CONTINUITY ON BIZARRO-EARTH
I am, frankly, astounded.
A few weeks ago... maybe not even that long (it all gets hazy when you're as old as I am) I was doing a little webcruising, trying to track down a site that might verify for me just which AVENGERS writer had originated the trademark Beast line "Oh my stars and garters!" (Never mind. You don't even want to know why.) One of the search results took me to a web page that, as it turned out,was part of an extremely large and extensive and amazingly impressive site dedicated to the Silver Age of superhero comics. The text posted there was generally articulate, amusing, entertaining, and frequently hilariously funny. I'm not gonna name the fan that wrote it here, because, well, there seems no point to it. Given some of the viewpoints I'm about to propound, it might even seem like I'm attacking him. And, really, I'm not. I enjoy the site, for the most part, and I enjoy his writing.
But some of the things I learned on this site... well, as I say, they frankly astound me.
One of the chiefest among these is the strange notion that apparently, just as video killed the radio star, so too, has continuity killed the comic book industry.
I mean... WHAT?
I've been reading comics since the mid to late 60s (when I was a wee small tot and sneaking into my Uncle Rick's room to hide under the bed and read SUPERBOY and JIMMY OLSEN because I knew he'd just kill me if he caught me) and collecting them, since, I don't know, 1973 or so, when I bought an issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON off the newsstands for, I think, 20 cents (I can't rememberthe issue number, but it was the wrap up of the Cowled Commander storyline). I bought and kept comics for the rest of the 70s and the early 80s, although I nearly fell out of the hobby twice: once after Gerry Conway forced my two favorite writers to leave Marvel and then, a few years later, after Crisis took one of my beloved imaginary realities away from me. Since then, I have barely hung in there, buying, over the course of the last 20 years, no morethan maybe half a dozen comics per month.
Okay. On a real busy month back in the early or mid 90s, maybe a dozen titles.
My perspective is no doubt a weird one, being, as it has been, that of a person most definitely non-immersed in comic books, but still passionately interested in same, for the last two decades.
What I have seen, over the course of the last three decades, since I first began reading comic books, is a steady decline in the sales figures and general readership of the comic books I was mainly interested in, superhero titles. At the same time, I have also seen a steady rise in the general awareness most people have of the characters that populate said comic books. In the early 70s, a majority of the general population had heard of Superman and Batman, but not from the comic books... they'd heard of them from their respective TV shows. Wonder Woman was, right about then, due to become well known as well... also from her own TV show. As time would go on and the special effects necessary to the commercially successful adaptation of more and more super characters became economically feasible, more and more comic books saw themselves adapted to TV and film.
Okay, let's hold that thought for a minute and go back in time a bit to the 1940s. The so-called Golden Age of Comics. When MILLIONS of people of all age ranges - kids, teenagers, young adults - read comic books. And threw them away. I'm not kidding, this was status quo for comic books back then. I mean, for God's sake, if millions of issues of a particular comic were printed a month, how could the few surviving copies that still exist today be worth anything if the vast majority of them HADN'T been thrown away? Comic book collecting was virtually unknown, back then, and the few people - kids or adults - who actually did want to, and manage to, toss their comics in a box and keep them, hadn't the vaguest clue about things like polybags and nitrogen-free environments and all that good happy-crappy.
Now let's fast forward a little bit to the early Silver Age, when, well, hundreds of thousands of people read comic books. Kids, teenagers, young adults... for the most part... read comic books.
And a lot of them still threw the comics away when they were done (or their parents did). I tell you, no lie, that a good half of my comic book collection in my early teens came from three other guys I knew whose parents let them buy comics and read them... but wouldn't let them KEEP 'em. And I have read, over and over again in various fannish memoirs over the years, about the comic book collections trashed by condemning parents. People reading comics and throwing them out was still pretty common, and among the nascent 'fan' base - i.e., my generation, the kids of the time - you were lucky if you had a set of parents who didn't condemn comics out of hand, or at the very least, ones understanding enough to respect your privacy and not routinely search your bedroom for contraband.
Now hit the FF button again to the late Silver Age (by my standards; I posit the death knell of the Silver Age as being the publication of GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1). Sales figures have dropped by more than half, but by this time, which for me is my last couple of years of high school, many of the kids I know who like comic books also collect them. Parents seem to have lightened up a ton on the ol' funny books. At the same time, though, apparently, there are far fewer kids reading comic books than there ever have been in the past.
