Our experiment in parsing the superhero trends of today ended in disarray as the discussion devolved into the kind of sock puppetry and name calling we find so odious. However, it did spawn a rather interesting post from Michael Climek in which he talks about how he got into reading comics. We find these origin stories of comics readers in their 20s (Climek is 26) very interesting because we were one of the many observers who thought that the superhero market abandoning comics for younger readers in the 90s would sound the death knell for their readers down the road. While the feeder stream was definitely cut off a bit, the appeal of comics to youngsters still managed to shine through. And there is no shame in acknowledging that superheroes and superhero comics can have an honest appeal to children:

Regrettably I cannot remember the first time I was exposed to comics. I know that many other historians and bloggers can cite a specific issues, and moments, and stores, but I cannot. I’m barely old enough to remember the last death throes of the newsstand concept as the Direct Market took over, so comics were ‘around’ so to speak. Actually, now that I think about it, the first ‘sequential art’ I was ever exposed to may very well have been the little comics that used to come with every He-Man toy. This has just occurred to me as I write this but it makes sense. I was a HUGE He-man fan as a child. I had most of the figures, and many of their accessories, and I watched the cartoon as if my life depended on it. He-Man really clicked with me as a young lad, so one of those many tiny 8 pages comics is probably the first taste I had of sequential art.

Another issue of a comic is one that really haunted young Climek, and appalling as it sounds, there is perhaps a lesson to be learned in knowing that a comic by Peter David and Todd McFarlane had the power to scare a child so much that he threw it behind the couch.

Still, the comic in question did come out in 1987, when there were (arguably) more “regular” comics that were aimed at youngish readers. As many have pointed out, what will be even more interesting is the demographics down the road when today’s manga-reading tots seek more mature fare. When you’re trained from birth in one style, the expectations are far different.

The “Brave and the Bold” discussion did show us one thing: “decompression” is a term a lot of readers throw around without having any idea what the hell it means. For us to figure it out ourselves would necessitate reading a LOT of comics from Marvel and DC…something we may not have time for any time in this epoch, alas.


  1. For me it all started with Morgan Freeman, the Easy Reader of the Electric Company, and Spidey Super Stories #5. From there, I dabbled as most kids do, reading the old double-sized Fawcett Peanuts collections, the occasional Richie Rich when I was sick, the first Walt Kelly Pogo graphic novel (reformatted from the strips), and lots of MAD Magazine (while the issue I started with had Superduperman on the cover, I was more interested in the Cattlecar Galactica parody at the end). Then lots of video games magazines (Miner 2049, anyone?) until a fellow student showed me a copy of Secret Wars #4 in study hall. (That’s the one where our heroes are buried under a mountain.) Memorial Day weekend, 1984, I discovered that Spider-Man had a black suit, and from there I was taking weekly trips to the local shopping center (remember the spinner racks at Waldenbooks with the graphic albums?). Eventually, I began hiking uphills, both ways, two miles to get to the local comicbook store, in much the same what Shackelton hiked across South Georgia Island.

    I kicked the Marvel habit around the time of Spider-Man #1, never got hooked on Image or Valiant. The only events which hooked me were Millenium and Secret Wars II. (feh.)

    That’s the compressed version. The decompressed version includes Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Marvel Tales, Tales of the Beanworld, a summer in Europe, Direct vs Newsstand distribution, time travel. and Larry Niven and the Maid of Kleenex.

  2. For me, the epitome of bad decompression is the Bendis-written issue of Ultimate X-Men where Wolverine takes four pages to be hit by a rocket and fall off a building. This was an action that could have been disposed of in one panel, and stretching it out served no useful purpose, other than padding out the issue. This was an inappropriate use of decompression because the scene was about a guy being hit by a rocket, for God’s sake — something that happens very quickly, and should feel like it’s happening quickly. If something else had been happening at the same time — if we’d been hearing Logan’s thoughts, for instance — then that might have justified time being stretched like that. But there was nothing: just Logan falling for four pages. It ruined the momentum of the story, and worse than that: it was boring. It made me feel ripped off.

