An awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time over the past several years talking about how different American mainstream comics are from the way they used to be, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This is often done with a stated or implied preference for older comics (more rarely, the preference is for the new stuff). But without making a value judgment, it seems to me that one significant difference between current and past Marvel and DC comics has not been mentioned.
That is this: in the Silver Age, and through to probably the eighties, superhero comics were seen as belonging to or at least coming out of a certain kind of subculture. Specifically, the science fiction/fantasy/horror subculture. These comics were heirs to the old pulps, and they knew it. An extended run on Doctor Strange could be an homage to H.P Lovecraft, complete with some issues scripted by pulp and comics veteran Gardner Fox. Comics writers were steeped in the lore of the pulps, and of their fandom — look through any comic written by Roy Thomas to see what I mean. It was as though a lot of the writers accepted that they had a large juvenile audience, but also a strong (if secondary) audience of sf fans. They were probably right.
On the other hand, starting with the rise of Image and the artists involved, comics began to re-imagine their audience and their relation to the culture at large. Rob Liefeld appeared in a jeans commercial. Todd MacFarlane bought into a hockey team. These creators had no interest in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy fiction. They marketed their comics in Hollywood, looking to score movie deals, TV deals, animation deals. By definition, comics were no longer looking to the subculture. They were developing a more mainstream orientation.
Nowadays, Marvel and DC still hire fantasy, sf and horror writers when they can: Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Michael Moorcock. But they're not advertised as fantasy writers; they're advertised as prose writers. Real writers. Like mystery writers, or the TV writers. The sf subculture no longer seems to register. There are good reasons for that.
When DC comics tried to launch an imprint for sf comics to sit alongside their Vertigo imprint of (then) dark fantasy and (now) crime and horror comics, the line didn't last. Science fiction readers were not turning to comics. Personally, I used to shop at a sadly now nonexistent store which stocked both sf/fantasy novels and a wide range of comics. I bought both. Most other customers stuck to one or the other. There was no easy crossover of readership.
With all the discussion of the audiences comics have lost — and there's no doubt that mainstream sales are down considerably from the pre-Image era — it may be that the most significant is the sf/fantasy readership. Lacking them, superhero comics lack something of their identity. Who are you writing for when you write a superhero book? Superhero fans, yes. But there aren't that many of them. Who else? The logical answer would be: people who have a similar interest in big ideas, in adventure stories, in non-realist stories. People who like to see real characters, but in very unreal situations.
Without that audience, not only does the superhero market shrink, but it becomes more homogenous. Cosmic heroes can't attract a readership. Neither can fantasy-oriented characters, even old standbys like Doctor Strange or Thor.
On the other hand, this trend arguably began at the height of the collector-driven craze of the early 90s. Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, in The Comics Book Heroes, note that at this time DC in particular seemed to be trying to make all of their characters fit the same basic template: lone angry white male in his early twenties. It didn't really work. But in retrospect, it might represent the first time the comics market began to turn its back squarely on one traditional part of its reader base (and thus of its creator base) and look to the wider world beyond.
For better or worse. The question remains: is there a mainstream readership for traditional, or even reinvented, superhero comics? If there is, they've been very slow at comign forward.