Definitely one of the best things that companies can do to bring in readers is to simplify titles and variants. After being rather heavily into X-Men in the early nineties I started waning and eventually dropped off with only a few random purchases of various books every few months. Fast-forward to the past few years, I've been meaning to get back into comics and don't need any hand-holding for most titles, but the problem of seperating what the primary books are is getting harder and harder.
Almost everything comes out in three or four various series set either in alternate universes or focusing on different characters either individually (e.g. Wolverine) or groups(e.g. the Amazing X-Men team might have Beast, Cyclops, and Kitty Pryde while the Uncanny X-Men team has Gambit, Rogue, and Psylocke) or what have you. It might be easy to tell those focuses on an individual character away from the pack, but it can get harder with more similiarly named titles (right now Marvel prints Uncanny X-Men,
X-treme X-Men, New X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Ultimate X-Men and just plain X-Men). Even worse is that series are all too frequently re-numbered making it a bit hard to go by number ("hmm... well since Ultimate X-Men is #14 and Uncanny is #402 I'm betting that it's the classic one"). Casual fans who have a basic idea of what they like or may be more familiar with the characters as they're used in other properties and want to try the comic will likely feel even more daunted in their search. This isn't even considering those who want to be certain they get everything relating to a particular group of titles which can be a massive undertaking (as an example my comic shop offers the ability to subscribe to say, all the X-Men and related titles, mini-series, and one-shots coming out a month and for their discount purposes they count this as 16 titles monthly with the actual number averaging up around 20).
In a similiar vein the larger problem for many people is the extensive backstory. Not that it's a bad thing, but a lot of people who might want to pick up an issue for a few dollars might have a bit of a problem trying to follow years of plot developments that they haven't read about. Recent fans who want to learn more can often find it daunting to track down copies of earlier storylines even with trade paperback collections existing. Even worse is the reader who merely wants to read older issues, rather than collect them as the collecting market has driven prices up beyond the reach of most casual fans. The Ultimate line is a good step in the right direction (I find it rather flawed myself, but still...) to solving this and bringing people in "at the beginning", but something like this would definitely seem to help given the number of times I've heard this complaint. Despite this, no number of relaunches free of past continuity will ever suceed in the long run. They only push it back for a little while (Update: While I don't personally follow the Ultimate line myself the continuity is definitely buidling up so that instead of merely having "new" versions of everything we now just have two alternate realities existing sort-of side-by-side). The upcoming Marvel Age titles are supposedly going to be continuity-free and largely self-contained, but we'll have to see how well that works out when it comes out.
Finally is price. The last trip to the comic store I tagged pretty much everything at around $3 or so and for your hard-earned cash you can expect around 30 pages. Of course about 7 of those pages are ads. You also have a page for subscriptions, another for letters, and quite possibly one mentioning other titles from the same publisher. Now, after cutting things down to the readable part I've got about 22 pages (which is typically the standard number of story pages in a monthly comic) of nothing but pure comic joy to read. This ends up working out to about 13 cents a page or so. Despite how alluring this is the idea of picking up an interesting title just isn't there. It's not just about spending a lot for a whole mess of titles, but each one costs a pretty penny itself, even more if you start following it regularly. Maybe repricing and trimming the ads for some of the more popular comics would cause more people to start reading and once they start the habit it'll be a lot easier to get them to pony up for more (and of course, more expensive) titles. Cut the filler and drop the price. Look at some of the more popular manga "phonebooks" such as Shonen Jump, Young Jump and related. Despite often being printed on the cheapest paper available and not really having the best in plots and stories you get tremendous value for your money. Maybe this is part of the reason (aside from the numerous other ones I won't go into) that they tend to do a lot better than comics in the US. Recent sales of Shonen Jump in the US have been very high in the newstand market, running somewhere in the realm of 300,000 issues a month I believe when the best-selling American comic tends to do maybe 100,000 and drop off quickly from there. They may not be nearly as well written, but they bring in the readers and bring in valuable revenue to the publisher allowing them to make more quality products. Don't think that I'm saying that everything should be cheap crap to turn a quick buck, but what if there was crap that sold well enough that 1)more people are reading comic, even if they're pathetic crap they stand a better chance of coming on to quality later and 2)more money is available for higher-quality work... hopefully at prices that will also bring in more readers since it's no longer a $50/wk hobby. Kinda hard to get people hooked early on when you probably won't have the cash until you're out of college.
I still think that new readers can be brought in and old ones brought back if only a few changes were made. However it seems very unlikely that they ever will.
It's been a long time since I wrote this. I've now fully reabsorbed myself back into the comic lifestlye spending around $50/month on my obssession and getting a nice fat stack delivered to my door every month. Two and a half stuffed longboxes later my opinions have changed a bit, but not completely. Trades have helped a great deal into getting more regular readers to come into the hobby as they now have a solid, reprinted way to re-read earlier issues. The recent Spider-Man cd-rom was an idea of pure genius where you can now buy almost the entire run of The Amazing Spider-Man for $50. Comic fans are being given plenty of new ways to catch up.