    I’m a 20-something sometimes-superhero reader, but I’m not sure how relevant I am to the question you’re asking: I grew up on British and French comics, which are super-compressed. (When you only have 3 pages per weekly chapter, or 48 pages per annual collection, you make every page count.) I’ve not looked at B&TB, but I have been enjoying ClanDestine, which not only reads but also looks like it was created in the 80s (the haircuts alone…), and that’s a large part of its charm for me. I don’t experience any nostalgia as such, because I wasn’t reading superhero comics then, but there’s something pleasantly quirky about ClanDestine‘s retro feel.

  3. I’m not going to reveal my origin all at once. You’ll just have to glean it over time as its revealed in bits and pieces like Wolverine’s origin.

    The “Decompressed vs. Compressed” is something that’s interested me for a while. Going through the Essential and Showcase volumes, it’s easier to see what sorts of stories older readers like myself are used to. For example, the X-Men story “Days of Future Past” was done in about 2 issues (I believe?) and is fondly remembered. The original Galactus Trilogy was done in 3 issues. It’s quite easy to assume that in today’s market, each of these stories would take up much more than that!

    Meanwhile, the Captain America/Nomad storyline by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema took quite a while to build up to and before introducing Nomad and then finally ending with the return of Captain America. So it’s not like old-timers are not used to longer storylines. I think a lot has to do with plot progressions taking place in each issue of the story. I wish someone like Danny Fingeroth would explore this more closely in “WriteNow!” just to explore differences based on specific runs of comic books. For example, I think that certain runs of “Ultimate Spider-Man” may have just as much action as some 70’s Spider-Man stories, but because the USM stories are specifically packaged in TPBs of 6 or so issues each the packaging determines the pacing at which the story is told.

    Heidi, if you were to host a convention panel based on this, I think you’d find an appreciative audience!

  4. I like comics that tell a story.

    Imagine listening to someone tell you a story, and during the story, they go on to recount each millisecond, change of facial expression or thought that the characters have. yawn.

    Maybe that’s why these decompressed stories don’t hold my interest. I like tightly edited novels, movies and comics. Every scene should be advancing the story, or the character AND the story.

    As a test, I think that if you can remove a whole sequence of panels from a story and not affect that story, it was an unnecessary sequence.

  5. “Decompressed vs. Compressed” — big deal. I’m with Al, I like comics that tell a story, particularly, a good story.

    DC and Marvel have to make up their minds if they will produce a majority of comics that tell good stories, or continue producing a majority of comics that tell endless tie-ins.

  6. The problem isn’t really “Compressed vs. Decompressed” as much as the monotony of doing just one all the time. Last week one of my compadres asked what books I read regularly, and I realized that I never buy single issues, even of series that I really like. Part of it has to do with space in my tiny apartment, but part of it has to do with the fact that it seems that every issue is a chunk of a much larger story that is unsatisfying to read on its own.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I remember having it drilled into me that each issue should be a satisfying stand-alone read first and foremost because each issue is someone’s first. Decompressed storytelling works in the manga form because they’re serialized in giant phonebook sized mags, and then reprinted in 200 page books which tell a satisfying story.

    Doesn’t work so well with 22-page-a-month floppies, unless the reader REALLY loves the book. The internet-age, ADD-addled casual reader just thinks “fuck it, this is too much work”. And then there are titles tailored towards the casual reader as opposed to the continuity junkie, but then it seems like an inferior product – “If this is such a good idea, why aren’t they doing it in the flagship titles? Fuck it. I’ll just buy another EC reprint”.

    It’s a giant Catch-22! From a business standpoint, I think the real question is this:

    “What is Archie doing right, and can we have some?”

