The Pleasure of the Serial Comic Book

In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes explores the moment of reading, free of “all barriers, all classes, all exclusions” and inured to anxiety of self-contradiction. Of course, Barthes was aware of the ambiguities of pleasure, and the contradictions that arise from pleasure as a desire and the end of pleasure as a fulfillment of that desire. In his typical discursive approach to meditating on—well, just about anything—he moves from proposition to proposition as he considers different kinds of reading and different kinds of writing and their effect on this experience of pleasure. He denotes two basic approaches to reading:

one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, ignores the play of language. . .the other reading skips nothing; it weighs, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton. . . it is not (logical) extension that captivates it, the winnowing out of truths, but the layering of significance; as in the children’s game of topping hands, the excitement comes not from a processive haste but from a kind of vertical din… (12)

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A boy reading a comic book, 1956.

I was moved to reflect on the pleasure of reading in relation to comic book serials when I came upon the news that the latest iteration of Power Man and Iron Fist, by David Walker and Sanford Greene, would soon be coming to an end and felt deep disappointment. This disappointment was precipitated by a realization that the announcement eliminated the possibility of a type of pleasure I find in long-term serial comics texts (and by “long-term,” I mean those without a pre-disclosed length and thus ending).

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The cover (sans text) for the upcoming final issue of the current run of Power Man & Iron Fist (by Sanford Greene).

For a while now I’ve been considering writing something about serial comics reading practices. I wanted to explore how the formative years of comics reading influence the reading practice of an engaged long-time reader. For me, I’d say the comics I read between the ages of 10 and 17, even though I’d read comics for years before that, indelibly changed how I read serial comics. The idea for such a post never took full shape because to concentrate on my story alone did not seem to offer much beside a nostalgia trip, and I did not feel qualified to undertake the kind of field study that would be necessary to find and interview the kinds of long-time comics readers I had in mind or how to even begin quantifying what they might look like. (Still, I hope to perhaps collect some anecdotal testimony to work with in the near future.) Instead, the idea of exploring comics reading practices evolved and split. In part, it became the foundation of my thinking for my post on Sue Storm, “Girl, You’ll Be an Invisible Woman Soon,” and the impetus for my series of chats with comics studies folks, in which I seek to talk to them about the intersection of their reading/collecting practices with their scholarly work.

So, this post is a kind of rehabilitation of that idea in the form of exploring the pleasure of engaging with a long-term comics serial as it has been shaped by my experiences, through the lens of Barthes, and why I want certain comic series to go on indefinitely.

And when I write “indefinitely,” I mean that in both senses: “without end” and “acting as if some indefinite, but inevitable, end will come.”

At the time that I began regularly reading Marvel superhero serial comics, it was pretty much assumed that any series that began was meant to go on for as long as it sold well enough, regardless of changes to creative team, or even sometimes the very title of the book. When the martial arts craze that inspired the Iron Fist series started to die down, for example, it was combined with the also struggling Luke Cage, Power Man (which had already renamed from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire) to make Power Man & Iron Fist starting with issue #50. It would go on with the two characters teamed up for another 76 issues, cementing an iconic friendship that was essentially mandated by the market, but would become a defining aspect of both characters.  I tried to be a regular reader of the series soon after I encountered the pair guest-starring in an issue of ROM Spaceknight, looking for the first part of the two-part story that crossed over between them—how novel such a thing seemed then!—I found other issues that drew my attention. I was taken by its premise and sense of exploring a seedier part of the Marvel Universe. Still, I was unable to read as many of the issues I would have liked, nor could I count on getting every issue each month (actually, it was bi-monthly which made finding it even harder before the days of the pull-list and the advent of the direct market). In reading the first volume of Power Man & Iron Fist (which lasted from 1978 to 1986), I was always engaging with fragments of a larger unknown (and some ways, unknowable) whole.

