Raina Telgemeier
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Behind the Panel: I have seen the future of comics, and it is Raina Telgemeier

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Oct 1, 2019

Having a weekly column is an incredibly rewarding experience … until you don't have a clue about what to write about.

That's what happened to me this week. Aside from a warning to everyone attending NYCC to buy their coffee outside the Javits so as to not be trapped inside the world's longest Starbucks line, my idea tank was running on empty. Then I noticed my nine year-old daughter in the living room reading a book that had her absolutely entranced. It was the new graphic novel Guts by New York Times Bestselling cartoonist Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters, Ghosts). When I asked my daughter what the book she was reading was about, she shushed me so she could keep reading.

I was stunned in the very best way, because despite my best efforts, this nerd has failed spectacularly at getting his girls interested in comics. It just hasn't clicked. Until now.

Scholastic/Graphix

Here she was, devouring a graphic novel in a single reading, just like her old man used to do to a stack of comics each NCBD. I walked away, silently proud to see the nerdy gene finally manifesting itself. That same night, I came across a story by Heidi MacDonald of The Beat that showed Guts was the bestselling book in America that week. Not bestselling graphic novel, bestselling BOOK. Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic that specializes in graphic novels for young readers, had ordered a print run of a million copies of Guts for its debut earlier this month.

Given the early sales returns and the increasing demand for any Telgemeier book ever since her first hit book, Smile, that big printing order sure seems like a smart move. Imagine anything from Marvel, DC, Image or any other comic book publisher getting even half of an initial print order that large for anything they publish that didn't have 64 different variant covers. It blows my mind.

And when I read the book, it became crystal clear why there is such huge demand for it.

It's a wonderful story (autobiographical, much like Smile and her first sequel, Sisters) about friendships, family and the anxiety children have, about everything from honesty to nausea. It's insightful, heartfelt and funny, too. By the time I got to the end, I could see why my daughter was so absorbed in the story. She shares some of the same fears that Raina does in Guts and she's just starting to see cliques and social circles begin to form at her school. When I asked her what was it she enjoyed about the story, she said it felt real, like it could really happen. She also said the pictures made the story come 'alive.' I'm certain she's not the only kid who sees a bit of themselves within the panels Telgemeier draws with such minimalist brilliance.

These graphic novels are a phenomenon, with 18 million copies in print over 22 different languages. Elementary and middle school girls everywhere are reading Telgemeier's work and sharing them; my daughter first read Smile because a friend lent it to her (Thanks, Chloe!). All I can think of is why Marvel and DC and Image and IDW aren't pushing all their chips in to the middle to reach this burgeoning group of readers. That's the future of comics: young girls and boys who have no interest (at least not yet) in superhero stories featuring their parents' heroes. Variant covers and gimmicky events catering to legacy readers are just a band-aid on a gaping wound affecting an industry that can't figure out how to save itself from the same destructive publishing patterns that have dragged the biz down for decades.

Credit: Mike Avila

Thankfully, the Big Two seem to be paying attention to Telgemeier's sales.

DC has made a strong push with its DC Zoom and Ink books, which target middle grade and young adult readers, respectively. Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo's Teen Titans: Ravens novel is just superb and a great entry point for someone who knows nothing about the Titans. Mariko Tamaki's Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is another winner.

Marvel's YA books, mainly based on MCU characters, also have some strong examples. But stories about a super-spy Black Widow may not float the boat for younger readers who want more relatable stories. Marvel and DC have to stretch beyond its superhero boundaries, or it risks missing out on a potentially industry-saving new generation of readers.

It's also worth noting that Guts is a 224-page graphic novel that lists for $12.99. Compare that with $3.99-$4.99 cover prices for Marvel and DC issues and then you tell me why it's hard to get new readers into comics. I can play Armchair Publisher with the best of 'em, but I know the struggles of the comics industry are real and complicated. But here's something that isn't hard to understand.

Raina Telgemeier has figured out how to connect to a large audience of kids who want graphic novel stories that lets them see a little bit of themselves within the panels, and that help them make some sense of the crazy world they're starting to learn about. I know Marvel recently regained the rights to the X-Men: Misfits manga Telgemeier did a decade ago before she become a comics superstar and plans to reprint it. That's great. But if I were Marvel or DC, I'd back up the Brinks truck to get her to write new stories about any characters she wants.

If/when that happens, my daughter and I will be lining up to buy whatever she writes.

If you have any great graphic novel suggestions for under-12 year-old kids, feel free to share in the comments. I'm always looking for good recs to pass on to my kids. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, too. Feedback is a wonderful thing.

Here's your weekly reminder that Behind the Panel is a video and audio series, too. Our video series is chock-full of my in-depth interviews with amazing comic book creators. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.

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