Before you reproach me for saying that about these particular comics, let me tell you: today as a test I gave "Batman and Robin" #16 to someone I think is pretty smart who hasn't read any Batman comics since she was a kid, and she couldn't make heads or tails of it. That's a company's flagship book simply not doing its job.This concern over the accessibility of mainstream superhero comics to the new or casual reader seems to crop up again and again on message boards and in comic shops, amongst fans and creators. I would argue however that we should worry less about the new reader and more about enjoying having the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the dense, convoluted and utterly fascinating worlds that DC and Marvel have created over the course of over seventy years.
|You don't have to have read this story to understand Grant Morrison's Batman, but it sure helps!|
Every now and again, especially when there's a comic related film to promote, DC and Marvel will trumpet the fact that certain books have reached a "jumping on point" for new readers. In fact Marvel's upcoming series of "Marvel Point One" issues aim to do exactly that. Other examples of these "jumping on" points could be a new creative team, a new status quo, a return to the old status quo or even a complete continuity reboot. The most famous example of such a reboot was of course DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths which spring cleaned every confusing corner of the DC Universe and pretty much started everything again from scratch. Marvel have never had such a company wide continuity reshuffle but that hasn't stopped them from monkeying around with their character's origins in a bid to attract new readers. Some of these attempts have been very successful (Ultimate Spider-Man) others have been less successful (Spider-Man: Chapter One).
I'm not saying that such attempts should never have been made. From a business point of view it makes perfect sense for DC and Marvel to bring in as many new readers in whatever way they can. Creatively speaking it's nice to have a shake up every now and again, although there's an ongoing debate among fans whether superhero comics get shaken up too much or not enough. But despite this I do think that fans concern themselves too much with whether their favourite comics are attracting new readers or not. How many online critics and commentators have you read lamenting, like Seneca in the aforementioned discussion, that a certain comic risks alienating new readers with its convoluted plot and self-referential nature? I would say, never mind what these hypothetical new readers think. What do YOU think?
When these "new readers" are discussed in blogs or in forums then a certain type of person is usually described. We're usually presented with an image of a person who's never read a comic and goes to see The Dark Knight or Iron Man. This person is so moved by their cinematic experience that they rush at the earliest opportunity to their nearest comic shop to purchase the latest Batman/Iron Man issue. You'd imagine that the last thing they'd want to find is a load of impenetrable gobble-dee-gook referencing past issues and dead characters. But think about it for a moment. Do you actually know anyone who has suddenly started following a series after watching a superhero film, despite never showing any previous interest towards superhero comics, or indeed any sort of comics? I'm not saying it's never happened but I can't imagine DC or Marvel really getting a significant sales spike from this type of person.
The appeal of superhero comics to children is also usually a concern when discussing new readers. Surely children, or rather the children's parents, are going to get put off by the adult themes and violent content of a lot of mainstream superhero comics? I would put myself forward as counter argument against this reasoning. I was born in 1981 and really started getting into superhero comics in about '88 and '89, just in time for Tim Burton's Batman movie. So I was a child getting into comics in the late '80s and early '90s, the period in which "grim 'n' gritty" were the comic industries' buzzwords of choice. The writers were trying to be Frank Miller and Alan Moore and the artists were trying to be Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. Capes were out and guns, boobs and personality disorders were in. I read Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham when I was ten years old. I'd be hard pressed to find any comic on the stands today starring a mainstream superhero that had more boobs and guts flying out of every panel, but it certainly didn't put me off comics.
|A gratuitous butt shot of Death's Head II and Tuck from Liam Sharp and Simon Bisley on the cover of Marvel UK's Overkill #50 (1994). To me this really does embody early '90s comics at their most ridiculous.|
In fact I would urge every comic fan concerned about the accessibility of modern superhero comics to think back to when you were a child getting your first taste of the genre. Can you honestly say that everyone of those early comics that you read were completely self-contained stories? I have to say that for me, part of the thrill was feeling that you were dipping into something huge. These characters had adventures and experiences that were alluded to but never fully explained, just like real people. Putting a comic down without the full picture but with a desire to seek out previous or subsequent chapters is not a bad thing. It's probably this desire to find explanations and complete the story that propelled most comic fans into a lifetime of collecting.
Attracting new readers is of course an important concern. There are many possible reasons for the fact that monthly pamphlet style comic books just aren't as popular as they used to be. But we fans do ourselves no favours when we try and second guess what "new readers" want. We were new readers once too! Why do we feel that what attracts so many of us to superhero comics, the continuity and the sense of history, must be what's putting off all these potential new readers? Is our self loathing so great?
I realise I've probably made a few sweeping statements and generalisations during the course of this blog post, but no more so than when fans discuss the ever elusive "new readers." Let's forget about the new or casual readers, let's stop fretting about what "they" want, let's concentrate on what we want. It doesn't matter if a story is confusing and dependant on seventy years of continuity, that's half the fun of superhero comics! Hardly any other medium or genre has seventy years worth of continuity to draw on. It's one of the things that makes superhero comics so appealing, even to "new readers."