Thursday, 31 May 2012

Breaking Bat

Or how Piracy and Chance made me a New Comic Book Reader at Age 20

I think this is kind of implied by the whole comics blog thing, but I read (or at least used to) a lot of comic books. When I had a larger disposable income I spent insane amounts of money on comics, and even with strict budgeting I’m still probably spending more than I should. At my comic reading height I was reading marquis titles, middle catalogue titles, event tie-ins, and, at one point, three different Deadpool titles: I was a comics Pigeon.

What might be surprising is that I didn’t really start reading comics until I was 20 years old.

What might be even more surprising is that it was a disk of bootleg comic downloads given to me by a classmate in an Integral Calculus class that turned me into a ravenous comics reader.

As someone whose childhood was in the 90s I grew up with a familiarity to comic characters. My young self used to get up early and watch X-men, Spider-Man, and the superlative Batman the Animated Series cartoons. I have clear memories of playing “X-men” in the schoolyard during kindergarten and grade 1 (I always insisted on being Cyclops).1 My friends collected comics and comic trading cards and played superhero video games. So, from very early on I knew about comics and cared about the characters even without ever picking up a book.

The first comic I ever owned was a random part of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline given to me by an older neighbor kid (he gave another Infinity Gauntlet issue to my younger brother). This didn’t however, turn into a wild, immediate romance with comics. It did however convince my parents to buy cheap mixed bags of comics from the newly opened Walmart before we’d go on family vacations. These were not especially good comics and were random as all hell: I recall WildC.A.T.s,2 a kind-of-rapey issue of Submariner, some Rocket Raccoon, and some Clan Destine.3 These mixed bags also didn’t turn into comics love: the titles were strange and out of context and it was made very clear to a young me by my parents that these comics were a “special treat” thing.4

In university there was a confluence of events that got me into print comicbooks.

The first was I started to read main stream webcomics. In highschool I developed a love affair with super pulpy fantasy novels (following my Star Wars novels phase) which got me interested in online fantasy art which somehow translated into finding fantasy themed comic strips on the internet.5 At university, ownership of a laptop and time to kill between lectures introduced me to the online gag strip: your Penny-Arcades and what not. This started to express itself in the doodles that I relentlessly scrawled in the margins of class notes, especially in boring first year calculus classes.

 This led to the second, and I’d argue most significant event. A guy in my integral calculus class (who was an acquaintance of an acquaintance) noticed some Spider-Man doodles on my notes and we got to talking about superheroes and webcomics and how much calculus classes were not fun. A week later he gave me a disk with a collection of his favourite comics, some Justice League cartoon episodes, and the Mask of the Phantasm animated movie6 ALL OF WHICH WERE PIRATED.  I watched the Justice League episodes and became a giant fan of the show and gained a basic working knowledge of the DC universe and encountered many characters I had no idea existed. I then PIRATED as many other DC-WB animated series as I could find and watched all of them. Meanwhile I started to read through the PIRATED comics on the disk, which were mainly Deadpool comics spanning the era of Joe Kelly, Christopher Priest and Gail Simone. The Joe Kelly issues in particular were amazing: funny, complex, mature, and a little disturbing. This wasn’t the disjointed issues of mixed bag Rocket Raccoon from my childhood, or the EVERY! WORD! IS EXCITING! work of the golden age… this was well made, exciting genre fiction set to the kinetic artwork of Ed McGuinness. I read somewhere over 100 issues of Deadpool, moved on to the Ultimates and Ultimate Spiderman, and then found comic books by a gentleman named Alan Moore on the disk of PIRATED comics. I remember vividly staying up all night reading V for Vendetta while the rest of my family was on a vacation and having my world view veritably vivisected. I know I spent another all nighter blasting through Batman: The Killing Joke. I recall trying to read Watchmen too, and realizing I was way out of my depth saved it for later.

The third event was that I started PIRATING comics myself. I remember hearing about Marvel’s Civil War event and the Death of Captain America on the Daily Show (I think). This sounded pretty cool to my newly reintroduced-to-comics self, so being a child of the ‘90s and teen of the ‘00s, I did what came naturally and stole as much of it (and its tie-ins) as I could off the internet.7 With my childhood osmosis of the marvel universe from cartoons, reading PIRATED Civil War scans was pretty straight forward and got me up to speed on the current goings-on of the Marvel Universe. Whenever I encountered someone I didn’t recognize, or relevant past events I had no idea about I’d just Wiki them. I then went back and PIRATED House of M and Avengers Disassembled and suddenly I understood modern marvel continuity well enough to get by. I also understood that modern comic books were well written, beautifully drawn, and generally awesome times.

