Howdy, Whatnauts! Jeff here, welcoming you to the first Wait, What? roundtable—it’s like a podcast for your eyes!
Graeme, Matt, and I were shooting the breeze over email about future entries for the website and realized the comics release week of October 7, 2015 was going to be a monster in terms of what was coming out. As frequently seems to be the case when a big convention opens, there’s a lot of trades people have been waiting on (Star Wars! Bitch Planet!), but there were a lot of first issues coming out that week. Like, a lot.
Now that’s due in no small part to NYCC and also to Marvel’s original plans to have Secret Wars all wrapped up already, but regardless we thought it might be interesting to look at four of first issues from four(ish) different publishers through the lens of: What should first issues do? What do these first issues do? And if we were to infer what the publishers will be trying to accomplish in the coming year from these first issues, what would we infer?
For our sampler pack, the three of us each secured copies of Batman & Robin Eternal #1 (DC), written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV with art from Tony Daniel; Survivors’ Club #1 (Vertigo), written by Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen, with art from Ryan Kelly; Paper Girls #1 (Image), written by Brian K. Vaughan with art from Cliff Chiang; and Doctor Strange #1 (Marvel), written by Jason Aaron with art from Chris Bachalo and, in a backup story, Kevin Nowlan. And count on FULL SPOILERS. We spoil everything but the staples. (I have no idea what that means, but it’s catchy.)
And with that out of the way, I’m gonna pass the mic over to Matt to start us off, since he was the one who got the whole ball rolling (and also because I’m curious to see what he would start us off with). Take it away, Mr. T!
MATT: Let’s take a look at Batman & Robin Eternal #1, partially because I had the lowest expectations for it of any of these books, but mostly because it is alphabetically first and I like decision-making based on arbitrary sequencing rules.
I say “lowest expectations” for two reasons: first, because I hadn’t read Batman Eternal, the previous weekly Batman limited series, and was worried that this would somehow be a sequel, but second (and mostly) because I have been loving Grayson.
Specifically, I’ve been loving Grayson when Tom King has the reins, and King’s name is notably absent from the roster of writers I’ve seen tied to B&RE. There’s a certain, unique feeling of squeamish nervousness I get when characters I associate with one writer show up in books by other writers—like when Tommy Monaghan would turn up in a non-Garth Ennis book, or Jack Knight in a non-James Robinson one—and this book tripped that part of my brain.
But this issue stars the same Dick Grayson I’ve been reading about—cheery, competent super-spy—and turned out to be a nice, groovy little read. It sets out its tone nicely, laying out the characters we’ll be following and setting out their relationships clearly. (I’m almost sick of the Scott Pilgrim/Matt Fraction introductory caption gimmick, but it’s used well here — “Batman’s second partner. Gun enthusiast. Died on the job, got better.”)
There’s a good mystery set up, a creepy new character introduced, and a solid cliffhanger ending. It does just about everything I’d think I’d want from a first issue…so it’s kind of weird that I still find myself feeling mildly disinclined to buy the next one.
Either of you guys have any idea why that would be?
GRAEME: I’ll take a swing, because I had pretty much the same reaction — it’s a perfectly fine first issue, it does its job and ends on a “What? B-but…! That can’t be!” final page… that I have very little interest in reading any more of.
For me, it’s two-fold. Firstly, it’s clearly some kind of fake-out: Batman with a gun? Re-enacting his own parents’ murders? That’s obviously not going to stick, and I found myself weirdly turned off by how needy it felt in terms of its “Isn’t this shocking? It’s shocking, isn’t it? Are you shocked?” nature. Was it Brian Hibbs who used to complain about “false jeopardy” cliffhangers? This sure is one of those, and it actually kind of soured me on the rest of the book.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, while everyone was introduced in a manner that left me knowing who they were and having a quickly sketched-in idea of interpersonal relationships and their basic character, I felt as if it didn’t really offer any reason for me to care beyond the fact that I know who Batman is and who Dick Grayson is, and that’s enough. It’s the same reaction I had to Doctor Strange #1, as well, to cross-pollinate the books we’re talking about: both of them do the very basic groundwork necessary for a first issue, but substitute “These guys are superheroes whose name you recognize! That’s enough, right?” for really setting out the story hook clearly enough.
I mean, I get what both series are about in theory, I think B&RE is “Batman has a terrible secret and the Robins have to team up to find out what it is”—because Batman has roughly several million terrible secrets, so why not—while Doctor Strange is “There’s some undefined magic threat that’s a big deal because Doctor Strange thinks it’s weird and that’s enough of a signifier, and the back-up strip shows an old dude panicking, so it has to be a big deal, right?”, but that’s mostly extrapolation rather than what’s actually in the comic. In both cases, I was left with the feeling that following either book is going to require a level of participation from me—with me filling in blanks in the text for reasons unknown, whether a misguided attempt to be fancy or just simple ineptitude—that, to be honest, I don’t care enough to give.
