Great Expectations

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.


8 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. I mostly agree with Hickman, but constant reboots can diminish the impact of older stories and can waste a lot of potential. I like the idea of passing the torch, where a writer tells his story but leaves some threads open for others to pick up on. Characters can be left in a different place with or without major status quo shifts, and future writers can build off of old ideas. Part of why Hickmans or Morrisons runs are entertaining is the deep mythos they can draw from, and the seeds they plant for other stories, like Syders Detective run. Daredevil had been doing this well, but the plots became redundant then Shawowland was awful.

  2. This last idea- the story completion- is something that I’ve been thinking about constantly. I (relatively) recently got into comics, and it’s a bit difficult. If I hadn’t been so determined to do so, I would’ve been completely overwhelmed. However, I jumped right into Hellblazer, by Milligan, which is great no matter where you start. But completist I am, and it took some investigating to find that his run, Milligan’s, began at issue #251 (we’re now at #282). That meant 25-odd back issues to try to piece together his complete story arc. But that’s exactly the thing. Sure I could go even farther back in time, to before Milligan’s run, but why would I want to? His story started at #251, and anything before that is just fluff, truly. I picked up the “Original Sins” TP by Delano, and called it a day.

    But I was lucky. Hellblazer is such that it doesn’t really need much backstory- it’s very concise, and very easy to simply pick up. But what of other comics? I tried an Uncanny X-Men, but the story was way over my head- I mean, I knew the basics, but that was simply not enough to actually get into the story. There were villains i’d never heard about- even heroes I’d never met before. I did a hell of a lot of research, and even then it was a shoddy boat to try to navigate those seas of character arcs. But something that Marvel has done of recent that DC hasn’t done is to have the first page be a summary page of the previous issues. Yes, it often is woefully useless, as in my X-Men debacle, but in the most recent Wolverine run by Aaron, it was damned helpful. I need- and NEED- the back issues of this arc (thankfully only 13 other issues) because it is so well done. But without the summary intro, I would have been, again, deeply lost.

    So yes, I agree, that a writer should have a run, and be done, and then the next segment is a whole new run. You coud still have Detective Comics at issue #881, but let me know when Scott Snyder took over the story so I can actually follow along, and so that I can know when those stories begin again- as simple as a secondary number under the issue number- as in Hellblazer #253, Milligan #2. Exactly what I need to know to get going- and into the whole book.

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