Robot 6

The Fifth Color | The Impenetrable Wall of Comics


See? Even they're confused...

You’d be surprised by how many people don’t know how comics “work.” Really. Moms and aunts mostly, but a few granddads slide in or brothers or other assorted family simply don’t know or choose not to know. Mind you, it’s a little tragic to say that how comics work is unfathomable to anyone who, I don’ know, has functioning sight and understands how to read. You would think that the average Christmas shopper would be able to figure this out, but I stand before you as a retail clerk from a local comic shop and can announce with some shame that “how comics work” is apparently one of the mysteries of the universe.

With this in mind, it’s a little easier to understand how pop culture has accepted our sequential art and storytelling style. Comic book movies and TV shows (as we’ve gotten them in the new millennium) traditionally start at the beginning. People want to be there as our hero dons a mask for the first time or witness the tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death with them, any moment in which mortal man becomes …well, super. The idea that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie could bear the words “The Untold Origin” seems ludicrous since I’m pretty sure this is an origin well explored. But here we are anticipating a new story that’s the same story promising new information on what we already know.

Why? Because comic books are an impenetrable wall that no mere mortal can scale. Despite the fact that the tools are simple, despite the fact that basic characters and story concepts are now known around the world by the mass market, comics remain confusing. To the general public, the common knowledge may be there, but understanding lives underground with the Morlocks and Mole Men.

Recently in a Commentary Track for Uncanny X-Force #18 over at CBR, Rick Remender talks about fans trying to pick up his creator-owned book, Fear Agent:

“They’re like, ‘I bought issue #28 and I didn’t know what was going on.’ I reply, ‘That’s like watching ‘The Wire:’ season four, episode 2.’ I think you need to start at the first issue and move forward, because I don’t always write in a way where you can cleanly hop in later. I know no editor wants to hear me say that! [Laughs] Just go back to the first issue and move forward.”

“Go to the first issue and move forward” is about as simple as it gets, but it’s a daunting prospect to the non-comic fan. The first-time buyer is more likely to have a casual interest, pick up a couple issues and go, rather than something more studious in reading chronologically. Some casual readers developed that interest in the first place from movies, TV or a small news blurb on a hyped media event. It’s kind of weird how our never-ending serial fiction is notable to the public when it stops (The death of X!) and starts (X’s all-new #1 issue!). The #1 brightly emblazoned on a cover is a beacon for new readers, while I still get question about Captain America and how he’s supposed to be dead because they heard it on the news.

X-Men vol. 1 #18

If Iceman should fail!

Comics from the Silver Age sold you quickly; availability was easy for kids, as comics were generally sold at a variety of local newsstands or convenience stores or what have you. Covers practically shouted story ideas to you from the racks, like a challenge to read it and find out what happens next. Normally, what was on the cover was also the story inside. You’d get a comic that asks you “If Iceman Should Fail!” You’d pick up the issue, learn that Iceman did not, in fact, fail (SPOILER!) and the story would be over. If the issue was cool, you’d pick up next month’s issue and be asked “Is the Mimic another mutant? — Or something far worse??”

Later, as comic shops became a viable form of business and back issues became a commodity, one could handle a longer-form story. After all, if Atlantis Attacks the X-Men in Annual #13, I now have an easier chance of finding the other annuals in the series to get the full story of how our heroes stopped Set from returning to Earth. Man, can you even imagine a day without trades and collected editions? Decompressed storytelling could not live without this new, thicker form of comic, sometimes taking the numeric order completely out of the equation to list story arcs and chapters on its spine.

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In fact, decompressed storytelling is the leisure of the information age. Since information about comics and their creators is more available than ever, we learn not just about the longer form story, but the writers’ and artists’ intention behind it all as well. People can judge the work of Alan Moore or Mark Millar because these books and issues have been grouped together, whether in the comic shop or online, and the way a story is told becomes just as important as the characters themselves.

Marvel Architects logo

writers who have their own logo art

The good news is that comic readers gain a deeper connection to the books. They become Bendis’ Avengers or Claremont’s X-Men. We can follow that writer as he bounces through a few titles, or choose only the artwork we like and drop a book when it doesn’t live up to our aesthetics. Jim Lee art is a bankable idea that the Distinguished Competition is using to promote their characters. Books can become tailor made and rarefied through more and more specifics and details so that we, the audience, can make the most out of our experience.

So the bad news turns out to be that anyone coming into this vast resource of information and style can be completely bowled over by all of this. This? This is the impenetrable wall, folks. Rick Remender is right: it’s hard to come in to the middle of a series and know much. You might not know who these characters are, you might only have a small piece to a larger puzzle as far as story goes, you might not even know the people who made the book and won’t understand their particular voice or style. Lauded as he is, you either like Warren Ellis’ work or you don’,t and if you happen to pick up an issue of Astonishing X-Men thinking you’d get something like the movies, it’s just not going to happen. It’s like we comic readers have this very long conversation going with the House of Ideas about common topics. We agree with some of them and disagree with others, but we’ve talked and talked and talked about these themes or characters for ages. There is no easy way to jump into that conversation.

