When Words Collide: The Comics Keep Pilin' Up: A Strategy Guide

Mon, June 13th, 2011 at 3:00pm PDT | Updated: June 13th, 2011 at 3:01pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Waiting for the trade often spells early doom for some titles

If you read as many comics each month as I do -- it's a big number by the way, and since I don't want to scare you, I'll just say that it's more than 15 and less than 572 (and it looks to be even more starting in September) -- then you have to strategize.

Actually, if you read far fewer comics than I do each month, you still have to strategize. Because I'm not talking about the cost of comics, which can be, admittedly, prohibitive, but rather the approach to reading the comics you actually do bring home with you each Wednesday.

Those comics come with a few implicit questions, like "where will you find room for all of them, because they keep coming and the house isn't growing any bigger?" and "how long can you pile them next to your side of the bed before your spouse not-so-jokingly throws them out the window?" and, most importantly, "should you read each comic immediately after you buy it, or should you wait until you have several issues in a row before diving into the story?"

Comics aren't built for the single issue anymore. We all know that. Comics are built for collected editions, for the bookshelf, for whatever replaces the bookshelf in the near future. Rare are the done-in-one issues, except with kid's comics like "Tiny Titans" and "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man," but when you're talking plain old, "mainstream" superhero comics, you're talking about comics built for five or six-issue story arcs where a single issue is but one piece of a much larger puzzle or, in some of the worst cases, one sentence in a promising paragraph.

If you read between 15 and 572 unrelated sentences a month, it's pretty difficult to remember the point of that original paragraph, no matter how promising.

The solution does seem rather simple: just wait for that collected edition. Then you get the whole story, the whole puzzle, the whole paragraph, the whole whatever-other-metaphor-I-may-slip-into-before-it's-all-over. Added bonus: it's probably cheaper than buying the single issues anyway.

Unfortunately, that seemingly elegant and cost-conscious solution is no solution at all because (a) mainstream superhero comics thrive on their immediacy, and if you wait six-to-nine months to read the collected edition, they tend to become a bit stale, (b) not every comic gets collected, so if you want to read trade paperbacks of the, say, Dan Jolley/Stuart Moore/Jamal Igle "Firestorm," you are almost completely out of luck, and (c) if you don't buy the comic in single issues, the comic will no longer exist, and it will be all your fault.

Even using the Pile #1/Pile #2 method, some books make their way into both

Way to ruin a good thing, trade-waiters on "The Irredeemable Ant-Man" and "Captain Britain and MI-13" and, um, "The Outsiders." That last example may not be one of my best, but the point remains. If everyone waits for the collected edition, and nobody buys the comic when it comes out, there will be no comic to collect. Well, certainly no more than a handful of issues, and that's barely enough to establish the main characters these days.

No, the best solution, less elegant than trade-waiting and slightly more expensive, but one that will allow comics to survive, is this: don't read all the comics you buy, at least not right away.

When you bring home your weekly (or monthly, but seriously, how can you not go to the comic shop every week, what is wrong with you?) haul, make two piles. Pile #1: the comics you absolutely must read right away. This would be the major crossover event books that everyone will be talking about around the water cooler at work (everyone at your job reads Geoff Johns and Matt Fraction comics, right?) or the comics written by your favorite writer or drawn by your favorite artist. Those can't wait. Everything else goes into Pile #2.

Pile #2 is the read-when-an-arc-is-complete pile, or, at a minimum, the read-when-you've accumulated-three-consecutive-issues pile. And, in my case, such a pile would actually be a separate bookcase in the basement devoted to just such a thing, because the pile would go from ha-ha my wife is throwing the comics out the window for real to ha-ha-oh-my-god this pile has tipped over and crushed me in my sleep. Multiply a number between 15 and 572 by 3 or more and you can see the problem. Heck, you probably live it yourself.

What you'll find, by reading chunks of comics from a single series instead of issue-by-issue and then reading a zillion other comics in-between, is that you'll love comics even more than you already do. If that's possible. And I suspect it is.