  7. Hi everyone,
    My name is Giancarlo Román. I’m 23 years old and live in Lima, Perú. Guess what? We don’t get many comic books here. In fact, the only comics available are too few, overpriced ($6 for a 22 p. issue?) and obviously, no one buys them. And I don’t think I’m lying if I say that there is virtually NO culture or tradition regarding comic art in this country. There might have been one not so long ago, but today, it’s dying and fast.

    Nonetheless, somehow I managed to become an avid comic book fan and have spent like many of you, TOO MUCH money and time in funny books. As you can imagine, I’m one of the very few 20-something people in this country reading comic books.

    So when I think about my ‘origin’, I really think of it as fate. Let me explain. When I was about 13 years old back in 1997, I was in a common market (think of it as a flea market where you can find anything from stolen goods to illegal chinese imports) looking for a cheap SNES controller. Suddenly, an image in a stand caught my eye and I turned around. What I saw was the following: a big fat comic book with the picture of an old Superman and a huge battle in the cover. The book was the Kingdom Come TP. ‘Comics are thin and Superman is no way this old!’ – I told myself. I had to have it and bought it instead of my SNES controller.

    I went home and started with the introduction by Mark Waid. I clearly remember sitting by the kitchen table and reading something about how in our modern world we can do god-like things with modern technology like talking via cell phone, using the internet, etc. And it was in that moment (even before I started reading the comic book) that I saw the potential of comic books. These pictures with letters didn’t just tell funny and cool stories. They could also be great pieces of art and knowledge.

    I finished Kingdom Come that same night. And my life was never the same after it. I said this was ‘fate’ because I could have easily looked the other way in the common market and would have never seen that old and tired Superman. And probably, I would have never read a comic book in my life.

    So there, that’s the origin of a comic book fan from Peru. And I apologize if I rambled on too much.

  8. The way I’ve understood decompression from the Brave and the Bold post is that it’s basically telling a U.S.-style story in the manga style.

    The following link comparing the old Marvel Star Wars one-shot to the more recent manga adaptation seems to be a good, unintentional comparison of decompressed vs. compressed comics storytelling:


    That works fine for manga because it’s meant to be a quick read, and the creators have volumes to fill. That’s probably not the best way to go with ungodly priced 22-page monthlies.

  9. As stated above, it all comes down to telling a good story in sequential art form, period, preferably where the writing and artwork complement each other so we have a classic to cheer on and can also recommend to others today and in years to come.

    As to what “decompressed” stories are in comics, well, according to a couple of dictionaries I checked, “decompress” is defined as “relieve of pressure.” Applying that definition to comics, that could mean the relief of pressure from editorial input or mandatory deadlines so the story can unfold and/or evolve at its own speed by the creators’ own design. Nothing wrong with that as long as it’s a good story.

    Applying that definition to superhero continuity, however, has its complications, as continuity requires editorial input and mandatory deadlines to keep the story flowing smoothly as it crosses over into a gazillion titles on a multi-month basis. So there has to be some kind of “ruling compression” involved.

    But you simply can’t go wrong with a good story. Even if it isn’t popular, even if it doesn’t sell, happy readers will let you know how good it is. A good story with happy readers, what a concept! For the fans, isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that exactly what we want?

    Jim Kingman

  10. Well it’s clear that what we’re talking about here is good storytelling so I’m not sure if it’s helpful to keep pointing that out. The implied question is whether decompressed or compressed stories are “good” and if so, in which instances are they?

    I feel that the terms are unfortunate since they put the veneer of an intentional literary movement on something that was probably more accidental. I’ve never heard Stan Lee discuss this himself, but it seems clear that he wasn’t trying to tell “compressed” stories because he liked them better. I think it probably just didn’t occur to him to tell a multi-part tale (or at least one that would take 6 issues to tell). It certainly couldn’t have occurred to him back then to “write for the trade” since there was no such thing. So what we see as a literary trend was probably more of an arbitrary business-minded decision. (“Well it looks like I reached the page limit and ran out of room. I’ll have to go back and squeeze in more stuff.”)

