Comics are Confusing

I’ve been on a big superhero kick lately. @partpurple and I recently re-watched all the MCU movies. We watched WandaVision (loved it), Falcon and Winter Soldier (liked it), Loki (meh) and currently What If…? (loving it). We watched all seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We watched and enjoyed all the Netflix Marvel shows.

And still I wanted more. But from where? Then it hit me. There’s a thing called a comic book. I should look into those!

Goofiness aside, I’ve never really been into comics. When I was a kid I’d read them now and then, but it was hard because 1) we didn’t have comic shops, we got our comics from the drugstore; 2) I was limited to visiting the drug store when my mom needed to go and she felt like dragging me along; 3) and I had no money so I had to beg her to buy me an issue or two.

End result was I’d read some narrow slice of a story, whatever was crammed into the pages of a single issue. What I remember most about comics from when I was a kid was Stan’s Soapbox (in Marvel titles, obviously). Stan Lee was the first adult I can remember who didn’t talk down to me. Of course today I realize he wasn’t writing Stan’s Soapbox for 8-year-old me but for a varied audience, most of whom were older. But I had no idea. To me Stan was writing directly to ME and he wasn’t patronizing me. Not that I knew what “patronizing” meant at the time. To this day I kind of think of Stan as a father-figure of sorts.

All of which leads me to the point. I subscribed to Marvel Unlimited [MU] to take another whack at getting into comics. And boy am I ever confused. (Full disclosure, title of the post should be Marvel Comics Are Confusing but I was going for the alliteration thing that Marvel seems so fond of.) I’m not complaining though, it’s really fun trying to sort this stuff out.

MU promises over 29,000 issues. So where to start? Well I like Spiderman, let’s look for Spiderman… I used to watch Spiderman cartoons when I was a kid, and I’ve seen the movies and played the games. Let’s just read Spiderman. OH MEM GEEE there are SO MANY Spiderman comics! Dozens. Maybe hundreds. Where do I start? It’s just overwhelming.

Page from West Coast Avengers as displayed on my phone. Source: Marvel Unlimited
OK OK let’s back slowly away from Spiderman. MU offers a “Get started” section for folks like me who are new to comics. First on the list was The Eternals which is currently running, I think. I read like 5 issues before it stopped which is why I think it is still running. The Eternals was not for me. It was just too high concept. Earth is a machine and the comic is narrated by it, Eternals hangouts are, y’know, hidden between 3 molecules of a day old pastry or something. No offense to folks who love this shit but I want something closer to street level here.

Next was Wanda and Vision. Ok here’re a couple of characters I enjoy. These books are from the mid-1980s. I read issue 1, it’s OK. Read issue 2 and then I see in the footnotes that the story they’re telling concludes in something called West Coast Avengers, a different series. So I go looking for that, where I find Hawkeye (who I know from the movies) and Bobbie Hunter/Mockingbird (who I know from Agents of Shield) and they’re married. Whaaat? And of course the character designs are very different. But OK let’s roll with that. So now I’m sorta juggling two books.

And they’re enjoyable enough, but my vague feelings of OCD really wants to find a character, read their original origin story and follow them through the decades to the here and now. I feel like there is this incredibly complex web of character storylines and I’m just skimming the surface. So far everything I’ve sampled (more than I’ve listed) leaves me feeling like I need to back up a little and figure out what came before to set up what I’m reading.

I’ll figure it out, eventually. I mean I’m digging it. Digging it enough that I went ahead and signed up for an annual subscription. But I’m not a very patient person and when I get into a new interest I want to be an expert as soon as possible. And as nutty as it sounds I kind of wish I could sort the books by publish date and start back in 1963 or whenever the earliest books on the service are.

In terms of the mechanics of reading, I’ve mostly been doing it on my iPad using the ‘smart panel’ system that zooms in on each panel/section of a page as you read. It works pretty well though at times I need to toggle it off and on. I have it set to show the whole page, then as I tap it advances panel by panel, then shows the whole page again to reinforce context, then on to the next page.

I have the app on my phone too (shown above, right side of the page) which is OK but it’s a little small for my tired eyes (that image is larger that actual size on my Pixel 3). Smart Panel works there too but not quite as well since panels vary in size and shape. Some fit fine with the phone held in portrait mode, others work better with the phone in landscape mode. I keep turning the phone back and forth. It works in a pinch but for me the tablet version is far superior. Progress does sync between the two, which is nice.

