Earlier, I wondered where someone interested in comic books should start, since it’s difficult for a new reader to just go to a random store, and start with the first comic that draws their eye. It’s probable that whatever book you start with won’t be accessible to anyone unfamiliar with the characters readers. So, the question becomes: Why are comic books so uniquely impenetrable?
There are going to be some hurdles whenever anyone first experiences a new artform. Things that fans take for granted may initially be perplexing. This is a slight problem with comics, but it’s hardly unique to the medium. It may take some time for someone who has never seen musicals to understand what it means when the actors are singing in a film. It’s also possible that a newcomer may not appreciate the talent of an unconventional voice. James Joyce’s Ulysses is intentionally daunting, while Harold Pinter’s plays are meant to be opaque at times. A film may best be understood as a response to other movies, or to contemporary issues, appearing dated or anachronistic outside of that context. With comics, new readers might not appreciate the talent of an idiosyncratic artist, certain panel layouts can be confusing, and social commentary can go unnoticed, but these aren’t the impediments I’m currently concerned about.
Other forms of entertainment just don’t have as many barriers to entry. You don’t have to know other Beatles songs to understand Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. For anyone interested in Breaking Bad, the Season One DVD set is an obvious place to start watching the series.
There are certain obstacles that are fairly unique to the typical comic book. Earlier, I noted that standalone volumes like Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum, and standalone series like Ex Machina are accessible to new readers. The majority of comic books published in the United States are set in a shared universe, with stories that build on work in other titles or in other media in the case of many licensed comics. Of the Top 100 best-selling comic book issues published last month, only five were true standalones: Jupiter’s Children, Walking Dead, Saga, East of West and Jirni. 54 were published by Marvel, 35 were published by DC, and then there were five licensed comics set in the worlds of Star Wars, My Little Pony, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Adventure Time. A handful of the Marvel and DC titles were arguably the equivalent of a standalone volume or series. But the overwhelming majority of the floppies are set within a larger fictional world. This can have rewards for seasoned readers, but it can also be discouraging to newcomers.
And there are several other stumbling blocks.
The most popular superheroes can appear in multiple titles. Currently, Batman is the lead in Batman, Detective Comics, The Dark Knight, Batman Inc. and Batman and Robin, as well as Legends of the Dark Knight, which reprints anthology material produced for DC’s online comics program. There are also spinoffs Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing, Catwoman and Nightwing. Batman is also a member of the Justice League. Characters from the Batman comics appear in Suicide Squad, Teen Titans, Red Hood and the Outlaws and Birds of Prey. This doesn’t include all of the other times Bruce Wayne or characters from the various Batman books appear in other titles.
It often happens that a character’s adventures in one title will be referenced in another. This isn’t limited to Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Superman, currently the most successful superheroes. Lesser-known figures like Venom and Superboy appear in their own titles, as well as team books. There are also often instances in which events in one team book influence another, especially if the groups are somehow affiliated. There are different teams of X-Men—and the various spinoff characters—in All-New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, Uncanny Avengers, Wolverine and the X-Men, Cable and the X-Force, Uncanny X-Force, Brian Wood’s upcoming all-female X-Men and Astonishing X-Men. It’s as if Game of Thrones had a different series of books and shows for each of the families.
Decades of History
In addition to all the books that are currently published, previously published storylines can suddenly become important to the current narrative. A story that was told decades ago could be referenced in a major plot point, and writers can always decide to do straightforward sequels to one of the dozens if not hundreds of well-received tales from a franchise’s past. In other cases, knowledge of the history of a fictional universe may be necessary to understand the context of the interaction between two characters. And that’s before a third character is added into the mix.
Follow-ups can be especially prevalent in licensed comics, where there’s the assumption that the readers are intimately familiar with the original material. A Doctor Who comic book may feature a sequel to episodes aired in 1979, while a Star Wars comic may require familiarity with an Alan Dean Foster novel.
Retcons and Revelations
Sometimes you can’t even take events in earlier stories at face value. Retcons occur with the retroactive alteration of previously established facts into a continuity of a narrative. In this context, it usually contradicts the intentions of the original author, to distinguish retcons from revelations, which can also change the relationships between the characters, but in ways that were intended in the very beginning. Deceased heroes return from the dead, supporting characters reveal that they’ve always known certain secrets and villains discover that they were framed in decades-old appearances. All of this makes the backstory of the characters even more convoluted, especially to a reader unaware how things became different.
