Today I’ve been at the 22 Panels Comic Art Show in Falmouth, Cornwall (it’s on tomorrow as well). And with all the conversations I’ve had today, one I kept coming back to was the effect of continuity on mainstream comic books. As in: creating stories that constantly feed into a large pre-existing history for dozens upon dozens of characters… i.e. the situation at both Marvel and DC.

I discussed the matter in interviews with Jock and Henry Flint (which we’ll be bringing to you soon) and with regulars from Cornwall Graphic Novel Group. And while I can understand that casual readers (I don’t exactly count myself as hardcore) of comics from the big two might find it difficult to get into the latest main universe incarnation of Batman or the X-Men, even the more core readers are finding the continuity situation a somewhat untenable situation.

From the point of view of writers and artists, the long line of events that have happened to the big characters in comics can be quite intimidating to account for and handle with enough sophistication as to appease longtime readers and yet be manageable as a piece of work. Imagine that you’re someone who works full-time in comics and does work for the mainstream: not only are you creating comics, but you’re also having to research past ones in order to ensure things fit in. Sure, essential reading materials can be provided, but even with the odd universe reset here and there you can only keep on top of so much of what’s happened and is happening.

But it’s not the immense history and baggage that many characters have incurred that also annoys and frustrates readers. It can be a pain, but  eventually you can find somewhere to drop in and read. The main area of contention? So called “events” comics – storylines that affect the comics of more than one character. Think this year’s Trinity War from DC or last year’s Avengers vs. X-Men from Marvel. Sizeable events that affected several different comic series.

Trinity War involved comics from the Justice LeagueJustice League Dark and Justice League of America for the main part of the plot and then on the sidelines – if you wanted the full picture – several tie-in comics from other series. And you’d have had to have read comics from DC’s Villain’s Month in order to get a picture of aftermath of Trinity War. Put simply: if you just like Constantine in the New 52, I may have felt a little sorry for you this year.

Avengers vs. X-Men was an even larger exercise in the patience of fans and casual readers. If the Wikipedia entry is anything to go by, the main story involved 12 issues, but if you went for preludes, core, tie-ins, epilogues… 71 comics spread across more than 12 series and a miniseries or two. Nice work if you can get it – potentially painful on the wallets of readers. I’m not saying you would have had to have read all of that in order to get a real sense of what happened in the event, but – and this was the sense given by those at the graphic novel group – it really does feel like publishers are taking advantage of the loyalty of fans.

And you have my sympathies if you tried to get into either of the series in question while the events were going on. The noob wondering into a comic book store who had vaguely heard of these characters before would have had to have been steered towards the trades and graphic novels in order not to be put off completely. But no one said we should stop having soap opera length storylines and back stories, or huge events in comics. It’s just that it seems like many soap operas, film series, TV series and many novel series are able to remain open to the uninitiated without relying on what’s happened before or around.

You can watch Thor without having seen Iron Man and still enjoy it. The film equivalent of a comics event – The Avengers/Avengers Assembled can re reasonably enjoyed without having to have watched all the films that led up to it – you’d be missing back story, but the film’s own story is quite strong on its own. I started reading the Harry Potter novels with the third book and still got a sense of what was going on.

A trick is being missed and I think comics need to look outside of comics in order to find a solution.