If You Give a Monkey a Computer.../John Wilson's Blog
If You Give a Monkey a Computer.../John Wilson's Blog

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How Do You Read Comics?

Posted by John Wilson, Feb 12 2010, 01:01 PM

A discussion with one of my Zone 4 collegues is the spark of this post. We got into a discussion of how you read a comic. Not the medium (floppies, trades, digital, etc.) but in what mind set do you approach the story. From the standpoint of the story and the characters or from the context of the time that the story was created...canon versus context. And do subsequent stories enrich or diminish the character or does it change the message?

Still confused? Then allow me to explain.

Take the example of Kingdom Come. The story about the future of the DC Heroes where the heroes we know have grown old and retired while the younger, and in many cases more violent, superpowered second generation have taken up the fight for good. However this generation has little regard for public safety or the people they defend. The old guard returns and after a violent struggle, reins in their "children" and begins the process of rebuilding their world. That is the stories canon. The context of the story is that the book is meant to illustrate the difference in the hero philosophy and the rise of the "big gun, big muscle, ultra violent heroes" that sprung from companies like Image at the time and how that philosophy goes againt the heroic ideal. That is the context.

So how do you read comics? I am very much a canon person. In the good stories, i get emotionally invested in the characters. It is a necessary process for me to "buy" the world that they have presented to me. If I don't care about the characters, why should I care about them? Case in point: Sue Dibny. Originally, she was very rarely used. You knew she was Ralph's wife, but you saw her in glimpses and story endings. The re-imerged Justice League (the bwa ha ha era) fleshed her out, making her and interesting if silly character. The JLI fleshed her out even more, showing her as a person whose intelligence was easily equal to that of her detective husband. Someone smart enough and in love enough to create mysteries for her husband to solve on his birthday. Subsequent miniseries and their stint in Starman showed us a woman who was compassionate, funny and made her real. Then came Identity Crisis. The shock of her murder in IC worked because we were invested in her. We knew Sue and carried about her. The knowledge that she was raped by Doctor Light and that she was pregnant at the time of the murder only intensified that. She was taking from the realm of comedy to tragedy. It was as shocking as if it had happened to a real person. It made reading the subsequent comedy JLA story uncomfortable. I doubt that it would have had the same impact if it had been Linda West or Kathy Sutton who had been murdered, because we have never been given that deep a look into their lives. We did not "know" them. We "knew" Sue. In the same vein, look at Ralph. A goofy, nose wiggling stretching character. Often used for comic relief and more often than not as a poor man's Plastic Man and a second best detctive to Batmnan. However we did see that his love for Sue was absolute and we felt his anguish at her murder and believed that he would go to those lengths to track down her killer. And Ralph was never more heroic than when he sacrified his own live to trap Faust and Neron in Fate's tower. He too found his life changed by tragedy and it allowed him to grow as a character in ways that he had not in decades. Another character is the Shade. Truly the most second rate of second rate villians, his time in Starman, Green Arrow and his own mini has made him a fully realized character that has resonance, that you can care about...even though he is far from the traditional hero.

To return to Kingdom Come, it in itself was a perfect standalone story. It needed no embellishment and we knew everything we needed to know about the characters within those pages. In my opinion, The Kingdom stories greatly diminished that message, taking it from the realm of allegory to just another comic story. The same can be said for The Dark Knight 2 and in my mind, the preposed Watchmen prequeals and sequeals. To me, each layer you add to the story can either enhance or dimish the character. If you have the character behave out of character, you can't just wish that away, you have to address and redeem that decision. Look at Hal Jordan as the best modern example of redemption of character. He grew greatly through those experiences emerging from the dullest of the Green Lanterns to the most complex.

I was also accused of not reading the books for their historical context. To counter that I must ask...how does continuing the story really inprove that context? I realize the context of every story I read but the outside world isn't what I want the comic for...it is the world inside. The Watchmen is an allegory of the Reagan Era and the end of the Cold War as well as what many saw as an end to certain freedoms. So many years later, how is revisiting that world going to improve it? How can you make the perfect message more perfect? Or are you just capitalizing on the success and searching for more money? Which is fine, comics are a business but let's be honest and not try to couch it in nobility. There are stories that need no seguals: Kingdom Come, Marvels, Watchmen, Sandman, Starman...anything else is just returning to the well and the second drink is never as sweet as the first.



Comments

  G-Man, Feb 14 2010, 11:17 AM

I don't know about all that....I do know how I read comics.

Favorite Chair in the house.
Best Lighting in the house.
Complete silence. (but the phone near by just in case the damn thing rings)
One of the three dogs on my lap, a cold drink at my side and a stack of books within reach usually six to twelve books high or one good trade.

Nothing else matters.

Sheer Nirvana.

  Gonzogoose, Feb 15 2010, 09:12 PM

Like you, John, I tend to invest myself in the characters and the stories themselves, and do feel shorted when we get watered down, half-thought additions to the mythos that we have come to love. The more I see the Magog stuff being done in the JSA books the more I tend to despise what comes in Kingdom Come.

