Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
If you’re reading this, you had a first comic. You probably can even remember the issue number. Often times, just the words “first comic” automatically conjure up images and speech bubbles freshly discovered to new eyes. Some of you may have liked your first comic, some of you may have had to read a couple before that shining moment of comic book glory arrived, but without a doubt, there’s always your first.
It’s odd to think, then, that there’s a segment of the pop culture populace that doesn’t really know how comics work. It’s like being aware of a hit TV show for them; yeah, they heard the name or saw a commercial when watching Dancing With the Stars, but they don’t watch it. Comic shop employees have probably heard the stupefied question, “They still make comic books?” on more than one occasion in a store that has comic books clearly on display. They might even have “comic books” in the name of their establishment, leading me to wonder whether people have walked into shoe stores surprised that they still put laces on the things. Still, they are out there: the new readers. It’s a just and important cause to make sure you are “new reader friendly” in the industry, because no matter how much money movies bring in, comics are a steady serial income. They are a unique staple of Americana in their own way, and it would be a sad day when you couldn’t read sequential pictures and words that tell a story on a monthly basis.
So let’s attract that new reader! Let’s be new reader friendly! I believe that children are our future, show them Spider-Man and let them lead the way! But should we give them everything? Should we be so reader-friendly that everyone who stuck with the Clone Saga and Chuck Austen’s X-Men be left in the cold for their dedication? New isn’t always better, and a continual reboot of your product or characters may leave them kind of teflon-like, where no story sticks and all your attachment wipes clean with a #1 issue.
The mix is a difficult one to maintain. Marvel wants to reboot the Ultimate line and, while I think it’s a fantastic idea considering what a mess Ultimatum made of that universe, I’m disappointed we even had to do that in the first place. The Ultimates line used to be a gold standard (remember that?) calling attention to themselves with shiny gold covers and story starts for the new reader to jump in with in a fresh, modern universe. I used to sell a lot of Ultimate Spider-Man comics as the “basic Spider-Man story” for young and old alike, but I can’t say I do that anymore. I can’t say that the Ultimate comics are a great place for movie-goers to jump into the Marvel Universe, so I consider a reboot of these titles a healthy idea in the shadow of Marvel Studio’s success rate. But how did we get here? How did we come so far from where we started? What is it about our medium of monthly serials that just sort of runs off the rails for new readers? Can we just get a comic where Spider-Man fights a guy and doesn’t require the commitment of a trade paperback to get started?
It’s a lot to ask the modern day comic writer. Making sure people can’t wait to get your next issue helps pay the bills, so the extended storyline is important for business. The Point One initiative (isn’t it kind of ha-ha ironic when Marvel calls their marketing points Initiatives?) was supposed to be the missing link between new reader and old reader by supplying both with new stories that were self-contained and fresh starts for fans. By now, we’ve had a few of these issues come out and how close they get to what was promised is hit and miss. Avengers #12.1 seemed out of place, as it certainly didn’t feel self-contained, while Thor #620.1 wasn’t even written by the regular series writer. Sure, now I see it as an interesting herald of Fear Itself, what with the Grey Gargoyle and the Asgardians, but then it seemed off balance from the rest of the series. It almost seemed to please neither new fan or old, as new fans had no idea what to expect from Point One issue to the next, and old readers felt pressured to buy another issue. Good idea, inconsistent execution that continues to make no sense as #0.1 issues of Alpha Flight or Ghost Rider seem ridiculous. Maybe my math is wrong, but #1 has always been a fine promotion to new readers that gets far more attention than a Point One comics. Will new readers need to get both to survive? If we’re going to make “new reader books” stand out on the shelves, we have to make it as hand-holdingly simple as possible.
Or do we? Let’s face front, True Believers, my first comic was X-Men #24. This is a whole lot of pages where people came in and out of rooms and talked a lot about things that had happened than were actually happening. Mind you, there was some perfect ’90s character moments to chew on: Rogue’s push-pull relationship with Gambit, Jubilee crying over a Bamf doll, Psylocke and Revanche bitchin’ at one another in sexy poses. This wasn’t a self-contained story, it was a moment for two ships to pass in the night and talk about their cargo. The previous plot du jour was Illyana Rasputin’s death in Uncanny X-Men #303 and the next plot coming was not just Jean and Scott’s ill-fated wedding, but the Fatal Attractions storyline in all it’s holographic cover goodness. X-Men #24 references issues long past and even other books to tie the characters together in this thick continuity rope.
You would think this would be impenetrable for the new reader, that all this exposition and posturing might not excite me like a splash page of mutant powers flying around, but I had two things going for me: first, I watched the ’90s X-Men cartoon show. Yes, looking back on it now, it’s terrible. But watching it then, it gave a plethora of 30-minute episodes to explain the basics of the characters and how they work. Xavier is a teacher, Scott is the leader, Storm is melodramatic and Rogue has the best southern accent I had ever heard and a touching human story to boot. Now, if I wanted to go read more about Rogue when she wasn’t smashing her way through my Saturday morning cartoons on Fox, I could walk down to my local comic shop and find one that had her in it. I picked X-Men #24 because it as the newest, and it had Rogue on the cover. The second thing I had going for me at the time I purchased X-Men #24 was editor’s notes; an asterisk noted in a speech bubble or a narration text would lead me to the little yellow boxes smushed into a panel that would tell me things like “Translated from Japanese” or “previously in Uncanny X-Men #303” or other such notes that would fill me in on what they’d be up to. This led to a lot of back-issue diving, one of my greatest pleasures then and now. It was rewarding detective work that got you this great giant picture that was comic books, and you worked for it. You took the comic down to the shop and asked for the issues mentioned. You flicked through back-issue boxes like record stacks and counted toward the next clue in your mutant drama. You went to conventions and attained life-long dreams of owning that That One Comic Where _____.
Sadly, back issues aren’t as widespread as they used to be. A lot of issues have been tossed, understocked or uncared for. However, there will always be trade paperbacks because the modern and hip House of Ideas’s brand-new sexy foundation is built on them. Waiting for the trade is now something you can do, like waiting for a stew to simmer on a stove until it’s ready. Trades are, indeed, comfort food as they save you from frantically collecting and lamenting over lost issues and keep everything you need to know in a classy and contained bound form.
I think what I’m getting at is that comics are already reader-friendly, no matter what number is on the cover. There are ways for people to find out about Spider-Man and Wolverine and the Hulk generally through the media. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is an awesome cartoon that shows off so many fantastic characters each episode. The trick is that, when kids or adults see the movie or cartoon, that it captures something in their brains and doesn’t let go until they are standing in a comic shop. That we motivate the reader to do the dirtiest of work because it’s so rewarding in the end. Sure, the industry could stand to lighten up some and make sure that comics are clear about their story’s place and time and, oh perhaps they could find a way for single issues to be a better recommendation to new readers than trade paperbacks, but that’s probably a whole other issue.