ac·ces·si·ble adj: Easily approached or entered.
I never thought much about the concept of accessibility in comic books for the first 20-something years of my comic book reading career (I think it’s safe to call it a career since it undoubtedly takes up more time in my life than almost any job I have ever had). It was not something that was a consideration when I was 8 years old picking up my very first Uncanny X-Men comic nor was it a thought when I ventured into the world of DC Comics during the Batman: Knightfall story arc of 1993 and obviously, considering it was a brand new company, had zero bearing on my foray into Image Comics in 1992.
It really was not until the announcement of DC Comics New 52 relaunch that the concept of accessibility in the world of super hero comics became a pressing matter in my thoughts. The push of the entire New 52 initiative was, simplistically put, based on the idea that with a history dating back decades, the reason DC comic book sales were low was due to them being too dense for someone to just pick up any issue and jump on-board. The thought was that big numbers are scary and no one wants to start reading a book at #600; this quote from Jim Lee is essentially that statement:
“I certainly wouldn’t buy a DVD series of a hit show and start at Season 7,” Jim Lee said. “I would want to go back and start from the beginning.” - New York Times, 8/31/11
In one of my personal blogs dubbed, “Accessibility & Continuity,” I addressed my thoughts on these issues and, suffice it to say, I found (and still find) the idea ridiculous that simple numbering would drive away a reader, especially in this day and age where DC has either collected or is in the process of collecting near every story they have ever published. Yes they are molasses-in-January with their time table in comparison to Marvel or Image (the Hardcover for Grant Morrison’s final Action Comics arc set to come out in November, nearly a year after it completed for example), but they do make a concerted effort to collect a vast majority of their 75 plus year history.
Still, for better or worse, this New 52 is the world in which DC Comics now lives and based on the titles I read, I don’t know if I can say this world is any more “accessible” than the old one when looked at in the vein of “every comic is someone’s first” (a logical notion that I often see credited to Stan Lee). I certainly would be hard pressed to follow the action of Trinity War without knowing what had come before and the entire conceit of the Green Lantern corner of the DC-Verse is dependent on knowing your Geoff Johns-penned history.
Marvel gives the reader a helping hand in their “Previously” or Daily Bugle-style recap pages, but DC has no such tool in use because, as Editorial Director Bobbie Chase put it on CBR as part of her and Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras’ final Fan Q&A column:
“Chase: …I’m really not for doing that in print because I think it’s a waste of precious real estate all going to just big blocks of text.”
A logical stance no doubt and, when you look at history, no different than comics were in the 80′s when I first became a reader. In fact, just based on my memory and without verifying this, I do not recall seeing recap pages until sometime in the latter portion of the 90′s, at least as far as Marvel Comics go, and have zero memory of DC Comics ever having them.
So with these thoughts of recaps and summaries and accessibility in mind, my mind started to drift back to my first steps into the world of comics. It was a journey that kicked off at the Denver Airport way back in 1987/1988 when my father purchased me Uncanny X-Men #224…
At 8 years of age, I jumped into the waters of X two hundred and twenty-four issues deep and I can confidently say that the number on the cover did nothing to dissuade me from picking up the book; I likely did not even notice the issue number because that Marc Silvestri/Dan Green cover was so cool in my eyes. Now No. 224 may not seem like a huge deal when compared to the fact thatAction Comics & Detective Comics were in the 800 & 900′s before the New 52, but in today’s world where, based on the November solicits, the longest running DC Comics production is Fables at #135 (the superhero books max out at #25) and the highest numbered Marvel book is Wolverine & The X-Men at issue #38, a super-hero comic being in the two hundreds is kind of staggering.
Was there a shock to my system upon opening up that cover and hopping into a story en media res? No, there was not and that was all thanks to the creative pen of writer Chris Claremont and the fashion in which he created his comics. Claremont is known for being a very wordy writer; for having his characters in the X-Books declare their power set while in the midst of battle while simultaneously breaking into lengthy internal monologues about their lives. It may come off heavy handed when compared to some of the writers of today and may illicit a groan from long-time readers because “I know this stuff already” but take a look at this opening page from the perspective of someone who has never read an X-Book before (perhaps you haven’t or maybe not THIS specific story) and argue that it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to feel comfortable entering the world:
On one page you know this is Storm, that she is also called Ororo, that she is a mutant, and her specific power set. Claremont also tells you she was stripped of her powers, who was responsible for that travesty, Storm’s connection to Forge, and what her intentions are for the man she loves. Everything you need to know about this woman and her current plight is right there in front of you on one page. The visuals by Silvestri & Green present this woman as a striking beauty, majestic, surrounded by nature’s beauty, and looking quite powerful in that pose despite the text stating she had been stripped of her mutant abilities. That is just one page…
The background info does not end with that first page though as the very first caption on the subsequent page informs you of Storm’s role as the leader of the X-Men regardless of her power loss and lets the reader know that the X-Men (whoever they may be) are a mutant team of outlaw heroes. For a first timer reading this comic in the late 80s, before the animated series and long before the movies, the idea of a super hero was generally Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. The concept of the X-Men was largely unfamiliar to me despite having rented some of the old Marvel cartoons from the 60′s and with some exposure to Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends; but in one simple blurb Claremont set the stage for just who the X-Men were in this comic book world and established how Storm factored into their existence.
