Saturday, 7 December 2013

In The Beginning... Or, You Know, Not.

The other day I read an article on the Robot 6 website which had an interview with comic book writer Jonathan Hickman (Avengers, Fantastic Four and The Manhattan Projects, among many other books) who explained that the Avengers.NOW book he wrote is a "terrible jumping-on point" for readers new to the title. 

Nowadays that sort of statement is nearly scandalous- with all the money being poured into movies and tv show adaptations of comic books, more and more pressure is being put on comic book writers to make their books more "accessible" to new readers with every issue. 

So with Mr. Hickman saying that his most recent issue ISN'T a good place for new readers to start, he no doubt has thrown a few people in the industry for a loop with what might be thought by some as a bold and very much against the current way of thinking.  

He goes on to say that "... I’m not even sure I buy into the validity of the argument that every issue should be able to be read as if it was somebody’s first issue."  

I couldn't agree more. 

Comic books are a serial publication, with steady publication by the Big Two (DC and Marvel) of their main characters running for over 50 years now. Now it's true that both DC and Marvel (and Valiant if you wish to include them, which I do) have had their share of retcons an reboots that have started things all over again to bring "fresh" and "bold new" takes on old characters, but for the most part, the characters are very much the same as they were when they first appeared. So, if that's the case, why do we need to make sure everyone knows EVERYTHING right up front EVERY issue? 

Let me take this back a step. Here you are, reading this blog entry, right? You may or may not have read previous ones I've written, but does that mean that you HAVE to in order to understand what this one is about? When you first meet someone, you shake their hand and suddenly know everything about them from the moment of their birth? Of course not. Odds are you don't really need to know that I once broke my toe jumping over a couch to know me as a person- though that is one of the stories that make up who I am and have become over time.

Part of the fun of meeting people, whether face to face in real life or reading about fictitious characters, is getting to know them over time, slowly working your way through a history that you previously were unaware of; like an archaeologist going through an ancient Egyptian tomb, discovering previously unseen bits of the past. There's simply NO FUN in having things HANDED to you. A little work makes it that much more rewarding. 

And as a reader these days there are SO MANY resources that people can use to learn about characters and stories. Much more so than when I first started reading comics 25+ years ago. Back then I devoured every issue of Marvel's Handbook to the Marvel Universe and DC's Who's Who; both books featuring character profiles detailing their abilities, vital statistics (did you know Supeman is 6'3" and Batman weighs 210lbs? I did!) and highlights from their histories. Today we have updated (somewhat anyhow) versions of those, DK Books have put out encyclopedias featuring those characters, and more than that, we have this wonderful invention called the Internet that seemingly hold the answers to all of life's questions. Are you telling me that between fansites, official publisher websites, Google and Wikipedia that you can't find out what issue Spider-Man first fought Vulture in and who Ben Reilly is? LIAR. 

Why don't we apply this to tv and movies? When you went and saw Chris Pine go play Captain Kirk in the latest movie, did you go rewatch all the 1960s William Shatner episodes because otherwise you were worried that otherwise you wouldn't know who Kahn was? Pretty doubtful. So why are, or should, comics be different? 

Are you worried that the nerd/geek culture will shun you for trying to understand the awesomeness of comic books and you'll never be accepted in the local comic shop if you come in saying you enjoyed The Walking Dead tv show and would really like to read something else by Robert Kirkman? Possible but highly unlikely. Every sub-culture has their snobs, I won't argue that, but it's MUCH more likely that people will be thrusting copies of Invincible and Battle Pope in your hands and asking who you like more, Rick or Michonne, before they criticise you. Comic book fans LOVE talking comics with ANYONE who shares an interest in them. Seriously, just start a conversation with one and you'll quickly find out WAAAAAY more about Professor X's love life than you ever thought you'd even WANT to know. 

I have a friend, Mike, who once said to me that he HAD to start from the beginning or he felt like he was missing something. I sort of get that- me, I don't mind walking in mid-story, but for people like Mike, there are a LOT of options for going right to the start. Digital comics are cheap, easy to locate on the Internet (Comixology, DriveThruComics, many others) and have access to VAST libraries of back-issues, many companies re-print popular runs in collected editions (known as trade paperbacks) and you can always go the old-school approach and search out back-issues at the local comic shop and conventions. 

So really it comes down to not being lazy- make the little bit of effort to dig, to ask a friend, to discover the greatness of these stories. Or just be brave and dive right in- either way you're in for a heckuva ride. Comic books ARE the greatest form of art after all- nothing else combines beautiful drawings and colors with excellent prose- the written word and incredible pictures; what more could one ask for?  So quit reading this and go read a comic book- you won't regret it.

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