Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Superhero Comics Keep Small Audiences: Savage Dragon #175 as a Case Study

I'd like to start off this commentary by thanking Graphicly and Erik Larsen for coming together to do something nice for those who have accounts with the digital comics provider.  It's always nice to see creators and companies try to give something back, especially when it might lure additional readers.

However, I'm afraid that after reading Savage Dragon #175 twice, I left it feeling confused and not inclined to add the digital to my unofficial digital pull list.  It, like so many superhero comics these days, has tied itself into knots of old storylines and makes it hard for anyone with a casual interest to jump in without a heavy investment of time.

If you'll indulge me, I'll explain why.

To make a few things clear before we proceed, I came into this comic with a few things that I think should have aided me in my reading, but did not.  First, I actually enjoy Erik Larsen's work, which I know can be an acquired taste for some.  I kept very few of my old paper comic books in the second move, but several Larsen-drawn arcs with Spider-Man and others were retained until I can get solid digital copies.  My issues with Savage Dragon #175 have nothing to do with Larsen or his style.

Second, I am aware of who Savage Dragon is and have read a few comics in the past featuring the character.  I like that he's a sarcastic and powerful being, and I thought the idea that he would be a cop is a great idea for the character.  However, overall, I've not read a lot of the adventures, and my last Dragon comic was somewhere back in the George W. Bush administration.

I figured some things had changed, but I was not at all prepared for what awaited me in this issue.  The Dragon was apparently dead, but then not dead, because of something with an alternative universe version?  A villain brings him back, and now he's the leader of a homeless but ruthless people who want earth?  And at some point, they took earth, but maybe it was an alternative earth?

As the Dragon himself basically says at some point along the line, "What the hell?"

Now I am no stranger to superhero comic books.  I have been reading them for just about thirty years now. But the logic here was so twisted and so confusing that I had no ability to follow it, despite multiple tries.  The whole thing is so far from where it started and so so convoluted that there seemed to be no ground to stand on.  It felt like complications for complications' sake to a new reader.  Why isn't Dragon, who claims to love earth, kicking people's asses and waiting to get home?  Instead, he's making himself at home and I'm making for the door.

Now I understand that Savage Dragon is Larsen's creation, and he can do whatever he wants with the character.  It's part of what sets Image apart, and I appreciate that.  But what was presented to the digital readers of Graphicly is a story that's so far in the middle that there's no finding the start--at least not without a map, which Larsen doesn't give.  (Compare this to the intro pages that Marvel uses frequently.  They aren't much, but at least it's something.)  I can't imagine very many people trying further issues, because new readers either have to suffer along and hope to catch up or spend a lot of money getting versed in the history.

The latter might be good for Larsen's wallet, but I don't see it as a viable plan to get additional readers.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think a reader should be able to jump in, tell at least some of what's going on, and be left wanting more.  That's a key part of engaging new readers.  I loved Black Panther: Man Without Fear because I got told what had come before and could enjoy what was there.  I'm reading Wonder Woman and Batman because I barely need any knowledge beyond the basics.  I dropped Swamp Thing because it made me know about Brightest Day and Blackest Night.

Too often, good comics writers--and I think Larsen is a good writer--think too much about what old readers want and not enough about telling good stories for readers new and old alike.  There's a way to do both.  I've read creator-owned stories like Concrete and Jon Sable from the middle, and became huge fans of both.  I've read work for hire material in the middle and been intrigued.

There are also comics where I get an issue in-between and I'm left so lost as to never return.  The creator or workers on the title play to those with long histories rather than all audience.  They're shutting me (and others, I'm sure) out in the process.

That's their right, to be sure.  Larsen doesn't have to write an oversized anniversary issue that's later given out free digitally to entice new readers.  He can do just what he did--take the story in a new direction for people who have long histories with the creator-owned character.  Scott Snyder, who I really like, can make Swamp Thing impenetrable by linking it to DC continuity with dubious origins.  That's his (and DC's) right.

The thousands of people who have been along for the entire ride can talk about how awesome that is.  But at the same time, that is why superhero comics have an ever-shrinking readership.  At some point, people drift away from reading comics, either temporarily or permanently.  At some point, potential new readers show up, especially if there's a reason to do so, like a revamp or a special issue.  I just don't see why superhero comics are determined to keep new readers in the dark and why their supporters argue for new readers to go see wikis and other sites.  Why can't the comic itself stand on its own?

I had almost no knowledge of Dr. Who.  I watched one episode in the middle of 50 years of continuity and was instantly hooked, because all I needed to know was that it was a guy in a time-travelling space ship.  I watched one episode of the character-continuity heavy Community and I was hooked, without needing to know much of anything at all.

If it can be done with other comics I referenced above and with other media properties, it can be done in superhero comics.  Unfortunately, most seem to prefer going the Savage Dragon #175 route.  And that's why a small audience will keep getting smaller.  But hey, at least those 10,000 people will have all that complexity to themselves!  I hope they enjoy it, because I don't.  I'll be off reading comics that don't require so much explanation, having a good time.

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