Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Comic Continuity: Welcome to the Rabbit Hole

As you guys know, I started doing reviews of the classic "Doctor Who" serials starting from the beginning and working my way forward. Even assuming that I can manage to keep up with it consistently (an apparently very foolish assumption), I still probably will not manage to complete this task for a few years at least. "Doctor Who" is the longest-running sci-fi television show ever. Even so, I decided that if I was going to start watching the classic "Doctor Who" serials, my only true option was to start from the beginning, and if I'm going to suffer through it, I'm going to drag you guys along with me.

When I first expressed interest in the classic "Doctor Who" serials, the idea of starting from the beginning seemed ridiculous. Many of the episodes exist only as fan-produced reconstructions, and even the ones that aren't lost have never been released in any comprehensive fashion by BBC. Going from beginning to end would take a lot of effort and time and research. So I started off by asking friends of mine who love classic "Doctor Who" what serials I should check out. They recommended quite a few and I tracked them down and started watching. Immediately, I was struck with that nagging feeling. A character would reference an event or a plot device from an earlier serial, forcing me to curiously investigate what they were referencing, and before I knew it, I had fallen down the continuity rabbit hole.

The whole reason I wanted to get into the classic "Doctor Who" was so I could have a more complete understanding of the character. While the new series may not care THAT much about the old continuity, it does still matter. So if I was going to do it, I had to go big or go home.

This situation reminds me very much of people who try to get into comic books.

Anyone who is a fan of comic books at some point is asked the question, "I want to get into comic books, but where do I start?"

No one asks this question for any other medium. If someone wants to get into "Game of Thrones", they'll either go buy the first season on DVD or buy the first book in the series. There is a clear and obvious starting point.

There are three main reasons why potential fans have such a hard time knowing where to start.

1) Like "Doctor Who", comic book characters and the universe they inhabit have been around for decades. Thousands of new issues are printed every year. If I wanted to read every single comic book issue released by DC this year, I would spend roughly $1500 on the books and I would have to read about 2 issues every single day for the entire year. This is just for ONE year's worth of comics. If I wanted to read every single comic book that's relevant to comic continuity for Marvel and DC, I would probably have to turn it into a full-time job. You can't just say "Start from the beginning". Well say you just wanted to read every single "Avengers" comic ever. That's not as terrible. That's only about 500 issues. Not easy, but not ridiculous. Even so, old comic books are kind of... bad. Or at least, they are really cheesy. While they have a lot of great historical value, serious comic book continuity didn't really start mattering until the Silver Age, and "serious" comic book stories didn't really become commonplace until the Bronze Age. And there have been so many retcons and reboots that many of those older stories aren't really worth the trouble. So even in isolated cases, for long-running comic book heroes/teams, "start from the beginning" is not really an option.

2) Marvel and DC have spent a long time marketing their overall universes rather than individual heroes. By having inter-mingling continuity, it's hard for an individual reader to feel like they can just get into Spider-Man or Iron Man or Batman without having to worry about the additional baggage. You can't just get into Spider-Man. You have to get into comic books. It's not just a medium, it's a hobby. Imagine if instead of saying, "I want to get into 'A Song of Ice and Fire'," I said, "I want to get into books"? If someone asked that question, people would often respond by asking, "What kind of books?" But with comic books, it's a different animal. A lot of the times, people will recommend starting with event comics because they can often be a good way to showcase a lot of the characters involved in present continuity to help the reader decide what characters interest them so they know what to read going forward. You have to embrace the medium as a whole before you can start reading individual series.

3) Even once someone has decided that they like a particular character, say Captain America, and they want to get to know THAT character, people will still have a hard time recommending a good starting point. More often than not, people will just recommend specific series, trade paper backs, or particular writers' runs on certain series. "This is the story arc where Bucky dies, this is the story arc where Cap becomes Nomad..." and so on. The problem is that what matters to a particular character is subjective, particularly because most of the writers for any given character did not invent that character. They are writing a character as they interpret them, and that interpretation is subjective to the comics they read. Instead of writers passing the torch to one another, each new writer typically just hits the reset button to bring the character back to the way they remember them. So while individual stories can matter more than others, it's all subjective.

These problems are by no means insurmountable. After all, this isn't really all that different from studying history. If I want to study history, I can't just start from the Big Bang and work my way forward. I have to choose where to start, what interests me, and whose interpretation I want to listen to. Historians can't reboot and reconsolidate all of the history of the world to make it easily digestible for people who want to get into history, because all the history they're glazing over still exists. The same can be said for comic books. Even after DC's "New 52" relaunch, people STILL recommend old story arcs from before the relaunch, even if they've been rendered non-existent. These stories still exist, whether or not they do in the "real" continuity, so they still stand as an option for new readers. It's like cleaning your room by stuffing everything in a closet. You haven't gotten rid of everything, you're just trying to make it LOOK cleaner so you don't scare anyone away.

This is primarily why comic books will never be as popular as they once were. No matter what we do, the history of comics and their characters will only be pursued by nerds, and thus, only nerds will read comic books.

And that's FINE.

Comic books will always make enough money to stay a viable business. Sales have pretty much been level for the past decade and they've even gone up a bit with the popularity of the movies and the advent of digital comics.

