Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. While I was making the rounds, I bought the first three issues of Loki: Agent of Asgard, and the new Amazing Spider-Man issue 1.
In medias… what now?
I’m a lifelong fan of Spider-Man. He was my first super hero; his was the first super hero movie I watched, and his were the first comics I read. But this first issue reminded me of why I had a hard time getting into American comics to begin with. It was the first issue– a bright shiny 001 on the front cover. But when I look into it, I find myself almost entirely lost, thrown in neck-deep into what looks like the middle of a very long and complicated story arc.
Er… sorry, I’ve been busy for the last few years and haven’t been able to keep up. What the heck is going on?
Fortunately, Peter is as confused about a lot of these developments as I am, and I can use his reactions to the situation to gauge how far this is from what he considers normal. The storytelling works in such a way that I can still follow along, but the entire time I feel like I’m missing something, and I won’t be able to feel like I’ve caught up until I’ve read the entirety of the plot arc that precedes this issue– or until I’ve been reading this series long enough that I’m acclimated to this new normal.
The story so far
On the other end of the spectrum is Loki. The first page is a Star Wars-esque page that succinctly explains the situation. A few pages later, he explains the powers he uses, so I clearly understand the rules of the situation. When other plot arcs are referenced, they’re labeled [See the Civil War saga!] which makes looking up what happened about a billion times easier.
(Full disclosure: The fact that the story opens on an attractive dude singing showtunes in the shower didn’t hurt my opinion of the book, either– in a medium that’s often brimming with cleavage, it’s nice to see fanservice aimed in my direction every once in a while.)
Getting to know you
A third approach is that taken by Ms. Marvel: we’re exposed to super-hero-saturated world Kamala Kahn lives in through background details while we’re shown a day in her life. The first few issues of her story have been focused on her origins, so the reader is introduced to the mechanics of her world and her powers at the same time that she does.
Back to writing
Fictional worlds are often large and complicated, and there’s always going to be a learning curve when it comes to figuring out a fictional character’s life and world. The further removed that they are from the reader’s daily life, the steeper that curve gets. And yes, if that curve gets too steep, some of your readers might fall off entirely.
The approach used in Spider-Man didn’t work that well for me– not because it’s bad, but because it didn’t mesh as well with my style of readership as other styles did. Most readers will have a preference about what kind of opening they like, whether it’s fast-paced and immersive, slow and guided, or something in between. Different approaches will work better with different worlds, with different narrators, and with different conflicts.
If you’re not sure if you’re starting the story the right way, try experimenting. Play around with different narrative styles– throw us in headfirst and only tell us the essential stuff, or give it to us piece by piece. Show it to readers (though preferably not to readers who already know what’s going on) and find what gets the best response. Sometimes you’ll find that you have to cut out a lot of explanations and background details over the course of exploring, but that’s all right. Even if those details are never used in the story, they’ll add even more depth to the world than it had before.