A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about change in superhero comics, the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Giffen’s Legion of Superheroes. I originally planned to post at Funnybook Babylon, but after some image insertion issues, I posted at Between Stations, my personal blog about pop culture. Go check it out. I had a lot of fun writing it and hope you enjoy reading it. Anyway, writing that post reminded me that it took me years to collect and read DC’s 12 issue Crisis on Infinite Earths series. I bought the fourth issue sometime in 1986 and didn’t complete my collection until around 1989. I missed chunks of Secret Wars, Kraven’s Last Hunt and the Judas Contract.
Other than the books that I read at the homes of my older cousin (he had long boxes) or at my best friend’s house (his mom received piles of comps from DC), I rarely read complete arcs of any serialized superhero comic. Although I was always familiar with the broad thrust of the stories, I frequently had to piece the narrative together from fragments of a story obtained over an extended period of time. Although American superhero comics were sold in more locations and read by a wider audience in the 1980’s, in some ways it feels like they are far more accessible now than they were a quarter century ago. The densely plotted and serialized superhero books may vastly outnumber the self-contained, episodic ones, but it’s worth considering that most of the barriers to accessing stories and learning about past ones fell with robust trade programs, digital comics, the expansion of libraries that lend comic trade collections and the rise of the online comics reader community. In the eighties, the stories may have been easier to follow but they were also harder to find.
Access shapes one’s reading experience. When I first started reading comics, the most convenient place to find them was a newsstand or a 7-11. Every once in a while my dad took me to Forbidden Planet, the New York institution that felt like the comic book promised land, or to the annual comics conventions that were in midtown Manhattan, but my reading selection was mostly limited to the books that the newsstand/7-11 owner happened to stock in the store that week.
I missed a lot. I missed the beginning of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Born Again, but caught the thrilling conclusion. I read about Galactus’ destruction of the Skrull homeworld in John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, but missed the subsequent Trial of Reed Richards until I found it in a dollar bin years later.
I knew that these stories were a part of a vast narrative that spanned decades, but I experienced them as tiny self-contained pieces of culture. I focused on the smaller stories told in individual issues and treated the larger arcs as an entertaining backdrop.
I’ve written about how gaps in storytelling can give readers the opportunity to imagine and engage with the story, but these spaces are also a reminder that plot details aren’t always so important. You don’t have to know everything about Karen Page (or heroin) to appreciate her redemptive arc in Born Again. Everything you need to know about her and her story is between the pages of any individual chapter of Born Again. More importantly, you don’t need to know plot details to appreciate the craft on display, from Mazzuchelli’s brilliant storytelling to Miller’s crisp dialogue.
There were very few comic book stores in my area of Brooklyn when I was in elementary school. The closest comics store to my house was Cris’ Collectibles, a comic book/baseball card/assorted stuff shop in Mill Basin, the neighborhood that bordered my own. It was a cramped, friendly store that featured almost all of the major titles published by Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. It was also about a mile away, which felt like an impossibly long distance for an eight year old. When a comic store opened on Flatlands Avenue (four blocks away!) in 1991 and ComicMania (later Bulletproof Comics) opened near the Junction the following year, it felt like a minor miracle. I was finally able to read the books the way they were supposed to be read. I finally had context, but it didn’t improve my reading experience at all. I thought that I had what I wanted, the “complete story”, but in retrospect, I think I valued them more as individual issues in a near vacuum than as a part of a vast narrative that spans decades. Once I became more of a follower of the Marvel/DC/Image/Valiant narratives than the individual issues and stories, it was easier to drop them when the story began to feel dull and repetitive. When I returned to superhero comics in the early aughts it wasn’t for the vast narrative of any publisher, it was for the creators. I still enjoyed the larger stories and intricate plots, but my attention was mostly focused on the craft behind individual issues. I used to buy every issue of a title that I was following or a writer’s ‘run’ of issues, regardless of whether it was a pointless crossover or if the artist was replaced with a less capable fill-in artist.
As a kid, I always thought that I was missing out on something and yearned for the kind of access that I now have to stories and information about superhero comics. It took me a long time to realize that everything I needed to appreciate superhero comics was between the covers of whatever issue I happened to have in my hands.