    It’s true that the art form has matured over the past few decades and that explains why we need more room to tell stories. Silent panels can be funnier or more emotional. Extra panels in a scene can slow down the moment. These are all things that make comics more character-driven and therefore more satisfying. The fact that they also require more pages (making them “decompressed”) seems like more of side effect.

    Now, whether or not writers should take their big stories and break them down into arbitrary 22-page segments rather than releasing single-volume superhero graphic novels is a topic for another day. :)

  11. I think this is a textbook example of “compressed” vs. “decompressed” in comics: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create Amazing Fantasy 15, the first Spiderman issue and his origin story. During a couple of pages of that issue Peter Parker luxuriates in his new abilities. Having been a social nerd/loser all his life, he uses his new powers to get adoration and money. He ignores the potential to use these powers heroically and, in doing so, fails to prevent the death of his father-figure. From these few pages come the idea “With great power comes great responsibility” and more than 4 decades of heroic-Spiderman comics.
    Currently Marvel is publishing a 5 issue (over 100 pages) miniseries by Dave Lapham and Tony Harris called Spiderman: With Great Power… This series retells the story of Parker’s post-powers/pre-hero pages in the modern style.
    Decompression in action…

  12. It’s not the content that cut off kids from reading comics, it’s the availability. When comics stopped being sold as periodicals, regular stores (groceries, gas stations, etc) most kids stopped having access to them. Sure, there are comic stores, but those require a special trip, something a lot of kids can’t swing, and for the huge amount of minors in small towns unable to sustain a comic store there was nothing at all (I was one of those regional sufferers).

    I was able to get them up through about ninth grade before they stopped being carried. I recently turned twenty-seven.

    The question is how many kids who were in late-elementary/early middle school ( the age I’d say most kids start buying their own comics) when the industry shifted away from everyday stores to the direct market system started/continued to read? The kids who are twenty-three, twenty-four?

    I’d bet the numbers drop considerably.

  13. If a story is told in compressed style and told well, then it is a good story. If a story is told in decompressed style and told well, then it is a good story. We should care more about good stories rather than what style through which the story is told.

    We don’t place this restriction on other media, so why should we be so happy to apply it to comics? In prose literature, there are great short stories, great novellas, and great novels; and sometimes one choice is better than others. We don’t have this problem with cinema either: both Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Curtiz’s Casablanca are great films, but nothing happens in one and everything happens in the other.

    I think if there’s room for different styles of lauded storytelling in other media, we should probably allow for such a thing in the comics medium as well.

    I will grant you this however: just like I wait for DVD for long-stretch, episodic television shows to be collected (e.g., LOST), I wait for collections of monthlies as well. I just read the last seven years of Ultimate Spider-Man over the course of a couple weeks and it actually flows really well—despite being a little frustrating back when I bought it month-to-month. I suspect this to be the case, for a lot of the current crop of monthlies, just like it is for television series.

  14. It’s worth noting that, to a large extent, the industry didn’t shift away from the everyday stores as much as the everyday stores (and the distributors that served them) shifted away from the industry. Not entirely, of course, but to a very large extent. The Direct Market was both the best and the worst thing to happen to comics, depending on what angle you use to look at it.

  15. It’s not like every single person who starting buying comics in the 90s left when the bust happened. Many of those people continued on- especially the ones who actually liked the stories. I know artist Skottie Young has often remarked on Around Comics that he came into reading comics in the 90s and thus considers those “classic” in the same way I think of Paul Smith on X-Men or Simonson on Thor. Recent market growth also suggests that many of the ones who quit have started to come back.

    There’s a few terms that seem to get lumped in together, though I think they technically mean slightly different things: decompression, widescreen, and writing for the trade. I think decompression actually is a storytelling style that is influenced by manga which often draws out small moments into long sequences in order to build tension. Compare this to the storytelling on display in theEssential volumes where Lee and Kirby tell in one panel what would take an entire story arc/trade in today’s comics. I see widescreen as more of an artistic device (you don’t have to draw lots of tall buildings or feet) while writing for the trade (it’s also easier for newer readers since you don’t have confusing panel flow issues) is more of a business consideration and editorial edict. They have all combined together in a sense but I still think the terms mean different things and should be applied accordingly.

