by KC Carlson
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to take a big stack of comics (along with an icy cold drink, generally one of the Funny Face drink flavors; unsurprisingly, Goofy Grape was my fave) out to the hammock on a sunny summer day and read them all in one sitting. I started out in the normal human hammock position — lying on my back — but after a while (usually after I finished my drink), I generally flopped over on my tummy and, with my face over the side of the hammock, continued to read without the tedious effort of actually holding the comic book. Of course, having the comic on the ground made for some interesting reading experiences, as the occasional ant or bug would decide to crawl over the top of it just as I was trying to figure out how Batman was going to survive being in airless outer space. Having live bugs in airless outer space just ruined the whole experience.
But it was certainly a thrill developing a new way of reading comics without actually having to hold them! I immediately took the discovery indoors, taking apart my bed one day when the parents were at work (and carefully storing the frame in the garage). I think my mom’s first reaction to me laying face down on my mattress and box spring, reading comic books over the side, was “You know, we don’t allow hobos in this house.”
“Good thing,” I replied. “There’s no room for them in here!” Five minutes later, I was back to reading comics the traditional way — on my back lying on my instantly rebuilt bed frame, box spring, and mattress. Curses! Foiled again!
Yes, I had tried reading on my stomach on the full bed with the books on the floor, but the distance was too great between my eyes and the four-color fantasy. In retrospect, this was my first clue that I was gonna need glasses someday. Mom claimed I ruined my eyes from reading too many comic books. Pshaw! I probably ruined them from being upside down most of the time. I guess that’s better than having comics “rot my brain”. (Jury’s still out on that one.)
NOT THE POINT. . .
Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about today is binge reading. When I was a kid, there was nothing better than having a big stack of superhero comics and reading 20 to 50 of them in one sitting, preferably all sequential issues of the same title. Most of the time, it would actually be re-reading all of them, as I would read them as I got them. But, as I discovered in 1970 when I started reading Marvel Comics, reading them all at once was a superior reading experience, especially with things like the Avengers’ Kree-Skrull War and (retroactively) Lee and Kirby’s classic “middle” period of Fantastic Four, where the story would frequently jump around randomly (and occasionally new stories would begin mid-issue). As comics slowly became more sophisticated in the 1970s, binge re-reading of series like Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung-Fu, or anything by Jim Starlin (Captain Marvel, Warlock) was almost required.
When (what became) Uncanny X-Men began in 1975, it almost demanded re-reading frequently for two reasons: Its early bimonthly schedule (and long wait between issues, later attributed to Dave Cockrum being a slow, detailed artist — the series went monthly almost immediately when speedy John Byrne took over the pencilling) and the detailed storylines and presentation. Artists Cockrum, Byrne, and especially inker Terry Austin became known for sneaking things into the backgrounds, like DC characters in their civilian identities and Popeye hanging out with aliens. Chris Claremont’s dense plotting and detailed character development also rewarded binge re-reading.
It’s no surprise that today the big publishers are encouraging binge re-reading by publishing massive 800 to 1,200 page volumes collecting dozens (and years’ worth) of sequential issues, often including important crossover issues. It was not much of a surprise when the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus was one of the early volumes collected this way. The books are easy to produce, as well. Virtually the entire book was already prepped for deluxe printing when the material first appeared in earlier (and thinner) Marvel Masterworks volumes.
WE ARE NEVER EVER EVER GETTING TO THE POINT
Today, I read so many comics (although that’s very rapidly declining, thanks to insane publishers and/or unappealing creative team choices) that binge reading (of a different sort) is almost required to keep up with most ongoing superhero comics. Creators are either are being told to stretch their stories out to trade paperback length, or they are doing it themselves, frequently expanding two issues’ worth of story into six or 17. Historical note: Comic book editors were once hired to discourage this tactic, since the thinking was that it would lead to boring or bad stories. Now, it seems to be either required or encouraged, because the Number One rule in superhero comic books is — “If you give them an opportunity to stop, they will stop.”