When a title has been around for decades, things will change. Villains seek redemption, and heroes often change their profession. So, someone picking up two stories with the same character may have some trouble figuring out how it got from Point A to Point B. Sometimes, the changes are fairly straightforward, but this isn’t always the case. It also sometimes happens that writers and editors decide to restore a previous status quo, and the explanations within the narrative are even more tortured.
When you have stories set in a shared universe, characters from one title can pop over in another. This can be confusing for readers who ordinarily only follows one of the books. It gets even more complicated when a story in one title is continued in another. An extreme example is the recently reprinted Avengers epic Operation: Galactic Storm, which spanned seven monthly titles: Captain America, Avengers West Coast, Quasar, Wonder Man, Avengers, Iron Man, and Thor. It was well-received.
This often happens when you have titles featuring the same character, or members of the the same team. And there are occasional crossovers between team books, as well as all the affiliated teams and their solo members. However, in some cases, the connections between titles aren’t particularly obvious, as with the crossover between I Vampire and Justice League Dark. In the Silver Age, a Daredevil storyline with Doctor Doom was concluded in the pages of The Fantastic Four.
When a publisher owns the rights to multiple franchises, there is often the impulse to create publicity with team-ups between disparate heroes. Sometimes it can be cool. Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog are likely to have a passing familiarity with Mega Man, and appreciate the idea of a team-up between the two. There have been numerous encounters between the Transformers and the soldiers of GI Joe. But sometimes it seems to happen just for the hell of it, as when Dynamite Entertainment launched a crossover between Red Sonja and Vampirella.
This is before you get to occasional crossovers between characters owned by different companies, as when Superman fights Spider-Man. In many cases, everyone involved realizes that this will be the first exposure some readers have to some of the characters, so there’s a greater effort to make the story comprehensible to newcomers. But it doesn’t always work.
When the continuity becomes too complicated, the publisher often decides to relaunch everything, so that the series starts anew. Ideally, this results in a better jumping on point for entirely new readers. But it can be problematic for existing readers. They can become confused about the new elements of a character’s history. It’s tougher to appreciate the stories, when earlier comic books you may have read no longer make sense in the new context.
The earlier stories will usually be available in book stores. So it can be confusing to a new reader to realize that one volume of Conan comics is not set in the same world as another volume. And if he doesn’t come to that conclusion, he may eventually be disappointed in the characterization as well as the writer’s understanding of the character’s histories, unaware that these are meant to be different versions of the same heroes, villains and supporting cast.
Relaunches can also be messy when some characters maintain a complex backstory and others don’t. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, some of the DC heroes had been reimagined as being active for some time, especially The Teen Titans, a series featuring former teen sidekicks. But other heroes and villains were reimagined as newcomers, which can mess up the backstory (IE- If Wonder Woman is a new superhero, how could teen heroes have worked with her sidekick years ago?)
A similar problem can occur when a publisher decides to introduce a new streamlined series of books catering to new readers, with more accessible version of iconic heroes. And they’ll often continue to publish the original adventures, which have their own fan base. So, there are suddenly multiple fictional worlds with the same characters, as with Ultimate Marvel and the regular Marvel Universe, or the Earth One books and the regular DC Universe.
This can also occur when there is a tie-in to an adaptation. DC published comic books set in the world of Injustice, a fighting game starring their superheroes. Archie published comics set in the world of the Sonic Underground animated series.
In some cases, a publisher’s success with an accessible version of a franchise leads them to try their luck with earlier forms of the series. IDW hired Larry Hama and Simon Furman to continue their Marvel comic runs of GI Joe and Transformers from where they had left off decades earlier.
Multiple universes can be convoluted when there are suddenly references to events that happened in another series of books. And sometimes you’re not sure if something is meant to be a reference. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates is an accessible comic book, but there’s one weird moment. The cliffhanger for one issue is a splash page with a scary looking old guy. So it’s not immediately clear whether this is a reveal of some kind. Could it be someone who appeared earlier in the story that the reader forgot about? Is it someone from another book? Or could it be the first appearance of the Ultimate version of a character from the regular Marvel Universe? The possibility that there is information that a new reader is not privy to can be discouraging.
There are advantages to the narrative complexity, but it can be overwhelming.