A key component to getting the most enjoyment out of any medium is understanding the rules that it operates under.
Print media, for instance, is a pretty familiar thing for anyone sitting down to read it since you’ve most likely been reading stories in various forms since you were a child. However, the problem with big company comics like those of Marvel or DC is that they operate in a medium unlike any other. Here’s what makes them different from other mediums and why it’s important to a reader’s enjoyment of the comic book medium:
a. With a few exceptions, most big publisher comics are meant to tell the story of the protagonist indefinitely. Their story is never over.
b. The creative team on a comic series changes constantly. Sometimes it’s because the team can’t, or doesn’t want to, work on the same book for their entire career, and sometimes it’s because of things like sales, the fans, or the company itself.
c. Most modern day comics have already been running for a really long period of time, especially that of the most beloved characters. Some series have more than 70 years of history under their belt.
d. Comics are created to be sold. Publishers operate like a business so it’s always going to come down to a sustainable business model.
If you’re completely new to comics, I want to present you with some guidelines and background knowledge designed to maximize your enjoyment but a lot of these rules are also geared towards long-time, jaded readers or readers who are starting to get weary of how the big publishers market their books. These guidelines should help you weather the storm and hopefully bring you back to big company comics with fresh eyes.
Where to start?
There are always a few questions that get asked by any new comic book reader, and the big one is usually, “Where do I start?”
It’s a legitimate question but one with a super simple answer: pick a character or series you like or are drawn to and just start reading it. Just like if you were to sit down to watch a game of football, even without knowing all the rules for the first time you shouldn’t have a hard time enjoying the experience if you just pick a team and dive right in.
Almost all comics these days do a good job of giving the reader the bare essentials on the first page of the comic with a little summary. That said, just like a game of football, you’re probably going to get a lot more enjoyment out of it if you know the rules of the game and, as it turns out, there are a lot of long-time comic book readers who either never internalized the following rules or perhaps just flat out disagree with them (and that’s fine: I’m just trying to tell people how to not get in the way of their own enjoyment of a comic).
So here are my rules, along with the context surrounding them, for how any comic book reader can get the most out of the medium and see it for what it is through the fog of poor business and marketing decisions that often surrounds them.
Rule #1: Understand the limitations of the medium and how creators get around it
As I mentioned above, comics is a serialized form of storytelling. If comic books were like puppet shows, then Marvel and DC would be the guys handling the production, making all the setting material and backgrounds, and crafting and taking care of the puppets themselves. The writers would be the puppeteers that put the stories together and used the production elements and puppets crafted by the companies.
Now since some puppets are particularly well liked more than others, and since the world they inhabit has become well-known, it stands to reason that the puppeteer is going to have to work within some limitations. Limitations like using the props created and set out by the company, like putting things back where you found them when you’ve finished your story and so on. Since demand for puppet shows are so high, in particular ones that feature certain puppets, there needs to be lots of stories being told with them, often by different puppeteers.
There is also a kind of unspoken understanding between the puppeteer and the audience that a show’s story lasts the length of time provided (which leads into my next point about reading the first page as it tells you the details of the show you’re about to enjoy, how long it is and other relevant information). Such is the case with writers at Marvel, DC and big company comics. They’re playing in a world that is not their own, with characters that do not belong to them, so they use what is available to them and spin the tales they do with what they have, taking into consideration what has become iconic and interesting in previous stories.
Rule #2: Read the first page of the comic
Well, you’re obviously going to read the first page but what I mean is to pay special attention to it.
Think of the first page like the “Previously, on… [insert title]” before your favorite TV show. Sometimes it’ll just be a recap of what happened last episode. But sometimes, there will be clips of what happened two seasons ago, or that one scene you might have missed that hinted at the character’s origin or motivation, or the voiceover will reframe past scenes in a new light, given new information recently discovered. Comics are exactly like this now except that comics have even more information than that on the first page!
Writers and their editors have been doing this for a really long time and with the extra influx of all the new readers recently, they’ve been getting really good at giving us the proper context to read the issue in. You’ll also find out the length of the story: is it a single, self-contained story this issue? Is it the first part of a three part series? A five parter? This is all useful information.