Adults who read comic books, as far as I know, are all but unknown. My Uncle Rick, whose bedroom, you may remember, I once used to sneak into so I could read his comic books, has not only stopped reading comics long since (he's eleven years older than me, just so y'all can keep track) but he no longer more than vaguely even remembers them. My mom occasionally reads my comic books, and she's the only grown up I know who even has the slightest interest in them. On the other hand, virtually every kid I go to school with knows who Batman, Superman, Spider-man, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk are. Why? Because they've been on TV, and Spider-man has a newspaper strip.
I'm very carefully laying a mosaic here, tile by tile. I want to proceed very cautiously, because when I get that far, I'm going to be saying some things that, apparently, are going to be controversial in today's comic fan environment... although, to ME, they're just common sense.
The circulation of comic books steadily declined throughout the 80s. It bumped up again in the early 90s, by, like, a TON, although I'll admit, it did so mostly due to the relatively brief involvement of addlebrained speculators in the comics market who mistook comics, for a time, as the next big money collectible. Once THAT particularly insane frenzy worked itself through the industry, things fell off again... waaaaaaaay off.
As things currently stand in the industry, a 'best seller' moves an order of magnitude fewer units than an average seller for the Golden Age. A moderate seller might do 50,000 to 65,000 units a month in business. Even this is somewhat vague, because virtually all comics sales these days are DIRECT sales, meaning, if the shop doesn't sell the issue, they can't return them, they have to stick them in back issue bins and hope someone buys them. Still, it's generally hard to find recent back issues of best sellers, so we can assume that these figures are reasonably accurate.
Now, apparently, there are at least some intelligent, analytical comics pros and fans who look back over all this and wonder why the hell, if comic books were selling a million copies a month in 1947, the same comics, featuring, in a few instances, the same characters, sell only 60,000 copies a month now. They trace the steadily diminishing sales figures, and they compare these figures with what they feel they remember about what was happening with the product and the story content during this period, and they arrive, with a triumphant bellow, at a conclusion: It's that god damned continuity that did it.
To an extent, it's hard to fault them. The people who have made this claim live and breathe comic books, they are immersed in the mainstream and have been forever, and, perhaps coincidentally, many of them seem to be huge Grant Morrison fans, and Grant Morrison is on record early and often heaping scorn and derision on the entire concept of continuity. So, if Grant Morrison says continuity is EEEEEEvil, and if a glance back over what we know and remember about the development and evolution of storytelling in comic books also bears out that continuity has grown more essential to superhero comics at, seemingly, the same time sales figures have declined... well, by God, it must be true! Continuity sucks! Bring back Good Stories!
I have to tell you, I have my own somewhat different perspective.
First, I don't think there is any one particular influence or element that has solely been the bullet in the heart of the comic book industry. What we're seeing right now, as we finally approach the real dawn of the 21st Century (don't start with me on this 'when the new Millenium really starts' crap, either) is the end result of a great many factors, some of which I understand (I think) and some of which I, frankly, have no clue about. But let me lay out, again, slowly, piece by piece, what I have observed from my peculiar vantage point:
In my opinion, the absolute zenith of comic book storytelling is represented by 6 titles published at Marvel from the early to just after the mid 70s (if I am recalling correctly). Those titles are: Steve Gerber's DEFENDERS, MAN THING, and HOWARD THE DUCK, and Steve Englehart's AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and DR. STRANGE.
I know how that sounds, and honestly, I don't mean to short sheet anyone, but hey, everyone has their list of favorites. Assuming this article ever gets read by a reasonable cross section of comics fans, that paragraph above is going to occasion absolute HOWLS of outrage. What about WATCHMEN? What about DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? What about the Fox/Sekowsky JUSTICE LEAGUEs, the O'Neal/Adams BATMAN and GL/GA, the Kirby/Lee FANTASTIC FOURs, the Miller DAREDEVILS, and yaddity yaddity yippy yappy "... MY FAVORITE COMIC SERIES IN THE WORLD?"