This is not a new thing. I found out the hard way while editing the Superman titles. The “Never-Ending Story” was not just a slogan. It was a command.
I also don’t have as much time to read as I did when I could spend an entire day in the hammock. I try to read as many comics as I can in one sitting, but it’s seldom binge-reading long stretches of the same series. Now, it’s attempting to read 10-20 comics from the last couple of weeks in one sitting, which is usually frustrating because 1) I’m getting older, and my brain can’t maintain the 40 or 50 ongoing storylines in my head (plus the weekly TV series and other non-comics books that I’m reading), or 2) reading a whole bunch of “Part 2 of 6” or “Part 4 of 8” individual issues just isn’t very interesting anymore. It’s gotten to the point that most comic books are no longer really conceived to be stand-alone reads. They are Chapter Two or Chapter Four of a trade paperback. Nowadays, creators seemingly only pay lip service to actually structuring a “middle chapter” as a satisfying stand-alone read. Most everything is now is just a means to an end.
I guess that I’m weird in that I find it more tedious to read a single issue of a comic book that isn’t going anywhere than reading 50 where the story and art are so compelling that you can’t stop reading. That’s what current creators should be striving for. Don’t give your readers a reason to stop reading. But that doesn’t mean stretching a single story out to ridiculous (and thin) lengths.
YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE
The ultimate result of reading a stack of Chapter Two and Chapter Fours is I’m usually fast asleep after trying to read three or four comic books. The other night I fell asleep midway through the second comic that I was reading. I slept for about two or three hours before I woke up. Comically, I was still holding the comic book in my hands. Of course, this comic book was “ruined”. The oils and moisture in my hands seeped into the comic book cover and pretty much completely destroyed it — wrinkling the cheap paper (I could swear modern comic book covers are printed on worse paper than the interiors) and smearing the printed artwork.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that the comic was probably ruined for me long before the three hours that it spent self-destructing in my hands. Or else I wouldn’t have fallen asleep. Yet another title that I could probably drop.
Thank goodness that there are superhero books out there that tell their stories in mostly one or two issues, like Daredevil and Hawkeye, to just name two. Both Mark Waid and Matt Fraction are old pros at telling wonderful, concise tales that somehow fit into a larger mosaic (that you don’t always realize is there) and that actually make their editors and publishers happy. For all you last couple of generations of new superhero writers (and for the thousands who are aspiring to write) — these two very modern (yet traditional) superhero comic books should be your “bibles” to study.
Bottom line: I’m still reading comic books, just not as many new ones as I used to. (I’m not “reading the Universes” any more.) I still want to binge-read old favorites, but now in new Omnibus formats like the classic Michelinie/Layton/Romita Jr. Iron Man on top of my To Read stack, as well as the upcoming Roger Stern Spider-Man collection, and even the New Teen Titans volumes. (If I could find a copy of Volume One somewhere for not $200, and it didn’t have so much of its artwork falling into the book’s center gutter. Silly DC. You used to care about your collected books.)
But I think I’ll pass on the upcoming Omnibus of recent “event” comics largely produced by fill-in creators that garnered more interest for its shiny (and squeaky) covers than for its great stories. If I fell asleep reading that, I would probably break all my fingers. Of course, I could probably avoid that, if I laid on my tummy and read. But then I’d have hammock marks on my face if I fell asleep.
To paraphrase Roger, go read lots of comics!
KC CARLSON: My favorite binge-read? In the very early 1970s, I bought the entire 42-issue run of DC’s original My Greatest Adventure/Doom Patrol on a Friday night (for $20) and read all 42 issues the next day. A most bizarre day.
Second favorite? Reading Amazing Spider-Man #1-100 (plus Amazing Fantasy #15 and Annuals) for the first time over a weekend. I used Marvel Tales reprints to fill in for issues I didn’t own.
My most intense binge-read? Re-reading the entire (then) 35-year run of Legion of Super-Heroes stories in a week, before packing them all up to move to NYC to begin editing the series in 1993.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.