Emily S. Whitten: Comics, New and Old
There’s a peculiar trait about the comic book industry that I never noticed until I was enmeshed in it enough to be aware that it was “the comic book industry.” Back when it was just “buying and reading comics I like, often in trade paperback or compilation formats” I never was aware of it – but once I became an active part of comic book fandom and started reporting on comics and trying to keep up with all the latest news, without even noticing that it was happening I embraced this trait, until after awhile it felt like it had engulfed me.
And no offense to the way the industry is set up, but I think it’s time for me to un-embrace it. The trait I’m referring to: The idea that the most important thing in comics, the thing to talk and care about, is always the newest thing; the latest thing; this week’s issue. The belief that what is worthy of discussion is something everyone’s buzzing about because it just came out; and that if you’re not up on the latest (book, new creative team, industry news) you are somehow not in the know about comics, or maybe not a true fan.
I get it; I really get why comics are pushed on readers with this angle, and why readers are willing and even eager to embrace and support the setup. And I get why the creators of comics support that structure as well. The way the industry is structured the longevity of many storylines, or the writers or artists assigned to those storylines, is only as secure as the numbers of latest issues being sold, or as the immediate feedback from fans (or haters). If you are a publisher, you want your newest creations to succeed, because that’s what keeps the money coming in. As a fan, if you like the current arc or character you want it all to keep going so you can keep reading. As a creator, you want to keep on working. Yes, it all makes sense. And given the way comics developed and continue to be sold, none of that may ever change.
I get all that, and I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with being excited about the latest thing or wanting to keep up on it, or that I don’t frequently experience excitement at the latest news. In fact, as a person who’s currently in the midst of writing a comic which I sincerely hope will someday see the light of day in the greater world, I’m sure that if my story does make it out there, I’ll be just as hopeful and concerned about the excitement over it and its immediate success. And as a comics journalist, I realize the irony of someone who is probably expected to be up on the latest news not wanting to always be talking about that (and the likelihood that my editor is shaking his head as he reads this).
But as a reader, I kind of abhor this mindset. After all, it’s never, ever been the way I’ve enjoyed reading or the reason I’ve read. Generally, I enjoy being able to consume whole stories; or at least whole chunks of stories that give me enough of the tale to satisfy for awhile. And what I love about a good read is that you can pick it up anytime, whether it’s a day or a hundred years after it was written, and enjoy or get something out of it. What I love is strongly developed characters; a driving plot; a new world of experience or thought opened before me; or some combination of these things. What I also love is the idea that these creations are spurred first and foremost by the desire to tell the story or the drive of creators to put their views to paper; not by marketing or the sheer need to secure a book’s continuing spot in the upcoming roster.
It’s weird that it’s taken me this long to figure it out, but I’ve realized that one of the reasons I’ve generally disliked crossovers, reboots, reimaginings, and the like is that even if a good story comes out of it (and sometimes that is the case), the impetus for the action is marketing; not storytelling. Granted, occasionally the story is served by it, if for example a character has been around so long that there doesn’t seem to be a new place to take him or her without rearranging some of the past; but in that case, honestly, sometimes I’d prefer to send a character quietly to the back of the queue, at least for awhile; and see a new creation take his or her place.
I realize I may be in the minority on this. After all, when you have, e.g., a Batman or a Spider-Man, who has had so many adventures and is beloved by all (including me), it can be hard to say goodbye. But on the other hand, even if we miss the characters when their adventures are done, there is something deliciously satisfying about whole stories with definitive endings; something we can find in good literature, but rarely in comics. There is also something satisfying about never having to see a favorite character diluted for the sake of stretching success.
I read to enjoy a story; and yet with comics, so often I find myself feeling an overwhelming pressure to read all the newest things no matter what they are; or to keep reading books I’ve stopped enjoying because they contain faint echoes of a character I once loved. I find myself stacks behind on the comics I think I might want to keep up on, or feel like I ought to be reading. And maybe the fault of this is with me, in that I’ve accidentally bought into the idea that I’d better read the thing everyone else is liking or keep reading what I once liked; but I think it’s also built into the structure of what comics are, and how they are published and marketed.
Whatever the case, in the end, comics are, like any other stories, for enjoying. And I’ve decided (as I stare at the stacked backlog of recent comics I’m meant to be reading for various and sundry of the above reasons) that I’m going to stop worrying about knowing all the latest, or what the industry or fans think I should be reading, and revert in practice to the way I’ve enjoyed every literary work I’ve ever read; by simply picking up whatever I’m in the mood for, no matter when it was put out or who created it, and enjoying the hell out of it for its own sake.
And at the moment, that means re-reading, for the umpteenth time, Joe Kelly’s Deadpool.
So until next time, beware of evil villains named Deathtrap and three-ton teddy bears, and Servo Lectio!