Thursday, October 16, 2008

The $2.99 Second Printing Challenge

When I was a kid I'd go to the local smoke shop or bookstore and pick my comic books from the spinner rack, either that or I'd buy random books in 3/$1 baggies at the local department store. I'd pick up a comic at nearly every gas station we'd stop at on long road trips with my folks. As a result, my pre-pubescent collection was a patchwork of titles, from The Mighty Crusaders to Rom, Flash Gordon to DC Comics Presents. This was a time before I knew there were specialty stores, and shipping dates, and publishing schedules. I was probably 11 or 12 before I realized that comic books came out monthly, (and I thought the invention of the "Superman Triangle" - which tracked where each issue of Action, Adventures of and Superman fell in line - was a stroke of genius).

Those random comics, though, hold a lot of special meaning. They were mostly books I picked myself as an ignorant, innocent little kid, books I read from cover to cover dozens of times, books which, decades later haunt (and delight) the recesses of my brain with imagery from Jim Aparao, George Tuska, Gil Kane and Al Williamson, amongst others. Even though I was missing sometimes huge chunks of a story, I loved reading those books, filling in the details of what came before and after in my mind. The acquisition of a subsequent issue of a title, perhaps a dozen or two issues later in the run, would leave a whole plethora of stories and character moments to think about, to always wonder what happened, to ponder "how did we get here?"

That was special, but I don't think it happens anymore today. As a major comic book reader, I find I won't jump onto most series mid-run unless I've read the trades or there's a drastic switch in story/creative teams I know about. I will rarely try out a random issue off a book just for the sake of trying it out. Is this something I've trained myself to do or is this a result of how the mainstream has positioned itself?

I've been wading through a lot of 1980's comics lately, and one of the interesting things I've noticed is how much exposition is included in each issue. Something like the Paul Levitz Legion or Roy Thomas' All-Star Squadron will make mention of a character's power or a past event via expository dialogue (or through editor's footnotes) for the sole purpose of filling a reader in on the necessary information they need to know. Even a four issue mini-series like Hercules: Prince of Power gives you enough information each issue that you could jump in on issue #3 and still enjoy the book. Given the way comics were primarily distributed (on the newsstands), even regular readers would wind up missing an issue here or there, and so every issue would have to allow you to catch up with the regular events in some small way. Sure, the exposition could stunt the flow of a story, even bringing it to a dead halt, but compared to the books of the '60's, which at times could insult the observational intelligence of a 5-year-old (where the writer's so often felt the need to describe in dialogue the actions occurring in a panel) books of the '80's were positively intuitive.

Today, it seems writers expect the reader to know everything. They expect that you've been following along, and if you've just jumped on board that you're going to go out and buy the trade or back issues and catch up. There's not much lenience for a new reader, not much of a welcome. The "made for trade" structure is not the sole culprit, but is also not helping. Writers want their work to be, in a sense, poetic, to have flow. They trust their artists to convey the message they're trying to get across, they trust their reader's intelligence to understand the nuances of language.

While I certainly respect that trust, I have to wonder if this makes for a healthy comic book environment. There's always talk about how comics aren't for kids anymore (practically DC's slogan throughout the 1980's), and I'd have to agree. The maturity level of most modern comic books, with overt violence and grotesquerie (where once these would be shadowed, off panel, or merely hinted at) is to a point where most any comic is meant for mid-to-late teenagers at youngest. The disappearance of the comics code in the '90's has made language and titillation a mainstay of superhero genre (flaunted heavily in the '90's, moderately scaled-back this decade) and most mothers wouldn't want little Billy going anywhere near All-Star Batman and Robin or, well, anything with the name Mark Miller on it. It's as if the Big Two hope that any new readers will have already had a life full of twisted anime, R-rated slasher movies, and more than two Spike TV CSI marathons under their belt before they come looking for some juvenile, escapist, four-color action.

I don't really have much of a problem with comics filled with elements meant for older readers (as long as there's still books for the young ones) but even still, is the average comic ready for a new reader, any new reader - even big-time/lifelong readers like us Second Printers - to just jump on board? I want to conduct a little experiment. It's The Second Printing $2.99 challenge. What we're going to do is:

1) Go to the comic rack and pick a title we're not familiar with (on the condition that it's an ongoing series over a year and a half old with more than 18 issues under its belt)

2) Assess the accessibility of that comic based on the following criteria:

a) could a non-comics reader pick this up and enjoy it?

b) what age group would it be appropriate for?

c) are there any aspects that don't make sense to the reader (or, conversely, are there any that do?)

d) what is the overall perceived quality (could the quality be perceived differently if read long term?)

e) overall enjoyment of the single issue?

This isn't about reviewing the book for it's content so much as looking at it solely for its accessibility.

In two weeks, upwards of five of us Second Printers will be back with the results.

We invite you to join us in The $2.99 Second Printing Challenge on your own blog (drop us a note in the comments where we can find your post).


snell said...

Great minds and all...I dealt tangentially with this topic earlier in the week.

I'll be honest, it's tough to judge what a non-comic reader is going to find accessible or not. If I say "this is too complex for a newbie," am I really just (subconsciuously) boosting my own ego, by saying "I get this, but there's no way you ever could?"? Converseley, am I so steeped in the continuity that I can actually tell what a non-reader would think?

KENT! said...

snell, I'll agree, it's a challenge, which is why we're putting ourselves in the position of new reader and tackling books we haven't read. Stepping outside our comfort zones, approaching things as new-to-book reader as opposed to necessarily comics reader. We have an interesting and diverse trio of titles already selected for the challenge, so it should prove interesting.

I like your point in your blog post: "Sometimes, I think, we underestimate newbies," which is something to keep in mind when taking the challenge.

As you said, tangentally, I'm curious to see just how jumping aboard a book mid-stream, as I would when I was a kid, catches me. (Will the completist in me revolt at the idea of reading a story without background?)

J said...

Well I don't have a regular blog, but I inadvertently did this test some decades ago. I had always grown up with comics, but mostly with my siblings' comics, which were from the 60's and 70' I wasn't a newbie really, but I hadn't read comics for about a decade or so when I happened to pick up a Superman comic some time ago in a book store.

My memory of it has fogged a little with the years, but as I recall, it started with him wandering around with some other guy in his Fortress of Solitude mulling over what he should do over some problem that never seemed to be directly mentioned.

Suddenly, Wonder Woman crashed in and said something like "I can't let you do it." Then they fought for like, 10 pages, which ended with him beating her, as pretty much always.

Then, the ending was more or less him walking off saying something like "I know what I have to do now."

So the whole thing was basically a fight for reasons that were totally unclear, with no introduction or resolution. At that point, I put down the comic and didn't pick up another one until I started reading Dave's Long Box, years later.

So yes, I think the lack of any self-contained storyline is a large deterrent to the casual comic book reader.