Comic Fodder

There’s a Reason Why We Are Confused

Okay, I know that we can always finish a comic and blame everything on the writer. There are a ton of reasons we can come up with to explain how things aren’t like the old days, how people keep trashing continuity, how even with no continuity this story made no sense, etc. But there is one small piece of the puzzle that helps to explain the difference between our comprehension when most of us first read comics, and how we devour them now: it’s called “re-reading.” And however small, it is one of the many reasons that we are having trouble keeping things straight.

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, back when Saturn Girl implanted a hypnotic suggestion in his mind so he would not think to come back to the 30th century. Shortly after that, Ultra Boy appeared to have been killed in battle. Here and there were hints, though, that he had survived. His lover, Phantom Girl, was then rescued by a new hero, Reflecto. Many of the rest of the team viewed this newcomer with suspicion, but many of them, including Grimbor, an enemy of the Legion, all started to think that Reflecto was Ultra Boy in disguise. When the mask finally came off, it was not Ultra Boy, it was Superboy!

So what happened? Well, Ultra Boy had been turned into something of a phantom, but found his way back to the 20th century, and managed to accidentally take over Superboy’s mind. He found a way back to the 30th century, but was immediately hit by an intense mental brick wall, Saturn Girl’s telepathic block against coming back. To counter this, Ultra Boy had Superboy create a new identity for both of them, and thus Reflecto was born!

Was that clear? Because let me tell you, it was a ton more clear and concise than when I recounted the story for my uncle at Christmas that year. Poor guy. Even as a youngster, I was aware of how poorly I was telling things, which could be measured by the number of times I stopped and said, “But before that…” as I realized there was another important fact that had happened earlier, and he needed to know that to get the full story. Now, I figure he was just nodding his head and smiling. I was oblivious, so happy to have somebody make the grave mistake of asking about me and my comics that I talked endlessly. I suspect my uncle might even have been slightly afraid of the manic gleam in my eye as I talked, but what could anyone do?

Comics When You’re A Kid

Before there were any video game systems besides things like Atari, before the internet, before DVDs, the one thing that I spent a lot of my free time doing was reading comics. The one thing I did more than read them was re-read them. I could only cajole my mother into buying so many at one time, and it was a long time until the next trip to the store. The few that I had on hand, I memorized. Not intentionally, mind you. It’s just that when you look at something a hundred times, things tend to stick with you. Repetition really works, especially when you are interested in the subject. This is why I can name every member of the Legion, but cannot remember all of the elements on the periodic table. To be honest, part of the reason I can name as many elements as I can is because I first read about them in comics. (I also have to make sure I stick to real elements, as teachers tend not to accept adamantium, vibranium, and inerton, although a lot of the time they do accept kryptonite!)

For good or ill, a lot of our youthful time was spent in the four colors of comic books, and many of us would not only re-read them, we would take our Star Wars action figures and our G.I. Joes, and we would paint them as necessary, and they would become the Justice League or the X-Men, and we would re-enact each panel of the comic. And somebody out there please verify you did this also, there is just no way I am the only one! The unintended result is that we can follow almost any time-travel plot; we can explain Lost and Heroes to others in great detail after one sitting; and we can recite Green Lantern’s oath at the drop of a hat right after creating a family tree for Scott Summers’ family, including his future daughter from an alternate timeline and his son who was stolen away from him forever at a young age, but nevertheless managed to raise him anyway in the far-flung future in the guise of another body. Phew!

Comics When You’re An Adult

Can we do this anymore? Is this just the effects of old age? They say everything starts falling apart after 30! How many of your comics you get every month do you re-read? Guess what, almost all of us have a day job that consumes at least 40 hours, not counting the time it takes to get ready and drive back and forth. Add in dating the opposite sex (or the same sex, for some of you out there), eating, sleeping, and the normal all-surrounding media of movies, television, computers and video games, and sometimes we set a couple of those comics aside for tomorrow, because there just wasn’t time to read them all after you got back from the comic store. Imagine explaining that particular heresy to your eight-year-old self!

There are other reasons that contribute to this that aren’t our fault. There are a ton of late comics, so it’s actually more than a month since you read the last issue. You are almost compelled to re-read those, just to keep the story in your mind. Also, I have talked previously about the poor editing going on, and the lack of captions to help us out. This perfect storm of diminishing memory, lack of notations, and delayed comics certainly does not help the situation.

It’s Not Just You

Okay, there are some times when things don’t make any sense at all. Remember when Green Arrow and Black Canary got married? The villains tried to crash the party, but Batman and company were all over things, taking out any and all threats. And then on the honeymoon, Green Arrow turned out to have been replaced, and the imposter tried to kill Dinah. We are supposed to believe the heroes found out every other plot but that one, and had no sensors or telepaths or any way to detect Ollie was not the real McCoy? Now people who bought that issue are stuck with a wedding special in which the two characters didn’t even get married! It was lame, pure and simple. The only confusion for us is, why in the world would any writer be allowed to shovel such nonsense our way?

