by Robot Hammer (@robot_hammer)
Comic books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From a very early age, my parents and grandparents encouraged me to read anything I could get my grubby little hands on, and comics were no exception. As a kid, picking out a new comic was easy. A cover with two identical cowboys on flying horses shooting lasers at Superman? That’s money well spent. An Archie double digest with 100+ pages of the Riverdale gang was worth more than it’s weight in gold. I was always a big fan, and I still am, of team up books. Marvel Team-Up starring Spider-Man, Marvel Two-In-One with the everlovin’ blue-eyed Thing, DC Comics presents featuring Superman, and best of all, The Brave And The Bold, where Batman teamed up with a new hero every month, were my gateway books to their respective universes.
As a kid, though, I never focused on things like issue numbers or story arcs. I just bought, or pestered a parent or grandparent into buying, the comics that caught my eye. If Spider-Man was still in a trap on the last page, and I didn’t have the next issue, that was OK with me. Next trip to the supermarket or used bookstore, I’d get the best comic with the wackiest cover I could find. I wasn’t worried with things like continuity or retcons, or if the story would be accessible without reading the previous issues. I was reading the comics and enjoying them, without the benefit of an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe around them. So, while I had a passing familiarity with some of the Marvel and DC characters, I wasn’t fully invested in their respective universes. That’s how I collected comics until I turned fourteen and DC Comics did the unthinkable. They killed Superman.
‘New Reader Friendly’ is a frequently heard catchphrase around the comic shops and message boards. Is the next big X-Men story accessible to new readers, or are they going to need a primer on Days Of Futures Past and the Dark Phoenix Saga? When Sam Wilson traded in his Falcon gear to become the next Captain America, Marvel relaunched Cap’s book yet again, to show potential new readers that this was a great jumping on point. Back in 2011, DC Comics rebooted their entire superhero line, giving birth to The New 52, shaking things up in an effort to open the DC universe to readers who felt like they were locked out by decades of continuity.
But back in 1992, Teenage Robot dove head first into Funeral For A Friend. Lex Luthor the second, a young man with an Abe Lincoln beard and flowing red hair, who everyone said was the son of the late Lex Luthor, reveals in an inner monologue that he is in fact the original Lex Luthor in a cloned body, having faked his death and transplanted his brain into the cloned body as a way to cheat death, having contracted cancer from wearing a Kryptonite ring. Lex Jr is also Supergirl’s lover, but this Supergirl isn’t Kal-El’s cousin from Krypton. She’s a protoplasmic shapeshifter from a pocket dimension. Throw in The Guardian and the cloned versions of the Newsboy Legion, the non-powered street level crime fighter Gangbuster, and a Justice League that featured the likes of Bloodwynd and Maxima, and it’s clear to see that Funeral For A Friend threw new readers straight into the deep end of the DC pool.
I loved every single page.
Then there’s the third part of the trilogy, The Return of Superman, and by this point I’m in the comic shop every week, buying Superman, Man of Steel, Action Comics, and the Adventures of Superman in single issues. I was hooked. Now we had four new characters, claiming to either be Superman back from the dead as a cyborg, or as a teenage clone, or as a grim avenger with a new powerset, or a man with no powers who made a suit of armor to fight in Superman’s memory. As the story progressed, I was thrown into more situations where the backstory was being explained with the wave of a hand, and I didn’t mind at all. Mongul shows up, we make a trip to Green Lantern’s hometown of Coast City, and revelation after revelation about the origins of the new Supermen come to pass at a breakneck pace. Here I was, still a relatively new to DC’s Post Crisis universe, and I was mesmerized by the story. I’d read each issue again and again, looking for more clues to the history and motivations of the characters.
I was introduced to characters who had active backstories with a minimum of explanation and it fascinated me, leading me to comic shop after comic shop, looking for issues of Superman and Justice League of America to fill in the gaps. Why was Bloodwynd so secretive? What was project: Cadmus? And what was the deal with Booster Gold and Blue Beetle?!? Having all of these unanswered questions is what made me want to rifle through back issue boxes, searching for the origins and histories of these characters. I became a comic collector, and more importantly a comics reader, because of a storyline that had excitement, dynamic art, and a story that I wanted to see play out, not because it was a new number one, a new creative team, or a new continuity.
This isn’t a post where I want to say things were better in my day, you darn whippersnappers, because I walked uphill both ways in the snow to get my comic books. I love that comic companies are trying to bring in new readers, because if everything was left up to old school fans like myself, we’d surround everything in continuity dating back to 1939. Someone asked a friend and myself about reading Guardians of the Galaxy, and we started rattling off book after book he needed read first, from the Annihilation event, to Nova, and even Ed Brubaker’s run on X-Men, just to get the full picture. When we were finished, he just stared at us blankly, and I realized something: comic fans want to make things way too complicated.
If a more informed reader had seen me buying the Death Of Superman trade in 1994, would they have told me that first I needed to read John Byrne’s Man Of Steel origin miniseries, then the World of Krypton, World of Smallville, and World of Metropolis stories for background purposes, then Panic In The Sky just because, then a dozen other issues for various reasons, and then finally the Death Of Superman? Would I have dropped the comics back on the shelf and spent the money on something else, leaving that mess for some other sucker?
While I personally love decades and decades of backstory, let me give any potential new comic readers a bit of advice. If you’re worried about being lost when you pick up an issue of a comic for the first time, don’t be. Dive right in. If you buy the newest issue of Avengers and you don’t know why Cannonball is on an alien planet, keep reading. If by the end of the issue you’re interested in what’s going on in the story and want answers, dive into the back issue boxes at your local comic shop, scour over the racks of trade paperbacks, or join the 21st century and buy your comics digitally. Don’t worry about a comic being new reader friendly. Comic companies are bending over backwards to make books accessible to new readers. If a story isn’t necessarily geared towards new readers, if it’s worth reading, new customers will be interested enough to keep reading and want to go back and read the previous issues, whether or not they “need to” to understand the story. After all, that’s how I started out, and I’m still diving into back issues, and I’m still having fun with comics.