Why read comics? We certainly have no lack of alternative material. In fact, we are inundated with it! There are enough web blogs and magazines to fill our entire lives with reading material. Why should we choose comics, and not something else?
Well, the obvious answer is that comics are a wonderful artform, where fascinating stories abound! And how true it is, yet the majority of our culture doesn’t seem to concur. Though social stigma against comics has largely died – the dollars still say that most of the population doesn’t spend much time reading comics.
So the question is, why not? Well, to be frank, most comics haven’t really given anyone a good reason to read them in awhile. This is due to one simple problem – the lack of a hook.
1. Defining the Hook
In The DC Guide to Writing Comics, author Dennis O’Neil offers two varying definitions for what exactly a hook is:
Two definitions for this. The submission guide that DC Comics used to send to writers defines the hook as “the essence of what makes your story unique and nifty.” I call that a premise. In the structure we’re discussing, the hook is something on the first page – often the splash page – that a) gets the story moving and b) motivates the guy who’s killing time in a comic shop, casually paging through a book that caught his attention, to buy it.
Dennis puts the two definitions at odds. However, I’m not sure they are really opposed at all! While O’Neil’s structural and precise definition is quite sound, the DC editorial definition of “what makes it unique and nifty” is not entirely off the mark either! O’Neil notes that a well-executed hook is designed to start the story off and draw the reader into it – in other words establish its ideas and problems, and promise to fulfill them in the following pages. But this definition is not opposed to the “essence of what makes your story unique and nifty” at all! Rather, it works with it! After all, if we are establishing the story, should we not also establish its unique qualities as well? Why yes! In fact, we should broadcast these unique qualities as loud as we can! We’re here to make a sale, after all.
In this way, I believe the two definitions of the hook to be cooperative rather than opposed – and a well-executed hook should fulfill all three criteria!
But note that O’Neil also says that the hook must occur on the first page. We’re supposed to start the story, draw the reader in, and hint at the controlling idea of the story ALL on the first page? This is quite a tall order. How will we accomplish that?
Well, comic book creators are a rather resourceful bunch…
2. The Splash Page
It was this very difficulty of presenting a well-designed hook that birthed the convention of the ‘splash page’. Though the term is now used to refer to any page with only one panel on it, this was actually not the original intent. Mr. O’Neil specifically defines the splash page as, “the first page, with one or two images, incorporating title, logo (if any), credits, [and] other such information.”
Note that he does not say one of the first few pages, but the first page. The splash page is meant to be the hook! It establishes the title, the credits, the setting, and the mood. Mr. O’Neil even goes on to discuss how splash pages inserted later on in the story can be detrimental to the narrative, as the title and credits tend to take the reader out of the story. After all, how many movies start the story up for ten minutes, and then stop to get to the credits and the title? Very few, because it would be obviously distracting! Thus, the title and credits are relegated, at least traditionally, to the beginning. They are meant to ease the reader into the story. The mood is set here, perhaps with a soundtrack playing behind the title and credits. Then the film begins, and you sit enthralled for its entire duration.
Comics must accomplish all these tasks on the first page! That’s what the splash page is for! Dennis O’Neil himself and Dick Giordano offer a sterling example with their opening page to Detective Comics #457, seen to the right.
It has the title, the logo, and the credits, so they need not intrude upon the story later. It has a large montage image of Batman surrounding a depiction of the story’s locale. The text, while a bit melodramatic, clearly sets the stage for the story about to take place. It sets a dark mood and draws us into the story.
Well big deal, it works! What’s so great about that? Well, step back for a moment, and consider this page from the perspective of someone who has never picked up a comic book before in their life. What does this page tell them? Everything they need to know to enjoy the story. It sets up the conflict, the problem, the setting, and even introduces them indirectly to the hero.
Not only that, it raises important questions. Who is this masked man on the front page? His size indicates importance, so they might assume he is the protagonist. Is he ‘Batman’? Is he the narrator? What is his relevance? Who is the woman in the alleyway? Why is she hunched over? What will happen after the ‘two brutal slayings’?
These are all great questions to which the uninitiated reader would dearly love to know the answers – but you see, they’ll have to read Detective Comics #457 to find out. Now that is a good hook. It’s got the story moving, it motivates further reading, and it gives some insight and clue into what the story is about. Sold!
3. Today’s Hooks
So what happened? Why aren’t we getting ravenous new comics addicts every day? Well, the truth is, many of today’s comic books don’t actually use these kinds of devices well at all. Most splash pages can happen as late as page four! Have a look at this particular one from the recent Batgirl #1:
Putting aside the interruption from the title and credits being on page four, what does this page tell us? Nothing. It establishes no mood or setting. The only information it might be purported to reveal is the identity of Batgirl – but it’s not a reveal shot. Batgirl has been present since the last page. It establishes no specific mood, nor sets the tone for the story to follow. It does not raise any important questions – in fact it only answers the question of whether or not this costumed woman with a giant golden bat on her chest is or is not Batgirl. Hardly a revelation. Even taking into account the three pages preceding it, this page does absolutely nothing to progress the story at hand.
It’s a money shot. Its only purpose is to be a cool drawing of Batgirl. Now, it certainly is a cool drawing of Batgirl, but what the hell does that have to do with what’s happening to Batgirl? Why should I care about her? The page gives no reason. It seems to operate on the assumption that I care about Batgirl already, just because she is Batgirl. This is an incredibly poor way to attract an audience. The page gives nothing at all of value to a new reader – in fact it does not even offer anything of value to a recurring reader! It simply banks on the notion that readers want to see images of Batgirl, rather than a story involving her.
Regrettably, this is not an isolated incident. Almost the entire mainstream comics industry operates on this mentality now. Full stories are composed where nothing of real significance occurs and the selling point of the comic is simply “more of hero X beating up bad-guys”. These stories are predicated on an audience who is already hooked, who already cares, and who will shell out $3.99 for 22 pages of almost no story whatsoever.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise why comics are not getting many new readers. These are some really lousy hooks! When a new reader asks why he should read today’s comics, the only answer that’s coming back is, “Well, because they’re comics!”
That’s a tautology, not a reason.
If comics remain as self-indulgent as they are now, hope of attracting new readers will continue to plummet. If we want people to read comics, we need to reach out and grab them. We need to tell them why they should care about these stories and these characters, and promise them some quality entertainment. And we need to do it at the start of each and every comic book.
We need to hook ‘em.