In a perfect world, not everyone would be in on that conversation. We can’t all think the same or stop a train of thought to let on new passengers every time someone wants to try it out and keep the medium how it is today. However, in a perfect world everyone would at least understand and use the method of conversation for any topic that came to them. A city girl like me knows nothing about fishing and would be completely lost in a bait and tackle store. The manager of said store could roll their eyes at my Spider-Man shirt and funny dyed hair and tell me to come back when I’m serious, seeing that I am clearly not in on the conversation of fishing. He could also, on the other hand, explain to me the basics and find me a starter kit. I could then go out with my kit and learn more about how to bait a hook or cast a line. My first fish would be all the more sweet from having learned how it all works.

I don’t know if there’s an easy way to teach a man to fish, but I’ve been learning how to teach a Mom to comic for over 10 years at Metro. It’s not easy and I can’t say it always works, but the rewards are spectacular.



I think the problem is that if a person walks into a comic shop to buy the latest issue of Batman or whatever character whose movie just came out their more likely to get part 2 or 3 out of 6 than a self-contained story. In the old days everything you need to know was in the comic. In a continued story the character would reminisce about the events of the last issue and the thought bubbles would provide a nice recap. A comic wouldn’t expect you to remember some obscure fact like only Iron Man and Thor knew each others’ secret identities and the rest of the Avengers didn’t know who they were.

Even though it’s easy to go on wikipedia and find out whatever you need to know, I don’t think the average person wants to do that when they’re reading a comic. I really think Marvel and DC should be publishing at least one series that contains a complete story in each issue. That way when someone new walks into the comic shop the clerk can steer them to that series. Ideally that series would be a team-up book starring their most popular character.

When I was reading the Uncanny X-men Omnibus I found that I just about needed to skip the first 2 or 3 pages because it was basically a recap page with more artwork. I also found there would always be a lot of completely skippable thought bubbles explaining every characters powers. I find that the comics I have read from the 70’s heyday of comics have some great plots but absolutely aweful scripts. Imagine a half hour tv show with a script like that, even children would not watch it.

@jm, it only seems bad because you read the issues back to back. If you waited 30 days in between reading each issue those recaps would help you remember the last issue. I guess you’re right on the powers thing, but back then they considered every comic to be someone’s first comic and there were no X-Men cartoons or movie series that would show the average person what Storm’s powers were.

Modern comics are designed to be read back to back in a trade paperback. Old school comics were meant to be read in installments every 30 days.

@sandwich eater
I agree on that greatly. I outlined a lot of the concerns and downsides of modern superhero comics in a little “speech” I came up with, inspired by a scene from an episode of “The Critic”. Would you like to see it?
The problem overall, as I see it, is that the comic book has been, for the last three decades, been transitioned from a mass medium to a niche medium, and I think it’s pretty detrimental. I feel that in order for the industry to survive, it needs to embrace and perpetuate a “Bronze Age” sensibility, where comics are easily understood by all audiences, and kids AND older people still buy and read and “get” them. New ideas, self-contained stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the ensuring of every character getting an audience are what’s needed. The companies and the fans both need to collaborate for this to happen–companies need to be more investigative when searching for newer markets, and comic shops need to be a little more helpful and friendly, with the stores looking a little more ‘cleaner’……and of course, overexposure of the bestsellers needs to end.

Well said. Of course, you can’t just jump into the middle of an ongoing story and have it make perfect sense. That works for ANY form of media or hobby or job. If you like it, you take the effort to learn more. Having to work at it a little bit does make it more satisfying!

Great article, Carla. Great comments, everyone.

My 2 cents: Inflating stories to spread out over six issues is (one of the things) that keeps the comics market from growing. Because (1) In too many single issues, hardly anything happens. The comic is filler, biding time to get to the next “act”. (2) Newcomers that pick up a single comic — one sixth of the story — are going to be mighty disappointed reading a mere fragment of story. (3) Individual comics have microscopic “bang for the buck” — $3 or $4 for ten to fifteen minutes of entertainment. Good God! Give me a paperback novel for $7 and I’ll be entertained for days! (4) Not every story deserves to be a bloated 6-issue arc.

The comics industry needs to go back to telling *most* of its stories in one or two issues. This will solve all the problems I listed above. And then, on the rare occasion that a story merits being spread out over six or more comic books, it will be a rare treat.

