On Ongoing Superhero Comic Accessibility

I’ve been thinking about this since Uncanny X-men dropped, and it’s such a strange thing that crept up on me, I thought I’d share. I’m not sure if I have an answer for it, but it’s fascinated me for a while and I thought it may be an interesting thing for others to have a gnaw on.

Uncanny X-men is a new #1. Before launch, people have asked me whether it’d be a suitable jumping on point. I generally answered “yes”. Or, occasionally, “YES!!!!!”. If you can’t start reading at #1, something’s gone horrifically, awesomely wrong. I said I’d intro everything you had to know about the characters and the setting in the first issue. I’ve said repeatedly I wanted my mum to be able to read it. That was the aim.

And I tried to do exactly that. Uncanny, as many have noted, has a different job than Jason had with starting Wolverine & The X-men. Uncanny X-men is an extrapolation from the pre-existing status quo. Wolverine & The X-men builds from the ground up – literally, in the sense that we actually see the story’s setting being constructed. Uncanny rests on top of the direction of the X-line for the last five years or so.

Even so, the first issue is based on intro-ing all that. There’s nine cast members. I intro them, their powers, their important relationships, generally turned into ammunition (Storm controls weather and isn’t quite convinced this is a good idea. Colossus is a big metal Russian dude who’s been possessed by a demonic force. That blonde girl there? His sister, who’s magical, can teleport and is trying to support him. Cyclops can do eye-blasts, orders people around, is unflappable and is a little more uncertain about his plan than he tries to appear. Namor is the king of Atlantis and wants to have sex with Emma Frost. That kind of thing). There’s a villain with a long standing relationship with the team which has never really made much sense to the team. There’s the concept of mutants, the fact they suffer enormous prejudice and the fact there’s very few of them left. I even introduce the concept of “San Francisco” showing that the story’s set in a real place, that’s been altered in small – but only small – ways by the presence of the fantastical.

It’s a complicated world. There’s no way around that, but I believed I’d got everything you actually needed to understand it in there. If you didn’t know anything about the X-men at all – even not having seen the films – you could read it, and it explained everything. It’s a big rush of STUFF!!!! but I thought nothing essential was taken for granted.

Now, while a lot of reviews though this has worked – and it’s reviewed better than I’d hoped for – I’ve noticed a few people who said they felt absolutely lost. Which interested me, obviously, because it implies I made a right pigs ear somewhere.

(Generally speaking, there’s two responses to someone not getting something you’ve written. You can blame yourself (i.e. I should have made it clearer) or you can blame the audience (they didn’t even read it properly!). Generally speaking, I always choose the former. It’s not always correct, and drives you mad, but at least it’s a force for self-improvement. I’d swap mental health for being better any day of the week)

Thankfully, most of these people seemed to say what sort of things they felt weren’t explained, which is where I started getting really interested. They were all questions on a similar array of topics. I’ll choose one example, because it seemed to be the first one on a lot of people’s lists, and in many ways most characteristic of the reservations…

“Why are the X-men in San Francisco?”

And I’m genuinely thrown.

I would have never have thought of explaining this. I wouldn’t have thought of explaining that any more than “Why is Spider-man in New York?” if I were starting Spider-man or “Why are they in Westchester?” if I was doing Jason’s job or even “Why are they living on Tracey Island?” if I were writing Thunderbirds.

The Uncanny X-men are a superhero team. They live on an Island off San Francisco. It’s just who they are.

Of course, I can see the reason why it’s thrown the people. It’s they know the X-men live in a mansion in Westchester. That they’re not living in Westchester is the problem. It’s not about giving the information to read the story that’s there. It’s about correcting pre-existing assumptions. In other words, it’s not a problem about being accessible to new readers – because a genuinely new reader would accept the fact the X-men live on Utopia in the same way that they except that Bilbo lives in the Shire – but rather a problem with the readers being old readers. They feel lost not because of the story on the page, but the gap between the old story in their heads and the story on the page, and wanting to know what connects the two.

I say this not to say they’re wrong to feel that way, but to say how fundamentally different the concept of accessibility is in mainstream American comics than any other form that I can think of. It’s made me think that telling everyone everything they need to know may not be enough, which is sobering and fascinating – especially because I suspect writing for genuinely new readers and writing for lapsed readers are two entirely contradictory things. Because for the former, you have to explain what they need to know – and for the latter you need to explain less of what they need to know (because they know a bunch already), and more of the differences. And doing both hurts the experience for new readers, because it leadens the script with a whole bunch of stuff that’s genuinely unnecessary.

Hmm.

