The two big comic companies, Marvel and DC, seem perplexed as to how to deal with their huge, sprawling universes and beloved/popular characters with tangled, sprawling back stories. I think most readers tend to pick and choose what makes sense to them and produce an amalgam of a character in their own minds. But those entertainment companies don’t seem to trust the readers to be able to sift through all the vast swathes of material. They fear potential readers will be confronted by burden of back story and therefore run away before they can become fans. So the executives hold meetings to figure out how to balance that back story with intimidating potential readers (at least, I assume there are meetings about this, as I assume there are meetings on other topics…).
I originally intended to point out that there are lots of serial media out there (soap operas come to mind) but for some reason only comic books seem to bear this burden of trying to simultaneously update a potential new reader on what the hell is going on and yet tell a story for a fan. Then I read a poorly researched article in my local dead tree newspaper about soap operas and realized maybe the comic book companies have a reason they’ve always tried to strike this balance.
Generally most serial media doesn’t seem to feel any particular obligation toward a potential new fan to catch them up if they start in the middle. Even shows that aren’t particularly serial have characters and universes with back stories, and they don’t try to catch up potential new fans. If you start in the third season of Castle, you’re going to be kind of lost. But does the show start with a recap of the previous two seasons? Not really. If the back story is important, generally a show will include a recap for the sole purpose of catching up viewers. This also serves as a warning of, “Hey, this episode is important so pay attention.” Also, starting a story in the middle is a very common technique to quickly build drama. Yes, it’s more dramatic for people who know the characters, but for potential new fans, it’s kind of nice to know the long-time fans are just as lost as they are.
While it’s nice comic books have a recap page, I am sort of resentful the two big companies seem to think fans have the attention spans of goldfish and will be baffled and confused by long histories, and therefore editors have long put in footnotes and annotations. This is actually helpful sometimes, but the logical extreme of this kind of thinking (that fans just can’t handle the burden of back story) is the dreaded reboot (or even soft retcons).
Marvel did this with their Ultimates universe. Apparently not understanding how comics work, even though those working in comics are most likely fans, they decided all that tangled back story and history was just too darn intimidating so they created a whole new universe. All things considered, the experiment seemed to work, more or less. But now it seems as though the company is thinking the Ulti-verse is starting to get a little heavy in the back story/history department. Marvel, that’s okay. Really it is. DC has just decided fans can’t be trusted to pay attention for more than five years tops and seems to be retconning everything fairly often when the company isn’t outright rebooting it. Or possibly the companies believe they can stay solvent by issuing new first editions that collectors will gobble up in the hopes they’ll become worth something some day (although some [okay, many] would argue this does long-time fans a great disservice by constantly scrambling the structure of the universe for little more than a quick buck).
Here, in my experience, is how comic books (and other serial media work) – potential new fan picks up book/turns on TV show. There’s a good chance the potential new fan is starting in the middle of a story arc. Potential fan is somewhat lost, but the story is engaging and the characters are interesting. By the end of the book/show/media, the potential fan is impressed enough to try the next book/show/media. If all goes well, the potential fan becomes a fan and actively seeks out the media. Some fans decide to learn all the back story and history. Some fans figure they’ll pick it up as they go along and ignore parts of the back story and history that come up that aren’t relevant to them (the amalgam effect starts early). And guess what? It’s worked (for me and several people I know), although I suppose not as well as the companies would like, which left me wondering why they try so hard relieve the burden of the universe histories.
But then I read that article in which a journalist complained about soap operas. As you may or may not know, many soaps have been cancelled but through the miracle of the internet they have also been resurrected. While cast members have changed, the stories have generally picked up right where they left off network. And this journalist was complaining that despite having switched media, soap operas just weren’t making an effort to pull in new viewers. Then the journalist cited a section of dialogue, which makes me certain this person has never seen a soap opera (I have [although not a whole series], and I’m not ashamed to admit it, and it probably shows). Here’s the dialogue:
“How’s Bianca?” Anna asked.
“Well, you know,” Miranda answered, “As well as she ever is, after that night.”
“We’re not talking about that,” Cameron interrupted.
The journalist said that such dialogue didn’t make it clear to viewers what was going on and would therefore be off-putting because they didn’t know anything about Bianca or the events of “that night.” Had said journalist bothered to do about two hours of research (tops), s/he would have realized all soap opera dialogue is like that and there’s about a 50/50 shot this refers to a) an event viewers are expected to already know about or b) the introduction of a new story arc in which case no one knows what’s going on with Bianca and “that night.” And people in the newspaper business wonder why it’s a dying media.
So I guess maybe potential fans expectations are changing. Do people really expect to pick up serial media and expect the writers to catch them up the first time? Or was this journalist just really clueless? Imagine if every serial media was expected to encapsulate every important character and story ever prior to each installment of the media. Comic books would be the size of the full-on novels. Actual novels would need their own Cliff Notes with each sequel (isn’t the “Wheel of Time” long enough already?). All television shows, even light-hearted sitcoms, would be at least an hour long, and only get longer the longer they were on the air (can you imagine the clip show required to catch someone up tuning into The Simpsons for the first time?).
Then again, faulting serial media for not presenting a recap for all new potential fans makes less sense now than it would have ten or fifteen years ago. Back in the day, such as when the Marvel and DC executives were merely fans themselves, if they tried a comic book and liked it and wanted to read more comics, they had to physically go find comic books. They had to either go to the library or a comic book store or harass the friend who got them interested in the first place. For something like soap operas, fans either watched every single day, or they missed something important like Luke and Laura’s wedding, and that was it. Soaps do re-run, but not with the frequency that would allow someone to catch up. But with the internet and fans with too much time on their hands (bless them too), finding out anyone’s back story or a world history is easy. It’s not even that hard to download back episodes of TV shows (including soap operas) and actually watch the story unfold.
Serial media, here’s a proposal for you. We, the potential fans, will expect to be somewhat lost and confused when we try a new story for the first time. We will not blame you for this condition nor expect you to hold our hands while we try to sort all this out. In return, you create stories and characters that are engaging and interesting enough we want to continue to follow the world you’ve created. Keep us entertained, and we’ll be patient. We know we’ll pick up the back story and history in enough time, or, if it’s really important, you can tell us. That’s fine too. For those that came in late, a little recap every now and again never hurt anyone. If you do your job right, there will always be those who came in late. So – you be entertaining, and we’ll try to delay gratification a little bit for a lot more entertainment down the road. Deal?