For the past 18 months, I’ve been navigating through the ever-extending universe of X-Men. As I’ve gotten deeper into the X-Men world I’ve noticed that I’ve been making fewer and fewer research visits to Wikipedia and other comics to understand plots and characters. As an individual reader, this is a pretty pleasant development because the stories are finally starting to flow due to be me being knowledgeable about the X-Men. But as someone who likes to share things, it’s incredibly frustrating because I’m unable to talk about the comics with anyone other than people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books, which is no one that I know.
The normal course of action would be to seek out people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books and I can kind of dig that. But honestly, that seems like the wrong approach because the problem isn’t that not enough people read comic books. The problem is that not enough comic books are made to be readable by anyone other than people who regularly read comic books.
I know that this isn’t a new observation. Feminists have been making it for years, frequently giving up on cape comics and opting for independently published graphic stories, or writing and drawing their own (which they’ve actually been doing since comics existed). But I’m bringing it up now because it’s intriguing how transparent the effort has been to just give up on accessibility.
For instance, I just finished Uncanny X-Force, a series about a mercenary wing of the X-Men that tries to reconcile killing people with the X-Men’s philosophy of preserving life. In “The Dark Angel Saga” story arc, X-Force attempts to save its member Angel from succumbing to his evil persona Archangel. Archangel exists because the X-Men villain Apocalypse once kidnapped Angel and brainwashed him into becoming his minion. To save Angel, X-Force recruits Dark Beast, a minion of Apocalypse and doppelganger of the X-Man, Beast, from the Age of Apocalypse parallel universe where Apocalypse has conquered the world. Dark Beast takes them to this parallel universe and then the real story begins in earnest, going on to span 8 more comics.
Since this story arc starts with Uncanny X-Force issue #11, it makes sense for the authors to assume the reader has knowledge of issues #1-10. But to assume knowledge of comics from over a decade ago is quite a stretch. Seriously, the mere scaffolding for the story, its basics, requires knowledge of the X-Men universe that extends to storylines from the 80’s and 90’s. For these comics, suspending one’s disbelief is secondary, possible only after expending one’s time and money. Even as someone who has paid these costs, I don’t like this.
And it’s not because I think there are inherent problems with learning curves or opacity or niche audiences. Barring governments, healthcare, the internet and parks, I don’t think that everything needs to be easy and accessible and widely available to everyone. I think there’s real value in rarity and mystery and exclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. I’m struck by these X-Men comics because the opacity never goes away. Despite different artists, writers, stories and characters, the learning curve never really smooths out.
In other words, I fibbed earlier. The comics actually aren’t flowing that much better from when I first started; I’ve just learned to navigate the gaps. There are always more comics to be read, more Wikipedia pages to scour. Reading these comics is like having a daily commute over a street that’s riddled with potholes: the gaps eventually just become a part of the street.
I once celebrated the fact that comics had slowly phased out advertisements because I always used to see those ads as “interrupting” the stories. I now realize that the stories themselves have become advertisements and that the product being sold isn’t the comics themselves, but access to them. To put it differently, cape comics sell literacy of cape comics. Inaccessibility is built into this model. This doesn’t mean that all cape comics are a scam or that all their stories and art are invalid. There are good stories and ideas out there. But they come at a steep price that probably isn’t worth it.
Suddenly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like such a cool idea.