Friday, June 27, 2008

Continuity and Kool-Aid: Remembering what matters

You can trace my love of comics to a utility bill.

Back in the stone age of the 70s, it was still a normal thing to go to actual buildings downtown to pay for the water, gas and electricity that was pumped to your house the month before. I don't know if my parents ever noticed, but I loved it when it was time to pay the bills because that meant trips to the city's main library and — more often — my aunt's used bookstore.

Obviously, I was the biggest nerd in my neighborhood.

Rather than drag a restless kid around downtown El Paso, my parents realized I could spend entire afternoons happily squirreled away in a corner of the bookstore. And my aunt realized I could probably spend days in that corner if I was given a stack of comics to read.

Fueled by cookies and Kool-Aid and an overactive imagination, I soon became lost. Suddenly my world was filled with exploding planets and radioactive spiders, lassos made of truth and lonely scientists cursed by their inner rage. And I became enamored of characters and concepts that now seem obscure, or at least throwbacks; I ransacked the House of Mystery and House of Secrets, scaled walls and solved crimes with the Human Fly, explored the depths and dangers of the ocean with Stingray, and learned from Sgt. Rock that nothing is ever easy in Easy Company.

Many of the characters I loved then have found new life in reboots (I was thrilled when The Human Target made a reappearance) and black and white collections like DC's Showcase line and Marvel's Essentials. Thanks to these, I've been able to not only revisit half-remembered titles but to also get more background and depth than I ever did by reading random issues at a card table in a back room.

But I've noticed something — I rarely read those collections with the idea of filling in blanks. Mostly I pick one up and read stories at random, which is easy since they come from a time when the done-in-one was the norm. And continuity? Usually anything that references a past story is taken care of with an editor's note, and if not can easily be ignored. Enjoying the story doesn't depend on knowing that Superman threw Luthor's pimento loaf sandwich into the sun that one time.

I started thinking about this after reading Devon's post over at Second Printing, where he talks about his seven-year-old nephew bouncing along the four-color landscape like an astronaut on the Moon, unburdened by the weight of continuity and What Came Before. Devon is so impressed by this that he's decided to keep as open a mind as his nephew.

There's been a lot of talk about continuity surrounding the Big Two for a while, thanks to continued mucking around and reboots and Crises and One More Days. And if something is radically changed from past iterations, people freak out. If something else leans heavily on stories and characters out of the dollar bin, people freak out.

Yes, it can be frustrating. It can be annoying. It can even be insulting. But sometimes —just sometimes — I think we get in our own way. It's easy to take our comics so seriously we forget to enjoy them. Things don't always make sense in comic books, and I'd argue that it's always been that way. We've just forgotten what little difference it used to make.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea: I don't think comics should suddenly become even more of a hodge-podge of concepts and broken story lines than they already are; readers deserve better than that. But does it really matter if Superman doesn't line up with Action? The big concepts should stay the same, but it's too easy to get bogged down in the details. As long as things don't massively and stupidly contradict each other, I'm willing to gloss over that pimento loaf. I don't even care if Luthor skips lunch altogether.

Does this make me a bad comic book reader? Old-school to the point of being out of touch? I don't know. I'm certainly no apologist for bad storytelling. But I'll freely admit that my opinion is fluid — depending on the story, continuity is extremely important. But sometimes it's not. I think it's worthwhile to recognize (and admit) the difference.

Tastes change, and our palates become more sophisticated with experience; that's essential to the much-needed growth and diversity of comics. It's part of a healthy comic book reader's diet. But we can't forget that at one time, we were in love with cookies and Kool-Aid.


Khairul H. said...

Yeah, what you said. Continuity is important but not a deal breaker if it isn't adhered to. As long as the big picture is coherent, I won't mind if they get some details wrong. But lurk around the comic message boards particularly in threads discussing continuity and hooo boy! it's as if the world was coming to an end.

Maxo said...

I just can't — those boards make me weep for humanity sometimes. Big, salty tears I tell you. I love talking comics (obviously), but some people take all the fun out of it.