Some comics really matter, and others do not; that’s the Big Two party line. What I mean is, in the shared-universe realities of both Marvel and DC, certain titles/ stories/ characters are clearly given more importance and/or significance than others. Even if everything is ostensibly canon, not all parts of the canon are equal, and the publishers themselves make it pretty clear what counts and what doesn’t.
These days, what matters has mostly to do with events, the crossover tales that can and typically do derail multiple ongoing series. They almost always promise huge status quo changes and nothing ever being the same again, even though more often than not, when the event is over and the dust settles, things are only slightly shook up, at best. Yet these events, which incorporate numerous titles and involve characters from all corners, always arrive with such fanfare. There are months of build-up and teasing, prologues and Free Comic Book Day zero issues, interviews and posters and yadda yadda yadda, until it’s hard not to feel like events matter the most, even if, deep down, we know they won’t be nearly and bombastic or earth-shattering as advertised, or we simply aren’t interested in their core premises.
With DC’s Convergence and Marvel’s Secret Wars both on the horizon, two events that are making the same old claims as always, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these comics that “matter” more than the rest, and how readers can live with/acknowledge them and outright ignore them simultaneously.
I’m far from the first fan/critic to discuss this, but I think this is something that bears repeating. It’s one of those ever-present problems faced by fans of the Big Two’s efforts— trying to find the space between what you care about personally and what the publishers tell you should be cared about, big-picture. I myself have long given up on trying to follow the larger, overarching, universe-spanning narratives of either the DC or Marvel Universe, and I avoid event titles themselves like the plague. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting me, nor does it entirely stop me from wanting to know (and in some cases needing to know) what’s going on in those oh-so-important books that I refuse to read.
I try to follow comics that occupy their own spaces, series that don’t lean too heavily on or interact too frequently with the rest of the fictional universe in which they exist. These are the books that feel least likely to be pulled into or even touched by an event, but try as I might, sometimes I’m attracted to a title that’s got “event tie-in” literally written all over it. The most recent example that comes to mind is Mighty Avengers, which was technically part of the Infinity event right when it started, moved immediately into Inhumanity, and then had like four or five event-free issues before tying in with Original Sin. After another few issues on its own, the title then ended completely and was relaunched as Captain America and the Mighty Avengers as part of the recent Axis event. That’s a lot of event-related material for one project in a very short time, and I have plowed through it all because it’s an amazing cast being handled by a fantastic writer.
All the same, there were moments were I felt very lost reading that comic, because I was not reading the events to which it was connected. Al Ewing did a good job of making his stories as standalone as possible, but there was some unavoidable confusion and awkwardly wedged-in exposition involved for those of us who weren’t following the main event books. It had a frustrating and slightly disorienting effect, and it made me seriously consider buying a few issues of each of the aforementioned events if only so I could catch up with the one series I was legitimately interested and invested in.
I never gave in, partially because I just don’t have the wiggle room in my budget, but mostly because by now, I’ve read enough to have learned that what matters isn’t what matters. Mattering shouldn’t be the goal of any comic, even the ones that do matter, and I don’t believe that the creators behind these comics put mattering above storytelling. Maybe the editors do, but I’m not convinced of that, either, and it’s an argument for another time, anyway.
Whether or not a comic matters in the grand scheme isn’t what makes it good or bad, and in fact is no kind of measurement of its ultimate value at all. A badly-written, poorly-drawn, indecipherable event comic isn’t made even the tiniest bit better because of how important it’s supposed to be, nor is a perfectly executed comic that’s wholly disconnected from the rest of the universe made any worse. That’s just not what it’s all about, because status quos come and go, but actual quality lasts.
I should also say that, while it’s not for me, there’s certainly nothing wrong with caring about the comics that are meant to matter. It is, for one thing, almost exclusively something that fans of one or both of the Big Two must deal with. If you only read independent comics of one kind or another, chances are there is no shared universe surrounding them, no constant cycle of events with which to contend. So if you choose to stick with the Big Two, as I and so many others have, it almost makes more sense to go all in with it and commit to the publishers’ ideas of what counts. You’d never have a shortage of new excitement and spectacle, you’d always be tapped into the main thrust of the realities you’re reading about, and I imagine it might well mold people into sharper, more detail-oriented readers than they would otherwise be. When you’re trying to keep track of what matters, when you always care about the most recent state of things, then you must necessarily be paying close attention. Right? So there’s something to be said for it, even though it also leads to a not-small amount of pointless debate, aggravation, and confusion.
Here’s another possible take: none of it matters. Comics are an artform, a source of entertainment, a temporary distraction from our own world that has no direct bearing on it. This is true of all fiction, from the silliest comedy sketch to the most serious film. No matter how smart or provocative or relevant, every piece of fiction is just that—fiction. They’re made-up tales that, while they have real-world value, are not themselves real, and therefore the details of what happens or doesn’t happen within them don’t and can’t matter in the same way as the actual events of our lives. To put that much weight on them, to give them that much power or status, is to mix up our priorities.
Then again, they do carry weight. The escape offered by comics (or any media) serve an important purpose, or several purposes, or a different purpose for everyone. We all have, and must have, our outlets, and whatever pleasure we find in them, whatever comfort or enjoyable discomfort they provide, gives them inherent merit. Which is to say that, of course, it all matters. Any comic could be someone’s very first or very last, could be the issue that changes their viewpoint or their mood or the course of their entire lives.
This includes the crappy ones, the most forgettable dreck and the truly, embarrassingly unreadable. Each one has within it the potential to touch someone some way, even if only to make the good stuff look better by comparison. Some of my all-time favorite reading experiences came from the comics I hated the most, because any strong reaction is one worth having. So everything matters, even if it’s been retconned out of existence, rebooted, or otherwise undone. All the Elseworlds and What Ifs…? and fan projects, they’re all important, they can all be real to different people. Or even, I would suggest, to all of us.
There ought to be room in ever reader’s personal canon for some flexibility, even contradiction. It’s nice to just embrace opposing interpretations of a beloved character, or to read two comics that are part of the same event but have plot or character details that out-and-out negate each other. (I’m looking at you, Avengers vs. X-Men.)
It can all matter, and it can all count. When Ben Reilly thought he was the real Peter Parker, so did I, and I still do, even though I also know that, no, he was a clone all along, which was undoubtedly for the better. Jason Todd’s death is still hard and moving to read, a meaningful moment that hits with full force, even though he’s back now and worse than ever. Narratively erasing or altering something doesn’t literally unmake it; you can’t unpublish a comic. Read the stories that appeal, hang onto the good ones, but let them all matter. They all matter to somebody, might as well be us.