In my opinion: The listed six titles have three elements in common that none of these others can possibly claim all three of: 1. They were sophisticated and intelligent, 2. They were FUN, and 3. They were primarily bought, read, enjoyed, and collected BY KIDS... yet all of them can be read with an equal, if entirely different level of enjoyment, by adults. And when I say 'by adults', I do not mean 'adults who first read these stories as kids, had these stories imprinted on them as kids, and thus, can still re enter that childlike viewpoint again when they reread them'. I'm not talking about adults who enjoy these comics as a sort of nostalgia, 'gee whiz, remember when' trip. I'm talking about adults who have never read these comics before in their lives, the kind of adults who would rather have a fist fight with Stone Cold Steve Austin than be caught dead reading a comic book... but whom, if you can actually find some way to make them sit down and READ one (blackmail usually works, or holding them at gunpoint), will be drawn into the storytelling like a Fred Pohl hero into a black hole, will eagerly read every single one they can get their hands on, and who will, upon arriving at the screeching, heartbreakingly abrupt 'DAMN Gerry Conway to HELL' end of the run of Gerber DEFENDERS, scrabble around in confused bewilderment, then turn to you with fearful but demanding eyes and say "Okay, where's the REST?"
(Then you have to tell them that there is no 'rest', that they really don't want to see what Gerry Conway and David Kraft did to the book for the years following, and that they'd just rip their eyes right out of their heads if they could see what DeMatteis had inflicted on the book in the early 80s... and it's just ugly.)
Find me a single other instance of 'my favorite comic book EVER' on any fan's list these days published between 1961 and 1998 that you can say THAT about (Okay, I can think of one... the Baron/Rude NEXUS... which was never remotely a sales success.)
The single point I'm trying to make in the above paragraph is that, as far as I can see, those six comic books were a peak of comic book storytelling...at least, in the fundamentally absurd superhero genre. They were comic books AS comic books, utilizing and exploiting the unique strengths of the medium (third person narrative captions, thought balloons, panel to panel graphic continuity with a visual 'pace' that could be varied, depending on the skill of the writer and the artist involved, to an enormous and at the same time, very delicate, degree). The plots of these stories were dense and layered, the concepts examined and explored in them were both breathtakingly cosmic and immediately, involvingly human. They were character driven, sophisticated fantasy capable of stimulating the intellect, the emotions, and the imagination.
They were also very concerned with continuity, but let's leave that aside for a moment.
Um, no. On second thought, let's not. Accepting, for a moment (as I do, and you may not, ever) that these six comic series ARE the zenith of all superhero comics storytelling... let's just look at how important the much maligned 'continuity' WAS to the fundamental quality, or even, ongoing existence, of these comics.
Virtually every plot element in every series listed grew out of something that had been done, previously in that series, or elsewhere in the self contained, internally consistent, Silver Age Marvel Universe. The three Gerber books pretty much fed each other continuity bits, with Howard the Duck, for example, showing up for the first time in MAN-THING, and eventually crossing over into DEFENDERS. DEFENDERS itself, at its wildest, wackiest heydey, concerned itself deeply with previously established Marvel continuity, like Nebulon, the Celestial Man, and a bunch of old characters from single shot horror stories Gerber dug out and gathered together into the biggest pack of nutty supervillains you EVER saw, the Headmen. Engleharts's books were equally heavy in their continuity emphasis; in fact, storylines he started in CAPTAIN AMERICA he later finished in AVENGERS, at one point. A large part of stories he ran in both CAPTAIN MARVEL and AVENGERS centered around the history of the famous "Blue Area" of the Moon... perhaps Englehart's own most enduring addition to the Marvel continuity canon, and one directly deriving from Kirby and Lee's previous work on FANTASTIC FOUR.
Continuity was a key part to these stories, and in all honesty, I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that they only sold, oh, around 150,000 to 300,000 copies a month.
I will tell you what continuity did have DIRECTLY to do with: the fact that in the early to late 70s, the vast majority of the comic books I bought and enjoyed were published by Marvel. DC had some books I liked too... Carey Bates SUPERMAN and FLASH and SUPERBOY were all favorites of mine, and I would occasionally pick up and enjoy a DETECTIVE or BATMAN from around then, too, usually written by O'Neil or Robbins, and almost always drawn by Irv Novick... but it was the Marvel comics I loved, and the reason for it was simple: they seemed more REAL to me.