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Power Man & Iron Fist #50 (1978) is the first issue with this title. (art by Dave Cockrum and Irv Watanabe)

As such, every issue I got became an artifact of something almost holy. I know that seems hyperbolic, but the sense of mystery, rather than leading me to feel confused or disappointed, re-dedicated me to the series. In the weeks or months between issues of that or really any series I was reading then, like Amazing Spider-Man or Uncanny X-Men, I would read and re-read the previous issue, to take in every detail of every panel, read the letters page, and sometimes re-visit older issues to re-trace the introduction of elements of whatever the current focus of the title might be. Heck, I even closely examined ads!  Not all at once. Not in one sitting. Each reading had its own focus, which excavated more from the text than even an attempt to read every detail all the way through at once ever could.

I had a sense of discovery when digging into an existing run. I was simultaneously uncovering an existing tradition and establishing one based on my own understanding of what individual issues I’d acquired and other snippets I could gather (by word of mouth from friends and/or allusions in the comics themselves both in the text or through paratextual elements, like editorial footnotes or reader letters). Allusions to previous events seemed like apocrypha, and whatever version of something like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” existed in my mind was perfectly in line with whatever version of X-Men I was reading at the time. I did not have to worry about inconsistencies or No-Prizes because my imagination was doing the work of making it fit. But still, the “No-Prize” attitude cleverly fostered by Marvel editorial meant that I saw the possibility of reading pleasure reflected in letters by other readers who were doing that work too, highlighting elements of the narrative that they valued in the process. It encouraged imaginative engagement with the comics—a form of comic book exegesis far more fun and productive than anything biblical. In the past I have coined the term “macro-closure” to describe this practice.

It is this kind of reading that resonates for me with the second kind that Barthes (quoted above) writes about. It is not a complete reading in the sense of being a completist and having to own every single issue to feel contented with the story, but a reading that permeates not only the text, but its gaps, its elisions, its asyndeta—to use Barthes’s word. It is not reading concerned so much with an “ending,” so much with a moment of contact with something bigger. It a kind of reading that is not focused on the plot as a forward-moving engine to the detriment all other aspects of storytelling, but that nevertheless appreciated the sense of the something that happened. In fact, the sense that “something happened” in every issue back then meant that being able to count on that something made it less central, and not a notable unbalancing absence as too often happens in the decompressed comics common today. In the comics of my youth that “something happened-ness” was the “spectacle” of the type Barthes describes when exploring the world of wrestling in his famous essay by that name. In it, Barthes writes, “Wrestling…demands an immediate reading of…juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them” (16). Comics functions in part because of its juxtaposition of meanings, and thus the spectacle of plot point becomes less a focus than a place through which to thread multiple mutually constitutive meanings.

Being engaged in this staggered, but intense reading calls to mind Barthes description of the “intermittence” that defines the erotic. He writes, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? …it is intermittence…which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing…between two edges” (9-10). The reading of any issue that is part of a longer serial exists between two edges where it breaks off from the series temporarily. It represents both a fulfillment and a promise. Barthes explains: “The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of corporeal striptease or narrative suspense,” and that makes sense to me, because both of those kinds of pleasure require an anticipation of completion, but the pleasure of the comics serial is its liminality.

Let me stop and be clear. I am not trying to argue for the superiority of the second, attentive, reading approach. Barthes saw pleasurable reading as a function of alternating between both forms he describes. He writes, “Thus, narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose on the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dig in again” (12). While Barthes is concerned with unified texts, I think this does a fine job of describing the experience of reading the incomplete serial, which is an obvious example of his tmesis—the cut where the reader inserts themselves, as when a profanity is slipped between the syllables of word for un-fucking-avoidable emphasis. The bliss Barthes pursues in reading resides in the slippage between reading and writing that happens in the cut, where the reader sutures together the edges of a fragmented narrative.

