Blah Blah Blog – All Access

A post from my Marvel blog of the last decade, this one talking about making sure that individual issues are new reader friendly.

All Access

June 18, 2008 | 1:00 AM | By Tom_Brevoort | In General

So let’s talk about a recurring topic for a few seconds: accessibility in comics.

In the old days, there was a mantra that “every comic book is some reader’s first comic book”, and a real importance was placed upon making sure that a reader had a fighting chance at understanding the story that was being placed in front of him—that simple things like the characters’ names and the locales in which the story was taking place, and the individual plot-concepts that drove the narrative were all established and explained every issue. Sometimes this need to re-establish would go to absurd lengths, but the feeling was that every book needed to be comprehensible to a novice audience.

Nowadays, with the advances in sophistication in terms of the storytelling styles of most comics, the older average age of the readership, and the fact that virtually every issue is likely to become a component of an eventual Trade Paperback collection down the line, the goalposts have shifted somewhat. One of the reasons we instituted the recap pages in almost all of our regular titles was in an attempt to remove some of the burden of the need to recap on the fly from the backs of our writers and artists—because, when you put six issues of a storyline back-to-back in a collected edition, it gets a little bit tedious for there to be a caption explaining the intricacies of Cyclops’ powers every 22 pages or so.

I heard an industry figure speak on the subject of accessibility in comics recently, and he called it a myth. His point of view was that there’s no such thing, and the importance of such a thing was overrated—that everybody who started reading comics came in at some unwieldy point, and it was the journey of discovery that helped to make them fans in the first place. While there’s a certain amount of validity to part of what he was saying, I think on the core point he was dead wrong. Sure, we’re dealing with fictional mythologies of such a scale that no one individual comic book is going to be able to explain them all to a new reader. However, if it’s an important plot point that the guy who just sucker-punched our hero from behind is a long-established villain, and he’s got a beef with our champion for having stepped on his foot when they were both children, then that’s information that needs to be included in the issue. Very few people attempt to read a comic book, fail to be able to make heads or tails of it, and then decide to read the next one in the hopes of being able to sort it all out. Life’s too short, and there are too many other options in terms of entertainment value for your time.

We place a pretty healthy importance on making sure that our books are accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and that’s one of the secrets of our success. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we drop the ball—but we’re always trying, always keeping an eye on it. Because the flipside of doing so means preaching to an ever-dwindling audience of pre-converts, guys who’ve been following our universe for decades and who know its intricacies inside and out—and long term, that’s game over for both us and our retail partners.

More later.

Tom B

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5 thoughts on “Blah Blah Blog – All Access

  1. While I’m in favor of accessibility (it can’t hurt) I do think it’s overrated. My first Marvel story since maybe the mid-1960s was Steve Englehart’s first issue. It had characters I’d never heard of (Black Panther and some guy with a bow and arrows who looked completely different from Hawkeye), Rick Jones referencing his link with Captain Marvel, scenes from an unpublished Captain America adventure and the big reveal of the Space Phantom (whom 90 percent of the readers probably had never heard of) being behind it all. I was confused, but still hooked.
    TPBs should simplify things but I’ve read too many by DC that because they’re partly crossovers wind up missing key events that happened in other series (I don’t know if Marvel has the same problem).
    Of course that’s an issue with regular crossovers too. I was rereading my GLs a few years back and during the Blackest Night/Brightest Day there’s a year or more where half of what’s happening to Hal is in the crossovers (but I no longer consider that a reason to buy crossovers).

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    1. That’s actually Steve’s second issue of AVENGERS, but even so, everyone gets named, so you know that’s Hawkeye and the Black Panther, and that they’re Avengers. The big reveal of the Space Phantom names him, describes his powers and explains that the Avengers fought him long ago. There’s a secondary reveal of the Grim Reaper, and all we get told about him is his name, but it’s clear from context that he too is a villain, partnered with the Space Phantom — we can assume we’ll learn more about him in the next issue.

      The Rick-is-linked-to-Captain-Marvel bit is unclear, probably because Buckler didn’t draw the transformation fully. And it’s a mistake — it’s a failure of accessibility, but not because Steve assumes you already know, just that he explained it badly. But the “pages from an unpublished Cap story” is not something readers needed to know — it’s presented In the story as a flashback, and since it was never published before, that’s all it is to readers. And the “why does Cap remember it when Rick doesn’t” is presented as a mystery, something the reader isn’t expected to understand.

      The new reader also gets a pretty solid intro to the Panther, including that he’s prince of an African kingdom and that he used to be an Avenger and is thinking of rejoining.

      So most of what you were confused by wasn’t due to you being a new reader, but due to things a new reader wouldn’t care about — the provenance of when pages had been drawn, the fact that Hawkeye had changed his costume eight or nine issues ago. The story doesn’t need to explain those — accessibility doesn’t mean that Hawkeye will reference his costume change every issue in case of returning readers, it means that if you read the issue you’ll be told he’s called Hawkeye, he’s an Avengers and he does bow-and-arrows stuff.

      It’s kind of a Frankenstein of an issue, but (with the exception of that Rick Jones bit) it’s pretty accessible, in a way modern superhero comics often aren’t. It doesn’t assume readers have read the previous issue or know who the characters are. It’s not like an issue of IRON MAN that never bothers to explain that the cool robotic-looking guy has a man inside and his name is Tony Stark, or an X-Men that only names half the characters, is chapter. four of something and doesn’t explain what’s gone before.

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      1. In any case, all that detail aside: Accessibility is about telling you what you need to know to understand and enjoy the comic book in your hands (that Avenger’s named Hawkeye; the Space Phantom’s an old foe who mimics others while sending the original to Limbo), not to explain things that don’t matter to the comic in your hands (Hawkeye used to wear a different costume, the Tuska pages were pulled from inventory).

        Accessibility is about understanding what’s right there before you in that specific unit, not about history lessons.

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      2. Good point. It also helps that the emotional arcs are clear: The Vision thinking he can’t love, Rick trying to prove himself to Cap, the Avengers trying to figure out why they’re attacking each other.

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  2. Tom, I think you are both right and wrong. I think spoon-feeding too much, and pandering to brand-new readers is a ‘killer’ to comics and the creativity needed to sustain them.  If a new reader joins at a certain point in the unfolding narrative, the reader isn’t automatically so disappointed so as to never read another issue. The opposite can hold true where the reader can feel compelled to never miss another issue, and to hunt for back issues. That’s exactly what happened to me. A new reader who is so disappointed at coming in at a certain point in the story is not someone Marvel can base a future on. Such a reader is too fickle for that.  The re-caps at the beginning of issues are part of the general downturn in Marvel comics. They should never be featured at the expense of attention-getting splash pages.  Should there be no re-cap of any kind? Of course there should be, but neither too boringly presented as was often the case in the distant past nor at the expense of splash pages. Thanks for reading, and best wishes, Paul CarbonaroDaytonOhio 937 974 5374

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