While I’m just unloading on the “actually tell me the hook, don’t make me guess” front, I think that Paper Girls #1 really fails on this front, as well; if the issue had actually ended a few pages earlier, and played the “They’re clearly not on Earth/at least not the Earth of their era” beat differently, I suspect I would have liked the issue a lot more. Ending with the “It’s an Apple product!” reveal just didn’t work for me; it felt like it was meant to have this massive significance that it just… didn’t.
Meanwhile, Survivor’s Club did, at least, lay out the hook well enough, even if it didn’t actually do enough with it afterwards; I could see where they were going, but it read a little too rushed/muddled/weird shit for the sake of weird, to me. Both were more successful in getting me to care about what was on the page than either of the superhero books, though.
Perhaps that’s me finally feeling too old for this shit, though. Matt seemed to dig B&RE more than I did, so what do you think? Am I just a curmudgeon?
MATT: You’re are, but you’re our curmudgeon, Graeme.
JEFF: Actually, Matt, since Graeme also writes for a half-dozen other sites, it’s pretty much to say he’s everyone’s curmudgeon: “Graeme McMillan, The Internet’s Curmudgeon since 2004.”™
But let’s back up a bit, because I think there’s a few things worth unpacking. Like Graeme’s entirely reasonable “actually tell me the hook, don’t make me guess” complaint. With the exception of Survivors’ Club, all the other books engage in what I’m going to call a “double tap” ending: where the ending jolt isn’t really the ending jolt.
In B&RE, for example, ending the issue on the “there’s a master list from years ago that has everyone we’ve met on it so they’re all part of a conspiracy they don’t even know about” is all well and good as an issue-ender, but in today’s environment of hyper-craft, it just isn’t enough. So you’re supposed to be surprised by the whole “hey, here’s Batman running around making orphans” both as an image and as a whole level of “you thought that was the twist? Wrong, here’s the twist!” engagement with the reader.
Similarly, Doctor Strange has an ending that seems a bit anticlimactic—“really, Doc is up against mystical head-lice?”—but that’s entirely intentional, so that the “post-credit sequence” by Aaron and Nowlan (and I’m really glad I read the issue in print first because it really did come off exactly like that for me) is supposed to catch you off-guard.
And in Paper Girls, BKV uses that Apple logo to the same end. You think the girls have been transported across space, but now you can’t be sure because time travel is probably now in the mix. Only poor old Survivors’ Club, with a page count of “only” 24 pages (it’s the slightest of the four books we’re covering today but is still larger than most regular issues), is too damn busy getting its characters and premise in place to bother with getting that extra bit of last page chrome. The premise of the book is so hastily set up, it’s tough to tell if the last three pages are supposed to be a twist or just an extension of that premise?
So I kind of wonder if maybe that’s why everything but Survivors’ Club felt a little meh to me ? A fakeout fakes you out much less the third time you read it…and it’s not like this is the first wave of books to pull that trick.
But, also, yeah, “The Internet’s Curmudgeon since 2004”™ is also right in pointing out the books aren’t especially good at giving you a reason to care inside the story itself. Oh, sure, outside the story, there are a number of reasons–if you care about Batman, that last page is designed to rivet you (provided you don’t rightly reject it as “false jeopardy”); if you’re a Dr. Strange fan, then Aaron’s insouciant narrative voice is deliberately designed to get you worked up; and I would say even the first half of Paper Girls plays with “oh my god you guys, I’m writing a book with teenage girls as protagonists and they said it could never be done AND LOOK AT ME I’M NOT EVEN MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT.” Survivors’ Club is the only book with a gambit for reader attention not built around an appeal existing outside the narrative (although that cover blurb from Joe Hill is ridiculous in how blatantly it works the “guys, remember all those great Vertigo books you loved so much!” angle). (And maybe that’s part of why the book feels so much like a TV show pitch in comic book form?)
Survivors’ Club did wind up being the book I ended up most invested in, which is weird because if you think about it, its story premise—“group of strangers linked by an event in their past must band together to defeat a threat they barely know about”—is pretty much the same as the first issue of Batman & Robin Eternal; it’s just that the nature of the protagonists and the threat are different. But Survivors’ Club won me over not only because I like that story hook in more of a Stephen King-like narrative than a superhero narrative, but also because of an “outside the narrative” hook: I feel like Survivor’s Club tried harder to do more, and had less to work with, than any of the other books. So while I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the book’s characters, I did find myself emotionally invested in the book’s creators. It helps that Survivors’ Club struck me as more competent than the first issue of Dominique Leveau or The Names or whatever Vertigo first issue I read before this. (I think it was that book where someone blew a talking unicorn’s head off on the penultimate page, whichever one that was.)
But let’s face it. That’s maybe not the best reason to pick up a book, right? Or to put it in more roundtabley terms: are you guys picking up any of these books’ second issues?