And yet, this is a pleasure that does not seem as accessible in a reading environment that seems to overvalue endings (something I find notable in contemporary culture’s obsession with so-called “spoilers”), and that is always seeking to foreclose the sense of incompletion at the cost of almost anything else besides plot. In his S/Z, Barthes calls these “readerly” texts, as opposed to “writerly” ones. So yeah, this may turn into a something that reads as harsh criticism of current mainstream comics, but it is not meant to. There are still plenty of current comics I love, but even when they are not specifically advertised as limited or “maxi-” series, it is hard to imagine them as unending when most series are consistently re-started after 12 or 24 issues (at most!). It feels like a missed opportunity to not try different approaches and see how a narrative and its characters can bend and warp and change, rewarding the long-time reader while other series are specifically framed as “limited.”

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Kate Leth, writer of Marvel’s soon to end Patsy Walker aka Hellcat tweeted out an announcement about the end of the series, providing evidence that having a series last even a year and a half is “pretty wild.”

The current comics market does not seem to support a long-term serial approach. The small number of hardcore comics buyers that the industry is currently focused on through the direct market means that the number of impulse comic book purchases (and thus potential for new repeated buyers) are as close to zero as they could possibly be. The constant re-booting, re-numbering, variant cover gimmicks are a way to inflate sales cyclically through manipulating the interest of that fickle consumer base, but such an approach will only deliver diminishing returns. The actual comics market, however, doesn’t concern me here, except to the degree that it makes sure that Marvel or DC won’t nurse a series long enough to allow it to develop over time and persist through different iterations of writers and artists, or remain the domain of one artist for a long time, and thus developing its own complex history. But even without those gimmicks, the easy access to back issues collected in trade paperbacks, essential editions, artist editions, and so on, means the sense of back issues falling back into a misty past that is difficult to access—at least not without disposable wealth and luck—is also gone.

I need to pause again to be clear that this post is not meant as an apologia for continuity porn—though I fear it might come off that way. The very idea that every event in the history of a character or title must be accounted for and explained as to construct an unassailable canon is counter to the pleasurable writerly engagement with serial reading I am trying to trace out here. This kind of reading must accept that all texts are incomplete, but I guess what I am suggesting here is that the indefinite serial text in the midst of unfolding is even more incomplete.

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Image Comic’s The Walking Dead has been going strong for 10 years.

There are exceptions to lack of indefinite long-term series over at Image Comics where The Walking Dead and Invincible (both written by Robert Kirkman) having been going strong for over 10 years, reaching (as of this writing) issues #166 and #135 respectively. Brian K.Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga has been going nearly 5 years and has reached numbers in the 40s, and Vaughn has said that while he has a definite end in mind, he doesn’t know how long it will take to get there. At the Big Two, however, you have to really put your mind to work to name any title going uninterrupted for over five years in the last 15 years. Marvel’s Superior Spider-Man reached 31 issues, which is unusual, though it was only over the course of 15 months because the book double-shipped. Matt Fraction’s amazing Hawkeye series went 22 issues over nearly three years, but was frequently delayed in that last year. The New Avengers series that began in 2005 lasted 64 issues through to 2010, but I think that is the longest example I can find of a Marvel book that started in the 00s. A bunch of DC comics’ “New 52” books ended up lasting 52 issues, so just shy of five years. There were some Marvel comics numbered in the high teens on the list of January 2017 solicitations, but these numbers lead me to think these books will be re-booted and/or re-numbered soon (and recent announcements reinforce that speculation), not that they will become counter-examples to my claims here about the truncated lengths of comics series.

This focus on reader accessibility is notable in the Marvel NOW initiative, which marks some issues as “#1,”—usually at the beginning of new story arc—and as such, a “good” jumping on point,” even though the actual issue number is higher. Advertising beginnings demonstrates a particular notion of how best to read a serial narrative. It nevertheless causes some confusion, because the new reader is expected to know that Power Man and Iron Fist (volume 3!) #11 follows an issue has a big white “#1” on it that outshines the #10 that also appears in much smaller print.

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The Marvel NOW logo on PM&IF #10

But even with the reading experience of getting to start from a “real” #1 and follow through with a long-term serial from the beginning, the backward looping motion of serial accretion means that even a #1 becomes an arbitrary starting point in a narrative that grows in two directions temporally, and (in the case of multiple serials in a shared universe) vertically through parallel narratives that diverge and re-intersect.

