In the mid-80s, suits from Marvel Comics and Mattel studied their latest focus group research and noticed that children react positively to the words "wars" and "secrets". This played into the toy manufacturer’s plans to license not just the publisher's characters, but to market fortresses and vehicle and weapons. All they need was a narrative to hook the playsets onto. The story was secondary, merely a showcase for the toys. Lots of expensive toys.
And thus was born the most cynical and influential comic series of the time, the transparently committee-made and catchily-titled Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. And furtherly thus, a very small me was sucked into the world of comics via the toy pages of the Argos catalogue.
In the far too many years since then, my comic reading has taken me in many directions: the Lovecraftian horror of Mike Mignola; the diagrammatic ennui of Chris Ware; the Belgian investigative journalism capers of Hergé. They all challenge the misconception that comics are just about men in tights (misconceived by the same people who think the term "graphic novel" isn't incredibly condescending). To be honest though, it's those formative fully-poseable Marvel heroes that I always return to. Nothing wrong with tights.
I only return in short bursts though. After a while I just give up and go back to reading boring old books without pictures (aka graphicless comics). Why? Because the comics industry has gone out of its way to set up as many barriers as possible to casual readers, and even treats dedicated ones with contempt. Comics have taken that "sod the plot, here are the toys" mentality and gone crazy with it. Comics are broken.
Let's say you've just been to see the latest Batman film. "Well that was incomprehensible but tolerable", you muse, "I'd like to give one of these comic books a try. I can handle Fred Bassett, I'm sure I can handle this". And so begins an epic quest to find the one shop in your town that might stock what you assume would be a comic called Batman.
But oh no. Once you're there, you realise that things aren't that simple. DC Comics don't just publish one must-buy Batman comic, they publish … well, I don't think even they know how many there are any more. The current list of Batman-related titles includes: Batman; Batman and Robin; Batman The Dark Knight; Legends of the Dark Knight; Batgirl; Batwoman; Batwing; Batman: Arkham Unhinged; Batman Li'l Gotham; Batman Beyond Unlimited; Birds of Prey; Catwoman; Nightwing; and Batman Incorporated.
In each of these, Batman may or may not be the alter ego of Bruce Wayne. Maybe it's someone else. Or maybe he's dead this week. Or maybe it's actually one of several Robins. Or – lets' be honest, who cares at this point, because DC Comics certainly don't – maybe it's Aunt Harriet.
(Incidentally, one of the other smaller ways that comics are broken: "DC Comics". That'd be Detective Comics Comics. That's what they call themselves now, as if they've simply forgotten what their initials are for. And to make matters worse, they actually publish a comic called Detective Comics. That's right, Detective Comics Comics comic, Detective Comics. I now have a nosebleed.)
Whichever issue you buy will be most likely be in the middle of an elaborate story arc that crosses over with countless other comics and refer to things happening in parallel universes and alternate realities – debris from the frequent cack-handed tidying up of loose ends created by interminable crossovers and contradictory stories.
The problem is, comics are a minor interest for DC and Marvel now. Without doubt, a lot of skill and love goes into their creation, but these publishers are subsidiaries of mega-corporations now. Films and television and merchandise are what it's all about now. It all comes back round to selling expensive toys.
So when I do occasionally pick up comics, I tend to go off them very quickly … until now, that is. My wife, my infinitely wise wife, she who knows how to shut up my ranting for a couple of hours, bought me a subscription to Marvel Unlimited. Unlike the pay-per-issue approach of the Comixology-based apps already used by Marvel and DC, this offers thousands of back issues available in an all-you-can-eat deal. You can only download six issues at a time – it's one of those buffets where they give you impractical small plates – but that's minor quibble. Because it’s flipping brilliant. I can avoid the rigmarole of actually going comic shopping! I can give up on an issue after two pages if I please! I can catch up on whatever colour the Hulk is these days!
Admittedly, it can be a bit slow and there's some of the usual 1.0 flakiness. Plus there’s no way I'm ever going to like the Smart Panels option (imagine reading with a responsible adult who points at the pictures and traces the words with their finger as they read out loud). But by golly, it's a great app. Availability, choice, simplicity. Putting the reader first, not corporate character licensing opportunities.
“Spotify for comics” may be oversimplifying it, but you get the idea. It's a brave move for a publisher to open up a massive chunk of their back catalogue in such a way, and it'll be interesting to see if others follow suit. Not just comics either – imagine a subscription-based Penguin app. Or, thinking sideways, how about Star Wars Unlimited: all the films, automatically updated with all the latest tweaks, rejiggifications and commentaries?
Anyway, I never thought I’d say this, but I'd be quite happy to only read comics on-screen from now on (perhaps with the exception of Mignola's Hellboy – I need those deep inky blacks). Marvel Unlimited has not only converted me to digital publishing, it's restored my faith in comics.
Right now though, I'm sat with my iPad, working my way through Guardians of the Galaxy, David Aja and Matt Fraction's excellent run of Hawkeye, and of course Mattel Presents Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars In All Good Toy Shops. It's just how I remember it: it's awful; it's amazing.
Written for MacUser