Wish I had an answer. Because then I’d be rich, and I bet I’d like being rich. I’d buy chocolate hob-nob biscuits whenever I wanted.

A fine line indeed– as a huge fan of vast expanses of X-canon, I appreciate your efforts and love your work! Keep at it

Screw those dummies. Got to the internet and google “X-Men, San Francisco”. C’mon. It’s 2011.

Kieron…. This is a really interesting question because it ties into the fact that most of these older superheroes have very strong brands. And that is both a strength and a weakness. It’s good news that people kinda know so many little tidbits about the characters, but also a bit of a prison because if you challenge their perception of a character, they may not react well.

I also wonder if it is harder to change the “brand” for a superhero in 2011 than it used to be now that the X-Men have so many titles. It used to be you had ONE title: Uncanny X-Men. That was it. Stuff changed and Uncanny was THE cannon (and it was pretty simple to know what to read to find stories you’d missed). Now, the titles would have to really be in sync to drive home a meaningful change in a character (and that means more work for everyone).

It’s also a great observation about how us fans are so inside the bubble that we really don’t understand what is common knowledge and what isn’t. I recently saw that with my boss. He was curious about the new Batman #1 from DC and I let him read it. There was a double-pager in that issue that showed the Batcave and the dinosaur in a small inset panel. I’m sure that was Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s way of reassuring longtime readers that THIS was still the same basic Batman they’d always known. But my boss looked at that page and said, “Why is there a dinosaur in the Batcave?” He thought it was a real dinosaur because he didn’t know that were was some old story where Batman brings a fake dinosaur back to the cave.

Anyhow…..thanks for the good stories and interesting thoughts.

“In other words, it’s not a problem about being accessible to new readers [...]”

Except not, because even new readers have been exposed to one-two-three-FOUR movies in which the X-Men live in a mansion in Westchester, PLUS at least one long-running cartoon to that effect.

Statistically speaking, new readers are more likely to have been exposed to a Charles Xavier who’s not in a wheelchair and who has a full head of hair than they’re likely to have been exposed to a team of X-Men who DON’T live in a mansion in Westchester.

I’d have to imagine that the fact that the X-men’s stay in Westchester (and Spiderman’s in New York) have been established in films (films watched by more people than read the books, obv) might be a factor?

I think the nearest comparison in terms of accessibility might be in the parent genre of Soap Opera, where you don’t know who’s been watching Coronation Street for 40 years and who’s started for the first time today, and who picked up a lot of it in the background while their parents watched it ten years ago…

Mr. Gillen you always amazes me.

Usually the writers of our comics don’t make their homework, make a mess with chronology and are so full of himself that ignore the fan’s complains.

You otherwise keeps this page, interact with the fans, give feedback. You are great!! I hope you stay with the X-men a hundred years if you want it.

About the accessibility question, it should not concern you. My girlfriend is total “civilian”, not a fan like me. I tell her to read Uncanny #1 by herself, and she understands everything.

She even make a comment about how beautiful Emma was in that comic (Emma is her favorite), and how “elegant” was Emma’s dialogues.:)

Congratulations! Accesibility aim accomplished!

I think that you should be concern about what you promised to US, the fanboys with that “X-tinction Team”.

My friends are comparing your proposal for the book with “The Autority” of Warren Ellis/Brian Hitch.

Jason Aaron choose the safe way with WV & XM, XM at the school, humor, Wolverine, all that is familiar and is safety.

You choose the bold new direction, what is new and is a brave bet.

I’M AFFRAID THAT YOU HAVE NO IDEA OF A TRAP THAT YOU SET TO YOURSELF WITH THAT #1, quoting spidey WITH HIGHER EXPECTATIONS COMES GREATER DEMANDS!

Good luck (you’ll gonna need!) :)

Its a good question to ask because as someone who only knows X-Men through the films, I would have wondered why they weren’t in the mansion as well.

I mean, I would’ve got that there was some backstory I was missing and that if I wanted to I could go catch up on wikipedia (that’s generally what I do with comicbook characters I meet for the first time) but not everyone would think that way and it shouldn’t be the reader’s job. However you’re right that its too much info for one comic.

Personally I think you should write for the new readers, lapsed readers should understand that there’s somethings they’ll have missed. You don’t *need* to explain why the X-Men are in San Francisco, they just are now, that’s all you need to know for the story being told.

You’ve run up against a long-standing issue: different generations of fans with differing expectations of the franchise.

“San Francisco vs. Westchester” is but one aspect of it.

Thanks for the feedback! To stress, I use a single example to make the key point as clear as I could. The foggier elements of it… well, you really don’t want to know.

