There’s an old adage in comics that says “Every issue is someone’s first.” What that means is that every issue should, to some degree, give a new reader everything they need to get started with the series. For talented storytellers, that’s not much of a problem – the information can be worked into each instalment in a natural, seamless way so as not to seem too shoehorned in – and even if it does feel a bit tacked on, it’s arguably a genre convention worth tolerating.
However, the general trend at present is to leave such information out of the stories. Many comics have a recap page at the start, designed to fulfil the same function – but in all honesty, I’ve almost never read one, and I don’t know anyone who reads them. The ones I have looked at tend to be rather too complex for the incoming reader to understand.
The problem is that comics are often written in arcs, designed to stand alone as collections rather than single issues – but this presents a barrier to new readers, when a ‘jumping on’ point for a series appears once every 6 months, rather than every issue.
There’s also the problem of continuity and crossovers. While one can’t expect every issue of a series to retain the same status quo forever, there is currently a tendency to go overboard with marketing gimmicks and events that themselves prevent a barrier to the new reader.
Case in point – the other day, a friend of mine accompanied me to the local comic shop, hoping to get back into reading comics. A fan of the Avengers and X-Men, he tried to find a place to get started. This is what happened when he picked up each book:
Dark Avengers #6 Arguably one of Marvel’s best comics right now, but with an event-driven story and a cast of (non-Avengers!) villains he barely knows, it didn’t interest him. Last time he read comics, Norman Osborn was effectively dead, Venom was Eddie Brock, not Mac Gargan, The Sentry, Marvel Boy and Daken didn’t exist, Ares and Moonstone had no profile worth mentioning and Bullseye was a footnote in Daredevil continuity. Although a single-issue story, it was heavily crossover-focussed, and thus wouldn’t have told a story that he could properly understand anyway.
New Avengers #54The New Avengers has a wide cast of recognisable characters, and should, in theory, be one of Marvel’s ‘jumping-on’ books – after all, it’s got Wolverine AND Spider-Man in. Except, this was the final chapter in a story about Brother Voodoo and Doctor Strange. Not very Avengers-y, and as the end of a story, not a good place to start.
Captain America #600, Dark Wolverine #75, Ms. Marvel #45 All three of these titles are of interest to an X-Men/Avengers fan – but none of them feature the correct lead character, essentially as a result of event tie-ins. Daken has taken over Wolverine‘s series. Moonstone is appearing in Ms. Marvel. Admittedly, Bucky-as-Cap is a long and brilliant story, but to returning readers, it’s just as perplexing as the others. Invincible Iron Man #14 is part 7 of a longer arc. Fairly accessible, but since it was clearly labelled as part 7, my friend didn’t want to get into a story that was already so far through.
Uncanny X-Men #512 A wonderful single-issue story by Matt Fraction… but one that features very few X-Men. Beast, Psylocke and Angel are in it, but were partly overshadowed by the X-Club / Science Team, a cast of characters assembled in Fraction’s run and resolutely unfamiliar. It’s new-reader friendly in the sense that you can give it to a reader and they’ll get all the information they need to read the story – but unfortunately, as good as it is, it’s only barely recognisable as an X-Men comic to people who are only aware of the high-concept.
X-Force #16, X-Men Legacy #225, Astonishing X-Men #30 Three X-Men books all giving the final chapter of a storyline in the same month. X-Men Legacy was more stand-alone, but still effectively a bookend to Professor X’s wider journey that doesn’t make much sense in isolation. Excluding X-books that aren’t in ‘proper’ continuity, this leaves only New Mutants #2and X-Factor #45 to potentially appeal to X-Men fans who want to get back into the fray… but neither of those enticed my friend because neither featured any of the ‘popular’ X-characters.
Ultimately, the best jumping-on comic I could think of was Dark Avengers/X-Men Utopia – the start of a crossover that did, to its credit, set up the story in a new-reader-friendly way. Hilariously, the shop had sold out of it – though having read it, I’m almost glad, because it wasn’t very good and would’ve been a poor indicator of quality for comics as a whole.
I have to admit, we came away from the shop empty-handed. Him, a little disappointed that he couldn’t find anything reader-friendly, me embarrassed at how difficult such a task was. I decided, instead, to assemble a reading list from my own collection that’d bring him up to date so that he could understand what was going on in the Marvel Universe. It runs over 20 comics just to get the recent basics down – the core ‘Secret Invasion’ series, the ‘Cabal’ spin-off, the follow-up issues of Dark and New Avengers, and a few X-Men books to explain what the team is doing in San Francisco, and why there are so few mutants around at the moment.
Ultimately, though, this shouldn’t be necessary. If the direct market looks unhealthy, perhaps it’s because there are so few jumping-on points that’ll welcome new readers in a friendly way, and so many books deviating from their core status quo. I’m not saying things should be like the 70s and 80s again – but really, is there not some kind of middle ground that could be reached?
James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.