In DC comics at that time, the heroes were absurdly powerful. The scripts, in the hands of those who knew how to handle them (in other words, Carey Bates) were a great deal of childish fun, but nothing ever seemed to change in those comics, and nothing of any real lasting emotional interest ever happened. One had to continually, not really suspend one's disbelief, but just sort of accept one's disbelief numbly, after the Flash spent another 22 pages or so finding a way to defeat the bizarre machinations of the Mirror Master, when we were all aware from the splash page onward that in point of fact, Flash can move faster than this jerk can think, so why is he having any problem with the doofus AT ALL? By the age of 13, I had long since realized that there WAS no actual, valid reason WHY there was any crime or injustice at ALL on the DC Earth. Superman, the Flash, and Green Lantern, between them, could have fairly easily mounted an omniscient and omnipotent 24 hour global patrol against EVERYTHING remotely bad on Earth 1. And they were apparently smart enough to realize this, and heroic enough to DO it (remember, they could have traded off 8 hour shifts), and hell, after the first week of round the clock Justice From Above, Take Cover Evildoer! activity, crime would have dropped off to near non-existence. They didn't do it because, well, the editors didn't want them to. All of which made the DC Universe, at that point, just kind of fundamentally silly to me. I read the stories, I enjoyed them, but... I couldn't BELIEVE them.
Now, there are those in the hypothetical audience who are at this point going to leap up and say "Superheroes are fundamentally absurd, and if you're saying you have to be able to BELIEVE in the stories to enjoy them, you have PROBLEMS. What, after all, is so inherently believable about a guy with a supersoldier serum, an ancient Norse deity fighting bank robbers, or a billionaire in a set of armor so advanced that we don't have a hope of duplicating a tenth of its everyday functions even now?" All of which is a valid point... if you accept that this is an issue that can only be answered by one extreme or another... either you suspend your disbelief totally and accept the most absurd nonsense if it's a fun story, or you demand absolutely credible and believable storylines and characters no matter what, except that they have superhuman abilities and wear costumes and spend much of their free time having fist fights.
However, I don't like those two extremes. I want something in the middle. I want superheroes, yes. People with superhuman powers, with perhaps somewhat more extreme moral codes and, maybe, a somewhat morally simpler world. People who wear cool costumes, and yes, people who occasionally, or even often, settle their differences in viewpoints by knocking each other through a building or two. However... I would also like those superheroes to be treated with some degree of realism and depth. Which includes, having whoever is writing those characters treat their previously published adventures as representing actual historical events that have actually occurred to those characters... unless some satisfying and intelligent way is found to explain why they aren't and they didn't.
I'm not demanding ORDINARY PEOPLE with costumes. By the same token, I also don't want SUPERGOOF MONTHLY, either. What I want, basically, is a superhero comic book that doesn't insult my intelligence. I don't mind suspending my disbelief, but when I need a crane to do it, and when the things I'm willfully ignoring are just egregiously, blatantly, grotesquely STUPID... like the fact that a superhero who can run faster than the rate that nerve impulses travel back and forth from the human sensory receptors to the brain STILL somehow has a problem with a bunch of hosers whose basic powers are based on technological gimmickry they have to point and fire at him... or the fact that a character who began his crimefighting career as a young adolescent is now a young adult, and his adult partner/mentor hasn't aged a day in the meantime... or simply the fact that the flagship icon of a particular super universe somehow has the power to actually MOVE THE EARTH in its orbit, despite the fact that (a) it is impossible to intellectually comprehend a humanoid being that physically strong and (b) how physically strong you are doesn't MATTER when you have no solid place to stand on as you wouldn't if you were actually moving the Earth, and (c) any attempt made by any humanoid being strong enough to actually move the Earth would simply result in said person tunneling his way INTO the Earth... well.
Excuse me for preferring characters that, while superhuman, dressed in head to toe leotards, and frequently engaged in hand to hand combat with other guys similarly afflicted, nonetheless, seem to inhabit and interact with a world that operates on a somewhat more believable physical level.
At risk of sounding pedantic and childish at the same time, I want to say here that 'continuity' is not synonymous for 'evil' or 'stupid' or even 'too convoluted for anyone but an obsessive idiot savant to understand'. When those who apparently hate continuity say this, they invariably point to examples of comic books storytelling that I, myself, would not label, primarily, as continuity. What would I call them?
