[5 December 2013]
Any new comicbook’s first issue is going to have a lot riding on it. Even if it stars well-known characters or it’s a reboot of an already-popular title, a debut, with its fresh “#1” on the cover, needs to get people’s attention, hold it, and then provide some reason for the readers to come back for more. It has to introduce its core concept and/or cast, acquaint the audience with the creators, and generally act as a sort of mission statement for the series that will follow. That’s a lot of responsibility, especially for a completely new idea (as opposed to a retooling of an established one). However, as much as first issues have to do, and as much attention and discussion as they’re often given by the comics-reading populous, I have to wonder if producing an impressive second issue isn’t even more difficult.
Issue #2 must accomplish many of the same things as #1 did, but with the additional challenge of not merely rehashing old information, but advancing things in some significant way. It needs to remind us what happened before without being repetitive, and then expand on the first issue’s work as quickly and interestingly as it can. It has to deepen our understanding of and/or appreciation for the things we already liked in the debut, plus, ideally, it ought to give us new things to sink our teeth into. And since comics are a serialized medium, second issues also act as a test of any title’s ability to maintain its quality every month. Sure, you had a strong opening, but if the next chapter takes a noticeable dip, how much faith can anyone be expected have in your book’s continued success? A good first issue gets us to start reading something. A good second issue gets us to keep reading it, which seems the more important task.
Afterlife With Archie got its first and second issues both just right. Selling the idea of a serious, down-to-earth zombie horror tale set in Riverdale was never going to be easy, so it had to happen fast and be done with confidence. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla understood this, and so they wasted no time in getting to the heart of their narrative in the debut issue, with the ball already rolling on page one. By making the story all about Jughead trying to get back his dead dog, Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla provided a personal, emotional core to the inciting incident of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a hook that plays on the reader’s empathy, getting us to invest in the larger narrative right away by having us immediately care about Jughead as the central character.
However, the cliffhanger ending of that first issue saw Jughead in full-on zombie mode, a not-unexpected development, but an effective one nonetheless. Suddenly, we lost our strongest connection to the book, but in the same moment, things became more interesting, because the horror was ramped up and the impending doom brought to the fore. Afterlife With Archie made it apparent in this first beat that it would be a series with a powerful emotional center, telling a character-based story first and a zombie story second. Then, in the last few pages, it promised us, in spite of all the detailed and skilled characterization at work, that nobody in the cast would be safe from the horror. It was a clear, concise, resonant opening move, and gave issue #2 a lot to live up to.
Once again, the creative team seemed to recognize the challenges laid out before them, and they stuck to many of their already-successful tactics for the second issue, but employed some new tricks, too, so the book didn’t have a chance to grow stale for so much as a single panel. Not even those panels that repeated verbatim the closing scene of issue #1. The most obvious change made in the storytelling, and the most important, was having Veronica act as narrator. That simple device allowed the second issue to open a few hours after the end of the first, quickly jump back to somewhere in the middle, and then move past the debut’s events before coming full circle at the end, where Veronica finishes telling her story. Along the way, the cast blossoms as we get glimpses into the minds of the whole Riverdale gang, watching them deal with such a terrifying crisis as a group and as individuals. Just like before, the comic remains focused on its characters, an in-depth examination of how they deal with difficulty and danger. This was true in the first issue, too, except in that case, Jughead didn’t handle himself very well in the face of tragedy, and he paid the consequences for it. In Afterlife With Archie #2, we see some characters step up as leaders, some shrink or freeze in fear, and a few who don’t make it out alive at all. But no matter what’s happening, it is the people who make up the center of the story, while the zombie madness goes on around them. That’s the dynamic constructed in the debut, and the second issue runs with it, making it broader and better without fundamentally changing it. Just as second issues should do.