Anyway, if anyone wants to suggest a specific series title that they enjoy, please do so! I need help!

8 thoughts on “Comics are Confusing

  1. All the comic series that I have personally really enjoyed are not superhero comics! I’ve read Sandman in its entirety half a dozen times, and I got pretty deep into Fables (the series that Wolf Among Us is based on, if you’re familiar) for a bit. I also really like The Walking Dead comics, and Locke & Key, if you’re at all drawn to more horror-themed things.

    My issue (ha!) with superhero stories is the whole 8 bajillion crossovers and ever changing writers. I want a whole story with consistent characters, and I’ve had more luck finding that outside of the major Marvel and DC properties.

    1. Y’know you just reminded me I have read some of the Walking Dead collections and I enjoyed them but they got so expensive so fast…

      One of the draws of Marvel Unlimited, aside from the fact I was in a super hero mood, was that it was pretty cheap. $10/month if you do monthly and I saved on that by purchasing an annual sub.

  2. I actually have started from the beginning, many people have. The excellent website Complete Marvel Reading Order (link below) is dedicated to this. You just have to face 2 things: 1) most comics in the 60’s span from ridiculous to terrible, but once you get past the first dozen or so, you can begin to appreciate Silver Age for what it is, and 2) depending how on many comics you read each day, this could take 5 – 20 years. But CMRO does have some essential lists can focus on the main characters and events and cut out the filler. But my OCD even prevents me from using the Essential list.

    https://cmro.travis-starnes.com/reading-order.php?page=1&list_type=2&limit=40

    1. Ah man, what a great resource, Thank you!!

      And sorry your comment got caught by the spam filters… I think because there was a link it it. Overly aggressive filters. 🙁

  3. “I’ll figure it out, eventually.” Trust me as a life-long comics fan: you won’t. Nobody does. Least of all the writers and artists. Many people will tell you they do but as the pop-culture trope of nerds arguing over details of super-hero continuity qua angels dancing on the head of a pin aptly demonstrates, those people are lying.

    The reason you won’t ever figure it out is that much, maybe most, of it never made any sense to begin with. Even in the ’60s, when Stan Lee was writing most of it himself (or claimed to be), he couldn’t keep it straight and that period only lasted a couple of years. Once the Marvel brand exploded and more and more titles were published and more and more writers brought in it all fell into total chaos. Then in the 80s and 90s, when publishers found fans would by multiple versions of damn near anything if you put a foil overlay on it, even the spurious attempt at continuity gave it up for gross commercial exploitation. I can tell you for certain sure that even when I was able and willing to buy and read every Marvel and DC superhero title every month, and discuss them with others and review and write about them, huge chunks of the continuity still made no sense and we all still missed stuff because of the way it was split up and parcelled out across 50+ titles.

    Maybe it all starts to make sense after the mid-90s. I wouldn’t know. That’s when I gave up trying to figure it out. I very much doubt it, though.

    My advice is to lean into the chaos and embrace it. Don’t expect anything to make sense (often even within the same storyline, never if it crosses into another title’s continuity) but also don’t care when it doesn’t. Think of superhero comics as the equivalent of telenovellas or very long-running soap-operas (which is in fact exactly what they are) and accept that internal contradictions and logical impossibilities are part of the fabric. Above all, never, ever get emotionally attached to a particular continuity because it will always be subverted or replaced. They all are.

    Other than that, have a ball. Comic books are one of the great storytelling media, super-heroes are one of the great genres and Marvel is one of the defining brands. In my opinion there better ones but you probably have to pick one and stick with it so I won’t muddy the waters there.

    I would mention another way you can read old comics very, very cheaply and in proper continuity within their runs, although not in crossovers, and that’s on DVD-ROM. There are quite a few official releases including some from Marvel and you can pick them grey market collections for almost nothing on EBay. I have 50-year complete runs of various DC titles in that format for which I paid less than $5. They display beautifully as full-page scans, too, including all the original extra text pages, letters and ads, which gives you the closest you’re going to get to the authentic, original experience.

    1. “Think of superhero comics as the equivalent of telenovellas or very long-running soap-operas”

      That’s exactly the itch I’m trying to scratch. Plus, last night I used the link that John Acevedo shared in an earlier comment and that had me reading Fantastic 4 from the early 60s and what a blast they are. Completely silly but really fun, at least so far.

      I had no idea about these DVDs but… my PC doesn’t even have a disk player. I’ve had this new PC for like 6 months and I just now noticed that!!

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