OPENINGS AND HOW TO WORK THEM
Expanding upon an article a wrote for WIZARD (April 1997, #68)
I used to date Michelle Pfeiffer back when we were both in high school.
More about that later. First, I want to tell you what I see as one of the most aggravating and pervasive negative trends in comics today.
These days comics look terrific. There’s an army of great pencilers and inkers at work today. Production is top drawer. And I don’t have to tell you how far coloring has come along in the past ten years.
But one area lags behind the rest.
I could tackle the big picture of how most comic stories are repetitive tripe or self-aggrandizing nonsense. But there’s not enough room here. So I’m gonna concentrate on the one symptom of this malady that bugs me the most.
I get lots of comics comped to me from companies I work for and even a few I don’t work for. As I leaf through then piles each month I find that only a few of them have openings interesting enough to make me want to read the rest of the issue. The books either begin with a bunch of people I don’t know talking about things I couldn’t care less about or the first few pages have a bunch of heroes I don’t know kicking the ass of a bunch of bad guys I never heard of. (Birds Of Prey #9-11 will open with a parody of these kinds of openings.)
Okay, I’m an old guy out of the loop and I don’t understand the significance of Cyberdweeb encountering Fruitwolf for the umpteenth time. But doesn’t that put me among the vast majority of Americans of all ages who (1) don’t read comics and (2) could give a rat’s ass about Cyberdweeb or Fruitwolf? Why should they give a crap if I don’t? Is it any wonder that sales are flat?
Once upon a time, comic writers and their editors understood the importance of grabbing the reader’s attention on the first three pages. It was part of the craft just like the “page-turn panel” (that’s the panel that’s supposed to be at the end of each page containing some element of suspense that would make you want to turn the next page.). Anything you did was fair play. There was the shock opening: “Jimmy! You killed Superman!” Of course, at the end of the story we find out that it all happened on Earth-2 or some other shameless ploy. But that killer opening page got you to read the whole damn book!
There’s the “What the Hell?!?!!?” opening which was raised to high art by John Byrne on Fantastic Four. Following Stan and Jack’s lead of doing boffo page ones, John took it a step further. On the first page of a hypothetical FF tale, we might discover that the Thing is now the president of the United States and you HAVE to read the rest of the story to find out how this impossible turn of events came to be. Byrne went from shameless to audacious. He DARED you not to finish reading the story all the way through Reed’s convoluted explanations of how Ben Grimm wound up being sworn in on the Capital Steps. (Although I think he’d be preferable to who we have in the Oval Office these days.)
Then there’s the “Citizen Kane” opening that coaxes you into the story with images so compelling you’re riveted from the first panel. See almost any Spirit story by Eisner or Nick Fury Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. #1 by Steranko or Watchman #1 by Moore and Gibbons.
There’s still a few guys out there who get this very simple idea, but it’s lost on most writers freelancing today. Even some of the very good ones. Why is this? Except for a few courses taught here and there there’s little or no education available in this field. But shouldn’t some of the writers learn from reading comics? I mean, if you really liked a story when you were coming up as a fanboy wouldn’t you have studied that story, dissected it, closely examined what made it work? I must have memorized every panel of Eisner’s “10 Minutes” from The Spirit or “Deathstop” by Russ Heath from Our Army at War.
Maybe it’s plain arrogance. After years of high sales and “preaching to the choir” maybe engaging and entertaining the readers, especially new ones, has somehow taken a backseat to crossovers and licensing deals. Now that enhanced covers have gone the way of the rotary phone, it could be time for the enhanced opening.
I kill myself over openings. I don’t even start ‘til I’ve got what I feel is an opening splash or inciting three pages that will pull the reader into the story by the throat.
Don’t bother posting questions here asking for a list of the clueless in this area. Just glance at that of comics you’ve been meaning to “get around to” for the last six months, but can’t bring yourself to read. You’ll find the usual suspects there.
And I really did date Michelle Pfeiffer in high school.