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Home arrow A new mainstream

A new mainstream

Watchmen
Page from the graphic novel Watchmen (DC Comics, 1987). Art: Dave Gibbons. Script: Alan Moore. A dramatic and gory finale for this 'adult' superhero story, collected into a landmark novel of over 400 pages.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw huge changes in the way comics were marketed, designed and, eventually, in the way they were perceived. The old newsagent market was declining at an alarming rate, but at the same time a more specialized network based on specialist 'fan' shops (selling solely comics) began to take off. Inevitably this had an effect on where publishers saw their future, and by the mid-1990s, over ninety per cent of all comics were being sold through this channel. In the space of a few short years, the fan market had gone from being a parallel outlet of little commercial importance, to becoming the new mainstream.
The shift originated with the small band of hardcore fans of titles by Marvel and DC Comics in the 1960s. Marvel was the most important of the two companies because their titles were designed to be collected. Fans would accumulate every issue of their favourite series, and religiously follow the careers of certain artists, especially Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams and, of course, Jack 'King' Kirby. As they got older, some of the more committed enthusiasts set up mail-order businesses, and joined together to organize regular markets ('marts') and conventions ('cons') and to publish their own fan-magazines ('fanzines'). This was the beginning of comics fandom, which in its early days owed a large debt to the long-established rituals of the science fiction fan-world: indeed, because the two subcultures shared an interest in the fantastical, they remained closely linked.
The shops were a natural next step. Fandom grew steadily in the United States and the United Kingdom from the mid-1960s, and the hippie headshops were contemporaneously demonstrating the potential of a comics market separate to the newsagents. The first fan shops appeared by the end of the decade, typically evolving out of mail-order businesses, and usually selling science fiction literature as well as comics. The growth in the number of shops was slow but steady in the 1970s while in the 1980s things began to boom: by the end of that decade, there were estimated to be roughly 400 in Britain and 4,000 in America. Enough, in other words, to constitute a 'network', and to sustain a viable comics subculture.