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."


  1. I think you put forth a good argument for more in-depth stories here Paul. My friend and I once had a discussion about this very topic and I kind of came to the conclusion that if someone wants to find about a character/story, they will do the legwork. The internet, back issues, and the glut of trades nowadays makes it pretty darn easy for people to find out about what happened previously in comics.

    Geoff Johns also had an interview about this type of concern, and he simply said people aren't as lost as they're made out to be. I tend to agree, but I'm a little biased, given my ingrained knowledge of comic related junk.

    Great post (as usual)!

  2. Thanks dude. You're quite right about the 'net, the back issues and the trades. At the risk of sounding like an old man, we didn't have Wikipedia and Ebay in our day and we figured it out.

  3. An interesting post, which I find more interesting by the fact that your general arguments are pretty different from my general arguments. I think we'd come to similar conclusions when we get to the details, though.

    In terms of accessibility, I think there are different levels. My first comic ever was SILVER SURFER #51, which was smack-dab in the middle of the INFINITY GAUNTLET, and that was pretty accessible. But there were also other comics that weren't written in such an accessible way. (THE X-MEN were the prime example of this, sometimes with plot points that would get introduced in issue x and not picked up on until issue x+6.) I think that a lot of the comics today are structured so they fit in trades, or they'd be adaptable into a movie, so if you're walking into the middle of a story, you naturally would be confused. We had the advantage of reader-friendly writers; you could pick up everything you needed to know in a story via osmosis. I don't think kids today have that advantage, with the exception of some titles, and I actually do think that some writers take it for granted that people will look up on Wikipedia anything they didn't get.

    As for the kids, I do think that comics should be written in a layered, all-ages manner. Although I have no problem with gore and violence - kids see much worse in their video games, and I don't see how this can be denied - the subject of sex is very iffy to me. I'm cool with Peter Parker drunkenly hooking up with Michele Gonzales or waking up next to the Black Cat; kids these days know that couples end up in bed together, and sometimes they end up naked in bed together. But scenes like the Sue Dibny rape or Norman Osborn's o-face as he gives it to Gwen Stacy with her sexual arching neck, those cross the line for me, because that's the type of thing a child doesn't take for granted. Hypothetically, can you imagine giving an 8-year-old the entire run of Justice League, and then you want them to work their way to INFINITE CRISIS, but then in the middle, you have to deal with giving them IDENTITY CRISIS, and you're a parent who doesn't want your kid asking what Doctor Light is doing to Sue Dibny, that it's something he can deal with when he's 12, 14, but certainly not at 8? What are you gonna do? Skip IdC over completely? You can't; it's too heavily referenced.

    In the end, I think the solution is not to try to guess what the new readers and the kids want, but what we, as kids, would have liked to read. And for my money, I'll tell you what I really want: layered comics that a kid could get, but an adult would get on a different level, that is (and I cannot stress this point enough) COMPRESSED. I want to feel like I'm getting as complete a story in as little space as possible. I just read an interview with Art Spiegelman, and he said that MAUS NEEDEd to be as long as it was, but then there's a bunch of other cartoonists just padding their stories out so it fits in the bookstore. And I agree. If I were a kid, I would want as much bang as possible for my freaking buck.

  4. You're right, I touched on the violence but I didn't really consider the sex. The two examples you gave are good ones too. I do wonder what I would have made of Identity Crisis as a child. I remember reading stuff like Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper when I was about ten, which dealt with themes of sexual violence, but I don't remember reading anything as brutal as the Dr Light/ Sue Dibny scene.

    I suppose while I do believe that fans should worry less about how accessible comics are to kids and new readers, there's still a point where we have to say "Come on, that's a bit too much for Superman and Batman." Or at least a bit too much for a Superman and Batman story that's so tightly bound to so many other stories. As you say, Identity Crisis is heavily referenced elsewhere, whereas something like Her Sister's Keeper, or even The Killing Joke can be left out of a reading list until a kid's old enough to deal with it.

  5. Yep, you can skip the Killing Joke and just say that the Joker paralyzed Barbara along the way. She was already retired as Batgirl anyway.

    For the record, I showed the KILLING JOKE to my nephew when he was 10, and he didn't balk at any of it. To him, it was just a deranged plot of the Joker's to strip Barbara and take pictures. (I don't think he raped her, actually.) But IdC? I don't even know how you'd explain to a kid that hole in Sue's pants.

    Plus, in all honesty, I just think Sue and Ralph were the wrong characters to do that to.

  6. I recently rebecame a "new reader" I had forgotten a lot that I learned when I was younger from reading comics and so I started up again, and I find it fun to learn about character backstories on my own while rereading older comics and reading newer ones. And I'm glad I started to do this, I mean, I'm only 20 but coimcs will be apart of my life for awhile, so I may as well get situated now, especially when all this new media is coming out and all of these great new comics.

  7. Matt Seneca's smart and you're a dork



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