Comics

Do You Have What It Takes to Commit to Serials?

Once one has committed to a narrative, it can be hard to let go, even if creative teams have changed, or ideas are running out.

Like most people with comics subscriptions through their local shop or an online retailer, I periodically re-assess the titles I have on my pull list. Sometimes this is a more formal accounting, driven by expense, or a feeling that I need to check my habit. At other times, my thoughts are less about the list as a whole and more about my commitment to individual books. Major changes in creative teams are also prompts to re-consider what I'm reading on a consistent basis.

The truth is, though, I infrequently ask my shop to drop titles. Right now there are a few titles from the big publishers I have been thinking aren't worth my while anymore, but so far I haven't asked to have them taken off of my list. This lack of action has much to do, I think, with the complicated ways in which individuals are engaged by, and engage with, serial narratives, and with comics serials in particular.

Among the most powerful draws of any form of storytelling is identification with, attachment to, and emotional involvement with characters. These kinds of character investments are clearly playing a role in my current indecision about dropping certain comics from my subscriptions, but plot intrigue and immersion in the world of a story are also narrative qualities that exercise a hold on readers.

As implied above, none of these draws are unique to serialized narratives, but serialization can deepen these investments by drawing out reader engagement with characters, both deferring and opening up new plot lines, and affording time and space for more detailed and layered world-building. And once one has committed to a narrative, it can be hard to let go, even if creative teams have changed, or aspects of the story start to feel worn and tired or ideas are running out. I imagine that most people have had moments with a favorite TV show, book series, or film franchise when they wonder if it's time to give up.

Indeed, most of what I've written so far could just as easily be about my experiences with serialized storytelling across media. That being said, I do think that there are ways in which investment in comics serials is different from investments in television, film and prose.

In the case of, particularly, the flagship titles for Marvel and DC, there is an open-endedness to comics stories that is perhaps only matched by daytime soap operas. Over the run of decades, it's highly unlikely that the same levels of quality and interest can be maintained, but, by the same token, as a reader, it can be easy to incorporate that ebb and flow into one's experience and expectations for a book.

Keeping a title going for hundreds of issues and multiple generations of readers necessarily correlates with variations in quality, as well as creative direction and personnel, whether publishers and editors or writers and artists. Sometimes it may feel as if the characters in a book only share a name with those to which you became "sutured", and yet memory and nostalgia may keep you reading a title, often despite radical changes in how a book is written or drawn.

Changes in the look and feel of characters is more of a given in comics than it is in other media. Having a new artist put their mark on a comics character is an accepted aspect of comics culture in the US. Re-casting characters for movie franchises is part of film culture, but such changes are events and provocations, and not taken as routine. Re-casting is far less common in television, and is almost unthinkable when it comes to the principals in any series with a devoted fan base.

In other words, culturally, Uncanny X-Men without John Byrne is a different proposition than is Buffy the Vampire Slayer without Sarah Michelle Gellar, and John Romita, Jr. becoming the regular penciler on Uncanny X-Men is not the same as, say, Ben Affleck replacing Christian Bale as Batman. In the film and television cases, such changes are reasons for fans and viewers to seriously consider moving on from a series.

In the case of comics, such reactions are likely on an individual level, but unlikely en masse except where there are special circumstances, such as J.H. Williams' and W.H. Haden's recent decision to quit Batwoman over publicly aired creative differences with DC editorial.

Arguably the most significant distinction between comics and other media is in how comics are consumed, at least in common practice for readers of serials. The relationship that many comics readers have with their local retailer personalizes the media experience in a way that is not often replicated with film, television or prose.

I may, of course, choose to see as many films and buy as many books as I can from local retailers, but there is no equivalent of the pull list for prose and film. Television is mediated primarily by technological means. Very few TV viewers in the US or other post-industrial economies will have personal relationships with the service providers who deliver shows and content.

What this personal relationship between shop and consumer may mean is that readers become consciously aware of what their decisions to subscribe or unsubscribe may mean for the owners and workers of their local retailer. While I do buy and read certain titles via comiXology and other digital platforms, when I make a choice between doing that and subscribing to print, one of my considerations is support for my local shop.

Reflecting on my own experience moving from an online retailer to an in-person store, I was much more likely to delete subscriptions from my pull list when doing so meant communicating via an online user interface and not direct communication with an actual individual. Now, in addition to my sunk investments in characters and stories, I am slower to act in part because I have some awareness that my trade means more to my local shop than it does to the larger businesses with which I make digital and online transactions.

My choices here are undoubtedly rooted in my individual habits and personality, but anyone who has been to a comics shop will have some sense of these places as more than commercial spaces; they are also places for cultural exchange. This can be true of bookstores and movie theaters, but I think that it's more the norm for comics shops to become cultural centers, as well as places of consumption, for customers.

Buying monthly comics is a ritual that engages those at the shop in looking after reader subscriptions and engages readers in making regular visits to the store. Comics store owners and employees are also frequently readers themselves. There is a more than economic relationship between most local comics shops and their subscribing customers.

I have, of course, canceled subscriptions I have through my local retailer and I will do so again. This relationship may be more than economic, but it's also that, too. The owner and employees of the shop routinely do extra work for me, prospectively pulling new books, tracking down elusive titles and issues, sharing their own recommendations. I can't help but take those kinds of actions into consideration when I'm feeling dissatisfied with some of my books, as well as whether I am "getting my money's worth" each month.

These face-to-face interactions anchor the relationships I have with the fictional characters in the comics I read. I don't find that with other media.

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