Do you hate the last 20 years or so of X-MEN continuity? It's not the continuity you hate. It's the stories. They make absolutely no sense, and no one I know of claims to be able to actually explain them in any coherent manner. Do you hate the entire 80s post Crisis run on JUSTICE LEAGUE? Don't blame you, they sucked, but they have nothing to do with the continuity of the DC Universe at that time, for two reasons: first, the DC Universe at that time had no consistent continuity (and it blew because of it) and second, the editors kept telling us on the letters page that if we didn't like the way the characters were portrayed in that particular comic, we should consider those portrayals 'outside regular continuity'.
Did you hate all the big crossover events of the 80s and 90s? Okay, me too, but don't blame continuity, blame marketing policies that put sales gimmicks ahead of telling good, character driven stories.
Continuity, when written well and with respect, is that additional element in a fictional universe that makes it coherent and believable, and that allows characters we like from one area to meet characters we like from another area. It is also that thread that runs through the best fictional universes and that tells us that all the various adventures we have bought, read, and enjoyed about our various favorite heroes represent real, valid events in those character's lives, that the characters have been effected by, and will continue to remember and be effected by in the future.
Continuity is not a shackle or a straightjacket. If a new writer or editor comes onto a book and wants to 'undo' something that has been established before, they're free to do so... assuming they can come up with some way to do it intelligently and respectfully, that will keep the core concept of the character intact. This was the fundamental motivation underlying Crisis; to find an intelligent, respectful way to downsize and streamline a fictional multiverse that the marketing department felt had become too unwieldy and embarrassingly childish to allow them to write 'serious' stories about.
In short, DC wanted to do Marvel type, somewhat more realistic, stories with their characters. The characters' core concepts, power levels, and loooooooong histories, much of which were the product of earlier, less sophisticated times, mitigated against this... so DC decided to dump it all and basically start over.
Perhaps they had a point. I don't know. I hate Crisis with a blind, virulent passion, and it's hard for me to be objective. I understand that, basically, DC felt it was necessary for them to find a way to do comic books more like Marvel, and so, they undertook to do Crisis. But afterwards, for all I could see, they still didn't do Marvel style comic books. Nothing DC did post Crisis, or, for that matter, as far as I can see, pre-Crisis, has ever remotely compared with the stuff that two of comics best writers did at Marvel from 1972 to 1975. Nothing. Not the Roy Thomas ALL STAR SQUADRON, or the occasional brilliantly crafted little gems by Alan Brennart, or even Englehart's brief, wonderful run on GREEN LANTERN (at the point it turned into GREEN LANTERN CORPS it took a sudden hard spin into the toilet, but the nine issues or so leading up to that post Crisis transformation were frickin GREAT) or the Ostrander SUICIDE SQUAD... none of it can compare.
Moore's early work on SWAMP THING, and the entire run of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, I will admit here and now are as good as the six comics I listed as an all time best... but I don't think of them as superhero comics. I can't come up with a handy label for them other than 'fookin BRILLIANT', though. But they weren't superhero comics. However, for what it's worth, they are also very intensely built around a coherent and intricate internal continuity. Just more evidence for my 'continuity is not a BAD thing' argument.
Oh, yeah, and I'd be remiss not mentioning here that Scott McCloud's DESTROY! is the single most brilliant superhero comic ever done, but, you know, it's not part of any fictional universe I'm aware of, so continuity concerns hardly apply one way or the other. It's just, like, brilliant.
And what I'm bringing out of all this is something I deeply feel: that continuity, in and of itself, has little to nothing to do with the gradually steepening decline of the popularity of a uniquely American art form. Continuity is, at baseline, a good thing, something that, done right, elevates 'good fun comics stories' into something that can be ranked with quality adult fantasy in ANY medium. Yes, continuity can be twisted and contorted and made all but incoherent, but that isn't continuity's fault, any more than the abuses and distortions that 'writers' like Claremont and Byrne have heaped on various different characters over the years means that the very storytelling element of 'characterization' is, in and of itself, bad.
So, what do I think is responsible for comics dwindling popularity?
Well, as I said far above, I think it's a mixture of things, but if you put a gun to my head and make me pick out just one, I'm going to have to go along with a big vast crowd on this one and say:
Why was EVERYONE in the 40s buying comic books? Well, literacy was generally higher then, people read for pleasure more, other printed, graphic storytelling mediums like newspaper comic strips were hugely popular... and... well... in my cynical heart of hearts, I have to wonder just how much all of that might have had to do with the fact that the Idiot Box wasn't even science fiction at that point.
