Monday, November 29, 2010

Split-level reading

At the moment, I am reading a couple of trashy novels starring John Constantine and Doctor Who, and two non-fiction books about the birth of the IRA and the evolution of the Fleet Street newspapers. I am also reading several dozen comics at the same time.

That can’t be normal.

My attention span is shocking. Fortunately, I can keep track of loads of different narratives at the same time. Which is good, because I like a bit of everything, all at once.

I’m halfway through a pile of 100-page Federal Comics reprints of beautiful eighties Marvel comics. An issue and a half through another go at Casanova. And one volume into The Invisibles, after I had to go back again for a two-year countdown.

I’m just getting into them when something else strikes me, or I get distracted, or I decide I need something lighter or heavier or funnier or darker.

I’m lost somewhere in trades from the library, a third of the way through the last Young Liars book, 30 pages into Kevin C Pyle’s Blindspot and somewhere partway through books of Brian K Vaughn Batman and Jeff Parker X-Men. I have to finish of a bit of BRPD so I can get it back in time, and I’m only a few pages into some Bendis Daredevil I missed.

Then there is the Dork book and Dan Clowes’ Wilson sitting on the coffee table, for reading while the ads on the telly. And the pile of cheaparse ‘70s b&w horror comics sitting on the back seat in my car for when I’m stuck in traffic. And the Doctor Who: The Forgotten book I got dirt cheap yesterday, that I started reading before going to see Machete.

And that Love and Rockets high I’ve been on for months now isn’t done yet. Any new issue of L&R inspires a look backwards, and it’s such a rich and rewarding body of work to rediscover.

I also made the dubious decision to do another Prog Slog a couple of months ago. Every five years or so, I read every issue I’ve got of 2000ad, and after decades of collecting, that’s 1593 issues right there. I’ve been at it since September, and I just cracked the #600 mark last night.

Bloody hell. I really need to sort my shit out. I started reading Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch the other day and want to finish that off sometime. There are a bunch of borrowed Back Issue magazines that I can’t get enough of, and I’m giving DMZ one last cursory read-through before selling it off. I just started Ode To Kirihito this morning.

It’s a pretty stupid way of going about things, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This ability to split the attention between vastly different publications is something that is almost unique to comics, for several key reasons.

Firstly, comics can be about anything, and it’s easy to keep series separate, especially when the very best have wildly different artistic styles. I’m not going to get confused between a story by Teszuka and some X-Men comics.

The second thing that makes reading dozens of different comic series at the same time easy doesn’t apply to everybody, but it certainly does for me. Some comic readers like to read a whole story in some go, but with the periodical nature of most comic books, reading a series can be a curiously non-linear experience.

Unless you have a regular order, or buy a large pile of one title in one go, a story can often be read totally out of order. It took me half a decade before I even had a vague idea of the Locas and Palomar storylines (and it literally took me 15 years to figure out Poison River), because I never read those series in any kind of order. I’ve got half of Jason Lutes’ Berlin comics, because I keep buying them when I see them cheap, and that isn’t all that often. I can't understand them at all, and that's half the fun.

I read some of the best comics ever in no kind of proper order, which weirdly makes it easier to put down a comic for a while, and then pick it up again weeks later and carry on as if no time had passed. The limbo of the panel gutter is a great place to put things on hold.

But it’s really all about the visual kick of comics. I can put down a comic for days and days, read another dozen things in the meantime, and know exactly where I’m up to, because there is always that visual cue. I can’t read a novel without a bookmark, but I can find my page on a comic in seconds, because I haven’t seen the art before.

It’s always easier to remember one panel, rather than a paragraph of text.

Keeping track of a whole bunch of different things at once isn’t purely a comics thing – we all keep track of a dozen different television shows every week. It’s a bit harder with films - skipping between DVDs and digital copies can be a bitch, and it’s one thing I miss from the days of video tape. You could watch half a dozen different things at once, and the tape always stayed at the last point you left it.

Still, there is nothing that stops me reading a really good comic as quickly as possible. Something so substantial it rockets ot the top of the list of things to read. I’ll be finished the Tezuka book soon – it’s something to read while the rugby is on.

And that’s the last thing about comics. It’s possible to read them while you’re doing anything else. You can pay half attention to a comic, stop when something interesting is happening somewhere else, and come back to the comic without any loss. You always know. You always know where you are with a comic.

1 comment:

DeBT said...

I'm a lot like you in that regard,in that I can easily catch up on any comic issue I haven't read in awhile. Also in that I have a wide range of interests, and can read anything that looks interesting. I suspect it has to do with how I learned to read various comics on the Newspaper page, which had anything from families to funny animals to adventures to drama to etc.

I also find it much easier to jump back into a comic chapter if I haven't seen a certain panel before. Though sometimes, some artistic "cheats" may use a similar position several times through the series' run, making me feel like I've "read" that image before. This happened a lot with the red goblin sticking it's tongue out in Fables.

One wonders if literary prose could gain more respect if they managed to make every paragraph distinctive from each other so they'd be more memorable rather than descriptive. Granted, that would make it harder to write a story if you had to reinvent the writing style every time in order to prove a point. But that's exactly what we do with comic pages in order to show that they're capable of more.