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So, You Want to Read Comics, Eh?

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Feel free to look up the rest, they’re fully of nerdy goodness.

So, it’s the end of our week-long look at the comic book medium and what a week it’s been. We’ve looked at grown-up comics and superhero comics, the best of DC comics and the quirks of the medium. So I hope you might forgive the excess if I write this last blog post from an all-together more person perspective. I like the funny books, I do. I think the medium has huge potential to tell stories in a fascinating format, unconfined by budget or scope. I am fascinated by the intertextual elements, the notion that all of these different and unique titles can be drawn together as part of one giant meta-story. But what I really have difficulty understanding is why the medium insists upon making itself so damn inaccessible.

Sometimes Superman just likes be a douche...

I’m going to tell you a true story about my attempt to buy a Batman comic book. My girlfriend, the saint that she is, bought be an issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman at a time when things weren’t particularlyperfect in my life about two years ago. It was an incredibly sweet gesture – one of countless ones that I’ve seen from her over the years, and another indication of just how lucky I am. That is the only comic book issue that I have – or that I know where it is, at anyrate. My parents used to buy me the odd Batman comic issue when we were overseas, but they were random and irregular (I still remember the three stories though – the Joker kidnaps a comedy club and puts explosives around their necks which will detonate if they laugh (I think it was a sequel to The Killing Joke); a fantastic secret origin of the Riddler; and a Swamp Thing/Batman crossover). But I digress.

The issue was strange and more than a bit quirky. I had arrived in the middle of Grant Morrison’s Space Medicine arc. There was an imaginary bug in a Batman costume talking to the title character, who was about to be operated on by an evil replacement Batman… or something. I had no idea what the hell was going on. But I knew that I liked it.

What followed was a very awkward courtship. I bought Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P., a deluxe edition advertised as “the death of Bruce Wayne”. I soon discovered that comic books lie a lot. The hardcover was damn near impossible to decypher on its own. I’ll leave it to the good folks over at TVTropes to succinctly summarise my dilemma:

Pretty much the only way Batman R.I.P. is going to make any sense is if you read the previous two trade paperbacks in the Myth Arc. And that one issue where Bruce gets high on weapons-grade heroin and runs around in a red-and-purple Batsuit makes a whole lot more sense as a chapter of a graphic novel than as a standalone issue.

Yes, this was my entry point to comic book Batman. It was pretty damn confusing – and it still is, even after I’ve reread it several times.

Yes, Batman is talking to an imaginary flying midget in a Bat-costume... and, no, that isn't the weirdest thing that happened that issue...

This is the biggest problem I’ve had in trying to read anything within the medium (or at least, any on-going superhero titles). They tend to be so heavily based in the seventy-odd year mythology that they are very tough to understand. And there’s rarely any effort on the part of the publishers to puch forward the most accessible narrative. I wonder how many people came out of The Dark Knight, picked up the ridiculously-heavily-pushed Batman R.I.P. and put it back down again straight away (or after the first heavy-handed reference to a forgotten 1962 storyline)? I’d argue the smart move would have been to publicise Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics at the same time, a wonderful collection of standalone Batman stories that tend to avoid outrageously heavy continuity.

And who the hell decided that, with Batman’s stock at an all time high with the second-biggest movie of all time in release, it would be the perfect time to “kill him off” (but not really, in a complicated and convoluted meta-fictional crossover? Sometimes I wonder if the industry itself is to blame for making itself inaccessible.

That and its over-reliance on superheroes, which is also its own fault, I suppose.

I’m not arguing that comic books should dumb down or anything so radical. But one has to look at what JJ Abrams has done with Star Trek and feel a little bit envious. He took a ridiculously convoluted narrative populated with characters we all recognise, but most of us had lost touch with, and he fearlessly wiped the slate clean in order to appeal to as wide a base as possible. And he got the most financially successful movie of the franchise for his trouble. My girlfriend, who never watched an episode in her life before the movie, now has a Spock-crush which we celebrated by watching Amok Time (the one where Kirk and Spock fight… to the death!). The point is that the reboot of the franchise, however controversial, has brought the series to an entirely new audience.

In fairness, Marvel seem to have the right idea – if not flawless execution. They launched a separate brand of ‘new universe’ titles – the “ultimate” line – which started everything from scratch again. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Spider-Man all got new starts within this brand. And it sold well. There’s debates about how well it sold, and whether it reached anyone outside comic book fans, but these titles began to outsell their forty-year-old siblings. I’d argue that the rebranding of the Avengers, as Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, was the true runaway success of the reboot.

However, the central problem with this line was that it wasn’t properly maintained. It was allowed to grow and become as ridiculously convoluted as its predecessors. Within a few years, continuity was just as tangled and it was just as hard to pick up an issue of these titles as it was to pick up a mainstream title. There were attempts to tidy it up, but they were… not necessarily successful.

I have more faith in DC’s planned “graphic novel” line they are launching later this year. Essentially starting the characters from scratch, they should represent books you can literally just pick up and read. Which would be a vast improvement over how the comics attempted to sell themselves with the last mega-blockbuster. The release of cinematic adaptations of other forms of books typically cause a huge spike in sales, so it should be easy for DC to capitalise on that. It’s just odd that it has taken so long.

But I digress. Back to the personal narrative. My own experience reading the funny books. The biggest single problem I have with comics is that they are essentially infinite. There’s no sense of closure. It’s harder to tell a definitive narrative in this form than any other. It just keeps going. Brian Bendis may leave Daredevil, but Ed Brubaker will be there after him. The changing of writers and artists on monthly books means that there’s always some form of freshness to be had, but it also prevents a satisfying conclusion.

That’s why I love stories that do keep their authors on board for a finite run. Sandman and Starman are perhaps the two most obvious examples. Everything you need to read to understand the character is included there. It is just like a novel, rather than a never-ending episodic adventure. I love that novel-by-installments feel. The notion that, because it’s published monthly rather than all-at-once, the story grows with the writer. It matures with them. That’s a beautiful thing you rarely see. Sure, there are the typical growing pains in television as a series progresses, but the writing staff is big and rotates, so it isn’t a single author shepherding the material over time. It’s worth the headaches and the lack of maturity and the uncertainty of youth that the medium demonstrates time-and-time-again.

I don’t know, I’m rambling on.

I’d like to take the time for thanking you for reading through these five posts, which are a bit of a departure from our usual source material. Hopefully we’ll be back to normal next week.


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