When a writer sits down to write a story, they’ve already got a wealth of history and information to use at their fingertips. Owing to this vast amount of story and character background already in existence, a lot of fans get hung up on stuff that has happened to the character and whether the events of a story is “canon” to the character and series or not. The thing is, 75 years of canonical history is simply impossible to always keep up with, especially with different writers and artists working on the book throughout. So here’s a really useful way to look at a story as presented in a comic book, by the writer and editor:
If we think of the entire history of the character and every event that’s happened to them as a giant market of ingredients the writer has access to, then, as they put together their story, they choose various ingredients to make their story with. An entire character’s history is fair game, but that doesn’t mean at any one time a writer has to use every ingredient available to them, because that’d be a recipe for disaster. One writer’s take on the character might be radically different from another’s. Each writer is going to use elements of a character’s back story to reinforce the story they’re trying to tell and leave the rest out.
The essential elements that will play a part in the story are going to end up on the front page if the editor does their job right, providing context without relieving any of the story’s tension. It is really only these key elements that you need to pay attention to in the story you’re about to read.
Now, I’m not saying that writers don’t use a lot of a character’s past events and stories to tell stories, or that back stories aren’t used to great effect, or that fans don’t expect creators to do that. What I mean to say is that with these rules of following the directions on the page, long-time readers will know what is relevant to the story at hand, and get a lot more out of the story when they spot the additional references and Easter eggs that lie within, and that new readers might miss them at first, but will still enjoy the story, just like how a Marvel movie needs to be accessible while also catering to long-time fans (who will hopefully not become jaded and continue reading comics and therefore accrue that in-depth knowledge so that they’ll be spotting them in no time).
Inevitably, there are going to be times when you “see the strings,” so to speak. When a creator kills a popular character off, you know they are going to be back at some point because the company makes money from stories with that character in it. The thing is, all that means is that you aren’t really looking at the actual story the creator is trying to tell, you’re just focusing on the fact that you can see the strings. Paul Cornell, a writer who has written Wolverine and various other titles once said something great about this while addressing a Comic Book Resources reader’s question about the often-temporary nature of superhero deaths:
“I think worrying about the life and death of superheroes is pretty meaningless. The search for ‘importance’ by the superhero comic audience is a problem, a disease. The only thing that’s important is story. If it’s a good story, it’s important and meaningful. Saying ‘I’ll bet he’ll be back within a week’ is to proudly affirm that you know Kermit is just a puppet.”
Rule #3: Treat each arc in a comic as its own story and judge it on those merits
If you think of each comic book as an episode within a self-contained story arc, as indicated by the writer on the first page of the comic, you’re going to have a great time (assuming the other pesky stuff like story structure, artwork and all that stuff you can’t control is also good).
On the other hand, if you try to place every comic book on the continuum that makes up the character’s entire history and judge the book by how it fits into that history, you’re probably going to be getting in the way of your enjoyment of said comic. Just like when you sit down to eat a dinner the chef has prepared for you, you can wonder to yourself why they used X spice instead of Y spice, or why they didn’t use everything available to them, but all you’d be doing is getting in the way of your own enjoyment. Enjoy the story for what it is, not how it fits into the history of the character.
See, sometimes writers want to write stories about the character that can’t fit into the canon of the character. Stories where the character dies or stories that explore alternative versions of the character’s history, and so on. If they did write these stories, the book probably couldn’t continue, and since it’s a serialized media that is meant to continue indefinitely, you can’t apply the same rules to a story in a comic book that you can to say, a single short story or book never meant to continue. If writers applied the restrictions that a lot of fans crave, like characters staying dead, then no money is ever made off that title again and the business model that actually supports the creation of comic books and the stories within them breaks down.
On the other hand, if you tell a creator that everything that he has happen to the character can never change, then writers would never be able to actually tell stories about the character in which they die and explore what that means to the other characters and the world. It’s a Catch-22 and the only way out of it is the current model that writers use in which they tell episodic stories. The problem is, of course, that it’s proven time and again that the biggest way to sell comics is to have big events, often with high stakes to create more tension and, hopefully, more compelling story-telling, and that’s something I’ll touch on with Rule #4 below.