Beginnings (or endings) haven’t always been important to long-term serials in other media either.  For decades, American soap operas broke up multiple arcs of stories for a wide cast of characters 30 minutes or an hour at a time everyday. It was virtually impossible (if not outright impossible) to ever “catch up” with past episodes of General Hospital or One Life to Live. People got hooked somehow and then stuck with it, and figured out how to make sense of returning long lost characters or the appearance of an evil twin. (It always amazes me that in the few years I watched All My Children off and on due to my older sister’s influence, there were no fewer than four sets of evil/good twins introduced). Viewers made sense of it and never had to go back and learn “how it began,” but enjoyed a sort of unending “now” punctuated with completed mini-arcs, character deaths, and actors who got to graduate from the soaps to Prime-Time TV or movies. Heck, some soaps even crossed over. I remember some characters from All My Children showing up on Ryan’s Hope and Loving. And some characters were even recast after short absences (I remember at least three different Tad Martins while watching AMC), which may have caused some disappointment in some fans, but certainly didn’t cause any long-term confusion. Viewers’ engagement with the serial made it work, and for new viewers the re-casting was invisible since they were unfamiliar with the previous actor in the role. Perhaps a more concise way to put this is that serials that prosper have to trust readers to make sense of what is going on, and make opportunities for them to drop off and return.

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Dedicated soap fan could supplement their knowledge, make up for gaps in watching and speculate about future events through engagement with related periodicals.

The shear amount of time that would be necessary to catch up on those afternoon serials (even if we can overcome the problem of the pre-VCR/DVR era that was the heyday of American soap operas) makes the kind of attentive reading that Barthes describes, and that I associate with my formative days of reading comics, basically impossible. The television medium also means, however, that viewers cannot hurry through the narrative in the way that Barthes describes readers obsessed with plot and endings often do, (though TV narratives themselves are often structured to foreground this desire for plot, essentially what Barthes call “readerly” texts). Of course, this is also the reason why I do claim that comics are a superior medium to television and film. Comics relation to time is ambiguous and fluid and ultimately controlled by the reader, not the pre-determined unspooling of the medium—even the ability to fast-forward or rewind a taped episode of a show is not the same as what comics make available in terms of easy travel back and forth across pages, and makes the text itself (and in this case I am also disparaging digital comics) a physical pleasure in a way that makes me think about what Christopher Pizzino said about “the body of the comics reader” in our talk late last year. Barthes even writes, “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas-for my body does not have the same ideas I do” (16). I can’t quite conceptualize this, but it feels right. It resonates with the tactile pleasure of reading through stacks of comics.

So, after all of this, what is the question I want to ask about engagement with long-term serials? I am still not sure, but it certainly involves reading practices as a form of reading affect. The broad question would be: what role does the way we experience the feelings of reading emerge from a reading practice? And then more specific to my subject here: does the intermittent intense reading of comics serials produce or function through feelings of engagement enacted by reader-provided closure (both within/among comics pages, but also macro-closure) and its concomitant world-making?

Only more thinking, reading, and writing will tell, I guess. All I know is that even if the pleasure of that kind of reading is legible it has become increasingly inaccessible (at least for me).

In some senses, my collection of back issues has become an effort to re-imagine that space. Projects like “If It WAUGHs Like a Duck” were meant, in part, to recapture that sense of an unfolding eternal present, but even that was shaped by a sense of eventual finality (that came to fruition through the most current series’ cancellation) and a predetermined sense of the significance of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck work just through osmosis.

The closest I’ve come to recapturing that feeling in recent years was my “discovery” of Love and Rockets. Despite reading it (in collected trades) from the very beginning, it was easy to see a sense of change and evolution because 1) the characters age, 2) I read them in collections that mixed Los Bros’s work, and 3) the Los Bros Hernandez have never been too beholden to a pedantic consistency, allowing their stories to work like memories, and thus not always reliable, certainly not canonical. Nevertheless, the latter Gilbert stories (like those in Luba in America) for example, are decidedly different from the early Palomar stories, while maintaining a rewarding and recognizable through line of themes and characters. Everything remains possible and yet belongs to a thread of action strung together over (sometimes purposeful) omissions and gaps in its narratives. This is something Jaime has even lampshaded in his later work through the inclusion of Maggie’s comics obsession.