Superheroes and their continuity, however, have transcended comics. They have become mythological characters that are in TV, movies, and our culture in general. Comic books may never be super popular again, but the characters will never go away.

The comic companies have done a lot of work to try and make their comics more approachable. They do reboots and events and "Essential" series and tie-ins. But while these things do increase sales, they don't increase their audience.

And frankly, I don't think there's anything they can do to drastically change that.

Well, OK, if they stopped objectifying women and always drawing them like pin-ups without spines, they would probably have an easier time attracting female nerds, which would increase their audience a reasonable amount, but they would still only be attracting nerds.

Even if they completely undid all of their continuity and swore off it completely, people still wouldn't read comic books. Hell, continuity is the main reason people read comic books. It's why fans get so pissed whenever continuity is forgotten or disrespected. We feel like historians or archaeologists, slowly uncovering the ancient machinations of these universes and putting all the pieces together. Sure the comics themselves are good, but the continuity drives our passion. It's why we devour the event comics, even the bad ones. It's why DC and Marvel put so much effort into trying to reconcile the discrepancies that pop up.

And yes, it's why "Avengers" was such a popular movie.

So why is it that the movies can get away with having inter-continuity and maintaining a mainstream audience, while comic books will only ever have nerdy fans? Because movies are easy for people to catch up on. I can watch every single Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in a single afternoon. These movies have been coming out for 5 years. Yes, as time goes on, it will be harder to marathon them all, but that doesn't stop people from getting into long-running TV shows. I mean, how long does it take to watch the entirety of "LOST"? So long as the movies are always readily available and watching them from beginning to end doesn't require thousands of dollars and years of dedication, these movies will never repel mainstream audiences like comics do.

And in a way, that's great. The movies kind of act as a SparkNotes version of a specific comic character's history. They boil down the plot elements that are collectively considered important or interesting, they incorporate them into the movie, and then you have a consistent character that appeals to long-time fans who get the references and new audiences who don't.

Only the nerdy audience members will then look into the comics to understand all the references, but that new blood will keep the medium alive.

The comics can continue to be labyrinthine. They always will be no matter how hard Marvel or DC try. And to be perfectly honest, we love that. We comic fans often say we hate how no one else is into comics, but really, we love to be the ones who know who Nick Fury is. We love to be the ones who know who Thanos is. We love to leave the movie theaters telling our friends how awesome that one reference was and telling them why in far more detail than they actually care about.

Continuity is not inherently a bad thing. We feel like we get extra mileage out of having watched/read earlier entries in a series. It gives us a sense of completeness and understanding. It makes the characters feel alive.

Even so, if Marvel and DC REALLY want to get more people into comics, they can't do that by trying to make the continuity less confusing. They've tried it again and again and it never works. What they SHOULD do is try new forms of advertising. Specifically, commercials.

There are a lot of TV shows I've never watched but I could still tell you the gist of the plot just by having seen their commercials. TV spots tend to give a quick recap of a plot or major events from previous episodes that are relevant to upcoming ones. See enough of them, and you can generally get the idea of what's going on without ever having watched them. But unless you're reading comics, you probably have no idea what's currently going on in comic books. Comic books practically depends ENTIRELY on word-of-mouth for publicity. Almost all of their advertising is in places where only people who already buy comic books go.

What I might like to see is a weekly recap of comic book goings-on. Cartoon Network could make it a part of the DC Nation and Disney XD could make it a part of their Marvel Universe block. They could either have it in-character/in-continuity, like with a news reporter from the Daily Planet/Bugle or something, or as a sort of weekly review show, like with Linkara or someone who just reviews all the comics that came out that week and briefly touches on what happened in them. This way, people can get a general idea of what they might be missing out on if they don't read comics.

Even then, however, they'll still only attract nerds. But there are a lot of nerds out there who don't read comics. They can change that, but not by stuffing their continuity in a closet. They have to make everyone casually aware of what's currently going on in the universe, even if they don't read everything. They have to make everything readily available (Comixology is great for this). They have to focus on telling good stories and dissuade writers from retconning or hitting the reset button.

My whole point is just that comic continuity may make it difficult for new readers, but that doesn't make it a bad thing. Continuity is what makes fans dedicated and passionate. It should be embraced, not hidden. And comics should abandon all hope of becoming popular in the mainstream again. Sorry, but in the digital age, there's just too much available media for that to ever happen. The mainstream audience will see your movies, but they won't read the comics. They'll just ask the nerds when something confuses them or they missed a reference. And as a nerd, I think I speak for all of us when I say that we're OK with being your historians.

Oh, and in case you DO want to get into comics, here's my advice. First, find a character that you like, either from hearing about them or from watching a TV show or movie involving them. Then go into a good comic book store or go to a friend who loves comics. Then say that you really like this one character and you want to read some good stories involving him/her. They will probably be able to rattle off a list of recommendations off the top of their head -- probably available in trade paper back form -- that you'll be able to pick up. Buy it, start reading. If something confuses you, look it up on Wikipedia. Then you might find another character that you like. Then you go back to the comic book store and so on and so forth. Welcome to the continuity rabbit hole, my fellow nerd.


  1. My beef with comic books is there are too many pictures.

    Also, is there a reason for the cream-text-on-white-background? I didn't see any spoilery stuff when I skimmed...

    1. Shit, that happens sometimes. Thanks for pointing that out.