How do we choose the comics we read?

I have, according to some people, terrible taste in comics.  That's fine, though - it's not their money I'm spending!  They hold this opinion despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are pretty much purely subjective.  I rarely make fun of people who have, according to me, terrible taste in comics (I make fun of publishers for publishing them, but that's a whole different thing).  If you think Rob Liefeld is the greatest artist in the history of the medium, well, you're wrong, but what the hell.  We can break down why a comic is good or bad, but ultimately, it's one person's opinion.  There are actually people who have read more comics than I ever could who don't think Watchmen is all that good.  There are actually far smarter people than I who don't think Shakespeare is all that good, either.  So what?  I think they're missing out, but what the hell do I know?

This pure subjectivity about comics is NOT what this post is about, however.  It got me thinking about how we choose the comics we read, which helps explain why we like and dislike certain comics.  And I came up with some criteria that I have for choosing comics.  I think these criteria are pretty universal, and the importance you place in each of them probably influences the comics you buy.  So let's take a look.

I'm ranking mine in order of most important to least important, for me.  Yours may vary.

1. The subject matter.  This is the most important thing for me when I'm choosing what to read, or what to watch on television, or what to see in the movies (when I go to the movies, which is very rarely).  When I decide what to buy at the comic book store, this is what I'm thinking about first.  I've mentioned before that I don't like autobiographies.  I just don't.  Therefore, I'm probably never going to read Blankets.  Well, maybe I will, because I will read autobiographies if everyone says they're the greatest thing in the world.  It took a long time for me to read Fun Home, even though it was praised to the heavens.  Now, I liked Fun Home, but that's because it was excellently done.  That doesn't mean I'm going to run out and purchase every autobiographical coming-of-age story I can find.  I'm just not interested.  Similarly, I'm not really that big on zombies and vampires.  I don't care how good The Walking Dead is, really.  I might check it out some day, but I'm not dying to read it.  Rex Mundi is a book I like a lot, partly because of the subject matter.  It's historical, it's alternate history, and it deals with the Grail legend.  I'm not as big into the Grail stuff as I am the alternate history, but it's a nice draw.  Some people have mentioned that they don't like Rex Mundi not because it's bad, but because they don't like the subject matter.  That's perfectly fine.  It's not for everyone.  That doesn't make it bad.  Or good, for that matter.

A lot of the very good graphic novels I've read over the past two years are not because of the talent involved (although that played a part, but for most of these, I didn't know much about the talent involved) but because of the subject matter: Different Ugliness, Different Madness (a story of two damaged people finding solace in each other); Capote in Kansas (the story of Truman Capote researching In Cold Blood); Nil: A Land Beyond Belief (a very funny and bizarre political satire); Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales (a story about the disappearance of a rock and roll icon); The Nightmarist (an examination of the nature of reality); Brownsville (Jewish mobsters in the 1930s); The Lone and Level Sands (the story of Exodus told from Pharoah's point of view); American Born Chinese (a wry observation of racism and immigration and peer pressure); The Drowners (a psychological drama about a murdered girl); Sudden Gravity (a creepy tale set in a mental institution).  Very few of these (Duncan Rouleau on The Nightmarist and Greg Ruth on Sudden Gravity are the two big exceptions) hooked me because of the talent involved.  Graphic novels aren't the only place I look at subject matter - I also base a lot of my monthly purchases on it.  I like old-school adventure with a historical twist, so I bought Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril, which had good talent involved (Joshua Dysart and Sal Velluto) but was far more interesting to me because of the subject.  If you aren't interested at all in Jewish mobsters from the 1930s, than you probably won't enjoy Brownsville, no matter how well it's done (and it's done well).  If you don't like Nazis and mystical creatures, then you probably won't like Captain Gravity, no matter how well it's done (and it's done well).  C'est la vie.

2. The writer.  The writer, far more than the artist, is my second most important criterion for choosing a book.  I follow writers (and sometimes artists) and check out the books they're doing because of their track records.  Once I get to know a certain writer and I'm confident in their abilities in different genres of the medium (some writers are only good at one thing, while others have only one good idea), I will follow them around.  Back in the late 1990s, I started reading Strange Kiss because Warren Ellis wrote it.  I would never have known about it if it hadn't been for the people at my old comics shoppe in Portland, who knew I liked Ellis and suggested it.  I certainly don't like everything Avatar publishes, nor everything Ellis writes, but that's one example of me following a writer to something I might have missed.  I don't read everything my favorites write, but if it's by Morrison, or Ellis, or Ennis, or Moore, or Joe Casey, or John Ostrander, or Brian K. Vaughan, or even some old favorites like Doug Moench, I'm going to give it a look.  That's not to say I will love it - I remain unconvinced that Invisibles is any good, although I've only read it once, and I was planning on dropping The Boys before Paul Levitz got a hold of it and shat himself over the contents and killed it, and I'm just not interested in Lost Girls - but I will be far more interested in checking the project out if it's a writer with a good track record.  As long-time readers know, I'm much more interested in the writing part of comics than the art, so the writer plays a big part in whether I buy something or not.

