Saturday, July 18, 2009

A conversation with a casual comics reader

(Above: Just what my apartment needed!)

Anyone who's had to move since they started reading comics is well aware of one of the side effects of the hobby—comics tend to quickly accrue. You may bring them into your house only a handful at a time, but handfuls become stacks, stacks become piles, piles get put into white, rectangular cardboard boxes and those boxes multiply. Comic books are fun to read, they're fun to talk about, some people find the act of collecting them really fun, but man, they are not fun to move from old apartment to moving truck to new apartment.

Robert Duffy, the creator of indispensable Columbus website and a friend of Every Day Is Like Wednesday, has hauled comic books from apartment to apartment before, but he's planning to move to New York City soon, and understandably doesn't wanted to have to haul them there. In central Ohio, as with much of the Midwest, space is of course in no short supply, whereas from what I understand, most New York City apartments are only slightly larger than your average comics longbox, and I guess for some reason Duffy didn't want to share a longbox with his wife, cat, dog, and a bunch of old comics he was never going to re-read.

Duffy considers himself a casual comics readers—"I'm not in deep, you know?" he's said a couple time—he had a pull-list at the Laughing Ogre, he's been to local comic cons and to San Diego before, and follows particular writers, but doesn't, like, blog comics are follow comic characters' fictional lives (That is, he doesn't read Batman comics just to keep up with Batman, or X-Men comics because he started reading X-Men comics and wants to keep his collection complete). Like a lot of casual readers, Duffy reads a lot of trades, and he was planning on taking those with him, but as for the comics? The single issues he had in a few white short boxes? Those were going in to a garage sale and, if they didn't sell there, into the trash.

If I didn't want them.

So the other night I met Duffy on his porch, where there were maybe a half-dozen short boxes full of comics mostly from the late-nineties and early aughts, bagged and boarded and not bagged and boarded, and a large, re-purposed grocery store box, crammed with wrinkly, yellowed books from the '80s, although they looked more like they were discovered in an Egyptian tomb of some sort. The books were books of Duffy's, as well as ones a friend who was moving had previously given him (yes, apparently comics are sometimes spread like an unwelcome burden, given from one moving friend to another).

Sadly, there were no first appearances of Batman, or even Spider-Man, but a lot of Vertigo books and early Ultimate books I already had, plus a ton of old X-Men and mutant comics I didn't. (So if EDILW does a Deadpool, Cable, Wolverine or Gambit week later this summer, you'll know who to blame). Oh, and there was exactly one (1) issue of Warriors of Plasm, which is a requirement in every comics collection, I think. I'm not sure I've ever flipped through a set of longboxes without finding a copy of Warriors of Plasm. Maybe they came free inside all longboxes?

Anyway, while looking through the boxes and determining which I'd take off Duffy's hands to add to the comics-midden in my apartment, which prevents me from ever even contemplating moving, and which he should add to the garage sale pile, we, naturally enough, talked comics.

"Oh! While I've got you here in front of me," he said at one point, "Can you tell me, in as simple terms as possible, where Bruce Wayne is at the moment?"

I paused, and then asked if he'd read Final Crisis.

"No, but I read the one where Batman died and came back to life, with the guy who was really his father or not his father."

"Okay. So you read the one where he came out of the ground and was all, 'Batman and Robin can never die'?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah..."

"And did you read the one with The Lump and the, like, dream sequences and..."

"Yeah, I read the two-part tie-in Morrison wrote, just not Final Crisis or any of this Battle For the Cowl stuff..."

"Okay," I said, pausing again. I suppose the number of follow-up questions necessary to determine how to explain a simple question like where Bruce Wayne is should be a pretty good indication how relatively complicated this stuff is, even for those who buy and read the damn things.

"Okay, well, in Final Crisis, Batman got shot by Darkseid's Omega Beams, which have various effects, including killing people. So Batman was, like, skeletonized by them, and later we see Superman with Batman's corpse. But at the end of the story, there's a scene where we see Anthro the First Boy back in caveman times, and Batman—well, a shirtless Bruce Wane with a beard and his Batman pants on—is in a cave. And he picks up a piece of chalk and starts drawing a Bat-symbol on the cave wall. So he's apparently been sent back to caveman times. In another series, another guy got hit with Darkseid's Omega Sanction [Morrison's four-part Mister Miracle series, EDILW-ites!], and he was sent to a kind of hell where he had to keep reliving his life and all this terrible stuff would happen to him. So that's probably what happened to Batman. Or his soul was separated from his body. Are you reading or aware of Blackest Night?"

He wasn't, as he doesn't read Green Lantern, so we didn't really get into theories of how Batman can be both alive in caveman times and buried in a Gotham City cemetery, although Duffy kind of rolled his ideas at the idea of Batman's corpse being brought back to life as a zombie Black Lantern.

(Aside: Er, how was that? I was thinking on my feet! Is there an easier, more simple way to tell someone where Bruce Wayne is at the moment in DC Comics?)