So to connect rule #3 with rule #2: look at the first page of a comic as a recipe for what the writer is making: The panels and text to accompany it are the ingredients they’ve chosen to work with, the elements of back story that’s relevant in the story you’re about to read. The story title and “part 1 of 5” (or whatever it happens to be) tells us how long it’s going to take them to tell that story. This observance of Rule #2 will help you to follow Rule #3. Then, once the story is complete, judge its worth by its own merits, right away after having read it.
The role the story plays in the history of the character, the lasting effect the story has on the character or the universe they inhabit, are all possible ingredients in future installments but aren’t components of the story you just read. If the writer wants to explore that, it would have been part of the story, or will be part of the next (in which, again, the first page of the next issue will tell you as much). If not, look at that story as a self-contained arc. Approach the next, and every issue, with the same fresh eyes and let the writer set the story up for you. And then judge it on the merits of whether it is a good self-contained story or not.
Rule #4: Don’t buy into the marketing and business strategies
This is a big one that’s really hard to ignore sometimes, I admit.The biggest problem in terms of enjoying comics is that it leads readers to break the all-important Rules #2 and #3.
Marvel in particular is really bad at this. The thing is, in the end, Marvel is a business. All businesses are set up to generate money and to be sustainable over long periods of time. Over the years, Marvel has learned a few marketing tricks and ways of promoting its comics that basically tell people to break Rules #2 and #3. They market big events as having catastrophic or world-changing effects on the characters and the worlds they inhabit in order to generate sales. Collectors think an issue or series might become particularly valuable and regular readers get excited and hyped up for game-changing stories.
Now, sometimes, these stories actually deliver the goods and their effects really do last for a long time and really are game-changers. However, many comic book readers start judging a comic on the consequences the story has as per the buzz words the story was marketed by: how much of a game-changer was it? How long does X character actually stay dead for? etc. The thing is, there’s a lot of vague wording that gets tossed around and it all ends up being pretty subjective. Long-lasting for me is going to be different for you. I read a ton of comics every month and a year of exploring consequences of a story can feel like forever.
To link this rule to Rule #3, if you look at each story as its own thing, nestled in a wider context, you’ll be able to judge the story itself by how well it was told rather than on how much it lived up to the arbitrary promises made by the business model designed to sustain itself. You’ll be able to put down a story after the final issue at say, the death of Superman or Wolverine, and reflect on the story as you just read it rather than waiting to judge the story on how long the consequences of the story impact the wider universe. Let the story affect you and judge it by how well it does so right there and then.
Do keep in mind that at the end of the day, you vote with your wallet as a consumer, and that’s a big deal. You collectively determine what stories get produced over at Marvel and DC as much as anyone. Big companies continue to market comic books with those key buzz words because they are what consistently sell comics. That said, there are a lot of voices (with wallets to accompany them) that want particular types of stories being told. That’s why we’ve seen a recent rash of character-driven comics that are very self-contained. Books like She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, All-New Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Magneto, Hawkeye (to list just some of the few over at Marvel alone). Some of the books end up being drawn into an event or two along the way but it’s often not to their detriment. Even Amazing Spider-Man and the X books have a lot of great character-driven stuff in them these days – it just never gets promoted that way!
The current business model of big publisher comics is admittedly frustrating but it’s one that allows for many of the series I love to continue being published, so it’s something I try to change without getting too worked up over it at the same time.
In conclusion I’ll just say this: don’t stop yourself from enjoying the stories the creative teams behind the book put together. More often than not, they’re really good at it. If you enjoy their stories, support them and the books they create. Don’t search for meaning in the stories in so much as how they fit into the larger universe or how long the effects of the story continue on for. Look at the story, as lain out by the writer and artist, and judge it on its merit as a good story, on structure and execution, rather than what it’s marketed as because the actual creators don’t have much of a say in how their stories get marketed.
In the end, the only thing that matters is a good story, so if you judge story arcs on that basis alone, you’re bound to enjoy a lot of the stuff you read more. Enjoy yourself, friends. There is no better time to be reading comics.