There’s a lot of talk these days about how we can “save” the comic book industry. A lot of the talk focuses on print vs. digital comics and whether or not comic publishers can survive long into the 21st century without adapting to newer technologies and distribution models. Now, while I personally prefer my comic books (and all books, really) to come in an actual physical format, this is still an important discussion to have–it’s also a discussion that I am in no way prepared to tackle. However, I am prepared to tackle another item on the “Save Comics” platform: readership.
Anyone who watches the comic industry realizes that it has a serious problem. It is terrible at creating new readers. Sure, numerous comic characters are appearing in big budget blockbuster movies, but what happens when a fan of these movies wanders into their local comic shop (or LCS, if you will) and wants to check out the latest issue of Batman, Thor, or Iron Man? I think there are multiple obstacles to overcome. First, you need to find a comic shop. I’m lucky enough to live in a major city with countless options. Not everyone is so fortunate. Now, if you’re able to find an LCS, you face the second obstacle: continuity. Let’s look at each of these issues (heh) separately.
The Anthology Solution
You want to buy comics, but you don’t live anywhere near a comic shop. What do you do? Well, odds are you probably live near a bookstore of some kind. Bookstores have been selling trades for as long as I can remember, but they are less likely to carry single issues. Solution: publish your titles as anthologies in a trade format. The standard trade collects six issues of a given comic, which is usually the length of a single story arc. I propose doing away with single issues and publishing trade-length anthologies, which would fit nicely on the shelves of your local bookstore or library.
Let’s look at DC Comics, specifically the Batman family of titles. Instead of publishing single issues of Batman, Batgirl, Red Robin, etc. each month, DC would publish a single trade-length Batman Family anthology, containing six separate stories: one starring Batman and Robin, one starring Batgirl, one starring Batwoman, and so forth. Some stories could be one-and-dones, some could be part of a longer story that continues over several months. A similar anthology would contain six stories from the Superman family of characters, another for Flash, Wonder Woman, or Green Lantern. For characters who aren’t part of a larger family–or for teams like Secret Six, the JSA, and the Teen Titans–there could be a blanket “DC Universe” title. Over at Marvel, you could have a Spider-Man Anthology, an X-Men Anthology, an Avengers Anthology, and on and on.
Just as with single issues, new trade anthologies would be published each week–maybe one “A List” family and one “B List” family–so that you’d still get monthly stories with Batman, Spider-Man, and all of the rest. They could be carried by bookstores and easily find their way into the hands of the next generation of readers. (Yes, they’d also look awesome on your bookshelf at home.)
The Volume Solution
Continuity. The very word is often enough to strike terror in the heart of even the most experienced comic book reader. I’ve been reading comics for over twenty years and there are still some things that I don’t even want to go near–Hawkman? Hawkgirl? I’m looking at you. Continuity itself isn’t a bad thing. But, slavish devotion to it can be. I know people who are afraid to read any of the X-Men titles because so many of the relationships make the kinship of European royalty look straightforward.
The other side of the continuity coin is what does a writer do if they come across something they don’t like; for example, there’s a dead character you want to write about or an event that you wished didn’t happen. That’s when writers hit us with retcons and reboots and magical resets, the kinds of things that have been known to send comic book readers screaming from the room.
So, how do we handle the tangled web of continuity? My potentially unpopular solution is as follows: you treat each creators’ run as a separate volume with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You give your writers and artists a set number of issues, let’s say twelve or twenty-four, in which they get to tell their story. When they’ve told their story, you give the title to another creative team and let them tell whatever story they want to tell. Want to tell a story where Peter Parker is married to Mary Jane? Go for it. When you’re done, the next person might want to tell a story where Peter is still dating Gwen Stacy. This way, no one is beholden to what’s come before. It isn’t entirely scattered, either, as each creative team would create a complete story.
Each time a new story begins is a gateway for potential new readers. We all talk about “jumping on points” for comics and, yes, some issues are better places for new readers to start than others. But, eventually, some weird shit is going to pop up and leave you scratching your head and searching Wikipedia (which, to be fair, I don’t mind all that much–the Wikipedia part, not the head-scratching). This system would create true starting points for new readers, stories unencumbered by decades of continuity.
I’m not saying that either of these solutions are perfect. Heck, I might only be suggesting them because they’re kind of what I’d like comics to be. But, I do honestly think they would increase readership by making comics more accessible, in terms of both content and distribution.