Why do you read comics? It’s a question that a lot of comic readers don’t get asked very often. Instead, they’ll get asked when they got into comics, or what their favourite books and characters are, but the topic of why we actually read comics is one that really needs to be addressed, especially right now, when the comic book industry is having trouble bringing in new readers, and struggling to keep up with shifting markets. If we’re really going to change the conversation about the comic book industry, and want to have any hope of bringing newer and younger readers in, we need to address this core question: given all the other forms of media out there, why do we still read comics?
When I ask people that question they usually tell me that for them, comic books are escapism, a way to slip away from the challenges of modern life, and instead live in a fantasy world where the good guys win, the bad guys are punished, and the world, in many ways, makes sense. It’s a pleasing distraction from problems and provides us with a model for how we wish the world could be. It’s a power fantasy, where might makes right, an ideal utopia where potential can be explored to its fullest, and noble ambition can be rewarded.
And there is nothing wrong with reading comics as escapism, however, there has to be more to it than that if the medium is going to survive. Superheroes are great, but at a certain point, there is always a sense of fatigue when all you do is read the same adventures by the same heroes over and over again. More readers are lost to attrition than anything else in comics, which is why long-running series have a tendency to stop, and then relaunch with new number 1’s every so often to keep the reader feeling like it’s fresh and new even when it’s just more of the same.
On top of that, movies, TV, and the internet all can provide the same or deeper levels of escapism than comics can at a much lower cost and for much longer periods of time. Escaping into a fantasy world of justice and heroes sounds great, by why spend $5 on a single issue of a comic that will take you 10 minutes to read (and only contains a partial story) when you can instead spend $10 on a movie ticket and get 3 complete hours of superhero action? Why read a trade of a comic when a regular novel, even one with illustrations, will cost less and provide a much longer reading experience? What is it about comics specifically that makes them so special, and how can we get others on-board?
Alan Moore has an answer for that, and it’s not only a good answer but an important answer. When asked by Wired Magazine about what makes comics special, he had this to say: “One of my big objections to film as a medium is that it’s much too immersive, and I think that it turns us into a population of lazy and unimaginative drones… You don’t have to do anything. With a comic, you’re having to do quite a lot. Even though you’ve got pictures there for you, you’re having to fill in all the gaps between the panels, you’re having to imagine characters voices. You’re having to do quite a lot of work. Not quite as much work as with a straight unillustrated book, but you’re still going to do quite a lot of work. I think the amount of work we contribute to our enjoyment of any piece of art is a huge component of that enjoyment. I think that we like the pieces that engage us, that enter into a kind of dialog with us, whereas with film, you sit there in your seat and it washes over you. It tells you everything, and you really don’t need to do a great deal of thinking.”
Comic books, especially good comic books, require us to work, and when we do, the work should reward our efforts. As Moore said, we don’t get that level of involvement from other forms of media, which is no doubt a large part of why comic book fans are so devoted to their favourite book. They worked hard to understand that world, and their imagination played a big part in shaping that world for them. This is also why many comic readers are so opposed to change. They have spent so much time co-creating a world for their favourite characters to live in it becomes difficult to work new, radical shifts into that narrative.
But if we are going to bring new readers in we have to understand that the challenge of reading comics is a big part of why we read those books, and so we need to be constantly challenged with art, story, and ideas if we are going to engage with the material to its fullest. If we keep the worlds stagnant, and constantly just retell the same stories, we will not be allowing the work, and our appreciation of it, to reach its full potential. We need change, and we need new voices to keep the material fresh. New readers need change so that they have entry points to those characters.
But even with the best of fresh new storytelling out there, sometimes the superhero slog still gets to be too much, and so while I love a good superhero story myself, I also am always trying to challenge myself by stepping outside that comfort zone and checking out other kinds of stories. For new readers who are interested in getting into the world of comics, but don’t have the time, resources, or interest in superheroes to delve into all that backstory, checking out other genres of comics might be a way to learn to appreciate what the medium can do without having to worry about all of that outside baggage.
Black Stars Above is one of those challenges, and for me, it is definitely worth the work. It’s its own thing, a unique story from Vault Comics, a small publisher, and for people who are not interested in superhero stories, or people who are but also want a challenge, this is the book for them.
