Panelology - What We Read

by Brandon
Continuing my look into the essentials of comic book collecting, this week I take a look at what we read in comic books. Comic fans are creatures of habit, and the titles we read reflect those routines. For better or for worse, we readers tend to stay with the unchanging genres the medium has been saddled with for years. Same as it ever was.

One of the first comic books I ever bought was Secret Wars II #1. “Who is the Beyonder?” the cover proudly exclaimed. Little did I know that years later I would not care, let alone remember, who the Beyonder was, but the li’l version of me really wanted to know. I was ecstatic after reading it. I loved huge crossovers and events then. I got to see all of these cool characters chilling out in the same book for a reasonable price. You see, I was a cheap bastard even at that young age.

It’s funny how things change, though. Even the thought of reading yet another uninspiring crossover or dull event title gives me a severe case of the fantods. Yet, there those quaint comics are, polluting the stands and running up the sales chart. The types of comic books we read today are probably similar to those we read when we first started down the dark path of comic book reading and collecting. Comic books have a way of perpetuating the same old types of stories. This is necessarily a bad thing. As I said last week, comic books do what they do well, including their content. This predictability in comic book themes is not limited to superhero books, though we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit that heroes run amok in the titles. Yet, I think what we read is definitely a reflection of who we are as comic book fans.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the common types of comic books we fans love to read over and over again!

1) Solo Hero Titles

This is the industry standard in terms of titles. You know you have made it as a character if you have a solo title. Sort of. Whether or not you can sustain the right to have your title for years to come depends on your fanbase. I’m looking at Quasar right now. This is not to say that you will never see your favorite character jump into their own title. Publishers sometimes take risks in giving their lesser known characters a solo title. The market, as with any fan-related love, can be a fickle beast. At their core, solo titles give us a great introspective look into a character and his or her supporting cast. These titles tend to be a mix of action and character reflection. You can watch Batman slug Penguin and have him muse over his feelings. Well, maybe not, but it could happen.

2) Team Books
You can check out the heroes individually in their own books, but team books are were we go to get more bang for our buck. I remember reading an interview with Mark Millar about why he loved the Avengers so much. Comic books were love on a fanboy’s wages. You could buy one team title instead of buying multiple solo titles in order to stretch your pennies further. I’m paraphrasing Millar there, but you get the picture. Team books are great way for us readers to see our favorite characters interact with others. They typically provide big, goofy-action sequences over the reflective examination we find in the solo titles, but we love these books all the same. They provide us with tons of action and heroics.

3) Licensed Materials/Adaptations
We comic books fans love mixing our media together into a pop cultural soup. Stroll (not troll) the online comic book message boards. You will be able to find numerous threads dealing with, “Hey, they should make (insert television show, movie, book, or video game) into a comic book” threads. And why should “they” make a comic book? We fans like our entertainment and we generally liked getting our fix over a variety of mediums. This has been something comic books have done well since at least the 1950s, if not beforehand. One of the best selling books now is Buffy. I am not a fan of the show, but a coworker of mine absolutely adores the comic book because the show has now moved on. But fear not! Buffy has risen from the dead and will continue to hack and slash the undead for seemingly years to come in comic book form. Hooray! I think.

4) Limited Series/One-Shot

This is generally the litmus test for a character if a company doesn’t think they can carry their own spandex in a solo title. The miniseries is a time-honored tradition in comic books that gives us fans a brief look at a beloved or reviled character. Fans are slavishly devoted to titles and it can be pretty hard for us to give up on a book. Limited series and one-shots give us the perfect out. Of course, I think some characters are better suited to the miniseries format. Take Dr. Strange, for instance. The last two miniseries of Dr. Strange, Dead Girl and The Oath, were absolutely killer. I don’t think Strange can support his own book in today’s market, but I think an occasional miniseries for this character works out wonderfully.

5) Crossovers/Events

Grumble, grumble, grumble. I promise to deliver no hate speech here, but I must concede to the fact that these crossovers and events are something that has defined comics now since at least the 1980s. Back in the 1990s, there seemed to be events and crossovers constantly. One could throw a pog at the shelves and hit three with little effort in any given month. To say the least, it was a ridiculous period of comic book gluttony. For a few thankful years, the event/crossover was out of fashion. However, they have made a huge comeback. Fans like the idea of all the characters. It’s like a team book, but squared to the millionth power! It’s an orgy of heroism! Someone call S.H.I.E.L.D.! I can definitely see the attraction, but good lord, give it a rest. I’ll stop myself there.