The reason all of this has been on my mind lately is because I have finally gotten caught up on some series that I had been a few months behind on. I wasn't smart enough to make an effort to use the Pile #1/Pile #2 method. Instead, I just never seemed to find time to read certain comics, even though I kept buying them each month. Or I read them quickly, to grind through the stack just so I'd be ready to talk about the weekly haul in that Friday's "Splash Page" podcast recording, even though I knew Chad Nevett wouldn't have read most of the same comics anyway, so the conversation would never head in the direction of, say "R.E.B.E.L.S." or even "The Spirit."

Other books read fine as single issue, but gain nothing from the collected experience

In taking the time to go back and read several consecutive issues of "Xombi" or the entire Paul Cornell run on "Action Comics," I realized that these comics read significantly better when I didn't have to put them aside for a month and read a zillion other comics in between, and I also got to wondering what made some comics work well in single issue or collection, what made other comics work well in single issues but NOT collected, and what made comics work well only when collected (or read all in a row, which, as far as I'm concerned, is basically the same as reading the collected edition, except the collected editions make you miss out on the Thor SLURPEE ads.

Here's what I found, and I'll illustrate my findings using six superhero comics I've been reading, both in single issues (sort of) and as a pile of consecutive issues in a single sitting (which I will continue to refer to as a "collection" even though I haven't bought any actual hardcovers or trades for any of the comics I'm talking about this week): comics that work both ways, as singles and a collection, would be "Batman, Inc." and "Deadpool MAX," which, not coincidentally, would number among my Top 5 favorite comics of the year so far. Comics that work only as collections and failed for me as single issues, mixed among the normal weekly haul, would be the previously mentioned "Action Comics" and "Xombi." Comics that work only as single issues and gain little-to-nothing from reading as a collection include "Thunderbolts" and "Irredeemable."

Okay, that's me just listing some comics I happen to have read (and liked), and then putting them into categories, but I'd like to step back and use the examples to figure out why they fit into those specific categories-of-reading, and, if I can, use that information to predict what's worth reading monthly and what's worth waiting on. For me, what goes in Pile #1, and what goes in Pile #2?

For the read-in-singles and read-in-collections all-stars, like "Batman, Inc." and "Deadpool MAX," the answer seems obvious. Grant Morrison. Kyle Baker. Those two guys seem to earn the double-pile status with everything they do. But why is that, besides my own personal fascination with both of their careers? I mean, I'm not the only one who gives an automatic read-now-AND-read-later designation to Morrison and Baker. So what's their deal?

I've written about Morrison's work at length (um, yeah, that should probably have gone without saying, but... this column is new reader friendly, like the DC relaunch, okay?), and in the "Batman, Inc." comic he's doing what he does best: he tells a complex, multi-layered story (or implies one) while making every issue count. He also has a playfulness and sense of absurdity that I enjoy whether it's part of a larger plotline or not.

Kyle Baker is the artistic equivalent of that. And it helps that in "Deadpool MAX," David Lapham is giving him an absurdist story to draw that has hints of some larger, more meaningful scheme. Will the larger mysteries add up to anything substantial? I'm not sure I care that much, because each issue is delightful, but the humor compounds when I read a stack of "Deadpool MAX" issues in a row. It's juvenile, unrepentantly vile humor, and it's the only Deadpool comic I've ever liked. And I love it.

"Action Comics" left something to be desired as singles, but reads great collected

But then, there's "Thunderbolts" and "Irredeemable," two comics I enjoy, but when I read a stack of each recently, I found they didn't work particularly well as collections. They worked as single issues. And when I read them monthly, I ranked them higher on my ever-changing internal metric of this-is-better-than-that-other-stuff. Even though Jeff Parker's supervillain Dirty Dozen and Mark Waid's evil-Superman comics have quite different tones and thematic purposes, they both have the same problem when read as collections: not enough meat on their bones. The characters are clearly defined, but there's not even the hint of depth, beyond a few spotlights on something from a character's past. That kind of storytelling adds depth momentarily, but what really adds depth is the kind of texture on an issue-by-issue basis that adds to the cumulative definition of who a character is, and that's not a major part of each comic. Neither Waid nor Parker seem to tell their stories instinctively, improvisationally. They both seem to craft their stories with precision, and to honor the obligations of the single issue -- that is, they provide a beginning, middle, and end in every issue, even if the larger story arc continues in what follows. I appreciate that approach, but because everything is right there, every issue, there's little to be gained by reading the stories in collections. It's all there, each month. And you don't need to have remembered a whole lot of detail about what happened the month before to read the next installment, as long as you remembered the main plot point. It's good, old-fashioned comic book storytelling. But try reading a dozen issues of Wolfman and Perez "Teen Titans" in a row, and let me know how much glaze you're wiping from your eyes, unless you're old enough that the nostalgia waves kick the glaze clean off.