  16. Comics have never totally disappeared from newsstand distribution (Archie is proof of this!). When I worked for SuperCrown Books (`94-`97), we had a spinner rack which featured Archie, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image titles. (Some of which did not display the Comics Code seal.)

    Sourcelink, which serves Barnes & Noble and Borders, offers over 100 titles. Borders has a dedicated rack, B&N tends to place them with other magazines. Gas stations, which have very valuable real estate, tend to have one magazine rack, and thus tend to carry the more popular magazines.

    Small town america? Well, that’s hard. You get them by mail, either buying them via mail order, or asking your local library to request them. Most states have networked library catalogs to facilitate lending. (The Iowa SILO locator lists 4,096 titles under the subject of “comic books, strips, etc.”) Or you hop in your car and drive an hour or two to your local hobby store or regional metropolitan area where they may be shopping center. Or you go online and read them or download them. (When I attended Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa in 1988-89, I depended on the weekly free bus to Iowa City or Cedar Rapids, or I ordered my comics from an ad I found in the Comics Buyer’s Guide.)

  17. I’m twenty-two, and started reading comics when they were terrible, and continued to read them when they were terrible. Spider-clones, whatever. All of that. I did the typical branching out thing that I’m sure you’ve heard a million times before. I’m now of an income where most superhero comics just don’t seem good enough for the amount of enjoyment I’d get from them- I thought Brave and the Bold was readable enough when I was illegally downloading it, but it was when I was downloading things illegally that I found out exactly how rare that was.

    It’s the kind of comic I might buy if I were able to do the thing where I bought a stack of comics every week, if I walked into the store with twenty bucks I was determined to spend on comics. But that’s not how I buy comics these days.

    Oh wait maybe I don’t count as a superhero fan, so much as just a comics reader who buys the occasional well-regarded superhero comic- your All-Star Supermans, your Omega the Unknowns, your New Frontiers- but a lot more independent stuff.

    Brave And The Bold is pretty well-reviewed, but somehow doesn’t break through- probably it doesn’t seem distinct and weird enough due to the Perez/Ordway art. I don’t want to put it on Waid, because Morrison pasts muster, and while they’re fairly different as artists they were viewed as doing similar things during the nineties, and it’s not like Morrison’s doing the creator-owned work that distinguishes him as a big weirdo these days. It’s a book that’s a different artist away from feeling like a weird and distinct thing (that would be characterized as a “fun” comic) rather than a nostalgia trip (these also get characterized as “fun”). I’d prefer to read the former, but I’m very much in the minority.

  18. Brian — how much fault for the low sales do you think can be put on illegal downloading? I wonder how many more sales “Brave and the Bold” would have had if all of its readers actually paid for it.

  19. Chris — that’s spot on. Content is a problem for sure but that came after the marketplace shift.

    The Direct Market created boutique shops that are essential to the art form as they’re “safe havens” where fans can find everything they need and aren’t subject to the whims of newsstand distributors. But the Direct Market also created boutique shops that reduced the availability of comics geographically.

    There really is a whole generation or two who never had the pleasure of stumbling across a comic at the drugstore or the 7-11 or the whatever, buying it, reading it, and then coming back the next day to see what else is there.

    The best comic book specialty shops reach out to new customers through events and promotions, etc., but I don’t think very many specifically reach out to kids. Note that most “kids comics sections” (if they have any in your local stores at all) are in that dark corner in the back.

  20. I have no idea how many people downloaded illegally instead of buying something, and certainly even less of an idea of how much that would effect a specific book. I don’t know how many people were downloading, or what their patterns were. For the people I know who talked about it, what was downloaded was mostly things you wouldn’t buy, but had some vague level of interest in. “I’ll take it if it’s free” is pretty far from “I refuse to spend money on this” (with the latter being the opinion held by many people younger than me when it comes to buying music).

