You’d be surprised by how many people don’t know how comics “work.” Really. Moms and aunts mostly, but a few granddads slide in or brothers or other assorted family simply don’t know or choose not to know. Mind you, it’s a little tragic to say that how comics work is unfathomable to anyone who, I don’ know, has functioning sight and understands how to read. You would think that the average Christmas shopper would be able to figure this out, but I stand before you as a retail clerk from a local comic shop and can announce with some shame that “how comics work” is apparently one of the mysteries of the universe.
With this in mind, it’s a little easier to understand how pop culture has accepted our sequential art and storytelling style. Comic book movies and TV shows (as we’ve gotten them in the new millennium) traditionally start at the beginning. People want to be there as our hero dons a mask for the first time or witness the tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death with them, any moment in which mortal man becomes …well, super. The idea that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie could bear the words “The Untold Origin” seems ludicrous since I’m pretty sure this is an origin well explored. But here we are anticipating a new story that’s the same story promising new information on what we already know.
Why? Because comic books are an impenetrable wall that no mere mortal can scale. Despite the fact that the tools are simple, despite the fact that basic characters and story concepts are now known around the world by the mass market, comics remain confusing. To the general public, the common knowledge may be there, but understanding lives underground with the Morlocks and Mole Men.
Recently in a Commentary Track for Uncanny X-Force #18 over at CBR, Rick Remender talks about fans trying to pick up his creator-owned book, Fear Agent:
“They’re like, ‘I bought issue #28 and I didn’t know what was going on.’ I reply, ‘That’s like watching ‘The Wire:’ season four, episode 2.’ I think you need to start at the first issue and move forward, because I don’t always write in a way where you can cleanly hop in later. I know no editor wants to hear me say that! [Laughs] Just go back to the first issue and move forward.”
“Go to the first issue and move forward” is about as simple as it gets, but it’s a daunting prospect to the non-comic fan. The first-time buyer is more likely to have a casual interest, pick up a couple issues and go, rather than something more studious in reading chronologically. Some casual readers developed that interest in the first place from movies, TV or a small news blurb on a hyped media event. It’s kind of weird how our never-ending serial fiction is notable to the public when it stops (The death of X!) and starts (X’s all-new #1 issue!). The #1 brightly emblazoned on a cover is a beacon for new readers, while I still get question about Captain America and how he’s supposed to be dead because they heard it on the news.
Comics from the Silver Age sold you quickly; availability was easy for kids, as comics were generally sold at a variety of local newsstands or convenience stores or what have you. Covers practically shouted story ideas to you from the racks, like a challenge to read it and find out what happens next. Normally, what was on the cover was also the story inside. You’d get a comic that asks you “If Iceman Should Fail!” You’d pick up the issue, learn that Iceman did not, in fact, fail (SPOILER!) and the story would be over. If the issue was cool, you’d pick up next month’s issue and be asked “Is the Mimic another mutant? — Or something far worse??”
Later, as comic shops became a viable form of business and back issues became a commodity, one could handle a longer-form story. After all, if Atlantis Attacks the X-Men in Annual #13, I now have an easier chance of finding the other annuals in the series to get the full story of how our heroes stopped Set from returning to Earth. Man, can you even imagine a day without trades and collected editions? Decompressed storytelling could not live without this new, thicker form of comic, sometimes taking the numeric order completely out of the equation to list story arcs and chapters on its spine.
In fact, decompressed storytelling is the leisure of the information age. Since information about comics and their creators is more available than ever, we learn not just about the longer form story, but the writers’ and artists’ intention behind it all as well. People can judge the work of Alan Moore or Mark Millar because these books and issues have been grouped together, whether in the comic shop or online, and the way a story is told becomes just as important as the characters themselves.
The good news is that comic readers gain a deeper connection to the books. They become Bendis’ Avengers or Claremont’s X-Men. We can follow that writer as he bounces through a few titles, or choose only the artwork we like and drop a book when it doesn’t live up to our aesthetics. Jim Lee art is a bankable idea that the Distinguished Competition is using to promote their characters. Books can become tailor made and rarefied through more and more specifics and details so that we, the audience, can make the most out of our experience.
So the bad news turns out to be that anyone coming into this vast resource of information and style can be completely bowled over by all of this. This? This is the impenetrable wall, folks. Rick Remender is right: it’s hard to come in to the middle of a series and know much. You might not know who these characters are, you might only have a small piece to a larger puzzle as far as story goes, you might not even know the people who made the book and won’t understand their particular voice or style. Lauded as he is, you either like Warren Ellis’ work or you don’,t and if you happen to pick up an issue of Astonishing X-Men thinking you’d get something like the movies, it’s just not going to happen. It’s like we comic readers have this very long conversation going with the House of Ideas about common topics. We agree with some of them and disagree with others, but we’ve talked and talked and talked about these themes or characters for ages. There is no easy way to jump into that conversation.
In a perfect world, not everyone would be in on that conversation. We can’t all think the same or stop a train of thought to let on new passengers every time someone wants to try it out and keep the medium how it is today. However, in a perfect world everyone would at least understand and use the method of conversation for any topic that came to them. A city girl like me knows nothing about fishing and would be completely lost in a bait and tackle store. The manager of said store could roll their eyes at my Spider-Man shirt and funny dyed hair and tell me to come back when I’m serious, seeing that I am clearly not in on the conversation of fishing. He could also, on the other hand, explain to me the basics and find me a starter kit. I could then go out with my kit and learn more about how to bait a hook or cast a line. My first fish would be all the more sweet from having learned how it all works.
I don’t know if there’s an easy way to teach a man to fish, but I’ve been learning how to teach a Mom to comic for over 10 years at Metro. It’s not easy and I can’t say it always works, but the rewards are spectacular.
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