Friday, January 16, 2009

More On "Gateway Books"

In the past few days, in relation to the whole Bill Willingham thing, I've been talking about the loss of what I call "gateway books," but didn't really go in depth with what, to me, defined what a "gateway book" was.

A gateway book is a book in which an established character introduces you to the far corners of his respective universe in a low-continuity way is a gateway book. Basically Marvel Team-up and Marvel Two-In-One were, in my eyes, the blueprint for a successful gateway book.

They weren't terribly sophisticated books in terms of story engines--In Marvel Team-Up's case, for instance, Spider-Man is swinging around town and stuff happens, guest star for the month is met and either a fight ensues or they immediately team up and it's all over, more or less, in 22 pages.

The plan for these books usually didn't involve furthering continuity points. No, it was just an excuse for popular characters who had versatile chemistry to introduce readers to other characters who may not have been well known, but, if presented in an interesting enough fashion, might capture a reader's imagination, if sold to them without a lot of continuity baggage.

Beyond that, they were disposable. Being intended as such, it's no wonder that every issue of Marvel Team-Up is more or less the same, just with a different guest star. It's not intended to be any more or less "deep" than that. That's why Marvel Tales reprinted them in no particular order for so many years--they were so self-contained it didn't really matter in the end.

If the "sale" worked, they could buy that character's title and then they'd be ready for the baggage they'd adopt when they started picking up the book, one assumes.

Nowadays, there's no need for gateway books, as the Big Two have pretty much abandoned any pretense of appealing to a neophyte audience. There's no need to create a continuity-safe bubble where people could check out a superhero universe in the least-intimidating way possible because the only people still around are those who know this stuff backwards and forwards and really, why waste any time fretting about whether the normals "get it" or not.

When a gateway book is tried, it's inevitably set up to fail, as it's either immediately yoked into burdensome continuity headaches, has to simultaneously introduce a new "rookie" character and service his storytelling engine in addition to the team-up model, never put in a venue a curious reader might find it (this is a big one--I sure hope one day we learn that everyone doesn't have a comics store within walking distance.) or generally starved at the breast until it's swiftly, and inevitably canceled, whereupon everyone pats themselves on the back and solemnly intones that team-up books don't sell and the market has changed like that's somehow a sign that "market has changed" is an equivalent statement to "market has evolved."

And then we wonder why the market shrinks a little bit every year and all it seems to support is one new Wolverine book. Like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, we can't seem to work out why it's gotten so hot all of a sudden and why death is near-imminent.

It could be argued, of course, that the current slate of movie and TV shows function in place of "gateway books"--that your appetite is whetted for the concept in one medium and hopefully it entices you to seek out the character in his or her native medium.

Time and logic, of course, proves this is rubbish. Ask the editors of X-Men at the time how well it worked out that people who liked the first movie found the comic and it was this ghastly, insular mess, featuring the utterly rubbish Neo. If you can't provide a persuasive argument for why your character is worth reading about without relying on the pull-through of a movie or TV show, then it's time to seriously re-think your approach. Just like movies and TV shows, creators should understand that they're competing for an audience and the best way to catch and keep it is to make the most of what comics can do that no other medium can.

That means knowing your medium. That means using the past as a resource, rather than a crutch. That means making the most of the length and breadth of the universe that's laid out for your characters to play in. And maybe, just maybe, making it cool to experience it, which means it might--just might--be worth considering that these constant downbeat endings or adolescent stabs at "realism" might not be the best way to sell a medium that primarily does escapist fare best, as "Realism" in superhero comics works about as well as putting ice on the sun and should be equally as welcome.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think the Big Two's assumption - an incorrect assumption, mind you - is that their characters have become so iconic and so recognizable partly because of movies (and on that level it doesn't matter if there's a correlation or not: Wolverine is Wolverine, Batman is Batman, Doctor Octopus is Doctor Octopus) that gateway books simply aren't necessary: if you know who Spider-Man is, that's enough.

What they overlook - what they've always overlooked, as far back as I can remember - is the lack of context. The whole bloody world might know who Harry Potter is, that doesn't mean they're going to become invested in his story if they only pick up the last novel in the series.

Kazekage said...

The fallacy in that assumption is there kind of needs to be some carryover in terms of basic characterisation. Failing that, understanding that confronting a character in a movie or on TV is a different proposition and demands different things of a consumer.

And again, you run into Ambition Collision. You can never have a relaxed done-in-one story because everyone's so bloody busy trying to Make Their Mark that they can't slow down and put a point of entry in their story.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Unless we're dealing with modular runs, in which case the point of entry is the first issue, and you can/must infer everything that comes before that.

Best example: Mark Waid's "Fantastic Four". Which... the series had been running for 490 issues before he took over, and he starts out with a single-story issue that... it didn't introduce the characters per se, or automatically reconfigure them to suit Waid's purposes, but after a few pages you could pretty much infer who these people were, and what constituted their basic history. And then Waid left, on a high note, and we got a 33-issue story with beginning, middle and end. I didn't feel any need to continue after that, nor was I compelled to hit the pre-Waid series. It was just... a story.

Kazekage said...

The problem being, while modular storytelling does lend itself more to accessibility (one's not expected to buy into 40+ years of comics history, it can be confronted in a smaller bite-size chunk) given the vicissitudes of writers, it may assume a bit more familiarity than the average neophyte might bring.

That's certainly the ideal way to do things--I mean, even James Bond movies tend to start with a brief adventure so you can quickly get acclimated to the mood and vibe of the movie. If you work it right it'll put the reader in the right frame of mind for what comes next, but so often that structure's not used.