Why were more people in the 60s buying comic books than now? They didn't have as many channels on their TV, and there weren't as many superheroic power fantasies on TV. In 1967 or 1974, if you actually hankered for super powered science fiction adventure, or interesting and intelligent occult derived fantasy with costumed weirdos that hit each other in it, or any odd combination thereof, where did you go? Comics. That was pretty much it. The only SF on TV back then was STAR TREK, and let's remember that back then, TREK was considered a commercial failure. (I will continue my tradition of pissing off my hypothetical audience by also stating here that Trek has never, by any stretch of the imagination, been closer than maybe 10 A.U.s to being real, valid SF, anyway.) There was heroic fiction on TV back then, yes, but it was all well within the range of normal human endeavor. Westerns. Cop shows. Private eyes. You want someone who can fly, pick up a building, blow things up with a beam from their fist? Head for the spinner rack, folks. It wasn't on TV.
I will also take a moment here to point out something else: one of the general effects television seems to have, especially in prolonged exposures, is to kill the active imagination. It's not just me saying that. Harlan Ellison has written about forty pounds of high volume social commentary about it, and various studies have indicated that in fact, watching TV over a lengthy period causes an almost complete cessation of electrical activity in the areas of the brain associated with active visualization and creative conceptualization.
As comic books have declined, other entertainment media... mostly TV, but also film... have, on a more and more broad basis, adapted the themes and concepts of superhero comics into their own productions. I'm not just talking about specific comic book adaptations, although those have increased exponentially over the past few decades, as well. However, movies and TV shows utilizing comic book type superhuman, heroic, good vs. evil themes, have also proliferated. One no longer needs to go to the newsstand if one wants to see superhumans beating on each other. One can see it Saturday mornings on FOX and the WB, Monday nights on ROSWELL, Tuesday nights on BUFFY and ANGEL, and Friday nights on TIME AND AGAIN... and if you don't want to wait that long, you can tune in the Sci Fi Channel or the Cartoon Network any old time and have a decent chance of seeing SUPER FRIENDS, THE HULK, SPIDER MAN, THEADVENTURES OF LOIS AND CLARK, or WONDER WOMAN. You can see them for FREE, in your living room or bedroom.
This is more significant than most of the 'completely immersed' fans want to believe. The one thing we keep coming back to is that 'comics has lost its casual readers'. I agree. I just don't thinkit's 'continuity' that did it. There's plenty of continuity on various TV soap operas, (daytime or evening) and they have audiences numbering in the millions. The average teen age viewerright now could sit down and list off the cast and characters of every show on the WB Network and accurately chart all their relationships with each other, and some of that continuity isnearly as complex as the idiotic stuff in X-MEN that supposedly, is what's killing comics. If convoluted continuity is killing comic books, then it should also be killing BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and trust me... it's not.
I believe that what has drawn the casual reader away from comic books is quite simply the fact that superhuman conflict is no longer the exclusive province of comics... and to the generations succeeding mine, specifically (I was born in late 1961) TELEVISION IS A PREFERABLE ENTERTAINMENT MEDIUM. Television has movement and sound effects. It shows real people, not flat pictorial representations of demonstrably fake people. It LOOKS more impressive. Again, going back to Harlan Ellison, he once commented that Hawkman was a character created for the wrong medium; he looks kind of boring on a page, but done correctly, he'd be impressive as hell on TV or in a movie. In point of fact, Hawkman is hardly the only super character this is true of. Few supercharacters don't look more impressive when translated to a moving, photographic medium, assuming one has the good sense to adapt the conventions ofcostumery from one genre to another.
Exactly why is all this true? Why is a particular character more appealing and commercially successful on TV, in film, or in a video game, than it is in a comic book?
Because TV, and film, and video games, over time, deaden the active imagination... and it takes active imagination to read, understand, and enjoy comic books. I submit it takes even MORE active imagination to read, understand, and enjoy comic books than it does to read a non-pictorial novel, or to enjoy a melodramatic radio serial adventure. Why? Because comics, the serial presentation of images and text in conjunction with each other, in a manner that simulates sound and motion without actually having either, requires a certain acquired 'knack' to read. It's a 'knack' that is easy to learn in childhood, and somewhat harder to learn as an adult, andthe reason for this is, it requires active imagination to make those flat images and words take on actual sound and motion. And if you don't believe me on any of this, go out and buy ScottMcCloud's excellent UNDERSTANDING COMICS, which goes into far more detail on this subject than I have time for.