3. The artist.  This is far less important to me than the writer is, but it's still third on the list.  If it's bad art but decent writing, I can deal with it.  If it's lousy writing with nice art, I'm probably not sticking around.  That said, I will check things out based solely on art, but the selection of artists that I follow is much smaller.  The most recent example I can think of is when Bill Sienkiewicz did the Black Widow mini-series, and he didn't even do all the issues.  I love Sienkiewicz, though, and checked the series out because of his presence.  It turns out the two series were good, but I might not have checked them out if not for Sienkiewicz's involvement.  I have bought some back issues solely on the artist - I mentioned the first few issues of The Shadow, which I bought because Sienkiewicz drew them, and I bought the first five issues of The Maze Agency because Adam Hughes drew them, Camelot 3000 because Brian Bolland drew it, and The Hiketeia because J. G. Jones drew it.  There were other reasons, of course - Mike Barr wrote The Maze Agency and Camelot 3000, and Greg Rucka wrote The Hiketeia - but it was primarily the art that drew me.

4. The characters.  Characters are what the Big Two rely on to keep their aging audience, and for the most part, it must work.  I don't think it's a very good reason to read a comic book, but I admit I still base some of my purchasing decisions on it.  Back in the day, when I first started buying comics, I was much more beholden to certain characters than I am now.  I began with Batman and Spider-Man, and shortly thereafter added the X-Men, and stuck with those characters through some bad comics.  I first got Amazing Spider-Man when Michelinie was writing and McFarlane was drawing.  Then Larsen took over the drawing, then Bagley, and the issues got progressively worse.  I don't blame the artists; I just can't remember who was writing them and categorize them primarily by the art.  I finally dropped the book around #350, which was about 20 issues (or more) after I should have.  I stuck with Batman and Detective through the earthquake, which was not a good story line.  I kept on with Uncanny X-Men through about 25-30 issues of Chuck Austen writing it, which are some of the most painful comics I've ever paid money for.  Yes, I'm stupid.  But the characters in comics - especially the superheroes - are so interesting and fun to read, I understand the lure they have.  I freely admit that my love of the new Moon Knight series stems partly from my love of the character.  I still think it's a good comic, but I recognize that if you don't like Moon Knight, you're probably not going to be as enthusiastic about it as I am.  I stuck with Moon Knight through some pretty shitty comics, too.  His third series, which ran about five years, was really no good after about the 30th issue, but I hung on until the end, when Stephen Platt's art was simply horrible.  I like to think I've gotten better, and will drop the book if it goes down in quality.  I refuse to buy New Excalibur even though Dazzler is in it, after all, and Dazzler is another one of my favorite characters.

Unfortunately, DC and Marvel know the fascination their fan base has with certain characters, and therefore they keep recycling them in poorly-written and poorly-drawn comics just because they know a certain percentage of people will buy them no matter what.  That's sad, because even though I love certain characters (where's my "Looker-rises-from-the-dead-and-kicks-ass" mini-series, DC?), I'd rather not see them if the creative team is going to be shitty.  I might be in the minority, because it seems to me that the minute a "long-forgotten" character reappears, the fan base gushes, no matter how good it is.  The latest incarnation of the JLA is a case in point.  I guess a lot of people like it, because it's selling well, but are they buying it because they really want to like a Justice League title, or because it's a good comic book?  I personally think it stinks.  Are the people who are buying it just so happy to have a JLA that they're overlooking that fact?  I'm not saying that's true, but I do wonder about it.  I'd like to give the fans the benefit of the doubt, but from reading some of the reactions to relaunches over the past few years, it seems like people are so excited about a certain character showing up (Red Tornado! Yay!) that they'll but it no matter the quality.  Like I wrote, I do this too.  I can't be the only one, can I?

5. Favorable reviews.  I often read reviews just to find out what the book is about, because then I can base my decision to buy it on Criterion #1.  Whether someone bashes or gushes about a book doesn't often influence me, because I recognize that everyone has their own tastes.  But occasionally, someone whose opinions I respect likes something, or the reviews are so overwhelmingly favorable, that I will go out and buy the book.  I bought Fun Home based on the love it was getting.  I bought Deogratias because Guy liked it, and usually he has pretty good taste.  It's not an overwhelming reason to buy a book, but it comes into play.

6. The company that publishes the comic.  I hope people don't base their buying decisions on this, because it's kind of a sad reason.  The reason it's on my list is because, for a few of the smaller publishers, I'm more willing to check out something they put out based on their track record.  Archaia Studios Press has a good track record with me, so I will pay a little more attention to something they publish.  It won't trump the other things on this list, but it's a small factor.  When it becomes a larger factor is when it becomes silly.  A lot of blogs, it seems, are devoted to DC minutiae.  I have no idea if the people writing those blogs are buying DC exclusively because they just love the characters so much, or if they're buying Marvel books but just choosing not to blog about them.  If it's the former, that's a bad sign.  DC or Marvel would love that, because then you feel the obsessive desire to track down every single book that ties into, oh, I don't know, Infinite Crisis, just because DC thinks you should.  I've actually read blogs on which the writer says they don't buy Marvel books.  I don't get that.  Is the Geoff Johns who wrote Avengers any different from the Geoff Johns who wrote JSA?  I don't read either book, so I can't say.  I think DC has a richer history than Marvel, so that might be a reason, but to ignore one entire company seems silly.  Again, I do this a little, but not with regard to the Big Two.

So those are my criteria.  They vary, of course - sometimes I will buy something by a writer I like even though I don't think the book's subject matter doesn't sound like something I like, just to give it a try.  But generally, this is how I pick what comics I buy.  I'm interested in how people choose their comics, because just as some people cannot believe why I "waste" money on some things and don't buy other stuff, I wonder the same thing about others.  How can you not buy The Middleman?  Why on earth would you skip Planetary?  To each his or her own, I guess.

What's your criteria?  How do you choose which comics you read?  Sound off, people - that's what we're here for!

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