Monday, September 03, 2007

If Its Always Someone's First Comic, Couldn't It Just As Easily Be Their Last?

There is a popular thought process that Jim Shooter was the perfect cheerleader for: the notion that the comic must be basic enough for anyone to read, after all, "Any comic could be someone's first comic." An attitude that has been championed by more than a few people in the business. Recently, however, I've had reason to rethink the old canard, and I wanted to put this out to you, blogdom assembled.

The notion that any particular comic could be someone's first issue, and thus would need not only a recap, but a degree of "dumbing down" on the storytelling side so that the visual language of the comic would not be an impedement to understanding this month's story. Unfortunately, over the last couple decades, what we've seen are a far greater number of comics that become the last issues rather than the first issues. comics have been losing numbers in droves, so making the point that we have to potentially sacrifice the complexity of story or storytelling so as not to drive away a potential new reader, may well be moving us in the wrong direction. We may have been actively pushing away the reader who is constantly looking for something to grow with them.

It does make sense, for instance, to keep the "every issue a first issue rule" when you look at the industry demographic/marketing plan through the 1940s to 1960s: your comics were targeted towards the same age range, so instead of moving upwards with a person's age, you had to hope to replace the same number of readers that "age out" with a similar number that grow into reading your books. Already there are flaws with the system, when you look at birth statistics during the baby boomer years. Without new product to go along with your new kids, you really have no hope of expanding your market.

And of course, this ties back to my In Search Of: The Elusive Bridge Comic" post that generated some interesting discussion, by trying to make the point that we come to different content within the same media over the years with different expectations. It would be interesting to say that "every movie is going to be someone's first movie", so we shouldn't do anything too advance in terms of flashing forward (The Shining) , flashing backward (Momento) or being too inventive with out camera angles (Seven) . There should be no room for ambiguity (Lost in Translation) lest we basically piss off the viewer so badly that they never return to view another movie again.

Hard to read that without laughing, isn't it?

So here's what we do: we don't continually tie the hands of creators. We have books that are not meant for the 6 year old, or the 12 year old, but for the adult. And we make sure that we have books at that 6 year old level that don't insult their intelligence. My almost 7 year old daughter is already telling me what the theme of a movie or book will be in the first third of the story. She understands subtext without knowing what that word means yet. We don't need to keep the material within the medium stupid.

Challenge me. Make me think. Keep me awake. Keep me buying. Or that next comic might be my last.


Tom Mattson said...

A strong assessment. I went away from reading comics for quite a long time, during that period focusing on a career in television, the written word and other storytelling media before coming back and rekindling my relationship with the comic universe in the last few years.

Looking at this industry and assessing its evolution over the time I was away I notice a lot of trends. One of these, is that there is a growing division between people who truly see comics as their own storytelling medium and want to see it used as effectively as possible to meet those ends, and those people who are so enamored with the history of comics that they see evolutions as devolutions when often.....I would disagree. Granted, history is important in all things, and having an understanding of it is essential to having a grasp on current work and why it does/doesn't matter in the large scope of things. Without a respect for history we end up going in circles. That doesn't mean though that certain historical aspects or approaches should be regarded with such reverence that the medium is never given the chance to truly spread its wings.

People have an image of "comic books," they aren't willing to part with. They have a nostalgic relationship with an expression that appealed to their small constituency of friends and peers and that the world-at-large just didn't get. I can understand that. I feel an intense kinship with comic fans of older generations that can take happiness and inspiration from the cheesy stories of our youths. My girlfriend and college buddies can't understand what we see in those old issues and that's sort of a special feeling we share as a collective. That doesn't mean though, that comics as a story-form should avoid changing and growing to where it can appeal to those people who previously didn't "get it."

Isn't it more satisfying to have new series that really illustrate the power of the medium (Criminal & Fables could be some popular examples) that you can show to people who don't read comics and have them come out of the experience saying, "Whoa, I had no idea." These are the types of titles (Fables is a great example) that are bringing new readers to comics, and these titles are hugely dependent on their linear nature and accumulated character building over time. Imagine if every issue of Fables was entirely un-reliant on things that had come before? It would become meaningless. Sure, everyone would be able to pick it up as their first comic and follow along but all it would do is confirm their preconceptions about the shallow nature of the medium. Personally, Fables was the series that brought me back, and what excited me and kept me reading wasn't that the first issue I read was so enjoyable (it wasn't really) it was that there was a consistent story that developed, grew, and perpetuated that universe.

You're right, people aren't stupid. Your seven year old has been barraged by more culture and stories by that age than any past generation had even come close to, and the current generations ability to understand subtleties and arching messages are way more developed than even ours were. They don't want to be treated like idiots any more than I do as an adult. I love to be challenged, and believe it or not so do children. In a world that puts so much stock in personal achievement and knowledge more and more helps people define themselves and their worth - why not give people a product that speaks to these aspirations?

Remember, kids today have video-games, movies, the internet and whatever the hell else to give them flashes, explosions, and adrenaline fueled chaos. They don't need to turn to comics for this type of excitement anymore. Sensationalist entertainment has graduated and moved on from comic books, at least insofar as readers are concerned in their consumptions. We need comic creators who understand that and aren't trying to write what they would have loved as a child because frankly that just isn't the market any longer.

We need more creators and editors that maybe come from comics, but that aren't hampered by their worship of them.

Swinebread said...

I always thought that statement was BS

philippos42 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
philippos42 said...

Hm. I think there is a place for the, let's say, "gateway comic." But I also recognize that a lot of my friends who got into comics/graphic novels/sequential cartoon/manga/whatever as teens or older were turned on by at least slightly longer-form stuff like Sandman. So what that gateway looks like might be a trade paperback now, I dunno. I think the smaller-page-count formats are OK for short works.

Still, I think Shooter was partly right, especially given the market as defined at the time (mass market, no reprints). If things are too opaque, some will dig for more, where others just give up.

There's not one right answer, 'cos not everyone in the audience will react the same.