Here’s the blurb:
The year is 1887 and a storm brews. A young fur trapper flees her overbearing family only to get lost in a dreamlike winter wilderness that harbours a cosmic threat. The fur trade is dead and the nation is changing. Yet, Eulalie Dubois has spent her entire life tending to her family’s trapline, isolated from the world. A chance at freedom comes in the form of a parcel that needs delivering to a nameless town north of the wilderness. Little does Eulalie know, something sinister hides in those woods and it yearns for what she has.
Black Stars Above is a challenging read because it is designed to be a challenging read. We are not given any easy answers. The reader is thrown into the text with little background to prepare, and we have to figure everything out as we go. The setting, the Canadian wilderness during the end of the fur trade, is not one that most readers will be familiar with, nor are we supposed to be. Some characters will be important, and some will be meaningless. Some actions have tremendous significance, and some we might never understand. What matters and what doesn’t is left entirely up to us, and so this story asks us to engage with it far more than an in-continuity superhero comic ever could. We are helping to create this world with the author, and we are the ones giving it meaning. What that meaning is comes entirely from ourselves.
The format of Black Stars Above also makes it a challenge to read. The narration is done in journal entries that tend to overwhelm the page, and in some places completely replace the comic altogether. The artwork is often unsettling, with stark landscapes and uncomfortable looking characters. The author, Lonnie Nadler, specifically wanted the reader to have questions without answers in this book. That’s a fairly common trope in cosmic horror, the sense of disconnection and unease, where normal people are put into extraordinary circumstances they are unable to comprehend. Lovecraft regularly had stories wherein the people experiencing the horrors completely broke down and either ended their lives or succumbed to the power of the evil forces they were faced with.
Adding to the challenge is the main character of Black Stars Above, Eulalie, who is a very untrustworthy narrator. As we follow her through her mission, we are constantly confronted by others who have lost their own grip on reality, leading us to wonder just how much we can trust her as she walks the same path. As her own grip on reality slides away, we are confronted by images of madness and horror that are disturbing not because they are so extreme, but because they are so familiar. It’s a dark and challenging book and not the kind I normally read, but I’m glad I did.
Like I said, Black Stars Above was a step outside my normal comfort zone. I am not a horror fan and this is not my normal genre. I don’t like scary movies, and I don’t watch creepy shows. Black Stars Above was an uncomfortable read, with a lot of disturbing elements, and required a certain degree of dedication to the story that superhero comics, especially ones coming out of the big two, don’t usually require. It’s not a quick, bright, fun book aimed at providing some quick, disposable entertainment before whisking you away on the next adventure. A book like Black Stars Above makes you work to earn your understanding, and then makes you question if you learned anything at all. For some readers that might be off-putting, but for me, that’s exactly what I want to see in my comics moving forward.
And really, that’s where comics need to go if they are going to survive. If superhero books were bringing in readers, we wouldn’t have an issue, but the fact of the matter is that the numbers of people going to see the latest superhero movies are not translating into big money for the comic book market. Last year Marvel studios made $5 billion worldwide. Last year Diamond sold comic book retailers roughly $528.1 million dollars’ worth of books total, which includes floppies, trades, reprints, special covers, and everything else specifically comic related. Of that market, Marvel comics claimed just over 40%, which means that last year Marvel comics made roughly $212 million from their comics. $212 million against $5 billion. The superhero movie market just isn’t bringing in the readers, so it’s time to try something new. Maybe it’s time to leave the superheroes behind, and really test the boundaries of what this medium can produce and engage with it like Alan Moore said.
In some ways, it feels like the big two are finally getting this, with DC launching their Black Label line of prestige books for older readers that attempt to tell very different kinds of stories with the security blanket of familiar characters (Criminal Sanity and Joker: Killer Smile being two great examples of this), while also premiering Joe Hill’s Hill House line of horror-themed comics, but there is so much more than can be done. What we need to keep in mind, and this is just economics, is that Marvel and DC are not going to take a chance with a new kind of book unless they know that they can make money off of it, which means if we want to send a message we have to show them there is money to be made.
My advice is to go out and pick up some indie trades that are outside of your comfort zone. Ask your LCS what they recommend, and what is different. Try something new, like Black Stars Above, especially during this time where we have nothing new coming out, it’s a great opportunity to challenge yourself, and see if you can find a new favourite read to recommend.
You can order a digital copy of Black Stars Above at Comixology here.