Thursday, 25 November 2010

Never Mind New Readers, Bring On The Confusing Comics!

Last Monday Timothy Callahan's When World's Collide column on Comic Book Resources featured Callahan and Matt Seneca discussing Grant Morrison's Batman run.  It's a very interesting discussion and I urge you to check it out if you're a Morrison fan or a Bat-fan.  Upon reading it, one point in particular stood out for me.  While discussing the aspects of the run that didn't work for him Seneca criticises the overly self-referential and continuity heavy nature of Morrison's writing and argues "if a new reader can't understand a comic, it's not that good."  He even gives an example to support this view:
Before you reproach me for saying that about these particular comics, let me tell you: today as a test I gave "Batman and Robin" #16 to someone I think is pretty smart who hasn't read any Batman comics since she was a kid, and she couldn't make heads or tails of it. That's a company's flagship book simply not doing its job.
This concern over the accessibility of mainstream superhero comics to the new or casual reader seems to crop up again and again on message boards and in comic shops, amongst fans and creators.  I would argue however that we should worry less about the new reader and more about enjoying having the opportunity to  immerse ourselves in the dense, convoluted and utterly fascinating worlds that DC and Marvel have created over the course of over seventy years.

You don't have to have read this story to understand Grant Morrison's Batman, but it sure helps!

Every now and again, especially when there's a comic related film to promote, DC and Marvel will trumpet the fact that certain books have reached a "jumping on point" for new readers.  In fact Marvel's upcoming series of "Marvel Point One" issues aim to do exactly that.  Other examples of these "jumping on"  points could be a new creative team, a new status quo, a return to the old status quo or even a complete continuity reboot.  The most famous example of such a reboot was of course DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths which spring cleaned every confusing corner of the DC Universe and pretty much started everything again from scratch.  Marvel have never had such a company wide continuity reshuffle but that hasn't stopped them from monkeying around with their character's origins in a bid to attract new readers.  Some of these attempts have been very successful (Ultimate Spider-Man) others have been less successful (Spider-Man: Chapter One).

I'm not saying that such attempts should never have been made.  From a business point of view it makes perfect sense for DC and Marvel to bring in as many new readers in whatever way they can.  Creatively speaking it's nice to have a shake up every now and again, although there's an ongoing debate among fans whether superhero comics get shaken up too much or not enough.  But despite this I do think that fans concern themselves too much with whether their favourite comics are attracting new readers or not.  How many online critics and commentators have you read lamenting, like Seneca in the aforementioned discussion, that a certain comic risks alienating new readers with its convoluted plot and self-referential nature?  I would say, never mind what these hypothetical new readers think.  What do YOU think?

When these "new readers" are discussed in blogs or in forums then a certain type of person is usually described.  We're usually presented with an image of a person who's never read a comic and goes to see The Dark Knight or Iron Man.  This person is so moved by their cinematic experience that they rush at the earliest opportunity to their nearest comic shop to purchase the latest Batman/Iron Man issue.  You'd imagine that the last thing they'd want to find is a load of impenetrable gobble-dee-gook referencing past issues and dead characters.  But think about it for a moment.  Do you actually know anyone who has suddenly started following a series after watching a superhero film, despite never showing any previous  interest towards superhero comics, or indeed any sort of comics?  I'm not saying it's never happened but I can't imagine DC or Marvel really getting a significant sales spike from this type of person.

The appeal of superhero comics to children is also usually a concern when discussing new readers.  Surely children, or rather the children's parents, are going to get put off by the adult themes and violent content of a lot of mainstream superhero comics?  I would put myself forward as counter argument against this reasoning.  I was born in 1981 and really started getting into superhero comics in  about '88 and '89, just in time for Tim Burton's Batman movie.  So I was a child getting into comics in the late '80s and early '90s, the period in which "grim 'n' gritty" were the comic industries' buzzwords of choice.  The writers were trying to be Frank Miller and Alan Moore and the artists were trying to be Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld.  Capes were out and guns, boobs and personality disorders were in.  I read Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham when I was ten years old.  I'd be hard pressed to find any comic on the stands today starring a mainstream superhero that had more boobs and guts flying out of every panel, but it certainly didn't put me off comics.

A gratuitous butt shot of Death's Head II and Tuck from Liam Sharp and Simon Bisley on the cover of Marvel UK's Overkill #50 (1994).  To me this really does embody early '90s comics at their most ridiculous.

In fact I would urge every comic fan concerned about the accessibility of modern superhero comics to think back to when you were a child getting your first taste of the genre.  Can you honestly say that everyone of those early comics that you read were completely self-contained stories?  I have to say that for me, part of the thrill was feeling that you were dipping into something huge.  These characters had adventures and experiences that were alluded to but never fully explained, just like real people.  Putting a comic down without the full picture but with a desire to seek out previous or subsequent chapters is not a bad thing.  It's probably this desire to find explanations and complete the story that propelled most comic fans into a lifetime of collecting.

