I disagree!

The ever brilliant and snarky Furious D (who I’m stealing the above picture from) has been weighing in quite a bit about the recent aims of DC in rebooting its continuity. (just look at all of them!)

Of course while Master D is always right, I do think this is one instance of him being right – for the wrong reasons.  Time to explain…

So comics are dying medium.  Why involves a combination of answers, and one D brings up repeatedly is continuity:

Give a kid a copy of just about any long running superhero title, and you have to give them a college level course on the character’s history, just to know what the hell is going on.

Hey!  College courses wish they were as informative as comic book history!  But leaving that aside, this is a bit ironic since Mr D brings up frequently the current renaissance scripted TV is going through.  When we look at Lost, Sopranos, Tru Blood, the Wire, the Office, [insert your own suggestions here], what do all these generally popular shows have in common?  Continuity!  So is there no problem with continuity?  Not exactly…  Let’s look at at what’s helping these TV shows succeed and how comics can learn (or is failing to) from them.

Increase in ease of access is probably the biggest factor.  With the internet and DVDs, one can catch up on the backstory of all but the longest running show in a weekend.  The first problem that comics have is sheer volume – multiple decades of backstory vs

Solutions?  Well we agree a lot about these.  Comic companies have also been doing their part as they’ve released collections of their comics for people to catch up on.  One of the best examples would be Geoff Johns releasing a collection of his pick of Green Lantern stories.  $15-20 and you had almost all the backstory you needed for his upcoming Blackest Night storyline.  There’s also the fact that nowadays we have an even easier solution to continuity: wikis!  And many times these fan created wikis are more informative than the company run encyclopedias.  One afternoon and you can have all the backstory you need to get through an issue.

So is there any problem with continuity?  A few.  First, even an afternoon spent “researching” isn’t going to be worth it to many kids if they story isn’t well written in the first place.  Second (and this is the biggest), the writers have to make a decision on continuity as well.  Nowadays, it’s too common for a comic writer to bring up some obscure incident that happened in the past which no one else cares about, while forgetting or not mentioning other incidents that should have just as much of an impact on continuity.  [insert unrelated glare at Grant Morrison]  That’s not much of an issue, except the writers then won’t give readers even a clue about what they need to know and what they need to forget.  [insert more intense glare at Grant Morrison]  Comics don’t need to bring back the “editor’s note” box that points to the back issue a panel in the comic is referring to, but a little list at the end of the book, telling people what they should know or read in connection to the issue would make a lot of improvement.  Heck, that alone would have – well no, Final Crisis still would have sucked harder than a black hole using a vacuum cleaner – but it would have sucked less.  Marvel has also taken a cue from these aforementioned TV shows and included “previously on” at the beginning of many issues.  For one recent series, I started consulting this “recap page” just to clarify some moments that weren’t clear in the artwork.

Another solution (which I’ve talked about once before) is to have comic book lines and/or issues that don’t care about continuity – if you know the basics, you can enjoy this issue.  Not every comic has to be an “event”.  DC kind of had this once upon a time with their “Elseworlds” line of comics.  A great example of success – and then failure – would be their story “Kingdom Come”.  To enjoy the original story, you don’t have to know anything more than than the basics, it was deep, entertaining and well written.  But then it had two sequels which tried to bring the story of Kingdom Come into continuity.  Can you guess how it went all wrong?

If the companies and writers can keep things fairly basic with comics, they can also do the other bit that comics need to survive: make them cheaper.  No, it doesn’t mean you have to keep comics at $3 or 4 a pop, it’s simple math.  If a kid has to buy one to two issues to follow story A or eight to ten issues to follow story B, the kid (and his/her parents) are going to be more willing to buy story A than B.  It’s not just the price of individuals issues that companies need to think about, but the total number of issues purchased.

The other thing that comics need to do to attract readers: KEEP – POLITICS – OUT. (go on, see how often I’ve ranted about this)  Not only does any particular issue rarely make sense within a comic book universe, but there’s also the simple fact that the more political you make something (in ANY directions), the more readers you are going to exclude from picking up your comics.  Does this mean that comics can never touch on controversial issues?  Not at all, but companies have to play the field to their advantage.  If a controversial issue is going to be brought up, put in a side book, something that you’re not planning on selling a lot.  Choose comic series that will function as “gateway” series and keep them as accessible to as many people as possible.  Have separate, different comic series function as the ones that will have more divisive stories.

Comic fans could stand to be a little less political too.  You don’t have to go far on a discussion board to see a fan or two express something along the lines of “Well if they [think/believe __ philosophy] than we don’t want or need [political group] here.”  No, the fact is: you do.  I don’t care what political group or philosophy it is, simple math & numbers say that the number of [group] is going to be less than the number of [not-group].  ANY political group is not going to have the numbers needed to sustain comics as a medium, you will need people outside of that group to participate as well.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t speak your mind, it just means that there’s a time and place for it.  If the place is a comics site or discussion board, then people are probably looking more for debating which green lantern is the best more than which presidential candidate is the best.  [insert “unrelated” glare at comics alliance]  Yes there will always be some extremists out there who are unhappy if every comic doesn’t have a digression discussing the merits of their preferred philosophy but they are few enough that companies can afford alienating them rather than catering to them and alienating a wider populace.  (Some might point out that earlier comics were more political, but don’t forget that these were released when the nation was a lot more homogenous than it is now.)