But what about that character third to the left in Limbo in the Final Crisis crossover? You knew him, you knew his name once, but you’ve forgotten it now, haven’t you? You picked up the latest issue of Batman, but you forgot what happened last month. You only read it once, you tore through it in ten minutes, and you didn’t look again. Add in the fact that there are thirty additional years of continuity and too many titles to collect, and your poor memory doesn’t stand a chance. Pick up that two-page spread of Top Ten and see how many of the 100 Easter eggs you can pick out without cheating and looking on the answer key in the trade. Couldn’t even get twenty, could you? Yup, definitely slowing down, compadre…

What This Means For The Comic Industry

In this modern world, there have been a number of approaches to comic writing, and none of them can really be called “wrong.” There are the drawn-out, decompressed stories that take forever to get going, there are the lightning-quick stories that give you whiplash. There are group shots where everyone has a caption so you can tell their name, and there are Morrison- or Moore-designed panel shots that would take days to properly annotate, for all the references they have stuffed onto a single page.

For better or worse, our time management is under attack by a multitude of distractions, and we can choose to pick a comic and re-read it, or buy another comic and read them all once, or sometimes we don’t have time to read comics. And I feel bad just for typing that last part, but there are a couple things that do take precedence once in a while. Publishers need to understand this and convey this to the creative teams: make your story clear. It’s one thing to weave a mystery for a year or two in a series, or plant an Easter egg or two. I’m not asking people to stifle their creativity. There are certainly enough helpers on the net who will do your research for you and point out all the hidden parts and playful homages to ages past that are buried in your new magazine… if you have the time to read those websites as well.

It’s not that we need a story to be dumbed down. But the modern adult reader does need an occasional recap, or a flashback, or a teensy bit of exposition to keep them up to speed on what is going on. If you’re going to write straight on through for six or twelve issues for a trade format, then don’t do a monthly series to begin with: give your creative team an advance and have them do a special trade or graphic novel, and release it all at once, so the reader can read it all at once. It’s bad enough we have to figure out which part keeps with continuity, and help point out for you where you just broke it; we are messing up ourselves now, because we don’t have the time to absorb the mastery of the comic anymore. Unless you are actually producing a masterpiece, your comic will only be read once, and then set aside for years. If the writing is not good and crisp enough, nobody will bother to go back and take another look at it.

Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Children

It is not just us old curmudgeons that are complaining. Look around; there are not very many younger readers out there. Today’s youngsters have all the same distractions as we do, and they have more time to examine them than the pesky adults. They are examining Youtube and downloading music and redesigning their Myspace page for the tenth time. They not only have VHS tapes, they have extended cuts and a slew of extras to watch on their new DVD. They have hidden segments on the latest Sega game, and a ton of grinding to do on Warcraft before they can get their flying horse. And you just stuck an Iron Man comic in front of her face, and it’s the fourth part of a six-part story, and the writer didn’t even bother to have three of the characters addressed by name in the entire comic. No narrative captions or editorial footnotes to help out either, these days. Today’s kids are just like the adults: they will look at it once and turn their attention to something else. We have less time to spend with these comics.

The storytelling will need to adapt to this modern change at some point, or some day, everyone will collectively be spending no time with comics at all.
Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

Actually we used Fischer-Price to play the Legion. We used our Star Wars to act out the Star Wars comic book!

I believe your articles on poor storytelling are making me more critical to my own buying choices. I recently dropped "Ambush Bug" (after only two issues) due to lack of storyline and funniness and "Trinity" due to boredom. I think I bought Countdown/52 because I kept thinking something extraordinary was going to happen but it didn't.

I agree that often I get a new issue and can't remember what happened last issue. "X-Men" now wastes the entire first page with a recap of the last few issues which I never read. I figure if I can't remember the story, it wasn't that great to begin with.

-- Posted by: Mike D! at September 4, 2008 3:15 PM

I'll have to agree at some point. However, do we really need to know the character's names, if they're on the front cover? Of course, your points are extremely magnified for myself as a writer trying to break in. Have the stories been written before, and if so, are they worth retelling? It gets to the point where all the good stories have been told....

-- Posted by: Mike Shields at September 4, 2008 5:16 PM

Great article....I agree with you mostly but I have to say that I don't necessarily agree that comics need to change to get younger readers. In fact, I don't think they need younger readers. Yes, in the past, comics were read by kids...but that's no longer the case and that is fine. People still start hobbies after the age of 15....we don't need to have children read in order to have new readers. Most of my friends got into comics in college.

-- Posted by: Steve at September 6, 2008 2:40 PM

Just a great column (wish it were mine, dangit).

I actually point to many of your arguments as to why I struggle with Legion. I have the basics down, but I didn't come to Legion until I was older and no longer going through the "learn by repetition" model kids employ (part of why, I think, kids also tend to read and re-read the same comics more than adults).

I've been following Legion on and off for years now, and I'll be dipped if I can tell you much about ANY of the team other than their power, codename and a one sentence description of who they are. I don't know if I even blame the writing... its just a complex bag of stuff, and for all the reasons you describe, I am, indeed, somewhat confused.

-- Posted by: Ryan at September 8, 2008 12:22 AM