Lately my son has been reading through a hefty Omnibus of the John Byrne run of Fantastic Four issues. He remarked how different they felt from modern comics. At first he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different, but eventually it came to him: a lot of space was devoted to filling the reader in on background details that were relevant to the story. Comics today seldom do this.
There is a great deal of irony here. First, the comics industry desperately needs new readers and seems clueless as to how to acquire them. And yet they continue to pump out stories that are so deeply buried in continuity that they are uninviting for a new reader. Certainly, comics today are more sophisticated in their storytelling. Fans point to this increase in complexity as a sign of how much comics have improved in the past few decades. And in many ways they are right. However, this same complexity means that someone new cannot pick up a comic with any hope of understanding what is going on.
Frequently someone will wander into my store having just seen an Iron Man or Thor movie and ask about the comics. I do my best to summarize what is going on, but the current plotlines are so convoluted they inevitably get confused and leave without purchasing anything. DC’s very successful relaunch of their line of comics in 2011 did wonders in allowing new readers an entry point into comics, but already many of those books are beginning to get some weighty continuity of their own. And Marvel’s success at the movies means most of the casual people off the streets are looking for a Thor or Iron Man or Avengers comic to read and Marvel is simply not “new-reader” friendly.
A second irony is this: thirty years ago you could pick up most comic titles off the stands and start reading without confusion. These books were numbered consecutively, so chances are you would be picking up Fantastic Four #240 or Thor #310 or some other high number. Once the numbering began for a book, the publishers kept it going, no matter how many times the readership might turn over. Conversely, these days a book is lucky to make it 50 issues before the publisher restarts the numbering for some arbitrary reason. Wolverine in particular keeps getting restarts even though the story in the “first” issue of the new series is likely continued directly from the “last” issue of the previous series. So what that means is thirty years ago you could pick up Captain America #287 as an introduction to the series and start reading with no problem, where today you might pick up Captain America #1 and be completely confused as to what is going on, unless you had happened to read the last twenty or thirty issues of the preceding series.
In their defense, I understand why the publishers do this. Every day someone comes into my store and asks for a good series to read. If I direct them to any title with a number past the single digits they inevitably put it back on the shelf and ask “Don’t you have anything that… you know….just started?” Which brings me to irony number three. Potential fans are obsessed with getting in on a series at the beginning, and yet at the same time they want an iconic “brand name” character. Unfortunately they are about fifty years too late to pick up the first issues of Hulk or Spider-Man, but they are not interested in giving something like Bloodshot a try because it is an unknown quantity (i.e. – no movie yet). So instead they fall for Marvel’s marketing gimmick and pick up the latest Number One, and wind up totally confused at the bogged down story that is already well underway. These potential comic fans aren’t coming back, folks. It’s easier to just go watch the latest movie. And still the publishers scratch their heads and wonder why sales continue to erode year after year.
Giving the people what they want is not always the best idea, especially when what they think they want is yet another Wolverine #1.