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College Con Brings the Fantastical World of Graphic Novels to Campus

November 10, 2016

 

 

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Along with established D.C. Comics favorites like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, the marketing folks at Marvel Studios have also done well familiarizing us to some of the lesser known characters from the realm of comic culture. Two summers ago, the movie Guardians of the Galaxy introduced us all to Rocket Raccoon, Star-Lord and Groot, comparatively minor characters in the greater comic universe, in a bid to take the genre into the mainstream — while garnering a healthy $773.3 million in box office sales along the way. If comics, and their more heavyweight relatives graphic novels, remain only in the doyen of geekdom, it’s because they’re misunderstood as a genre, proponents say — misunderstood, underappreciated and untried. For that reason Barnes & Noble College  recently unleashed some of the comic cosmos on college campuses nationwide in an out-of-this-world promotion called “College Con.”

 

More Story, Less Zap, Bam and Kapow

“College Con was probably one of the most concentrated events we’ve held at the bookstore,” explains Store Manager Joseph Picconatto of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire Bookstore. “Many of our students really weren’t familiar with graphic novels in general, let alone even noticing them at the bookstore, so it was an opportunity for us to put out some display tables and invite them to come into the store and learn more.”

 

Donning costumes and providing super-hero themed games and cookies, the bookstore team offered fans, and the uninitiated, Manga, superhero titles, slice-of-life graphic novels and humor graphic novels. “We even had graphic novels about graphic novels,” Picconatto says. “There was really something for everyone, and the students had a lot of fun with that.”

 

The Eau Claire students aren’t alone in appreciating this popular genre. Comics and graphic novel sales to consumers in North America totaled around $940 million in 2015, up 13 percent over the previous year. “There are just a lot of people discovering the medium,” said Terry Nantier, founder of graphic-novel publisher NBM Publishing, in a recent New York Times article. “I just don’t think we’ve even reached our full potential audience yet.”

 

 

Students at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Bookstore decorate cookies at the recent College Con event.

Students at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Bookstore decorate cookies at the recent College Con event.

 

It was that potential that the College Con promotion was designed to reach. “It’s a category, that’s been growing for us, as it has for the entire market,” explains Barnes & Noble College Project Manager for Trade Books, Stephen Larrison. “We held comic promotions in the previous summer, but we really wanted to offer something for students during the school year, both in our larger academic super stores and our smaller bookstores that don’t typically carry a large inventory of trade books.”

 

In all, over 150 stores across the country participated in the promotion — designed to coincide with the New York Comic Con event and a fall television season bristling with comic-themed shows. “That also gave us access to themed signage, promotional materials and giveaways from our publishing partners like Marvel, DC Comics, Image Comics and Valliant Entertainment,” Larrison says. Students visiting the participating stores could also get in the spirit of the event with coloring sheets and craft ideas under the banner of #fanartfriday, and through a series of interview profiles featuring comic book writers such as Jill Thompson (Wonder Woman: The True Amazon), Margaret Atwood (Angel Catbird Vol. 1) and Jason Aaron (Doctor Strange Vol. 1) on the student blog, The College Juice. “I think a lot of the growth is coming from just the breadth of stories in the genre,” Larrison explains, citing titles like Marjorie Liu’s Monstress. “They represent a new type of storytelling, and are finding an audience that didn’t necessarily buy superhero comics before.”

 

He points to the acceptance of graphic novels as a legitimate art form in the 1980s after the publication of Art Spiegelman’s genre shattering Maus. Since then, the diversity and breadth of the form has grown exponentially: Roz Chast’s graphic-novel memoir about parental care, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, and Marvel’s new series, Ms. Marvel, about a super heroine Muslim girl living in Jersey City, was the publisher’s runaway hit. There’s even the French graphic novel titled Girl in Dior, which is more about couture than crime fighting. “It’s not at all what I call ‘tights and capes,’” says the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire’s Picconatto, a self-confessed comic book nerd. “There are graphic novels that read just as true and heart wrenching as a novel by Hemingway or Faulkner,” he stresses, “and we even have instructors at the school who use graphic novels as a teaching aid in their class rooms.”

 

 

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Broadening the Appeal

Barnes & Noble College hopes that events like College Con will help the comic genre broaden its base from just those ‘in the know’ to include new fans, such as women. That growing movement is also reflected in its sales figures. Graphic novels in the general book trade grew 23 percent to $350 million last year, while sales in the specialized comic book market grew in single digits. Larrison sees the connection. “There’s just a greater accessibility to graphic novels now,” he says, “and the consumer demographic is definitely changing because of that — fans going to Comic Con-type events, for example, are now more likely to be female and college educated.”

 

There could be another reason why graphic novels appeal to students — the genre adapts beautifully to tablets and even smartphones. Digital sales for comics and graphic novels totaled $90 million in 2013, compared with just $70 million in 2012. This fall, Marvel is putting some $165 million behind promoting its latest ambassador; acclaimed neurosurgeon turned protector of the galaxy, Doctor Strange. But while blockbusters have helped boost the mainstream appeal of comics, the real success may lie in the category itself. “Someone who has gone to an X-Men movie might want to come into the store and find out what else is interesting to them, and frankly, that gets them reading,” explains Picconatto. “We increasingly live in a world where 140 characters or less is the expanse of our attention — and if comics are what is going to get them to read, then that’s a good thing,” he adds.

 

It’s such a good thing that Picconatto struggles to answer when asked his favorite title from the genre. “Well, there’s Jeff Smith’s Bone, you can enjoy that as an adult — and yet I can also sit down with my 12-year-old nephew and he’ll also get so much from it. It’s such a great, fantastical story and the art is just wonderful. And then the flip side of that is a series like Watchmen,” he says, reverently, “Now, that’s just really great literature.”

 

 

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