Comic books consistently demand more of the reader than any other form of entertainment. Creators expect readers to be on a common footing in terms of both story and format. But an explicit goal of comics needs to be drawing in new readers, and creators need to understand that not everyone has the same background.
What is expected of a reader?
The first and most obvious expectation is that the reader knows how to read a comic book. This may seem silly, but it’s not always the case. Many manga collections provide a detailed explanation in the beginning of the book to show how to follow the panels on a page. Of course, this is mainly because the left to right reading method is foreign to American readers. But the layout on many modern books could be just as foreign to someone who hasn’t read a comic since the 9-panel grid was the only game in town.
The next expectation is that readers have, at the very least, a passing knowledge of the characters in the stories being told. In most movies the audience has no immediate anchor and has to be introduced to every element, from the characters to the rules of the world. Comics can conveniently sidestep that introductory period and get right to the meat of the story. Thumbing through the most recent issue of Fantastic Four, by Jonathan Hickman, I notice tons of new characters that are not Reed, Sue, Ben, or Johnny. However, these characters only stand out as new and different if the reader knows who the FF is in the first place. You are expected to have that basic knowledge coming in.
This makes his run stand out in comparison to other runs, but it also presents a problem for the more casual comic book reader, the type of reader I would argue is necessary for serious growth in the comic book marketplace. Not only are you expected to know the basics of who the characters are, you are often called upon to know complicated histories of books in order to understand current developments. Even in Marvel’s Ultimate reboots, the retelling of these stories doesn’t pack the same punch if you don’t know the way they were originally told.
What can we do to reach new readers?
Certainly the availability of collections helps matters. When Grant Morrison began his lengthy run on Batman, it became immediately clear that he would be drawing from the most obscure corners of the character’s history. So what did DC do? They released a reprint of Batman: Son of the Demon, the story Morrison was explicitly building off of. Later they came out with The Black Casebook, delving even further into the most out-there Batman stories.
The other recent development working in comics’ favor is the increasing viability of creator owned books. Comic book readers are notorious completists. We want to know every event a character’s been through, every relationship a character’s had. Indie books are great at capitalizing on that feeling. Want to read every Scott Pilgrim comic ever published? Go pick up all six volumes from Oni. Ditto for Ed Brubaker’s fantastic work on Criminal or Sleeper. These writers are not interested in maintaining a property for decades on end. They want to tell a story with a definite beginning and end point, which you can give to anyone as a commitment-free recommendation.
Mainstream comics are still the gateway drug for many of us, so it’s a good sign that Marvel and DC are starting to build on this model, creating pocket universes where anyone can jump on board. Perhaps the Ultimate and Vertigo lines have been so successful because they’re contained stories and are constantly in print.
The further extension of the principle behind the these books and DC’s upcoming company-wide relaunch was recently suggested by Jonathan Hickman in an excellent interview with Comics’ Alliance’s Chris Sims:
I think we do comics wrong in a lot of ways. Like I almost think that when Brian Bendis comes on a book, it should be Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers, and then he does his 48 issues or whatever, his epic Avengers story, then he moves on to something else… They all have a beginning, middle and end, and that’s what we do. Here’s a bunch of X-Men books, and they’re all satisfying and not just blocks of trades… You see how much both companies are rebooting books to generate interest and we’re kind of reaching critical mass, where we’re going to have to say “all right, this is the new game. Tell your story, and when you’re done telling it, go work on a new property.”
This style of storytelling may seem shocking to long-time comic fans, but it’s already proven itself with the mainstream public in the form of comic book movies. You take all the bits from the comics you want, regardless of continuity, and use them to tell the best story you can. Everyone knows Marvel and DC are just going to wipe out the parts of the story they don’t want to keep after a run is over anyway, so why even bother with the pretense? Tell YOUR Fantastic Four story, hit reset, then let somebody else tell theirs.
That’s just one of many potential solutions. What’s yours? Do you agree that comics demand more of its fanbase than other mediums? And is that good for the industry or does it hinder potential growth? I can’t wait to hear your responses.