Like television, I think comic books are trying more creative things out today. Television has had to rethink the wheel when creating programming in order to keep their viewers on their duff in front of the television instead of having their duffs in front of the computer screen. The same thing has happened to comics. It’s no secret that readership has been spotty. Competition from the Internet, video games, and even peer-to-peer downloading sites has all led to a decline in interest in comic books. This led to some people inside the industry to think outside the longbox. Enter Jemas and Quesada.

Love them or hate them, I think Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada were the first to recognize that comic books needed to evolve and try new formats out. They threw a whole mess of stuff at the wall; some of it stuck, but some of it didn’t stick. And that was okay with these two. This type of risk taking had been a staple of the independent comic business forever, but it was new thing to modern Marvel. When you look back at it, they did some pretty cool things. By comparison, just think about what type of stuff was going on at DC at the time. Pretty unexciting and stagnant, wasn’t it? Jemas and Quesada did a lot with expanding their big company. It’s that type of ingenuity and risk taking that BEGAN a new era of inventiveness in the industry. Creators were taking risks and fans sometimes followed in their step.

That risk taking has continued. I think there is more variety on the shelf today than there has been since I started back into reading comics in 2000. What we can read far exceed what we do read. Again, browse the comic boards and you will always find people having to go through the always tough process of dropping a book due to their budget. This is a good thing. Comic books are great entertainment! It’s a sign of good fortune when folks have to say, “Hmmm, what stays and what goes?”

That’s it for the “what” of comic books… At least for now! I may return in a few weeks to this question and look at some specific titles from each company. Speaking of companies, make sure you read next week’s article. I will be taking a look at who we read by comparing and contrasting some of the major comic book companies.

See you all then!


The General said...

Someday, Brandon, you should write an article detailing your feeling about crossovers. I'd be interested to get your thoughts, since you are usually so guarded on the matter.

Myself, I'll readily admit that I'm not just an X-fan, but an X-TEAM-fan. With the rare exception, the core of my comic reading are the X-team books. Solo titles just generally don't hold me interest.

I think that Millar's point about team books being "more bang for your buck" actually reflects my feelings a bit. Even today, when I'm older and have a better appreciation of story, I still would rather see Wolverine and a bunch of other characters... over just Wolverine alone.

Part of it is the reason you mentioned, that you get more excitment. But, I also think that team books allow for storyines that allow for more inter-character dynamic. Rather than the solo soul searching you see in solo titles. I'd rather see how to characters personalities conflict or mesh, over watching Spidey mope on a roof top alone.

Brandon said...

I agree 100% on the team books. I find myself reading more solo books, but team books also appeal to me for the same reasons of dynamics and action.

I'll do a crossover article someday...

guttertalk said...

Well done post, Brandon. Your using the comic book format as the basis for the types got me thinking: how else could you meaningfully type our comic reading?

By artist or writer -- I know I'm very prone to buy comics by author or artist. I will buy anything P. Craig Russell draws, while I have a friend who has a man-crush on Neal Adams. In fact, I think it'd be interesting to see which influences people more: the artist or the writer.

By powers (or lack of) -- I confess I got off the mutant wagon years ago, and I only recently got back on with Astonishing X-Men. Otherwise, I avoid them.

By tone and degree of realism -- I've known friends who greatly preferred satirical and humorous comics, like Flaming Carrot. Some of us prefer more 'real' comics while others like the unstuffy, action comics. I'd also expand this to include the visual style of the book, which can, of course, change from artist to artist.

By publisher -- I imagine this is less important than it used to be, but still we might find 'marvel zombies' or people who prefer indie comics.

Throw all of these in, and see which matters most: If I love Russell and he miraculously gets a 2-stint on Superbly Whodduthunktheywere X-People, would I buy it? Which of these different categorizations of comic reading matters most . . . format, creator, style, etc.?

Good post. FWIW, I'm a solo title reader myself. In fact, I have little interest in the other formats.

guttertalk said...

Oops. Big omission in my previous comment . . .

By artist, writer or letterer.

I slavishly buy anything Artie Simek does.

Brandon said...

Yeah, I could get easily lost in this column! That's why I left the door open for a sequel for the "what we read" category. I'll definitely be talking about the publishing companies next week.