MATT: I’m in on Paper Girls for issue #2, but I think that’s it. I’m not sure what it is about Brian K. Vaughan—it may be as simple as the fact that we’re almost exactly the same age, and (seemingly) from pretty similar socioeconomic backgrounds in similar suburbs, so his copious pop culture references feel inclusive to me—but his writing has a tendency to land right in my sweet spot. So Paper Girls, which amounts to BKV doing an overt Spielberg riff, just works for me. The story beats are familiar while being just novel enough to keep me intrigued, and the whole concept feels Amblin Entertainment enough that I’m willing to trust it through any rough spots.
But that trust also comes from Vaughan’s casual excellence at comics storytelling; there are few working writers who consistently use the page turn as effectively as Vaughan does. Which is something I kept noticing in Survivors’ Club: I wanted to read BKV’s version of the same concept.
Because I love that high concept in theory—it’s Scream meets It!—but really, really didn’t like it in execution, and I felt like that was because of the writers’ relative newness to comics writing. Characters weren’t introduced as thoroughly as I’d like; the inciting incident that causes the group to gather wasn’t nearly intriguing enough; time transitions often felt clumsy and forced.
Artist Ryan Kelly is partially responsible as well, of course—there’s a notable scene where an unreliable narrator retells an incident in caption-box voiceover while the art shows us what “really” happened, where I had a hell of a time determining exactly what was supposed to be occurring—but writers Beukes and Halvorsen feel like they’re trying a bit too hard to achieve something clever rather than making sure they’re telling their story clearly.
(Like Jeff, I was also put off by Joe Hill’s aggressively “LOOK IT’S OLD-SCHOOL VERTIGO LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOK” pull-quote, although not nearly as much as I was by Bill Sienkiewicz’s Dave-McKean-a-like cover, which felt like someone had shown him a bunch of old issues of The Dreaming and said, “Just, y’know, do something like this.’)
Doctor Strange was fine, and I’ll gladly read the rest of it when it gets to Marvel Unlimited, but feel no particular urge to pay for individual issues.
Graeme, which ones—if any—are you coming back for?
GRAEME: My answer to that is somewhat complicated. If it were up to me, the answer is probably just Paper Girls, and that would be purely down to my hope that BKV could pull things together after a lackluster first issue rather than any real interest in what was in that first issue itself. (Mind you, I’m suddenly struck by my similar disinterest in We Stand On Guard, and the sad realization that maybe my love affair with his writing is reaching an end.)
But, in the weird privileged place I’m in, I know that I’m likely to read the next issues of both Batman & Robin Eternal and Survivors’ Club, because I’ll be getting comps, so it’s far easier for me to appear to be more dismissive than I might be otherwise. “That old thing? Oh, I’m not interested—but if you’re SENDING them to me for FREE…!”
(Your mention of Paper Girls being a Spielberg riff, Matt, got me riled up against the book for some reason. I had Super 8 flashbacks, I think, but I can very much see someone somewhere pitching the book as “It’s Goonies but they’re traveling through time and space like Time Bandits and it’s post-apocalyptic like Walking Dead—and they’re GIRLS,” and it just makes me want to throw the entire thing in some metaphorical fire, it seems so cynical and clinical and inorganic. In some strange way, it kind of explains a lot of my problems with that first issue, because it WAS a very inorganic first issue. Characters spoke in exposition and broad strokes that felt awkward in a way that I don’t normally associate with Vaughan, and the whole thing felt like everyone involved was trying to get the book to that last page reveal that didn’t quite land. Hrm.)
Then again, thinking about the four books, Survivors’ Club was the one I think I actually liked the most, so maybe I would come back for a second helping of that under my own steam. If nothing else, I have a lot of affection for Lauren Beukes’ writing elsewhere, which has to mean something, really. More proof that I have no taste, by the way, comes in the fact that I really quite like the cover, and wasn’t that bothered by the Joe Hill quote. (You’re spot on about the art compounding problems with the script, however.)
Doctor Strange is the book where a combination of my lack of interest and lack of access is just going to kill any further reading stone dead, at least until I’m really bored on Unlimited, a year or so from now. Beyond Bachalo’s chunk artwork and fun page layouts, I genuinely can’t see a reason for me to come back for a second go-around: it feels like the Contemporary Marvel Doctor Strange that Fraction pushed during Defenders, but with an added stink of Inhumans-esque “BUT HE’S GOT A MOVIE COME OUT HE’S IMPORTANT NOW YOU GUYS” desperation. That’s really, really not my thing, and I’m not sure what the appeal of this series is supposed to be, beyond Marvel saying that it’s a book that we’re supposed to care about.
This is when I’m supposed to ask Jeff what books HE’LL come back for, and I am—but this whole topic has also got me curious: what were the last first issues that you guys read that DID excite you in the way we all agree that these issues didn’t?
What WERE the last first issues that excited us? WHO will be the first one to answer Graeme’s question? HOW MANY more words can this thing possibly go? Find out in Part 2,
posting tomorrow right here!