KG

Working on games sometimes feels the same way. You try to make everything straight forward, and then you put a normal person in front of it, and they miss all the “obvious” stuff. Like you, I tend to blame myself, but the games do get better as a result. I totally think it’s The Right Thing To Do.

I’ve found that the most direct approach isn’t always the best. Very often a message box can totally be replaced by an FX/sound/animation cue which works even better. Similarly, an ambient/background event in a comic is probably the best place to fill in the little details.

Thinking along those lines then, did you “beta test” the script? Are you even allowed to?

I’m one of those old fans you mentioned who are left with a little scratching of the head feeling. The last time I read X-books on a regular basis Wolverine got his metal pulled out by Magneto. So seeing things like part of the team in SF was weird, the White Queen as a good guy I’d seen some of. Cyclops being so cold and a little blood thirsty was weird, as is Namor hanging with them. (he always seemed so broody) Who the Jean Grey looking girl who looks 17 is perplexing as well or why Xavier is up walking and letting others lead the fight for mutants has me a little lost as well.

Obviously in the years since I was a reader a lot has happened. I was made curious enough by the issues I read to come back for more. If I get in enough I may do the research on what I’m missing, we’ll see.

Don’t sweat the compaints, man. You did a fantastic job with Uncanny #1, and this is coming from a VERY lapsed X-fan that hasn’t checked in on the mutants since Claremont left. Writing first issues is an art in and of itself, let alone when you’re dealing with multiple characters with decades of backstory. Compare what you did with, say, Stormwatch #1 over at the Distinguished Competition, which despite being a completely fresh slate, was a muddled, reader-unfriendly mess. I do hope, though, you’ll be able to take the time to address some of the questions people like me may have within upcoming issues, like why Magneto is back on the side of the angels, how Colossus ended up with the Juggernaut ‘curse’, etc.

If you’ve never read it, you might want to check out a book called Superheroes and Philosophy. There’s a very eloquent essay in there by Denny O’Neil that addresses the topic of changes made to the long-standing status quo of a comic and the inevitable negative reaction by some fans to such.

This post makes for a nice read, but frankly I think the issue would have been efficiently solved with a recap page – which for some reason was not a part of Uncanny #1 but is standard fare in other titles. A few sentences on the move to Utopia, the Schism, and setting up that Cyclops has a bold new vision and you’re all set.

That being said – I enjoyed the first issue quite a bit.

Comics have limited pages. In my short time reviewing comics to learn about them, I’ve discovered to expect everything in the first issue is a futile pursuit. There simply isn’t enough room to give us the entire exposition and propel the story forward into the next issue. The past will have to be given in small bits. If you can encourage former readers to just hold on, and you work it into your story, you can give them the small bits that they need in dialog pr whatever throughout the next two or three issues. I know that those issues of Uncanny are in the can now, but just stating in principle.

weeeell, to play Devil’s Advocate, a question continuing readers from the previous run have is
“Why are the X-men STILL on Utopia?”

they moved there to escape from Norman Osborn and his Dark Reign, but that threat has passed for some time now. So why are they still living on the barren meteorite island in military bunkers instead of the much better constructed and guarded fortress on the shore of San Fransisco that Angel built for them a few years ago and currently serves as their prison (?)…

sorry for going off topic (or was i?) there. i do see your point about being new reader accessible. i’m impressed with the work you did in #1. cause even though it didn’t feel new reader friendly, in the annoying way some of those kind of books do, in hindsight it really did cover all bases in the sneakiest of ways. :)

you can’t please both of those groups. they want different things. New readers have vague concepts of what the characters are, based on movies and cartoons. as long as you live up to those expectations, they will buy the product.

Older fans only care about the details, not the sum of the parts. they want to know that their specific concerns are being heard.

You can’t please both of these groups, it can’t be done. especially because the more you try to make it accessible, the less the details will matter, which will only make older fans more upset.

To be perfectly frank – no one really cares. That is – if – and that’s a big if – if the story is compelling. Story is everything. A reader of any stripe will quickly drop minor quibbles if the actual story engages them. It’s only when it doesn’t that they begin to examine the wallpaper. I couldn’t care less about a character’s complicated backstory, etc. if HOW they go about getting what they want is intriguing. I want to see how they get out of this jam or overcome, (or are defeated) by this obstacle. If that ACTION is original, interesting, compelling – I will follow the author anywhere he/she wants to go. New readers, old readers, in continuity, out of continuity, it doesn’t matter: make me care by making it compelling. The rest is dross.