If you think of words like "Biff!" and "Pow!" when you think of comic books, please pardon me a moment while I go weep softly in a corner. I don't really blame Adam West for the current state of my favorite artistic medium, but it's a little frustrating to be a comics reader today.
The fact that I even need to call myself "a comics reader" or "a comics fan" is part of the problem. Just about everybody reads books, magazines, or newspapers; people don't call themselves "book readers" generally. This is because the active readership of comics in North America is depressingly small -- less than 500,000 people, which is something like one in every thousand people (according to Scott McCloud, author or Reinventing Comics). Why don't more people read comics?
A short (and perhaps deceptively oversimplified) answer is: (1) the content and format of comics today doesn't appeal to enough of the population; (2) several events in the 1950's damaged the diversity of genres once available in American comics, allowing only comics deemed acceptable for young boys to survive for a while; (3) other forms of entertainment with broad appeal have pulled in great audiences (perhaps away from comics); (4) some impractical business decisions have injured the business and sales end of things. For an in-depth description of the second part of this answer, check out the chapter on "Community Standards" in the aforementioned Reinventing Comics. For a pretty concise and accurate description of the third and fourth parts of this answer, check out this forum post with notable comments by Tom Spurgeon at comicon.com. I am personally most interested in analyzing the first part of this answer: why the content and format of comics don't appeal to people more, and how to give comics broader and greater appeal.
I personally feel that the two biggest problems with comics today are that the vast majority of comics are about superheroes, and that the vast majority of comics are still released as (usually overpriced) short issues or "pamphlets." What these two problems boil down to, as far as I can tell, is an unwillingness (or inability, due to sponsorship or other factors) to take chances and try new things in comics. Don't misinterpret this: I'm not saying that creators should stop making superhero comics, or that publishers should stop making monthly issues. I do, however, advocate drastically de-emphasizing both of these practices, and placing an increased emphasis on various other practices.
Superheroes and children's stories are practically synonymous with comics, as far as those who don't read comics are concerned (and even as far as many comics fans are concerned). I was talking to a friend about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund recently, a non-profit organization that offers legal aid to members of the comic book industry suffering from violations of their Constitutional rights; the Fund was in the process of defending a retailer who'd been brought up on charges of obscenity and corruption of minors for having sexually explicit Japanese comics in a section of his store reserved for customers over 18 years of age -- just down the street from an adult book store. My friend took the prosecutor's side, saying that pornography is more acceptable than sexually explicit comics because it's intended for an adult audience, while comics books are traditionally aimed at a children.
I, of course, immediately killed my friend with my bare hands in a red haze of fury. Well, no, I didn't, but I thought about it for a moment (must be all those violent superhero comics I read as a kid).
This is the public perception that comics, as an industry and a medium, is up against. Japanese comics do not have the same turbulent history and stigma as American comics, so adults read them regularly, and sexually explicit comics are not seen as targeting a young audience. The U.S. once had a diversity of genres in comics, and Japan still does, so it can't be reasonably argued that comics are inherently limited to childish genres. And while many maintain that comics are incapable of containing any literary artistic merit, Art Spiegelman's Maus managed to win a Pulitzer; while you're checking that out, take a look at The Adventures of Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, Will Eisner's A Contract With God, or Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. To quote something Neil Gaiman said at a reading of his work in New York City, the best way to change public opinion of comics is "to make good comics."
But I also think that comic stories are being held back by their main method of presentation, the monthly serial. This links with the issue of public perception again: people have set idea in their minds of what a comic book looks like, and changing the format challenges that impression. Probably most notably, a trade paperback or graphic novel seems more like a "regular" book, which can go miles in legitimizing a work in the eyes of someone who thinks of comics only as silly little children's pamphlets. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels are also usually more reasonably priced than monthly issues (based on page count).
The paperback format is not the only alternative format for comic books, of course. Scott McCloud writes prolifically on the future of comics online, how web comics effectively cut out the middleman and introduce opportunities for new artistic avenues. Many aspiring comics creators have embraced this philosophy, as in the case of Jason Lex's experimental comics project, Aweful Science Fair, at opi8.com. (Or as with this comic site -- though we haven't tinkered as much with form yet as folks like McCloud and Lex have.)
Another alternative format is the magazine, which Marvel Comics recently attempted with its Ultimate Marvel Magazine. Unfortunately, many retailers just placed that magazine with the rest of the comics in the store, negating one major benefit of the format: it's not a regular comic, and might seem a more legitimate media as a result. Mad Magazine has been producing comics within its pages with reasonable success for years now, however, and Shannon Wheeler will be releasing his comic Too Much Coffee Man in magazine format from now on (he also presents a weekly strip on his web site).
Chris Ware alters the format of his Acme Novelty Library with a reckless abandon, from small, almost square-shaped issues, to giant issues that might not fit in your backpack with the rest of your comics purchases, to thick, trade-paperback size issues for an entire season. The physical content of his comics also challenges old conventions, changing the rules of panels and the way pages are to be read.
A variety of other potential formats for comic stories must exist; and as far as I'm concerned, we should explore as many as possible. I'm trying to do my part by starting a comics literary magazine at my university, produced by a "Comic Creators Collective" student organization. Some members of the organization have already started suggesting new ideas for production and distribution of comics that we can try, and we haven't even had the first meeting yet. Fortunately, what this medium lacks in numbers of readers, it makes up for in enthusiasm and creativity of readers.
What the comics world needs, as far as I can tell, is change and innovation. And as long as the comics world still needs these things, I refuse to shut up about what comics need. This medium can handle just about any subject matter, emotional affectation, theme, message, or character; and while it has demonstrated the truth in that statement, it's not meeting a fraction of its potential. I know there are people out there who are just as passionate about the medium as I am (and those who are more passionate, and those just one step up from them who have mental health issues). I encourage them to try whatever crazy ideas are floating around in their heads and to actively formulate new ideas. And I encourage would-be comics creators and casual comics readers alike to support the great ideas already being produced, and to try something new.
Discuss this absurdly long column in the CXM Forums or email Jason with your comments.