For those of us who are still comics fan, this may be something that we don't give much thought to. We know how to read comics, to understand comics, to enjoy comics. We 'get it'. In fact, it has so much become our second nature that we really do not understand that to an adult who never read comics as a kid, comics are a somewhat frustrating medium. They're boring. They seem stupid. These folks can look at a panel to panel sequence that we think is absolutely stunning and all they'll say is 'real people don't look like that'. What we don't get is that they don't get it. They can't 'see' comics the way WE see them.
More and more adults these days grew up as kids in an environment filled with live action or animated storytelling mediums. Many of them learned to READ from live action or animated storytelling mediums, like SESAME STREET and its ilk. Sure they can READ, but they can't IMAGINE. For them, the images have always been presented to them in a box, and the images move, and make noise. To them, graphic storytelling is a three panel HAGAR THE HORRIBLE strip. Sophisticated graphic storytelling is DOONESBURY, which, lest we forget, almost never shows any actual movement in the depicted figures.
And if the ADULTS these days, of a generation or two behind me, are like this, I can only vainly try to imagine what today's KIDS are like. Other than to say that the active imagination necessary to turn a brilliant page of Jack Kirby panels with Stan Lee scripted word balloons and Artie Simek lettered sound effects into a sweeping panorama of exploding energy beams, flying costumed bodies, and stunning galactic backdrops... is going to be a very rare thing.
To an extent, this may explain some of the success of Image Comics, with their 'every single panel is a fight scene or an action pose' style. Such a lack of any sort of actual storytelling elements isn't going to matter to an audience that doesn't have the imagination to create a contextual link between the panels anyway.
I mean, is it really any surprise to anyone that the popularity of a largely textual medium, whose visual component is flat, silent, and motionless, has decreased, over a time period in which thepopularity of high impact, live action or animated entertainment mediums that move, and make sound, and have bright colors, and that occasionally blow up real good, has exploded exponentially?
And still, we're blaming the continuity?
Again, if continuity was a problem for the 'casual reader' we all agree has abandoned comic books, by and large, then TV shows like NYPD BLUE and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and any daytime soap opera, would not have audiences in the millions. Or, to put it anotherway, if superhero comic books still had as many people buying them as paid for tickets to see any of the STAR WARS sequels... which depend on an intricate and consistent continuity... none of us would be worried about the future of the medium.
I understand that it's a lot more reassuring to blame continuity.Continuity is something that the industry could DO something about,after all. Marvel and DC could both launch reboots to get rid ofall their onerous back history and start all over again, althoughthis is only a temporary fix to continuity problems, since by nomeans is anyone even remotely trying to imagine that saiduniverses, post reboot, would not incorporate internal continuityas well. We could reboot every six years or so, just as soon asthe continuity thickets get too indecipherable. (Or we could justlet Alan Moore, Tom Peyer, Mark Waid, Roger Stern, ChristopherPriest, and Kurt Busiek write everything, in which case, thecontinuity would probably continue to make sense for a good longtime.) But the point is, if it's 'continuity' that's the problem,or the screaming of anal, obsessed, fixated fanboys (which I willpoint out now that, within this community, simply means 'any groupof my fellow comics fans who like a bunch of comics I don't',because, face it folks, we're ALL anal, obsessed, and fixated, orwe wouldn't be reading or writing all this crap), then we can DOsomething about that.
If, on the other hand, it's just a generally increasing contempt for any entertainment medium that doesn't jump around, scream like a banshee, and occasionally explode, then... well... we're BUMMIN'. Comics can't do that. Or, if they do, they will no longer be comics.
Unfortunately, I honestly think that we may be standing on the brink of developments in our technology and our social culture that will make literacy basically obsolete within another couple of generations. As Egon once remarked, "Print is dead". And when it goes... comics goes with it.
I know none of us like that or want to accept it, but please... let's stop blaming continuity, and PLEASE, let's stop blaming thoseof us who like continuity. I did not kill the comic book industry.
Hell, I didn't even kill the radio star.
* * * * * * * *
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in
Marathon, IL. He also holds out little hope for the survival of
the printed word as a viable means of entertainment and/or
communication much longer than another three generations at most.
Barring, of course, global disaster, which is one reason he was
really hoping that the Lovebug Virus might just wipe out all the
Pentium processors and put us back to using text based editors
again. Oh, well...