunters in heat) race to hit the same target: that elusive, and oh so desirable teenager.

Why does this matter to you? If you need to ask, you really need to read this column.

Aside from how this depresses me that I'm out of the coveted 18-24 demographic, this is directly related to the declining state of but also the glimmering hope for comic retailers.

Where have all the young readers gone? Aren't comics for kids? You need to actively court them back. Forget milk. Get anime and manga.

Back to the Future

Anime and manga don't inherently attract kids any better than American created comics do. However their combined strength is that, as art forms, they cover a wider range of genres that together appeal to all fans of any age. Anime and manga don't practice "ageism."

As the increasing number of responses in this magazine indicate, retailers note Pokemon's popularity cascading over to Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. This is no happy accident. These anime and manga offer kids what they want regardless of what adults want to give them.

Adults' ballyhoos about infrequent "titillating" language, images, or scenes in these titles completely miss the point. Kids will choose Goku, Charmander and Kiki's Delivery Service over the numbing plethora of soft-porn bad girls, bullet-ridden body counts, and steroid-induced bonecrunching any day for a few simple reasons. Kids value the stories that speak to their experience, their desire for relationships, and their explorations into defining their identities by reaching satisfying goals.

This is not treacle. This is reality. Ignore it at your peril.

These anime and manga are unlike Scooby Doo, Donald Duck, or Bugs Bunny. Those icons still appeal to children, but their popularity peaked 20-40 years ago. Unless as perpetual repeats on cable, they undergo hasty facelifts as postmodern retreads, which unfortunately only diminish their original brilliance.

Anime and manga continually refresh themselves to speak to the newest generations. They don't need to be reincarnated as "loony toon babies." That reformulation is a bald appeal to thirtysomething parents. A calculated ploy to manipulate a grown-up's nostalgia, to "re-enjoy" their entertainment preferences by inculcating them into their children.

You can only rebuild the market by attracting the next generation of fans. You can only sustain popularity by providing compelling products. This lesson is valid for any comics publisher. But heavy-handed attempts to manufacture success will inevitably fail. The essential ingredients for evergreen sales remain the same: quality, creativity, and originality.

Poke-mania or Poke-sanity?

Of course, money and connections help. But truly, Squirtle wouldn't last longer than an ice cube on a summer's day, if he didn't have some intrinsic quality which made him fun. More so than his battle-hardened "focus-group" tested rivals for childhood affection, such as Homogenized Harriet or Dumbed-down Dan.

Many retailers seem awe-struck that kids (and their parents) that they've never seen before are entering their stores and buying this stuff.

I'm glad for them, but not surprised.

Does it defy reason and understanding? What should we learn from this? The comics trade recent focus on "Why aren't my orders for those cards filled?" doesn't address this.

As comics professionals shouldn't we be trying to understand how or why the comics have become so popular?

Before the comics were launched, there was little buzz that Pokemon would do very well. Some even believed that it's pedigree as a licensed product was undesirable, which meant at least it shouldn't do well.

That was ironic again, since publishers have been knocked for not making kid-friendly products. This skepticism was looking a gift Pikachu in the mouth.

A healthier perspective is that this was an opportunity for retailers to participate in a cultural phenomenon which could draw them back into the mainstream (and vice versa). Perhaps some find more comfort believing comic stores can survive in their own little world. But alas, this is a fantasy. Like Krypton was part of a bigger universe, survival often depends on traveling to new worlds. I'm glad that anime and manga provide that opportunity.

Is that why Animerica magazine's readership is not only getting larger, but getting younger?

Brave Young World

The lifespan cycle of "cool" items is getting both faster and shorter. This has been an unsettling wake-up call to baby-boomer paced companies who now must try to maintain market leadership in the 90's. Some have tried to dictate the success of retro 60's concepts (bell bottom jeans, swing, the VW Beetle).

Yet, teenagers will march forever to their own beat. Their tastes and consumer clout will make advertisers and manufacturers serve them (baggy jeans, rap, skateboarding).

I don't advocate retailers becoming "trend dependent." Much like the pitfalls of day trading, fad-tracking is risky and a losing proposition for most. But retailers really have a 2nd job. You must be keen observers of popular culture and product tastes. The key is to pick fresh areas of growth which can be sustained.

Increasingly, everyone asks me the $25,000 question, "How long do I think this Pokemon phenomenon will last?"

All I know is that while Columbia TriStar has gleaned millions of dollars of sponsorship for Dawson's Creek by major clothing retailers, each of its three hearthrobs have embarked upon successful movie careers, thereby prodding both financial and popular interest in the TV series. By the way, did you know the Pokemon movie will be out in November 1999?

Stay tuned.

Part 2: Getting the Girls

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.