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.