I also advocate the return of “thought balloons” as a great way of compressing the story or filling in new readers with facts they need to know.

Having to work makes nothing satisfying. I have a job. I get paid to work. Comic writers have a job as well. Their job is to entertain me and not ask me to jump through hoops or hold an encyclopedic understanding of the history of some stupid make-pretend character. That’s what they used to be paid to do. Now they get paid to do crummy psuedo-films-on-paper. It’s all bunk, it’s all trash. I don’t want it around me.

Give me “If Iceman Should Fail” any day.

I don’t think it’s story lengths that make Marvel so impenetrable these days; it’s more poor editorial decisions. Not having a better recap to allow new readers to catch on more easily: do we really need to have ad pages in the comics that are doing nothing but promoting licensed Marvel merchandise? Wouldn’t it be better to take that space and provide the appropriate background material in the comic itself instead of expecting the new reader to track it down online themselves? Or having the writers work this information into the script itself. Yeah, it may seem corny to have, say Reed Richards and Ben Grimm take a few panels to talk about the origin of Dr. Doom, but for a new reader that doesn’t know Doom, that can greatly increase their appreciation of the story and the characters. For the majority of the readers who do know this information, then it’s up to the writer to make the brief recap interesting and fun for them.

There aren’t even editorial footnote captions anymore to direct you to a specific issue if you do want to learn more about a character or event (*see X-Men #255-260). Which seems kind of dumb in and of itself, because there’s a perfect opportunity to guide a reader toward making another purchase. Instead, if they want to know more, they’ve got to go hunt down that information themselves.

The characters are all suffering from overexposure. Take a look at Marvel’s monthly slate: there’s a dozen X-Men titles, a half-dozen Avengers titles, and nearly all the ‘solo’ heroes star in at least two books a month, not counting their ‘team’ appearances. Add in the annual events, which interrupts the flow of nearly each individual title and overwhelms a new reader who may have been able to jump on and get a grip of what’s going on with dozens of new names and faces. If a newbie does have a favorite character it’s really not enough for them to just be able to read and enjoy that one series. Instead of welcoming that new reader who just is interested in one character, and then growing their appreciation so that they might be interested in other characters through guest appearances, they try to push piles of comics on them and tie all the books together into a meta-narrative. And there seems to be too much creativity by committee, rather than one person’s vision of what a character should be, because they’ve got to share the toys amongst the group.

We can also get into to how appropriate some of these comics are for an all-ages audience – most of the comics are a lot more graphic in their depiction of violence than the current crop of movies their characters are featured in — making it difficult to cultivate a new generation of readers from the ranks of the youth. And DC is definitely an offender here with the New 52, makes you wonder if completely doing away with the Comics Code was such a bright idea. Speaking of which, there’s plenty of missed opportunities there by Marvel, by not creating material that would appeal to the same audiences that made Twilight and Harry Potter huge. Sounds corny, but why not a Twilight-ish sort of comic about mutants instead of vampires? Or a Harry Potter-like book about a young sorcerer who will someday grow into the Sorcerer Supreme? Use these new young characters as a way to introduce and explain the Marvel Universe to a whole new readership.

Heck, Marvel had the Ultimate line, which was intended to draw in new readers with more streamlined continuity, and it became some bizarre fanfic alternate reality.

Ironically, comics could be more accessible than ever before, thanks to material being consistently collected into trades and the push toward digital, readers who want comics can get them relatively easily and cheaply, but there’s not much incentive to do so. And in Marvel’s case, until the movie gravy train slows down, or DC manages to really and consistently push their market share down, there’s probably not going to be anything done, either. I don’t really buy into the doom and gloom sentiments about the future of comics, but it does give you pause when the biggest publisher in the industry just kind of shrugs their shoulders and lets it up to Hollywood to cultivate a new audience for them while they hunker over a white board to plot out next year’s event that will make only the more hardcore fanboys wet their pants.

Great article, though.

……..comic book writers and artists these days create a 20 page story that is complete and stand alone, even with established characters with a built-in audience. They just don’t have the chops; the writers think they are writing a script for a movie and the artists are all wanting to wow the reader with visuals. I once read a newer comic i got in a lot of older books recently, and it was page after page of static, moody, drawings of the characters with very little dialogue at all. All on glossy expensive paper. I am sure if I could have read the entire 47 issue storyline, I would have been impressed, even if it only took 5 minutes per book to run through each issue. And some fool paid $3.00 bucks for this book originally, and i picked it up for about a quarter in a lot on Ebay…………

This is my 20th year of saying this: New comics are not worth the paper they are printed on.

This is an excellent article. I’ve recently begun to recommend comics to the uninitiated and it’s certainly not easy to get them to buy in, even when you provide a self contained story.

Here’s an article that I just wrote in a similar vein:

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