It was tough, this week, to come up with an article to write. If I can pull back the mysterious Pop Modern curtain and ask you to pay a little mind to the man behind it, this wasn’t a week where I simply started with a lightbulb idea and ran with it. In fact, this was the opposite of that; I wanted to revitalize a column that hasn’t been given a lot of play. Eventually, I settled on our comic-book-centric column, Panel Discussion. What made it tough was that I haven’t read any comics in a while. In fact, I rarely read many comics to begin with. At most, I’ll pick up a standalone trade paperback that a friend or a podcast host says is worth it, but even then I don’t always have the time or the means to finish an entire graphic novel. Sure, I’ve read a handful of classics, like Watchmen or Y: The Last Man, what have you, but I’m still a comics novice at best.
Picking up individual issues won’t help, either. Not only are they an expensive proposition for anyone who wants more than twenty minutes of entertainment, it’s also nearly impossible to figure out where to start. And I know that’s a pretty hackneyed complaint, the image of a man with a Droopy Dog look on his face standing in front of some shelves and sighing “Oh gee, I’m lost!” But you know what? I am lost! And I’m the kind of guy that loves complicated continuity, that’s not a consumer turn-off for me. What is a turn-off is that I have a desire for completism when I consume something. If I watch a movie, I’m sticking through from minute one to closing credits. If I watch a television show, the creators pretty much have me on the hook for seven seasons. If I’m reading a comic book, I’d like to get a complete story from start to finish. And sure, there are plenty of self-contained stories in comic books, but not if you just jump head-first into what’s being released now. It’s nearly impossible to make heads or tails of how a person should start reading Marvel Comics. It would be easy enough to point to a great Iron Man story here, or a fantastic Fantastic Four arc there, but getting a comprehensive scope of the universe as a whole is a Herculean feat.
This kind of paralyzing fear of picking the wrong entry point into the continuity is what occupied me on those rare occasions when I had enough petty cash as a kid to traipse on down to the bookstore and pick up a trade paperback. I remember the first time this happened to me I thumbed through some Captain America collections, but those were full of black-and-white versions of early, text-box-dominated issues. Beyond that, pretty much everything on the shelf was a “Volume 3” or a “Chapter 6.” That is, until I stumbled upon a Marvel book called What If?: Event Horizon. Unlike the other books, this was something I could pick up and read right away. And it had all of the characters I’d heard about: Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Avengers crew, all of those guys. This seemed like a dream come true to me; it was a book that brought together all of the characters I wanted to read about and told a handful of one-off, self-contained stories about them. I didn’t have to know anything except their names, and even those were easy to pick up after a page or two. After I burned through the book, I felt a real sense of completion, but I still was tantalized enough to want to read wiki page after wiki page of convoluted continuity.
And, not only were the stories short and easy to digest, some of them were memorable and compelling. The one that sticks in my mind the most is the first one in that collection I mentioned, “What If Xavier’s Secret Second Team Had Survived?” I’m not going to bore you with a point-for-point summary of this story, but basically it concerns Vulcan, the mutant younger brother of X-Men frontman Cyclops. In the main continuity, Vulcan was the leader of a little-known team of young mutants that Professor Xavier sent to their untimely death. In this story, however, Vulcan survived and became the most important and heroic mutant on the planet. His hypothetical survival completely alters the face of human-mutant relations, and the ultimate revelation that Vulcan murdered the mutants he was supposed to save in a bout of sociopathic calculation makes the situation all the more interesting. Since he’s such a beloved public figure, Xavier can’t simply out him as a murderer, so Vulcan is forced to disseminate the cover story that he’s flying off into the sunset to fight aliens. In reality, he’s sequestered on a floating space rock, with nothing to keep him company but a DVD of his television biography and forced psychic visions of the crimes he has committed. As if that weren’t enough of a fascinating character study, the issue ends with Vulcan coolly reflecting “I’ve watched them die two hundred and seventy-three times. How many times do you have to see someone die before you feel nothing at all?”
The first time I read that story, I was floored. Granted, I was a pre-teen, but I was floored. The idea that a single issue could give me not only an interesting character to follow but also such a broad sense of universal implications made me ravenous for more. Now, I’m not saying that all comics should be one-and-done stories, or that every one should be some outlandish “What If?” scenario. What I am saying is that there’s something that comics at large can learn from the appeal of “What If?” stories. The advantage of writing within a detailed universe like that of Marvel or DC Comics is that there are plenty of existing characters to play with and any number of ways to go with the plot. The problem is that every story is weighed down by this mountain of continuity. Part of my problem is that I need to read more comics if I want to be up-to-date, but the other part of it is that the universe itself is fighting against me, when it should be working for the benefit of the story. The universe is a backdrop, and should never outweigh the priorities or the message of the story being told. And if that means that every comic book ends up as some outlandish “What If?” issue where Wolverine and Cyclops are melded into a single mutant life-form that wanders pre-WWII Australia and decimates super-powered, dingo-riding aborigines, that still sounds pretty rad to me.