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Maggie and Angel looking to fill gaps in their comics collection. (From God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls).

So for now all that I can try to do is to historicize comic serial reading practices, something that falls out of the usual purview of my literary studies approach, but that makes perfect sense in considering comics as cultural objects through which readers re-imagine worlds.

More to come…eventually…

 

10 thoughts on “The Pleasure of the Serial Comic Book

  1. I’m curious, re: the current market not being set up to support long-term serialization, what you think about DC’s recent move following the Rebirth (re)branding to publish the major series twice a month. Marvel has done this for a while now with select series, but I have to question why DC is doing it now, and whether they are trying to either (1) force buy-ins from fans who “have to” have all of the main Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, or so on issues; (2) ramp up the number of comics that is published and thus the length of the stories told between reboots and clean slates; (3) or something else, some combination of the two. I can’t wrap my head around it, and it’s actually a publishing choice that made me drop Batman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman, because I don’t want to pay ($2.99×2)x3/month when I could be spending my money toward more exciting series, exploring some of the new options that DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Black Mask, to name a few, are serving up. I’d be curious what your take on that publishing shift for DC is.

    In any case, it seems to me that the slow crash and burn of long-term serialization, at least at Marvel and DC, has something to do the rise of event comics and the increasing organization of the market for those companies around yearly (or more than yearly) blockbuster cross-over events for the whole company compounded recently with blockbuster cross-over events at the level of the family/group of books (e.g. the yearly or more Batfamily, Superfamily, Green Lantern family events). This is something I’m only just scratching the surface of, simply by posing that question, in a forthcoming article that is largely an analysis of what I call “franchise anxiety” in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

    In any case, this was a great read. I always keep your concept of “critical nostalgia” in the back of my mind, as I’m starting to think more and more about nostalgia for a book project I’m slow-cooking. Thanks for another great entry, Osvaldo!

    • Thanks for commenting Sean! (for some reason I didn’t see this until today)

      I really can’t speak to what DC is doing with double shipping books. In many ways I am still that Marvel kid that only checks out DC when there is something of note (in that way I have kind of a soft spot for DC meta-textual events with a generosity I withhold from Marvel). The truth is, however, is that if a book is good, I don’t mind buying it multiple times a month, problem is most books aren’t. I do like that Wonder Woman features two different storylines b/c I have taken to just buying every other issue to just get the story I want. But of course they are trying to wring the most out of the diehards. It can’t last.

      And yes, the death of the long-term serial certainly intersects with the “event” merry-go-round. I like term “franchise anxiety.” I really wonder what would happen if either of the Big Two did a 3 year moratorium on events. Ultimately it all comes down to the fact that books sales drop so quickly that the powers that be have good reason to believe that a series won’t turn around, but only time can tell if that is true, and they don’t give the titles time (they probably feel like they don’t have time). As we can see from my Power Man & Iron Fist example, the market has always shaped books, but in the past it creatively shaped books in way that led to editorial and creative teams trying different approaches. These days there is only one answer: cancel the book and re-boot it down the line (if at all).

      Oh and BTW, “Critical nostalgia” is not my term. it is a term I’ve adopted for use in my comics scholarship, but I first saw it in an article on Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres by Sinead McDermot. Now, “(re)collection,” that’s my term parentheses and all. ;)

  2. I’d like to learn more about the history of the soap opera. I watched Days of Our Lives with my mother on sick days and during summer vacation. My mother had watched it since the beginning so she’d fill me in on any event that called back to stories from before my time. Even without that I never felt too lost and maybe that’s because I recognized storytelling mechanics at play in comic books.

