I like the idea that comic books should be accessible. That you should be able to pick up almost any issue, and give it to somebody with no experience of the characters or fictional universe, and they’d be able to understand it. I mean, even television shows and movie sequels are still friendly to new viewers, despite continuing stories from one instalment to the next. Marvel has attempted to win new readers over with their Point One initiative, even though I didn’t find too many of those issues anywhere near as new-reader friendly as promised, and DC look to have accomplished it with the launch of the DCnU. Still, I can’t help but feel that these gimmicks should be entirely unnecessary – that a new reader should be able to pick up an read a comic book without having to do excessive amounts of internet research to find out what the hell is going on.
Which brings me to Chris Claremont. Claremont, in fairness, has his detractors. His writing is overly melodramatic. He is fond of his purple prose. There’s a lot of kinky and mildly-disturbing sexual undertones to everything he writes. He has a tendency to start subplots he never seems to finish. All of these are legitimate observations, but there’s no denying the author’s contribution to the field of modern comic books. For seventeen years, he wrote Uncanny X-Men and various other satellite X-Men titles, taking the comic book franchise from one of the few failed Lee/Kirby collaborations to the biggest brand name at Marvel (and, arguably, in the comic book industry itself).
I’ve been devouring his run for the past few weeks, and I’ve been thinking about what made it so popular. There are any number of factors I think resonated with a young audience, and it’s the type of basic lessons that I think modern comic book writers could learn quite a lot about. For one thing, the “all-new, all-different” X-Men stand as one of the most diverse superhero teams in mainstream comics, a far cry from the relatively homogenous JLA or Avengers or Fantastic Four. Cyclops and Jean Grey felt like the “token white Americans” on the team, populated with Europeans, Canadians, Africans and Native Americans. People tend to forget how comforting it is for kids to see people like them reflected through popular media, and yet mainstream comic books today are still dominated by white protagonists.
Another factor, and one I think that Marvel did learn, was to dial up the teenage angst. There’s no member of Claremont’s team who ever seems entirely at peace with themselves, even Professor X. Nightcrawler probably comes closest, accepting his monstrous mutant form, but it’s a trip that involves considerable personal growth. Every member of the team had their own personal issues to deal with, which made them more relatable and easier to engage with. I think this style of “soap opera” writing caught on quite well, and stands as Claremont’s most lasting contribution to the superhero genre, for better or worse.
However, there was one thing about Claremont’s style that I noticed as I read the issues in large chunks, something which irritated me until I thought about it. Virtually any given issue in Claremont’s run is the perfect jumping-on point. It seems that every single issue takes time to reintroduce the characters for those at home – perhaps those new to the comic book, or those who might have forgotten something in the month-long gap between issues. It doesn’t matter if the issue is in the middle of a story arc or if it’s stand-alone – everything you need to enjoy that particular chapter is right there, mindful of a reader cautiously dipping their feet in the water.
Let’s consider, for example, Miller and Claremont’s four-issue Wolverine miniseries from the eighties. In the first issue, he explains about his claws:
They’re forged of pure adamantium — the strongest metal known. Unbreakable an’ razor-sharp, they cut through steel like paper.
Then, in the next issue:
He meant to kill me, but he hadn’t reckoned with my body’s mutant ability to heal itself. Thanks to that, I can survive pretty much any injury.
Something I forgot to mention. In addition to my adamantium bones… I have claws. They’re retractable, forged of adamantium, an’ they cut armor plate as easily as rice paper.
Then, yet again, in the third issue:
My body possesses a natural fast-actin’ ability that enables me to resist any disease or poison, survive almost any wound.
Finally, in the last issue:
I’m a mutant with enhanced physical senses and abilities. But my main power is my body’s knack of healin’ virtually any injury. In addition, my skeleton is laced with adamantium, which makes my bones pretty near unbreakable.
I also have claws… razor-keen, forged of pure adamantium, retractable through the backs of my hands into bionic housings inside my forearms. They’re nasty.
My personal favourite moment of early-issue exposition about Wolverine’s powers came from X-Men #1, the best-selling comic book of all time, where Cyclops actually explained Wolverine’s powers… to Wolverine himself:
Are you nuts, or what? You know how dangerous those adamantium claws of your are — a wave of your arm can slice them through solid steel — one slip, just now –!
That sort of introduction does get quite tiring when you’re trying to read a collected edition in one sitting, but it does illustrate just how easy it was to pick up virtually any issue Claremont was writing and jump right into the story.
As irritating as it is when reading a large collection of issues consecutively (after all, they were intended to be read once a month), I can’t help but feel that part of the reason comic books have become such a niche little product with an ageing consumer base is because we’ve stopped writing for new readers as Claremont used to. I mean, imagine trying to pick up any issue of Grant Morrison’s Batman run. Even the wonderful Batman & Robin issues all rely on the reader knowing initially that (a.) Bruce Wayne is gone, and – as the plot progresses – (b.) the particulars of that incident.
Hell, it’s quite difficult to jump into Morrison’s run without a working knowledge of how the Silver Age Batman comics used to work. Matt Fraction’s superb The Invincible Iron Man had a second arc that required the reader to be aware of Secret Invasion. Any of the more modern X-Men crossovers read somewhat awkwardly unless you know where each book was before it jumped into the adventure.
Even with the DC relaunch, where the books were freed of this sort of continuity backlog in order to make them more accessible, if we’ll simply be back where we began within the next six months. It’s fine for a new reader to be able to pick up Batman #1, but what if they can’t pick up Batman #6 or Batman #12? Surely we’re right back where we started after all this effort? Surely it makes the relaunch kinda pointless, if you’re going to clutter things up and get involved in a massive crossover lock-out continuity once again?
I am not advocating that all writers adopt Claremont’s style. It’s clumsy. It feels forced and awkward to hit on the full details of every character’s abilities or backstory every issue where they appear. Characters stop for exposition-filled monologues in the middle of huge action scenes. On the other hand, I do believe that comic books need to be mindful of new readers. They need to be aware that there is a chance of a new reader picking up this book, and they need to be able to make sense of the jumble of words and pictures without the context of 100-odd earlier issues.
Part of me admires the approach that Geoff Johns takes. Again, like Claremont, the writer has his flaws and his detractors – I’m not blind to some of his quirks and techniques. However, it was Johns who got me into comic books – at least on-going comic book series instead of stand-alone graphic novels or miniseries. His Green Lantern issues typically begin with “My name is Hal Jordan and…”, much like his Flash work did. It’s not too awkward and clunky, and it’s an introduction – often even in the middle of an arc.
We might be celebrating the fact the success of the DC relaunch has bought the comic industry some more time, but I don’t think the problems of the past will be fixed by a simple PR stunt or gimmick. We need to look at the rather basic flaws in the methodologies used by the major publishers, the techniques that brought the industry to where it is now, and to fix the problems that it is within our power to fix.
While Claremont’s style is clunky, it works. Take that as a basis and find a more fluid way of doing it. There has to be some reason why his stories featuring strange robot nannies feeding the X-Men babyfood were a step on the series’ road to success.