Duffy mentioned that he just wanted to read Grant Morrison's Batman, and wasn't interested with the crossovers with the rest of the DCU. I mentioned that Morrison was writing Batman again in new series Batman and Robin and that Frank Quitely was drawing it, but the fact that it was former Robin, former Nightwing Dick Grayson starring in the series was a bit of turn-off.

That was prompted by a copy of one of Neil Gaiman's two "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" issues. Below that was a copy of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, and so we started talking a bit about the series' former writer Sean McKeever, who also lives in Columbus. It turns out we both tried out his Teen Titans run and dropped it at the same time (the issue that ended with that huge roster of Tomorrow Titans or whatever the future Titans were called appearing in a cliffhanger splash page).

I dropped it because at that point I was trying to steamline my weekly purchases as much as possible and books I wasn't really enjoying were obviously good candidates for dropping (I was conflicted though, as that was the first time I deviated from my longstanding Buy Whatever Sean McKeever Writes policy). Duffy was turned off by the site of dozens of alternate versions of a bunch of characters he didn't know or care about.

So the news that McKeever was going to be writing a new series for Marvel, but that it would be about an alternate dimension girl version of Bucky who worked with an alternate dimension version of Captain America coming to the Marvel Universe obviously didn't sell him on the series. And that was before I even mentioned the names "Rob Liefeld" or "Jeph Loeb" or Heroes Reborn!

In talking about trades vs. single issues and crossovers, Duffy mentioned that "The Great Fables Crossover" actually forced him to drop a Vertigo monthly. Not out of disgust with the concept of the crossover or anything--he was reading both of the books involved in the crossover anyway--but because he was readign the books in different formats.

That is, he had started reading Fables in trade, so he continued to read it in trade. Jack of Fables, the Fables spin-off following the Jack character and his adventures away from Fable Town and the cast of the main book that live there, launched a while after Fables was already being released in trade, so he was reading that in monthly, single-issue installments. The two books—plus a special, three-part miniseries—started crossing over recently though, which meant Duffy had to quit reading Jack if he wanted to avoid the single issues of Fables.

Crossovers are common to the point of ubiquity in superhero lines of course, but relatively rare for the Vertigo imprint. Other than the Neil Gaiman spear-headed "Children's Crusade" crossover in the '90s, I can't think of any "hard" crossovers in which the chapters of a particular storyline appear in different titles like "The Great Fables Crossover." (Various Vertigo characters would appear in one another's titles now and then of course, particularly in that first generation of Vertigo titles like Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Sandman and so on).

The point of such crossovers is, of course, to sell more books (if you were just reading one of the two, there's a pretty good chance you'll pick up the chapters in the other book, and, if you like them enough, maybe add it to your pull list—I know from personal experience that when I was first getting into comics, DC sold me on a lot of new series through their summer crossovers like this). In Duffy's particular case though, the exact opposite was true—they lost a monthly, single-issue sale through the crossover.

He'll probably start reading Jack in trade too, but here's at least a single study of a particular publishing strategy pushing a reader of a monthly away from the format and towards the trade format.

"You could do a blog about this," Duffy said. "A conversation with a casual comics reader."

So I did.


malpractice said...

i can take those deadpool issues off your hands if you don't want them lol. it looks like a few issues of the joe casey cable is in that pile too.

Dean H. said...

I am a "casual" reader as well and I learned a long time ago that it is easier to drop a title than pick one up. So, anything that crosses over gets dropped.

I miss reading Superman and the other mainstream superheroes, but I am a happier person.

Mr. Iciper said...

The same thing happened to me one time when a friend of mine moved away...he just presented me with a bunch of comic books. It was nice of him, but they were all pretty bad. I think the best thing I got was an old issue of Firestorm, lol. Sounds like you made out a little better.


Tom said...

I'd qualify a a casual comics reader. I don't keep a pull account because of it. Doesn't take much for me to drop a title. I was following Catwoman through Brubaker's run. Right until Paul Gulacy began to stink up the joint with his Frankenstein renderings.

Justin B. said...

I laughed at the hard time you had explaining the current Batman status. My six year old was thumbing through Batman and Robin #1 and was distraught over the scene at the grave. He knows enough to know that Batman is Bruce Wayne so this didn't quite jive when the comic in his hands was plainly starring Batman. (His preferred version of Batman right now is the great Brave and the Bold cartoon). Trying to explain to a six year old how everyone thinks Batman is dead, but is still actually alive in caveman times, and how the new Batman used to be Robin and the new Robin is Batman's son... I think he just said he understood so I would stop talking.

Jason Quinones said...

that big pile of comics reminds me of something.

during my college days i took a comic book writing course taught by john ostrander. working for dc at the time he of course would receieve piles of comics for free. one day he brought in a giant battered shopping bag full of comics to give a way for free to the class. he pretty much tossed the entire bag down the aisle like he was tossing a bowling ball, the bag broke apart mid slide and comics were scattered everywhere down the aisle!

knowing we were all fanboys , he did this purpose,wanting to see the majority of the class fight for the stash! some thought this was a dick move on john's part but i saw the sick humor in this and thought it was funny!

i get the feeling he viewed comics as mostly disposable.