Tom Brevoort is a saint. Seriously, I don't know how he can keep an open ask forum on Tumblr and be patient enough to answer incoming questions from fans morning, noon and night. He's an incredible resource and incredibly honest, which makes some of his answers hard to stomach, but at least you know Brevoort cares enough about Marvel comics and his job as senior vice president of publishing-executive editor to give you the truth.
Recently, he was asked about the length of a comic's storyline and, in particular, whether editors inform writers how long an arc is going to be. The question came in regard to Brian Michael Bendis' run on his two X-Men books where, in a way, I agree that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of answers and/or change. Particular complaints aside, Brevoort responded:
Every story is different, every series is different, and every creator is different. All throughout his career, Brian has engaged in long-form storytelling. And he’s not the only one — Jonathan Hickman is another good example. And for those that enjoy what they do and stay on for the ride, there are payoffs for that devotion.
Who are we putting that devotion into? The comic characters? The creative team? The publisher? Who decides where a book begins or ends?
There are outside influences as to how long a series goes on, of course (that long-form story can be wrapped up quickly in the case of cancellation), but Brevoort is right. Serialized storytelling seems like it goes on forever, but every book is different in how it goes about telling those tales. We can indicate the beginning of an arc through the title's numbering, where #1 issues start a story and end it with a final issue that's predetermined. Avengers Arena and Avengers Undercover start with a #1, continue until that arc is over to complete the book and the characters move on to the next series. You could also denote a story's length by the time the creative team has on it: Warren Ellis ends his run on Moon Knight with Issue 6 and Brian Wood takes over with Issue 7; Ellis will have had his say and then Wood will pick up anything left over and tell a new story. There's also the length of the story's conflict, and measuring by what's actually happening in the book. A series like Hawkeye can exist in short doses, where each issue feels self-contained, while Hickman's run on Avengers feels more like a slow walk through outer space, as he writes in a more long-form style.
I think this is what makes new readers hesitant to pick up a comic; casually buying a book is difficult when there are so many styles and formats within the genre. If you don't have a particular interest or a little bit of knowledge going into a series, it could be a toss-up as to what you're going to read. When I picked up my first Marvel comic, I conveniently knew about the X-Men, the characters on the cover and their main conflict of mutant oppression, thanks to the '90s cartoon series. The comic I bought, X-Men Vol. 2 #24, was at the end of a huge story arc and there were two Psylockes, a character I never heard of just died, and people just stood around and talked; barely any of it made any sense. New readers have reference points, and they know who the characters are now more than ever, but with creative teams comfortable in different styles, there's not really a frame of reference for the medium itself.
Is this fixable? Can we find a uniform way for comics to appease both reader and writer? It's a tough problem to tackle, and one that a billion #1 issues can't solve. Editors shouldn't dictate how long as story should be to the creative team; it's their job to come up with what they want to say and the manner in which they want to say it. Despite the original question's frustrations, Bendis' X-Men books sell quite well, and some readers prefer his long-form style. For those who don't, there's always another book on the stands to try, and another style of story to be told through the medium of comics. Point One issues should be similar in format in order to introduce new readers to a new storyline, but it's been hard to keep them within those expectations. Collections are expensive, but they do offer a more complete picture and a definitive beginning, middle and end for non-regular readers. It's a lot to ask, but if people are willing to jump into the first season of True Detective from the first episode, maybe signing up for the Netflix of Marvel comics, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, is a fair analogy.
Let's put this another way: You don't read comics, but have seen the Spider-Man movies, Raimi or Webb flavors, and want to read more about Spider-Man. Because there are no comics based on either of those film series, where do you start? Amazing Fantasy #15, his first appearance? No, it wouldn't be relevant to what you already know and would be told in a style that seems antiquated. The Amazing Spider-Man #1? No to all four, honestly; either the older editions of The Amazing Spider-Man would have little to no bearing on the present-day Spidey new fans would be familiar with or, in the case of the most recent Amazing Spider-Man #1, we'd run into the problem I had with X-Men #24: It's the end of a major storyline a new reader would require more context for. Believe it or not, I'd actually direct readers to The Amazing Spider-Man #546, the start of "Brand New Day," as it's a fresh start for the series, needs only the basics of Spider-knowledge to understand and begins a new story arc that's lasted to this day. Or you could start with Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1, the series that starts Peter Parker back in high school.
Understanding comics is more than a fantastic book by Scott McCloud, and sadly not one we can demand everybody read. Just because comics are more mainstream than they've ever been doesn't mean the mainstream understands how they work. Even long time fans of comics have a hard time figuring out how our stories get told, so the best we can do is answer questions as they come. Comic shops should be a resource for more information on what to pick up and the comic book editors can be a resource for why a book works a certain way in the first place. Editors are in a great position to explain the business and beat the drum to new readers and answer questions, even the ones about when Richard Ryder is returning.
Like I said, Tom Brevoort is a saint.