Ironically, the people it seems DC & Marvel need to learn the most from, are webcomics.  (is it any surprise that the writer for Atomic Robo started on webomics?)  What do they do right?  The comic is offered for free (low entry cost), the continuity is easy to follow (full, free to access archives), they make their money from merchandising and collections (pretty much the truth for DC & Marvel right now) and the most popular ones concentrate on having fun and not bothering with politics or other divisive issues.  See: Dr McNinja (no really GO READ IT), which has gotten so popular, an actual comic company (Dark Horse) has picked it up to print out its trades.

Will comics die?  Nah, like I said, webcomics are generally thriving.  The only real question is whether the big two will adapt to deal with the new challenges facing them or die not trying.  They could do worse than listen to me or Furious D.

Well that, or just hire John C Wright to write for them already.

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(for those wondering about where the title comes from)

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4 thoughts on “I disagree!

  1. You make a good point.

    Continuity does play a role in this new golden age of episodic TV.

    However, you don’t need to know every detail of what happened in a 2004 episode of The Sopranos to understand what’s going in a current season episode of Mad Men. Something you have to do in far too many comics.

    Comic book continuity is too long, and too sprawling, and involves too many titles. The publishers think it’s going to make you buy more books, when in fact it makes people just give up because they can’t afford it anymore.

    And if you want to be the second in command in brutal regime, you’re going to have be more toadying. 😛

    • Or (like I said), the TV show will often give flashbacks reminding you of details you need to know.

      And if I was more toadying, then you’d be more suspicious about my sudden but inevitable betrayal.

  2. Interesting anecdote–the very first comic book I ever read was Kingdom Come. I’m not entirely sure why, but for some reason I just did. And you’re absolutely right. You really don’t need to know anything about the characters to understand and enjoy it. Going back now, I have a very different perspective on the characters (I actually know who Captain Marvel is, for starters!) and perhaps this allows me to enjoy it *more*, but it was still enjoyable the first time around because it’s just plain a good story, while still being accessible. Never read the sequels, though, and don’t think I ever will. I see no reason to destroy something I love by reading something I’ll hate. (Dark Knight Strikes Again, I’m looking firmly in your direction.)

    However, when it comes to mainstream comics, I’m rather spoiled. Not only did I have all of Wikipedia to research in, but I also had access to a lot of old issues through… certain means. Besides, I was (and still am) interested in Batman, and there’s some very good, easy-to-find Batman stories out there. (Batman: Year One, followed by The Long Halloween/Dark Victory, followed by Hush to get me caught up to modern-day stuff)

    Actually, The Long Halloween is another interesting one where it’s a really great story, even if you aren’t familiar with all of the characters. I barely even knew who Poison Ivy was at that point, but it was well-written enough that you didn’t need to know.

    • Interesting anecdote–the very first comic book I ever read was Kingdom Come. I’m not entirely sure why, but for some reason I just did. And you’re absolutely right. You really don’t need to know anything about the characters to understand and enjoy it. Going back now, I have a very different perspective on the characters (I actually know who Captain Marvel is, for starters!) and perhaps this allows me to enjoy it *more*, but it was still enjoyable the first time around because it’s just plain a good story, while still being accessible. Never read the sequels, though, and don’t think I ever will. I see no reason to destroy something I love by reading something I’ll hate. (Dark Knight Strikes Again, I’m looking firmly in your direction.)

      Swenson, it’s comments like that which ensure that some day, I will buy you a drink (even if it’s just a bottle of grape nehi).

      Anyway on sequels:
      the Kingdom is… morbidly fascinating. It examines some things that a lot of readers (like me) were probably interested in about the alt universe, but it also makes a lot of missteps (entries 1-5 is the revelation of the Phantom Stranger’s identity). It’s done by Mark Waid.

      The JSA sequel (can’t remember the title) has the other co-writing half (Alex Ross) examine a sort of… “retcon” that happened in an inbetween moment in the original. In some ways it’s marginally better, but it has the other problem Furious D talks about: you might want to know the canon of a lot of JSA characters to follow it. Also, some things in the series don’t make as much sense when you fold them into the KC original.

      All-in-all? Well I’d skip both of them, but the 2nd one you can read with less trauma happening to your affection for the first. However, the 1st sequel had… a bit more of a sideways impact on the DCU but you can figure that out from wikipedia (or a helpful guy like me) and avoid it.

      In summary: Good choice! 😀

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