Sunday, January 31, 2010

Comics, Continuity and Complexity

I’ve been reading a whole bunch of new comics lately, mostly stuff I’ve been getting out of the library. So, I’ve read a wide variety of stories, and been straying outside of the safe zone a bit and trying to read some new stuff. Two of the big ones I read recently were Warren Ellis’s Nextwave and Geoff Johns’ recent Green Lantern run, up through Secret Origin so far.

The two works are polar opposites in terms of approaches to comics, one a continuity laden multi-year saga dwelling in the deepest recesses of the DCU, while the other is a done in one, light fun jaunt through a parody version of the Marvel Universe that explicitly rejects continuity. The generally held belief would be that Nextwave would be much more likely to draw in a new reader and engage them, while Green Lantern would likely confuse and alienate someone new to comics. The thinking is that Nextwave is going to make more comics fans than Green Lantern would, and I don’t think that’s the case, at least when it comes to big two superheroics.

One of the most unique things about superhero comics that take place in the DC or Marvel universes is their vast continuity, the fact that each story is the product of thousands of individual issues and choices made by writers many years ago. It’s always exciting to me to see a reference to a story from the past that I’ve read, be it reading about Mon-El in Showcase Presents Titans then seeing him in Geoff Johns’ Superman, or seeing Grant Morrison riff on an Alan Moore Swamp Thing story in Seven Soldiers: Zatanna.

The common complaint is that these stories exclude new readers. I think that can be true for certain writers, but when applied successfully, as I’d argue good writers like Morrison or Johns do, the accumulated history of the universe makes for a deeper, more expansive universe. There’s a common misconception that you have to understand every element of a story to enjoy it, but that’s not the case at all. One of the beauties of a film like Star Wars is the sense that behind every corner of this world are other stories, other characters and lives being lived.

But, if Star Wars was a comic coming out today, people might complain that we have no idea who Greedo is, or who this Jabba the Hutt that they’re referring to is. But, the thing is, it doesn’t matter, we understand who they are through context clues. The best use of continuity in comics is to make it so that someone who isn’t familiar with the stories can understand it from the context, but someone who is familiar gets the added bonus of being able to connect this story to what’s come before.

Just to clarify, I don’t like stories that require you to read another book to understand it, but I absolutely love the way that Morrison and Johns have recurring elements and characters across all their books. It’s fun to see the Squire show up in his new Batman book, and be able to connect her to the JLA: Classified arc, or even his original JLA run. Similarly, in the Sinestro Corps War, we see the further development of Superboy Prime, connecting that story to Infinite Crisis, and laying the groundwork for Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds.

The problem I have with a book like Nextwave, or with the original manifesto of Ultimate Spider-Man as a series of self contained arcs is that it gives you no pleasure beyond the moment of reading it. Nextwave doesn’t ask for emotional engagement with the characters, and the characters don’t develop. One of the big pitches of the series is that you can read one arc or all six and still get the same experience. That’s a sentence you could read as a positive, (i.e. you only have to buy two issues!) or you could read it as a negative, that reading ten more issues gives you nothing you didn’t get from the first two.

People frequently say that self contained issues and arcs are the best way to hook new readers. I think they may be the best way to get someone who doesn’t want to read comics to give them a try, but it’s not the way you’re going to make new fans. It’s possible to be a casual comics fan, to read Maus and Persepolis and not much else, but most people who get into comics become huge fans. And, the kind of people who become huge fans are going to be the ones who don’t say I read this done in one issue and am satisfied, they’re going to be the ones who read an issue of Green Lantern and want to read years of back issues to catch up and fully understand the story.

Particularly with big two comics, but even with ongoing Vertigo series, most major comics fans have a completist kind of personality, a desire to always read more and more, and I think giving someone a series like Green Lantern better activates that desire. When I was a kid, the book that got me into comics was X-Men, I read a few random issues and wanted to know more and more about the world, so I went back and read Claremont’s Essential X-Men 1, then went on and on until eventually I’d read every Claremont book from the 70s to ’91.

The reason I became hooked was not because of a successful done in one story, it was getting an insight into this expansive universe and wanting to fully understand it. Even though I think Ellis’s level of craft is better than Johns, and Johns will probably never write a book as good as Planetary, I prefer to read Johns’ work now because it all builds on each other, it’s part of one masterwork within the DCU.

Most really big fans of any medium are the ones who want more and more. Casual TV viewers will watch a sitcom or procedural, serious fans watch The Wire and savor every detail, every piece of intricate continuity and consider continuity and complexity a sign of a more mature work. In TV terms, Nextwave is CSI, Green Lantern is Buffy.

Now, it’s easy to embrace The Wire as worth your time because it’s socially relevant and something that feels good for you. Is it worth investing the time needed to read 300 issues of Geoff Johns’ comics to fully understand what he’s doing in the DCU? One, I’d argue that he’s skilled enough to make sure you don’t have to read them all, but also, I think it comes down to what you want out a story. Do you want to be entertained and put it down with a complete package, or do you want the promise of more stories to check out? I read Sinestro Corps War and not only wanted to read more Green Lantern, I wanted to catch up on JSA, so I could read Legion of 3 Worlds and then Adventure Comics. I love that all those stories tie together, and I love that each seemingly isolated work builds and enhances the other.

And, I’d argue most people who are going to become comics fans like that too. I don’t think you make people fans of comics by hiding them from that which makes them unique. Nextwave might hook certain people, but I don’t think it has that addictive quality that makes people really need the next issue, the next story. That’s what’s going to get people coming back, and I think people are sometimes scared of embracing what makes comics unique and special. Try to enjoy each individual issue, but also enjoy them as part of a much larger tapestry that’s one of the most complex, ever evolving pieces of narrative in the contemporary world.


Mercer Finn said...

Hmm. I consider myself a comics fan (I buy 2-5 floppies a week), but I don't fit into the continuity obsessive mold you present here. I read and enjoyed Infinite Crisis, and I get what you're saying about the barely grasped depth and complexity of the universe behind the story. But I didn't feel the urge to explore. Just putting that out there...

Patrick said...

One of the things that I probably should have clarified was that I think it creates an interesting auteurist point of view within the long running comics universe. You look at a filmmaker, like David Lynch, and there's clearly recurring symbols and character types, but in comics you get the added bonus of having the actual same characters recur from work to work, making Geoff Johns or Morrison's work within the DCU all part of one big story.

That's really what gets me buying more stuff, or wanting to read more stories, not just knowing there's another Superboy Prime or Animal Man story out there, but knowing that it's part of Morrison's and Johns' take on the character. The film equivalent would be if Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks was the cop investigating Camilla's car crash in Mulholland Dr., it wouldn't add that much to the work, but would give you a bonus reason to go through Lynch's entire oeuvre.