    Soap operas also remind me of pro wrestling fandom, particularly the fans who are more interested in following storylines in real time (there are also factions more concerned with wrestling matches and the cumulative body of work produced by individual wrestlers). When I started reading about wrestling on the internet and learned the “insider” vocabulary I instantly recognized soap opera tropes.

    I’ve watched old soaps on youtube but I don’t know how deep that fan community gets. As someone who has purchased a metric shit ton of old wrestling shows on DVD and discussed them on message boards, I wonder what the soap opera equivalent is like.

  3. I came to comics by visiting the boy down stairs who is 4 years older than me. He had a large Marvel collection – X-Men and Avengers plus a lot of incomplete runs of characters from Avengers Hulk, Iron Man, etc. I would visit and was calm enough to be allowed to open up the back issues and read them carefully. So I binged through storylines with some guidance. But not always in order.

    I think that’s why I like Star Wars – I started back then but continue today. It is one timeline, and the fan slowly gets more glimpses of the past like I am a historian casting for clues. Instead a serial, it is kind of Rashoman in seeing the same time line from different view points, and Pulp Fiction because as a fan you bounce between different eras and have to piece the story together. You can be reading about the lead up to a event in Episode VI and find clues about life during the Clone Wars. The Star Wars characters themselves tend to lack knowledge they need about the past, so they are searching along with the fan. You got me thinking.

  4. This was really a fantastic read. Thanks. Perfectly encapsulates my interest in comics characters (outside of the form) that continues well into adulthood, well into a time when the stories themselves don’t hold my interest in the same way in the least. But the ongoing nature, the participation (however incomplete) in the world they inhabit is important. And why it confounds me that they keep restarting things every year or less now. If soap opera viewers could jump in, certainly in an age where every title has its own wiki, and all of the back issues can be grabbed digitally – anyone can do it. The rewrite of history rather than in story changes seems far more confusing – what history am i supposed to remember, which one counts – than letting people feel their way into the lives of these characters. Kind of like real life – your knowledge of it is impossibly incomplete when you get here, and only marginally better as you go. Thanks for this – will revisit more slowly going forward.

    • Hi Nick! Thanks for commenting.

      The idea of “what past counts or doesn’t” does not bother me so much since I think in any ongoing serial readers and writers are making those choices even without reboots, and in settings with a sliding timescale, like Marvel this is especially necessary work in terms of what to erase, what to update, and what to ignore. I think my issue is that editorial mandate of (temporarily) canonizing certain versions of the narrative history, thus marketing books in ways that actually diminish rather than encourage deeper readerly engagement. Some of this energy, however, I can see taking new form in the cosplay community, however, wherein just by virtue of (perhaps limited) resources, race-bending, remixes and mash-ups, cosplayers are creating their own stories around established characters.

    • Ah, it makes me crazy – though i think it’s the editorially mandated versions of it. It feels like you end up making comics for no one – long time readers see the wink of references to past continuity but want the original one, new readers don’t get these winks at all – so it seems pointless. You speak to the joy of entering this conversation that you’ll never have complete knowledge of – that’s not a bad thing. Starting over all the time implies someone can and should have complete knowledge in order to enjoy it, and that seems false to me. Being able to weave new elements into existing cloth – that’s pretty cool. Anyhow – like i said, it’s a great piece, and if i do something on superheroes in classes – definitely will be sharing. Thanks. N

  5. I find that economics inform a lot of my reading choices. I rarely buy longer books new. Still, I’ll buy four or five single issues at once, leading to the question: Why am I willing to spend a certain amount on fragments and not spend the same amount on a full story? I think your essay offers a lot to think about in response. Really nicely done.

    • Hi Jake! Thanks for commenting. That was certainly the case when I was a kid and had to make choices between comic based on very limited economic resources, and frequently saved my money for use at yard sales and flea markets where I could buy lots of old issues for cheap (before general people got an inflated and unrealistic idea about what most comics are worth).

      These days I can afford to buy a lot more comics, but as I explain in my post “On Collecting Comics & Critical Nostalgia,” I never spend more than $5 on any individual comic.

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