Even Naze, a character who was not an X-Man, is given moments and dialogue that elaborate on his purpose in the scheme of this story. We learn from conversation between him and Storm of his role as a medicine chief, of his Cheyenne background and, because Storm is essentially the reader in their conversation, we learn just why Storm must kill Forge as Naze explains to her the Adversary’s role in this tale. I even received a vocabulary lesson when Storm dropped the word “entropy” in there…
Another thing I would like to take note of is how the personality of both Naze and Storm is very clearly established by the manner in which each one speaks. In my head, Naze’s voice would sound like a grizzled old man who likely did not have the finest formal education but is intimate with the ways of the world. He speaks in conjunctions and with very informal speech patterns: “nope” instead of “no”, “an” instead of “and”, and his use of “ain’t”. In stark contrast, Storm’s speech is full of complete words, there are neither conjunctions nor the usage of improper English and in my head her voice sounds very formal with lines such as “We are not threads, Naze. We are people…with lines of our own to weave!” That sentence, delivered in that fashion, would look completely out of place coming from Naze just as it would completely take the reader out of the experience if Storm spoke like her companion (“We ain’t threads Naze. We’re people…”).
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I firmly believe that this is a lost art, the importance of using vocabulary and speech patterns to give personality to these two-dimensional characters. As much as I enjoy Brian Michael Bendis’ work overall, when at his worst every character Bendis writes tends to sound like the same snarky broken record (when dialogue from Wolverine, Tony Stark, and Captain America becomes interchangeable there is a problem). Even if it’s something as simple as having Gambit toss a little French into his speech patterns or Rogue saying “ah’m” instead of “I’m”, at least it is a way to remind the reader of where these characters come from.
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Speaking of Rogue:
The page before introduces the concepts of both the Mutant Registration Act as well as Freedom Force, thereby establishing the mindset of the government towards mutants but it is this following page that I find most successful in setting up the world in which mutants exist.
Immediately, the reader is given the comparison of Hitler & the Jews to the potential problems mutants could face in this world while simultaneously presenting two different humans with two different viewpoints on the issue. That this conversation takes place in a gym where a mutant is working out is also quite genius because it puts the fantastic element into a real world situation and shows that yes super heroes actually have to work out too. In addition to putting that touch of reality into the story, it also places this character, who we learn via her conversation with a normal human is named Rogue, into the larger Marvel Universe with talks of The Thing and the Fantastic Four. There is no real need for the name dropping in terms of the story but it is that sort of touch that “world builds” as they say today. As for character build, between using that “ah” instead of “I” in Rogue’s dialogue even someone who isn’t initially aware of her Southern heritage would immediately be able to place it.
The above page immediately follows the previous image and continues that world AND character building. We learn about Rogue’s strength as she pushes up insane amounts of weight, we learn that her foster mother is a shape changing mutant, we learn about the nature of Rogue’s powers, also that she is an X-Man, and that death is apparently looming for the team in the city of Dallas.
The following pages continue to introduce the reader to the various members of this X-Men team in a fashion which, yes I could see how it may grate on a long-time reader, but it pushes the story forward while simultaneously filling in the necessary holes for a newbie. Dazzler makes her debut in the issue singing and in that beloved Claremontian fashion, we learn both her real name and codename via internal dialogue plus get introduced to her power set.
The same sequence gives us our first Wolverine of the issue as he sits back watching Dazzler’s show, stogie in mouth and rocking the cowboy hat:
Not only does he look like a total badass, but that page also establishes the Dazzler/Wolverine dynamic in just a matter of panels. He is the guy she looks to for approval, he is also the stern father figure telling you when you’ve done wrong, yet encouraging you all the same. We also learn that both of these characters are members of the X-Men team and we see them coming together with Rogue’s appearance in the final panel.
I feel I should point out that how Silvestri and Green present these characters visually also goes a long way towards establishing their personalities to the reader. Dazzler looks like a rock star in her short skirt, big hair, sunglasses, and surrounded by colorful lights of her own making whereas Wolverine is first seen in three-quarter shadow with only the smoke from his cigar and the outline of his hat standing out. Once Dazzler’s light falls on him and you see the man leaning against the wall with the cigar in hand, a hat with the brim pulled low, furrowed brow, and a hand on his belt buckle do you get a sense of who this man’s personality. Serious cowboy one second, comforting hand on the shoulder of teary-eyed Dazzler the next…he is a contrast from his first page. I also should note that in her panel, as she was on her introductory pages, Rogue is covered neck to toes in a body suit which is important given how her powers were described initially…
With a good portion of the team now introduced to the newer reader, or reorganized for the long-time one, I will take a pause and wrap up next time with a look at the rest of the story as well as reflections on what I think age might have to do with this whole “accessibility” notion…