Attracting new readers is of course an important concern.  There are many possible reasons for the fact that monthly pamphlet style comic books just aren't as popular as they used to be.  But we fans do ourselves no favours when we try and second guess what "new readers" want.  We were new readers once too!  Why do we feel that what attracts so many of us to superhero comics, the continuity and the sense of history, must be what's putting off all these potential new readers?  Is our self loathing so great?

I realise I've probably made a few sweeping statements and generalisations during the course of this blog post, but no more so than when fans discuss the ever elusive "new readers."  Let's forget about the new or casual readers, let's stop fretting about what "they" want, let's concentrate on what we want.  It doesn't matter if a story is confusing and dependant on seventy years of continuity, that's half the fun of superhero comics!  Hardly any other medium or genre has seventy years worth of continuity to draw on.  It's one of the things that makes superhero comics so appealing, even to "new readers."

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Check Out The Comics Cube!

Ever wondered who the most influential comics writers were?  Check out Duy Tano's The Comics Cube! where Duy is currently counting down The Top Ten Most Influential Comics Writers.  It's a very surprising list, for example I initially expected Alan Moore and Stan Lee to be a lot higher, but it's difficult to disagree with Duy's well reasoned arguments for each writer's position.  It's also a very informative list and it's left me wanting to check out more stuff by writers such as Will Eisner and Carl Barks.  Duy's currently reached Number 3 on his list and I'm eagerly awaiting Number One.  Check it out!

Superman and The Spirit by Will Eisner from Superman #400 (1984)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Justice League of America Vs. The Beano

This pic is completely drawn by me, unlike my previous post, Justice League Vs. Eastenders, which was half my drawings and half the original cover.  It's based on the cover of Justice League of America #21 (1963) by Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson.  Calamity James, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, Plug, Baby-Face Finlayson and Minnie the Minx are all the property of D.C. Thomson & Co.

I've discussed my fondness for The Beano in a previous post.  The Beano pretty much got me into comics.  I picked up a recent copy a couple of weeks ago and I'm pleased to say it hasn't lost any of its wit and charm after all these years.

I also checked out The Beano's sister comic, The Dandy and it's new look.  I was very impressed.  Previous attempts to make The Dandy appeal to a modern audience have felt very forced.  At one point it was called Dandy Xtreme and asked the reader 'Can you handle it?' on the cover of every issue.  Yeah, thanks Grandad, I probably can.  The latest makeover is much better.  The numerous references to celebrities gives it a distinctly modern feel and there seems to be more fart gags than when I was a kid.  But the humour is very British, very silly, very recognisable as The Dandy, and most importantly very funny.  Desperate Dan is actually funnier now than when I was a kid.  If you get a chance, check it out.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Justice League of America Vs. Eastenders

Ever wondered what would happen if the U.S.A's mightiest superteam met the stars of the U.K.'s most miserable soap opera....?

This was originally the cover of Justice League of America #21 (1963) by Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson.

Dot Branning, Ian Beale, Phil Mitchell, Pat Evans, Patrick Trueman and Heather Trott are all drawn by me.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Superman Vs. Skyline

I saw a trailer for Skyline the other day, this trailer in fact....

I can't really tell if it's going to be any good or not, but it did get me thinking about the new Superman movie.  Imagine a trailer similar to this one.  It starts with a group of ordinary people like you or me, waking up and gradually realising that their lives have changed overnight.  Huge ships are appearing in the sky and abducting people in columns of light.  Metal behemoths are striding across the city, stomping everything in their path and plucking people at random off the street with huge tentacles.   All this is interspersed with news footage and scenes of the alien menace attacking every major city across the globe.  The enemies' faces remains unseen, their motives a mystery.  Panic reigns as people desperately try to flee the cities any way they can.  News readers are weeping, people are kneeling and praying in the street, shops and homes are looted.  Lovers are torn away from each other, parents scream desperately for their children.  All hope is lost.  Amidst all the chaos there is one man slowly walking against the flow of terrified people running for their lives.  His pace quickens, he removes his glasses and the camera closes in as he rips open his shirt to reveal a familiar symbol.  John Williams' Superman Theme begins to play.....

I would love to see Zack Snyder do something like this with his Superman movie.  One of the great things about The Dark Knight is that Christopher Nolan doesn't seem to have set out to make a superhero movie.  He made a crime thriller and stuck Batman and the Joker in it.   We then got to see how the world of the crime thriller was changed by the presence of these two larger than life characters.  I reckon the same could be done with Superman.  Snyder needs to make the best sci-fi/invasion thriller he possibly can, and then stick Superman in it and see how that kind of film is changed by his presence.  At the very least it'll give Superman the chance to face the kind of threat he's never faced before on screen, and give us the chance to see a kind of Superman film we've never seen before.

What do you think?

Thursday, 4 November 2010