On the flip side series often aren't lasting long enough to be collected or the companies are pretty slow about it. El Cazador launched quite well, but sank with CrossGen. Almost all of the DC Focus line went away with the only good book from the line Hard Time going onto hiatus at present. Gimmicky cross-overs and "events" are becoming more and more common. New, original, interesting series don't sell well quickly and get the axe faster than a critically-acclaimed show on Fox. Just being able to read the cool new stuff and find out what is worth reading requires at least a bit of work each month keeping track of the new releases coming in the next few months and being certain you start buying it soon lest it vanish instantly. I know that when I came back it required a few months of work trying to track down what the current state of the industry was, what good books were out there and then buying up tons of back issues and trades to get a solid pull going. Vigilance is key as well lest I forget which writer is changing onto which book in which month or when all of the Superman books are going to be used for a cross-over (thus making it pointless to be buying only one of the three titles and getting a third of the story I don't care about). It makes for a confusing, poorly-managed system that relies heavily on rumours and speculation.
My advice to someone wanting to get into comics today is to find a friend or group that knows and loves quality comics (no, not just super-hero comics or just indie books but a good sampling of the best out there) and read some of theirs. Get advice and ideas. Whenever you find something you like trawl around to find what the people who like that also like or are talking about. Learn to pick out the gems from smaller publishers who don't have an entire line running promotion or a recent feature film (e.g. the wonderful Stray Bullets). Find some writers that you love and become obsessive for their new work (Warren Ellis has a great online presence and consequently a horde of highly devoted fans, Brian K. Vaughn has a good enough record that he comes pretty close to just pissing gold) but more importantly their older work and creator-owned work at smaller companies (e.g. Greg Rucka is not the man who writes Adventures of Superman, or even just the wonderful Gotham Central, he's the fucking genius who writes Queen & Country). Learn to follow collaboraters who might express a similar style (e.g. Rucka is definitely the man, but so is his Gotham Central co-creator Ed Brubaker whose wonderful, lauded, complex, nuanced super-powered spy noir Sleeper just finished, but barely had an audience for it's first year despite massive critical praise). But if you're too lazy for that here are some of my personal picks:
- 100 Bullets : Plenty of trades and a flow that reads very well in them. In essence it all starts off with an offer to someone who has been greviously wronged from the enigmatic Agent Graves who has an attache case containing airtight evidence of the guilty party, a 9mm pistol, 100 completely untraceable bullets and complete carte blance to do whatever you will. A limited series of 100 issues that is just over the half-way mark and going deeper into issues of just why he does this.
- Fables : Classic fable and fairy tale characters have been forced out of their homelands and into our world where they secretly live among us. Wonderful writing and an engrossing continuing storyline have made this a top-notch title since it launched.
- Y: The Last Man : Yorick and his monkey Ampersand are the only two living mammalian males on the planet. A simple concept done wonderfully and considering the realistic ramifications of what might occur rather than being some juvenile sex-fest.
- Stray Bullets : A crime comic of a different sort that concentrates instead on the way that people hurt each other, on the victims of petty and hurtful acts by people against other people rather than criminals. Absolutely wonderful.
- Gotham Central : A police procedural comic that investigates what life is like for the police of Gotham City and how they deal with the twin burdens of Batman and his rogue's gallery not with powers or super-human will... but just as cops trying to do their jobs.
- Powers : Brian Michael Bendis has been writing this for what feels like a damn long time now so try not to get confused by the renumbering that occured when it came over to Marvel's Icon imprint. In a nutshell Powers tells the story of two police detectives who investigate homicides involving super heroes. Again, like many of the best concepts it sounds simple, but is packed to the brim with depth (e.g. in a world where using powers are illegal, yet super-powered criminals are all too willing to use them how do cops stand a chance when even those with powers are forbidden from using them?).
- Ex Machina : The one and only superhero to ever exist in the "real world" has retired and in a controversial election has become the mayor of New York City. A wonderful series about politics, the post-9/11 world, what it's like to have super-powers in the real world, science-fiction, and just about everything else.
- Queen & Country : A spy comic where the focus is on character, writing, and realism over James Bond style action. More scenes are written taking place in offices than exotic locales and an assasination is more likely to be followed by psychiatric counseling, heavy drinking, and misery than a double entendre and a chase scene.
- The Goon : Best described as a sort of comedic, actiony mix of Hellboy and Evil Dead. It's funny, exciting, and has zombies and other wonderful beasties in it. Read an issue and try not to love it.
- Astonishing X-Men : THE X-Men book to be reading at the moment. Then again, the only one with quality writing, but in this case quality is top-notch writing by Joss Whedon with wonderful art from John Cassaday.
- The Walking Dead : A wonderful zombie movie in comic book form. It's a zombie book where the humans are the key and some issues don't even have any zombies in them. A certifiable hit whose readership keeps going up every week (and me one of the smug bastards who has been with it since the beginning).
I only listed a small selection of the excellent comics out there at the moment and even then only books that are currently coming out regularly with no mention of the many excellent mini-series and books that have ended or publishing very, very erratically (e.g. the excellent alternate history with magic in holy grail mystery Rex Mundi). Likewise I've not mentioned Hellboy or the Hellboy without Hellboy series of mini-series B.P.R.D.. This is just the tip of the iceberg so go out and prove that new readers can get into comics.