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.