This is the third, and final, part of my prattle on super-heroes and comic books. Mostly because I expect sooner or later, someone’s going to get sick of listening to be go on and on about them. There goes any of my street cred. This also means next week, I have to think of something different. Ye gads.
The final thing I want to talk about is history, and time traveling in comic books, something that people (the comic writers themselves included) spend a great deal of time being concerned about, and with good reason.
It had been on my mind, but I hadn’t clearly quantified it as something I could talk about, until tonight when Heroes returned on NBC. (I know it returned, because NBC spent the past two weeks telling me how wonderful it was, and how returningly it was returning).
When Heroes first started, I really didn’t enjoy it. I spent each episode being dissatisfied with things, I spent an hour or so after each episode complaining and re-writing it in my head. I just didn’t like them, though I kept tuning in each week. Now, as we approach the end of the first season, I’m excited to watch the episodes and enjoying them no end, and happily waiting for the next one.
I do believe part of the reason for this is time. Time has passed, the story has gotten underway, there is a history to the show now (albeit a small one) and a weight to the world, and these lend the stories themselves a certain amount of depth and magnetism.
The same thing helps in comic books, and are very good things most of the time. They’re also problematic, hence the debate.
On the one hand, it’s good and exciting that when you read Uncanny X-Men, there’s a huge number of back issues and storylines stretching ever out behind you. It’s nice to know that if you enjoy the current issue you’ve just read, then you can spend your next month reading hundreds of back issues, and odds are you still won’t be entirely caught up by the time your next issue comes out. Combine this with all the other comic books in the same universe which also have long histories, and you wind up with a huge and textured universe, all of which is available on paper for you to explore. That’s wonderful, at least to me.
The downside, which many people worry about, is that it can also be intimidating when you want to start reading about a hero, and have forty-plus years of back history as well as multiple titles. Do you read Amazing Spider-Man? Spectacular Spider-Man? Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man? Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane? (everyone should read that last one; it’s pure delightful fun). In these instances, the emphasis is less on the history of the character, and more on the weight of it, which can crush and scare off new readers.
This is what leads to things like the Ultimate universe, in Marvel comics. Instead of a countless number of Spider-Man comics in the regular universe, all of which are blending in and out of the world history, you can instead read a series that’s 100 issues long or so, and there’s nothing to it beyond that. And then if you’re still interested, you can go into the regular 198 universe and enjoy Spider-Man, having read something that’s like a cliff’s notes of the universe.
Of course, the problem then becomes that sooner or later, even your Ultimate Spider-Man is over a hundred issues on and developing its own crushing weight.
I’m not offering any solutions here, because I don’t see the need for them. I’ve been reading comic books of both the Marvel and DC variety off and on since I was about five years old. I like that if I pick up a Green Lantern comic now, it’s been busily doing stuff while I was away reading it. I like that characters die and come back, or die and stay dead, or just fade away. I do enjoy that the X-Men team running around in Uncanny X-Men right now isn’t the same batch as I grew up with. I even like the mini-series events that change everything, and which pretty much mean you have to read them to really follow what’s going on (your Captain America reading experience is going to be a little confused unless you’ve read Civil War, and the attached Captain America comics).
Thankfully, the invention of the graphic novel (which collect together individual issues) really take out the intimidation of trying to get caught up on a comic when you come back into it. Read two or three Civil War graphic novels, read an Uncanny X-Men volume, and you’re read to be reading the monthly issues again. Easy.
Timelines are a wonderful thing, the weight of history is definitely one of comic’s best features. It’s what’s taken a show like Heroes and really made it work and sing for me. (That, and I had to stop thinking about it like a television show with episodes and think about it as a comic book with issues). When I write long multi-part serial stories, it makes the writing easier to have the weight of history behind me, and it can make the reading more enjoyable. Witness Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, for example.
Probably the reason this occured to me is, I have a couple of Green Lantern graphic novels sitting on my desk, calling to me. Which means I’m going to go read them and get caught up.
Happy reading, poozers.
(this is the final in the super heroes series, I hope you enjoyed it. I’m still not here. Doesn’t mean you can’t have content in some form or another.)