[10 April 2014]
Every Wednesday all year long, dozens of new comicbooks are released to the world. Each week sees a mix of narrative beginnings, endings, and continuations, from multiple publishers and in many genres. There are massive, shared-universe stories and also one-shots, mini-comics, and tales of every length and format in between. Meanwhile, online, webcomics free and for sale come out daily, telling just as many stories in just as many worlds as their print counterparts, if not considerably more. Point being, there’s a tremendous amount of content being produced all the time, more than any individual could realistically hope to consume, so everybody has to make their own choices about what to follow, what to drop, and what to outright ignore.
The problem is, even after these selections have been made, it’s easy to end up with a sizable stack of new material each week, and fully absorbing, appreciating, and retaining every panel of every issue is challenging if not impossible. Things are bound to fall through the cracks, crowded out by all the other stories vying for attention, which is not an ideal situation when trying to follow serialized narratives. What you want is for everything to stick, and when a particular issue or title fails to do so, it’s frustrating and ultimately confusing when the time comes to read the next installment of that book. What is it that some comics do and others don’t that makes them more memorable month-to-month? Is it merely a matter of one series being better than the other? Surely that’s a part of it—something you enjoy more is bound to stay in your mind longer—but I suspect it’s more complicated than that in the end. There are a million different things that might cause a certain image, scene, issue, or arc to latch onto a reader’s brain, and there’s no surefire way to predict what will do it for anyone.
I can only speak in depth about my own experiences and preferences in this area, but I’ve read my fair share and forgotten enough of it to feel like I have a good sense of the different ways in which comics can permanently worm their way into someone’s brain. Of course, we all have our first comics, the ones that made us fans to begin with. Like any first love, there’s a certain nostalgic sheen that armors these introductory stories in our hearts and minds. We may not remember every detail, but those we do remember are the ones that brought us back for more, that have been revisited time and again, and so are maybe the sharpest in our mind’s eye. These can never be replaced or dulled, no matter how much new reading we do; at first they are the standard by which all other things are judged, then over time they become more like security blankets, reliable reminders of why we read comics at all, not always needed but important to have at the ready just in case. So we hang onto them, in our minds and also our physical collections, since they’re the foundation upon which the rest of it is laid anyway.
Probably the next best-remembered comics are those that somehow shake up and/or widen our view of the medium. This can be accomplished through something simple like being the first adult-themed or non-superhero or even just black-and-white comic to cross our paths. “Oh, I didn’t know they make comics like this.” There’s an excitement in that discovery, even when it’s relatively small. Then there are those books that take advantage of the fact that they’re comics in some original way, which often means an impressive use of space or similar visual technique. Repeated imagery, atypical layouts, bold/unexpected color choices, smart use of empty space, scarcity or abundance of detail, unique design elements…anything that purposefully and successfully draws the eye is likely to leave a mark. Or more generally, the first time you read something by an artist whose whole style and voice is somehow different than any you’ve seen before, top to bottom, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to remember the ins and outs of that book. You pay closer attention because it’s an unknown experience. Comics are a visual medium, and so the standout visuals necessarily make for standout series.
Like any fiction, after the first tastes and groundbreaking stories, what each of us remembers most are just the stories the resonant with us personally for one reason or another. Often this means finding one or more characters with whom we relate or in whom we see ourselves. Or the story itself might support themes and ideas that align with our own life philosophies. Perhaps most powerful are the stories we come across at just the right moments, those that seem to speak directly to the present-tense circumstances of our lives. You move to a new town and randomly pick up a comicbook about fitting into a new town, or get dumped the same week your favorite character does, or literally any number of other examples I could provide from my own past or simply invent. None of these are exclusive to comics, but they all apply, since comics offer new opportunities for readers to encounter something personally meaningful every week.
Something that is slightly more specific to the comicbook medium, and ongoing series in particular, is when a title can consistently remind the reader of what’s happened in the past with every new chapter. I don’t mean recap pages, which are comics’ version of “Previously on…” and can be helpful but don’t really count as far as making a story easier to remember. If anything, they take the pressure off to remember, inviting the reader to gloss over any confusing or challenging bits, since there’s always another recap around the corner. But I digress.
What I’m really talking about is comics that manage to incorporate some amount of exposition into their narratives, through dialogue or captions or both, without it feeling forced or being a distraction. This sometimes means as little as providing brief context to the start of each scene, something as simple as a time or location stamp. Or it can be one character discovering information that the reader already had, so that the reader gets to learn it again without the story needing to stall or backpedal. There are somewhat hackier methods like news reports or interviews/interrogations of cast members, but even these, if used sparingly and placed well, can be valuable and efficient means of going over important established story beats. Keeping the relevant details in the forefront of our minds, however it’s done, is an important thing for an ongoing title to be able to do. It need not re-explain everything every issue, but putting some real effort into making sure the audience knows what’s going on every month goes an incredibly long way toward maintaining a readership and being a story people remember. The more often we’re told something, the firmer it becomes in our minds, so a comic that can repeat itself without actually sounding repetitive is going to be one that sticks.
All of the above are equally valid, common reasons for some comics to rise above the rest as the ones worth remembering. Yet I also find that, the more I read and the longer I do it, the more I’m able to fill my stack every Wednesday with comics that refuse to fade. Not that they’d be memorable for everyone, but for me they tend to be. My choices have been fine-tuned over time so that now, far more often than not, I’m reading books I know I’ll be able to recall down the line. And my guess would be that this is true of any devoted, long-term comics reader. You naturally lean toward the characters, creators, publishers, etc. that have worked for you in the past, and the more consistently they can do it, the more likely you are to keep following them from one book to the next. Eventually, you have a list of reliable sources for solid comicbook entertainment, and though there is always the hunt for the next great thing, there’s less of a need to dig through the unimpressive stuff to find the gold. You’ve got gold on tap, and with a little maintenance now and then, that tap need never stop running.
The only danger in building too long a favorites list is running out of mental energy to stay on top of all the narrative threads in all the books. Just when it seems like you’re reading only the most memorable titles, you find yourself losing your grip on the finer points of on or two stories, not because they’ve gotten worse or you’ve grown less interested, but because there is so much to soak up every week that you become saturated. This leads again to the kinds of frustrations one wants to avoid by reading only the cream of the crop, but it’s not quite as upsetting as reading something that is unmemorable on the face of it. It’s worth it to overstuff your brain with good material, even though you might miss some stuff the first time around, because at least you know you’ve packed in as much awesome as you can possibly fit. That’s the goal, I think, for fans of any entertainment medium: to find so many exceptional examples that seeing the exceptional becomes the norm, and our schedules are overbooked with greatness.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.