"Action Comics," though -- the Paul Cornell run -- really doesn't work in single issues, yet it's quite good as a whole. The most recent issue, with Superman back in action vs. Doomsday(s), is the weakest installment by far, but the entirety of Cornell's Lex Luthor story really does pay off when read as a collection, in a way that it utterly failed as single issues. As singles, it felt simultaneously fragmented and weirdly stiff, though the latter may have been the Pete Woods art, which does benefit from immersion from the reader. His stiff poses weren't a problem for me at all when I read the story collected, but as single issues, I was turned off by his increasingly mannequin-like figure drawings. In single issues, interspersed between all the other comics I was reading in between, Cornell's story seemed jumpy, a saga with a few good scenes and maybe a nice bit of dialogue, but nothing tethering the good stuff together.

Oh, how wrong I was. Because as a collection, the nesting-dolls structure of the story works wonderfully well, with each reveal leading to another, larger reveal. It's sort of the DCU version of what Jonathan Hickman's doing in "Secret Warriors" with the twists of "THIS IS REALITY, ONLY NOW IT'S ACTUALLY THIS WAY, AND WAIT IT'S REALLY THIS OTHER LAYER YOU DIDN'T RECOGNIZE ETC." But Cornell, doing it DC-style, ends his story in outer space and includes a genius worm, robots and other-dimensional beings along the way.

And then there's "Xombi." One of these weeks -- probably next week or the week after, I'll do a "Best Comics of 2011 So Far" kind of column, and though I've been reading "Xombi" every month just as an excuse to look at Frazer Irving's gorgeous artwork, I didn't really READ "Xombi" until I sat down with the last three issues and read them back-to-back.

"Xombi" may be the best book almost no one is reading

This comic easily makes the "Best So Far" list. It's not on the DC slate for September, but if there is any justice in the world of creating really good comics that everyone should be reading, then I hope the series gets to continue for a while longer, in some form, after the relaunch dust settles in the fall. I would love to see everyone buying it. Every human on Earth.

It's basically a monster hunter comic at heart, but it is dense and ridiculous and doesn't make any excuses for what it is, and what it is happens to be a comic that echoes the "Doom Patrol" of Grant Morrison and Richard Case crossed with an atonal crime story illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch using a lollipop palette. Well, that's my reading of it, though the actual narrative of the comic is far simpler than that high-concept-of-my-imagination implies. Still, it's quite a great little comic book that practically no one is reading, except for a few of us who know what a gem "Xombi" is, while it lasts.

But, yeah, it didn't do a thing for me in single issues. I couldn't fall under its spell with such limited exposure, as much as I thought the art was darn pretty.

My lesson learned is this: my Pile #1 -- the stuff I will read each week, as single issues, will be limited to two kinds of comics: the absurd, ridiculous, playful sort that happen to be written or drawn by my favorite creators and the classic-superhero type of comics which are the equivalent of Hershey miniatures (they are delicious, sure, but too many in a row will make you enjoy them less and less with each bite). Pile #2 will be everything else. I'm in no hurry to read anything that will be far more enjoyable as a collection, even if I keep buying the issues on a monthly basis. Someone has to help sustain the sales on these suckers.

What if, though, I'm buying something, putting it in Pile #2, and it turns out it doesn't read better as a collection? What if I've wasted my money for months, without knowing it until it's too late?

Then I'll do what I did with Andy Diggle's "Daredevil" run? Shrug my shoulders and wait for something better from Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin. Or, in the case of Brian Michael Bendis and Chuck Austen's "Elektra" series, just sell the issues for a dime each at a garage sale.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. Sometimes.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when worlds collide, xombi, action comics, batman incorporated, deadpool max, thunderbolts, grant morrison, kyle baker, paul cornell, jeff parker, john rozum, frazer irving, irredeemable, mark waid

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