Events were reaching a critical mass at this point. I was actively reading PIRATED print comics and a bevy of webcomics. I joined my university newspaper and drew editorial comics, and later joke strips for them.8 I started working on a webcomic (It wasn’t very good). My girlfriend of the time, who I was trying to turn onto R A Salvatore novels, noticed they were being adapted into graphic novels and, knowing about my emerging interest in sequential art, gave me the first and second ones as Christmas and Birthday presents that year.9,10 This all culminated in getting me into a comic book store for the first time.

The first time I walked into a comic book shop it was to buy the next couple graphic novel adaptations of R A Salvatore novels since the nearby bookstore didn’t have any in stock. On a whim I picked up the newest handful of issues of Cable and Deadpool and Ultimate Spiderman (series which I was actively PIRATING). I really enjoyed the experience of reading actual comic books and not feeling unethical about how I was getting my media, so a few days later I made another foray to the shop and bought trade collections of the New Avengers and the newest issues of my favourite series from reading the PIRATED tieins to Civil War (Spider-Man, Ironman, Captain America etc…).

From there it took off. I tried new titles I was curious about and used the internet to find other books that were commonly held to be good. I learned which writers and artists I really liked, and started to consider the creative teams when choosing books to read. This got me into reading creator owned-er-ish comics, which opened up a world of comics a little broader (and considerably more daring) than super hero comics. I started to spend insane amounts of money on comics.

So why did PIRACY, stealing content, getting the milk for free, barking on the westcoast toast, get me into a comic book store and convince me to start reading comics? A lot of it, I think, was that it gave me the complete comic book experience. Reading one comic no matter how good, like in the mixed bags12, doesn’t really give you a complete story. Modern comics are super serialized by design, and it takes reading a number of issues in a sequence (at least a complete story arc) to really have a satisfying comic reading experience.13 Piracy also let me experience the concept of a comic book universe. I’ve always felt a major selling point of Marvel and DC was the way superhero characters exist in this shared organic world where they have personal histories and interact with one another. Piracy was also a chance to try a lot of different titles for free, and decide which characters, titles and (hypothetically) creators were worth following. So by enjoying the complete comic experience for free (because I was stealing) I became invested in the format and worlds of superhero comics before I spent a single dollar on a comic book. Essentially, I was sold on the concept of superheroes before the first sale.

It’s analogous to a visit to the library or borrowing a book from a friend. You get to try a book you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable/interested in paying for for free and if you really enjoy it, you can go forth and buy more books (or that book) by that author. This is how I became interested in the majority of the novels and authors on my bookshelves… and is likely how some of you found your favourite authors too.14 This is just the unethical and legally dubious comic book equivalent.

The comic book industry has a shrinking readership and has trouble cultivating new readers, and I think some lessons about how I got into comics via piracy might be leveraged.  Essentially, I think the way to attract new readers is by providing a lot of free content. With the advent of digital technology, I think Marvel would do very well to make Civil War (and tie-ins!) or the Ultimates available free online. That way people can try comics, get complete stories, and experience a comic book universe and judge if it is something they are interested in without having to spend money in the process. Digital comics are free of print costs, advertising could probably recoup bandwidth fees (Marvel and Disney have a lot things to advertise themselves), and editorial costs have already been recouped by print sales. Better yet, they could annotate the bejesus out of whatever comic is made available free so that new readers can figure out the basics of continuity at the same time. Unless Marvel is making buckets of money on Civil War Trade Paperbacks or owes large royalties to the creators, this seems like an obvious way to try attracting new readers.

1: We also played “Star Trek” and I would insist on being Jordy La Forge. We were a cool bunch.
2: The kid friendly cartoon WildC.A.T.s, not the supergritty-90s WildCats.
3: These mixed bags of comics were….kind of… a mixed bag!
4: My family has experienced some upward mobility throughout my life, and although the important things (education, recreation, nutrition) were always taken care of, money was pretty strictly budgeted when I was a kid. We didn’t buy books if they could be found at the library for instance.
5: An early standout being Faith Erin Hicks Demonology 101.
6: This being the amazing movie spinoff of Batman TAS.
7: Incidentally, this was A LOT of it.
8: The best of these comics are taped to a structural wall in my lab workspace.
9: These were by benighted Devil’s Due Publishing, in case you are interested.
10: My birthday is like a week after Chritsmas. It kind of blows for me and those that are obligated to buy me gifts.
11: My favourite being Comics Alliance.
12: These comics were not the best single issues.
13: There are great single issue comics, but the best ones rely on a certain amount of context or character knowledge. That Frank Miller Daredevil comic with the Russian roulette game between the title hero and Bullseye means a lot less unless you know about their relationship and history. Civil War the Confession, the comic where Tony Stark pours his heart out over the corpse of Captain America (not actually his corpse…) is amazing, but only if you understand the context of the situation and their roles in Civil War.
14: If anyone is indeed reading this-this-this-this-reverb-erb…

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