Friday, July 21, 2017

Repost--It's Still Not Too Complicated!!

I originally posted this back in 2008, and I feel even more strongly about it now.

I think the "you couldn't understand this show/comic coming in the middle" is some serious gate-keeping bullshit. And yes, I've been guilty of it, too.

It works as self-aggrandizement, even if not on a conscious level--"I was into this before you were, so I'm better and smarter." It works as clickbait--"Here's everything you need to know about Character X who was just announced," which implicitly tries to make the reader feel insecure for not knowing every single thing ahead of time before watching/reading. (It also is a sub rosa accusation that the creators can't do their job and explain this stuff to the audience themselves). Our obsession with creating "jumping on points" tells newcomers that our media is just too damn tough for them under normal circumstances.

The bottom line? Get over ourselves. We figured all of this stuff out in our day, and that was before Wikipedia and digital archives made it pretty damn easy for newcomers to catch up. Let's give a little credit to those coming after us, and not discourage newcomers by telling them that they wouldn't like X because it's too complicated.

Or, as I put it back then...


You hear it said that by some that comic book continuity is a barrier to new readers...that the long, complicated back story on some titles is too impenetrable to the newbie, and drives them away.

How true is this?

Obviously, continuity can get ridiculously over complex. In any given X-Title, you might encounter 3 or 4 different heroes from different alternate futures, or alternate pasts, or heavens knows what. Ye gods, thanks for the migraines, Chris Claremont.

However, other forms of serial fiction have multi-decade back stories that, alternate futures aside, makes Spider-Man look like Richie Rich. Yet somehow, The Guiding Light (for example) seems to pick up viewers every year who manage to navigate the complexities of who is really whose daughter.

And even when Marvel creates a whole new line featuring old characters in brand new continuities, ostensibly to become a better gateway for new readers, eventually that continuity gets complex, too. As someone out there said (forgive, I forget who it was, let me know and full credit will be extended), once you have Ultimate Cable and Ultimate Stryfe, haven't you lost the mission for a simpler entryway?

Here's another way to look at it--were the comics of ye olden days really less complicated? Let's take one personal anecdote--me.

One of the very first non-kiddie comic books I ever owned was Marvel Triple Action #10, a 1973 reprinting of Avengers #16, from 1965. My recollection is that my grandparents purchased it for me at some flea market. It had no cover (which is just as well, because it turns out to be one of the more hideous and misleading covers ever...Sorry, Gil Kane).

This was my first exposure ever to even the concept of the Avengers, let alone an actual story. We all know this was the first big Avengers line-up shakeup, ever. Here's the original cover:

Much better than the Skrull version, or Zombie version, or Ape version, or...Now, just look at that...look at all those characters on that cover. Obscure villains, villains and characters from other comic books...and look at the inside:

Best. Comic. Title. EVER.No recap, no roster page, no introduction...just a "hey, if you weren't here last issue, you'll catch up. C'mon!"

The first two pages of the comic present you with the heroes, only one of whom is identified by name, and the Masters of Evil, only one of whom is identified by name. The reader was expected to know who all these cats were. And if not, follow along and figure it out!

Meanwhile, we take a quick visit to Captain America:

That's how cool Cap is...he buries his fallen foesA scene entirely based on something that happened in a previous issue, which I hadn't read...with absolutely no background on Cap. or why his battle with Zemo (whoever he was) was so important, no introduction of who the heck "Rick" is...what any of the back story was. Yet somehow I kept reading.

Then, back in NY:

Damn these company-wide crossovers!Thor leaves, off-panel (!), for some unexplained crisis. Go read his book if you want to know!! Then Hawkeye shows up out of nowhere...

Cue flashback panel style!!We get a decent flashback to his past appearance in Tales of Suspense...Then the Avengers go and try to recruit someone called Namor...who?

How dare they not stop everything to give me the complete history of this character!!Then two weird looking people in hideous costumes show up, requiring us to know X-Men history...

I tremble at those costumes...And then we see a collage of villains, most of whom are a complete mystery to a new reader:

Jack Kirby's Parade of Evil Faces!!And yet...despite the fact that the issue was almost entirely based on past events I hadn't read; even though to truly appreciate everything going on you had to have a working knowledge of the Avengers' history, and the X-Men, and Iron Man, and Thor, and who those villains are---none of which I had ever encountered; even though the issue was as "hung up on continuity" as anything could be in Marvel 1965...I still enjoyed it, and wanted to read more.

Did I understand everything? Hell no. But it was a good tale, entertainingly told, and Stan and Jack did a decent enough job filling me in, so as I went along I was never lost--just curious. Oh, at 10, I was no Amadeus Cho, and I didn't 100% understand everything that was referred to. But I figured out enough to enjoy the story, and the characters, and to want to know more.

Sometimes, I think, we underestimate newbies. I think people are a hell of a lot more willing to come in media res into a storyline than we give them credit for. We assume that if they don't know as much as we do, they can't possibly enjoy and appreciate what they're reading--at least not as much as we do.

And for some people, sure. But those same people would likely have been as put off by Avengers #16, from "simpler" times. As for the rest? The human mind, especially kids', are amazing things, and are capable of filling in blanks on their own, and wanting to know more about a universe. People did start watching Dallas in season 5, and somehow survived not knowing every detail of past seasons, and even became fans. People did start reading Robinson's Starman, one of the more continuity-involved series ever, and their heads didn't explode.

Sometimes, I think, we latch onto "too complicated a continuity" as a convenient excuse to explain why comics don't sell more. And it's true, some creators make their stories far, far too complex for newbies to easily jump onto. And some creators are overly obsessed with continuity navel-gazing. But somehow, those seem to be the books that sell the most, year after year.

Far more important than "too complex" is "is the story well told" and "are the characters any good" and "does this intrigue the reader enough to want to read more?" You don't need to know the history of the Golden Age and the first Crisis and Zero Hour to enjoy a JSA story, if it's done well. But sometimes, I think, we ourselves do just as much to scare newbies aways, with our "oh, the back story is too complicated for me to explain, so you wouldn't enjoy it."

As a 10-year-old I got thrown into the deep end of an Avengers story that referenced at least 20 other comic books and didn't try to hold my hand by dumbing everything down for newbies. Let's give other newbies the same benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming that they're incapable of figuring things out as they went along. I figured it out, and so can they.


SF said...

I appear to be contrary this afternoon. So...

My experience back in the day was much like yours. But I don't know how well that translates to current comics? I think people don't appreciate how much effort in those comics went into making them easy to pick up for new readers. Just as an example, people today like to make fun of Cannonball saying "I'm nigh invulnerable when I'm blasting." Here's a quick article devoted to it, for instance:

You can talk about how repetitive that was, or how Cannonball was explaining this powers to people who should have known them already. But what it was really doing was letting the hypothetical new reader know the score.

... Actually, I have a feeling we've talked about this in the context of X-men #134 here before? I'm thinking of this sequence of panels: Concisely lays out exactly what is going on for the reader who missed the previous issue. (Like me, this was my first issue.) For the most part, comic books just don't do this anymore; it's extremely unfashionable.

snell said...

See, but my day was before those Shooter imposed rules of "everyone has to identify themselves and their powers in casual speech." And new readers like me did just fine.

Jonathan Hendry said...

Might want to replace "Guiding Light" with "Young & The Restless". GL was canceled in 2009.