    It also relates to the difference between comics as a specific kind of experience and object vs. delivery system for plot points. Specifically, in terms of aesthetic: I’d buy a comic drawn by JH Williams whereas I might download someone else’s comics because Williams’ layouts are really strong and look best on the page, right next to each other, rather than on a computer monitor.

  21. >>”But the Direct Market also created boutique shops that reduced the availability of comics geographically.

    >>”There really is a whole generation or two who never had the pleasure of stumbling across a comic at the drugstore or the 7-11 or the whatever, buying it, reading it, and then coming back the next day to see what else is there”

    I have to peacefully dispute all of this, Jesse. (I bought Buffy Season 8 at a 7-11.) The Direct Market did not stop newsstand distribution in any way. Newsstand distributors have tough requirements that only the biggest publishers with the highest circulations can meet. (Even so, a lot of comic book stores complained throughout the 90s about the way Wallmart, K-Mark, Target, and even local drugstores were selling shrinkwrapped sets of comics for less than what the Direct Market paid their own distributors.)

    If your local newsstand/drugstore doesn’t carry comics, it’s because the profit from a $10 magazine makes the shelf space too valuable to waste on a $3 comic book.

    I think the bigger issue is this: If you’re a kid with 3 bucks, do you spend it on a comic book that you read alone and finish in 10 minutes, or do you rent Final Fantasy IV and play it with several friends for a few days? Comics are too expensive to compete for new entertainment dollars anymore.

    One possible solution might be to adjust the old 22-page paradigm to 32 or 48 pages so new readers feel they’re getting more for their money (and to allow for the decompression factor of contemporary comics storytelling). Overstuff each issue with ads to keep the cost significantly cheaper than the eventual ad-free Trade version will be, and maybe people will go back to buying both just like they used to.

  22. “One possible solution might be to adjust the old 22-page paradigm to 32 or 48 pages so new readers feel they’re getting more for their money…”

    But they won’t. Many readers today cry about comics priced at $3.99, even when they have more comics pages (unlike the recent Marvel comics that have had extra pages that were non-important text or stale reprints, which truly aren’t worth the extra money).

  23. Origins of a 25 year old comics fan:

    I obsessed over Spider-Man as a kid, we didn’t get the 80s Amazing Friends series where I loved but reruns of the 60s show was more than enough for me. From birth I had Batman and Robin toys, so maybe I was conditioned? I also had Justice League View Master reels, one where Aquaman helps Superman fight a giant water monster that just blew my mind, and made me a staunch supporter of Aquaman to this day. I wasn’t even aware there were such a thing as comic books until I was 5 or 6 when a neighbor kid started getting them. I was pretty excited there were new Spider-Man stories out there in any format and eventually I started getting them from the drugstore myself (no shops within an hours’ drive in my province at the time, none within 8 hours drive now.)

    I started with crap, a lot of it I was aware was crap even at the time… I remember being REPULSED by MJ, not being familiar with her from the TV series it was jarring to see Spider-Man married. I was secretly beyond thinking girls were icky at that point but MJ was not the kind of girl I would be into at all… plus she was smoking at that point, I think… I was soured on her. It was Daredevil, Captain America, and Batman until I lost interest. The Clone Saga got me back in of all things, after hearing Ben Reily had replaced Parker. Next I was buying Nightwing, Robin, PAD’s Supergirl, and JLA–JLA being the moment I realized there might be something to comics other than then-cheap diversions.

    I started reading a wider variety of things when I moved away to university, and only then did I start buying from comic shops. I remember my comic buying life was a bit of a stress, because the local stores that actually carried comics would switch all the time, so every week was an excursion to see which stores had comics–and I’d have to visit them all since the comics they got seemed essentially random. It was frustrating but also part of the front for myself and my comic-buying friends.