A much different but no less impressive case study is Ales Kot’s Zero, the debut of which was drawn by Michael Walsh while issue #2’s art was handled by Tradd Moore. Having two different artists and, in this case, artists with such different styles on the first two issues of a series may seem like it would go counter to what I’m talking about, at least as far as second issues building upon the first issues’ foundations. But the plan for Zero was always to have a new artist for every chapter, so in that way, issue #2 is very much continuing the work of #1, by immediately setting up the comic’s constantly shifting aesthetic. The other thing about Zero #1 vs. Zero #2 is that the former is a present-day story, showing us what protagonist Edward Zero does now in his job as super-spy and assassin, while the latter is all flashback, digging into Edward’s training during his childhood and the first real mission her ever had. There isn’t any direct narrative overlap between these issues like there was in Afterlife With Archie, and Zero #2 introduces a romantic interest for Edward who was nowhere to be seen in the debut. Surely, then, Zero #2 is a bad second issue, isn’t it? After all, it fails to grow the seeds planted in the debut, choosing to do its own thing in an entirely separate garden instead.
Except… Zero #1 was full of mystery. It threw us into the thick of Edward’s insane, high-octane lifestyle, without ever explaining how we or even he got there. His mind was focused entirely on the mission at hand, which meant all the information provided by both his actions and his narration had to do with current events rather than his background. He’s a bold, gripping character, an unstoppable force of determined violence, and that’s certainly an interesting if not wholly original idea. More than anything, then, that first issue left the reader with an overwhelming sense of Who exactly is this guy and how did he end up like this? Those questions were left dangling by design, meant to entice the reader back for issue #2’s origin story, where many of the answers could be found. So while not an overt continuation, Zero #2 is more of a response to the first issue, clearing up a lot of the initial mystery. At the same time, it brings with it a whole new set of even bigger questions, like what organization is it that’s responsible for raising Edward (and a slew of other kids) to be an expert in espionage and murder? How were these children selected and recruited, and to what ends? Just like the debut, the second issue lets many things remain obscure, but it also openly addresses the most shadowy bits of issue #1, making it a logical, even necessary, next step.
Though it has thus far been a strong title overall, Fred Van Lente and R.B. Silva’s Brain Boy stands out to me as an example of a second issue missing the mark, with the third issue then left to pick up some of the slack. The debut was solid, fully introducing the title character in a few tightly-scripted narration captions before diving headlong into a high-powered superhero adventure/political drama. Sadly, though, the second issue didn’t do much to noticeably develop any of that. The titular hero learns a few unimportant details about his foe, and the two of them fight entertainingly, but no real progress gets made, so that at the end of issue #2, things are pretty much the same in Brain Boy’s world as they were at the beginning, and the reader has all the same information. The third issue then concluded the opening story arc by making a significant reveal about the antagonist’s true nature and motives, totally reshaping our understanding of everything that had happened up to that point without invalidating any of it. It was a great twist, but it would’ve been better if it had come sooner, because the ultimate result now is a story with a bombastic start and intriguing finish but too much inessential padding in between. Again, this is not to call Brain Boy a bad series, because it’s far from that. It’s just that the book’s initial arc was oddly or uncomfortably paced, coming in hot but then cooling off for too long before remembering to crank up the temperature again in its final moments.
Advancing the reader’s knowledge, maintaining the book’s tone, and above all enhancing the best parts of the debut—these are the marks of a great second issue. Really, every issue of every comic should accomplish these things to one degree or another, but #2 is where it matters most, because if you screw up there, you don’t have very much backing up you up yet to help recover from the hit. A crummy sixth issue is easier to forgive if the first five are fantastic; a crummy second issue, no matter how amazing its predecessor was, shines a brashly negative light on the whole rest of the series. 50% is not the sort of success rate people are looking for, so if you start out with those kinds of results, keeping any readers around long enough to make up for it is going to be challenging at best. And even if the third issue bounces back and knocks it out of the park, there’s an automatic apprehension that the fourth will be another dud, since that up-and-down pattern is what’s been established so far. Two good installments in a row feels like the making of a great run, whereas one good and one bad chapter back-to-back indicates the start of something that, on the whole, is bound for mediocrity.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.