That said, I can certainly enjoy a story for what it is on its own. But if we are meant to accept additional stories to that story as canon then yes, I do believe it can diminish or enhance the overall story. It's one thing, though, if the stories are stand alones because then you can choose whether to add them to the canon in your own mind. But if it becomes part of the overall continuity of a universe, like Magog in the JSA then it does affect it.

I hope that all makes sense.

  Cary, Feb 28 2010, 02:56 PM

John,

I get you. I really do. But I think you're letting your nostalgia get the better of you. Ask yourself some questions. Did you enjoy Kingdom Come when you first read it? If you read it today, would you still enjoy Kingdom Come? You've already stated that KC is one of those books that's a seminal work, that stands perfectly fine all on its own, and had at least some wide ranging impact on comics. KC certainly made the statement it set out to, and it changed the way writers have approached the DC universe ever since. If you look in every major book there are repercussions retroactively inserted due to KC. I fully agree with your premise that the book stands on its own. That's WHY I think it matters absolutely not what they do after that.

You can take into account context, history, canon, or whatever else you want to toss in there, but when I sit down with KC in my hand for the annual re-read, nothing else matters. And see that's the thing, that I CAN sit down and read that book every year and never get tired of it speaks to how powerful a story it really is, how enduring it has become. It's the same with the Watchmen, and DKR. I read them every year because I LOVE those stories and they never get old. DKR2 hasn't ruined that for me. Neither have any of the post KC Kingdom stuff. I choose what I enjoy, and what I read, and that makes all the difference.

Sure, I know there's a travesty of a book called Magog out there that I'd like to round up and burn every copy of, but that's more because that character rubs me the wrong way than because it somehow threatens to invalidate Kingdom Come. The only way they ruin that story for me is if some bonehead decides to put out an anniversary edition down the road and changes the entire original story around. Then, it's time to go to war.

  Cary, Feb 28 2010, 02:57 PM

QUOTE (Gonzogoose @ Feb 15 2010, 09:12 PM)
Like you, John, I tend to invest myself in the characters and the stories themselves, and do feel shorted when we get watered down, half-thought additions to the mythos that we have come to love. The more I see the Magog stuff being done in the JSA books the more I tend to despise what comes in Kingdom Come.

That said, I can certainly enjoy a story for what it is on its own. But if we are meant to accept additional stories to that story as canon then yes, I do believe it can diminish or enhance the overall story. It's one thing, though, if the stories are stand alones because then you can choose whether to add them to the canon in your own mind. But if it becomes part of the overall continuity of a universe, like Magog in the JSA then it does affect it.

I hope that all makes sense.


Way to straddle the fence there Fowler. tongue.gif

  John Wilson, Mar 2 2010, 10:50 AM

I can agree with you that a strong story remains strong in and of itself Cary, I read for characters as well and each turn of the character informs my appreciation (or dissatisfaction) with the character. Bringing the Kingdom Come Superman over to JSA could have been a master stroke but sadly cut into the nobility of the character for me. Golden Age Superman will forever be informed by his post Crisis activities rather than his volume of activities pre Crisis. Dr. Light cna never go back to the joke that gets his ass handed to him by Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. He will always be the rapist of Sue Dibny in my mind now.

Does this ruin things for me? Occassionally. But it also allows my to become invested in the characters. It makes them "real "for me. Think of it like this. When you meet a person for the first time, you form one opinion or another about them. As you spend more time with them , that opinion grows and changes and you may grew to like them despite your initial bad first impression or you can find your good first impression being soured by the person's less than savory actions. It's the same way with me for the characters I read.

It's also why I like origin stories and reference material like Who's Who and the like. I like knowing stuff about characters. Nothing annoys me more than characters without history or vague origins.

 
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About me

To pay the bills and have my summers off, I am a high school Visual Arts teacher but I see myself primarily as an artist. Pen and ink mostly, but I dabble with the paint. Creativity is a driving force in my life. I get bored fast, so keep the conversation moving and I'm with you all the way. Get quiet on me and you might catch me multi-tasking you right out of my life.

As for comics, I own The Dragonwerx (a comics and graphic design studio). Among the titles in the works are Brushstrokes, My Days as a Dead Man and the Icarus Imperative. I do writing, inking and design work for others, so if you have a need, let me know.

My favorite in comics have been/are Starman, Strangers in Paradise, JSA, Outsiders, Birds of Prey, Heroes for Hire, Agents of Atlas, Secret Six, Astonishing X-men and the Planetary among others. While I'm not a great fan of manga I'm willing to be swayed by a really good story, so feel free to recommend some stuff to me.

In addition to my duties here at Comic Related, I am the moderator of the Art Unleashed/Sketch forum. I also post content every weekday on the Sketch Blog on Comic Related and am part of the Related Recap and Zone 4 podcasts. Check it out and let me know what you think.


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