Thursday, 19 Dec 2013
Comic Book Terminology
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Comic Book Terminology
By Lambert Muir
Hey there, fanboys and fangirls!
Being a comic book reader, I find myself employing terms that not many people know or use. Terms that are commonly used concerning comic books just aren’t used by others and may confuse those trying to get into comics. As such, today’s article will be introducing those terms, in no particular order.
Please note these definitions are my own and some of you may not entirely agree. If so, please comment and let me know.
Alright, let’s begin!
Single Issue: The single issue is the monthly installment of a story.
Trade: The trade is a collection of single issues. Like books, it is first published as a hardcover and then in softcover some months later.
Written for the trade: This is an expression that has surfaced fairly recently. It means to say that some writers write their stories in 6 issues; because the most agreed upon number of issues in a trade is 6. This pops up whenever a reader feels like a writer is stretching a story or when a story feels like it would be enjoyed better read as a collective whole rather than monthly installments.
Multiverse: The theories of multiversity are a real thing in today’s scientific discourse. Some theories say that every decision made by each individual on Earth creates a parallel universe in which a different decision was taken, creating a nigh infinite number of parallel universes. Both DC and Marvel have a multiverse of their own, ranging from a universes where every superhero is a supervillain to universes where some characters did not die.
Imprint: A small group of comic series published by a comic book company. Set aside from the main line of series because of content or creator ownership. Vertigo and Max are imprints of DC and Marvel respectively and offer ‘’mature readers’’ story that do not mesh with the companies more ‘‘family friendly’’ main line of series.
Ultimate Marvel: A Marvel Comics imprint focused on the ‘’Ultimate Universe’’, a universe where superheroes began appearing in the early 2000s.
Legacy character: When a superhero dies or retires, somebody has to pick up the mantle. Either by choice or fate, legacy characters pick up where their mentors or childhood idols left off. Wally West, once Kid Flash, became the Flash when Barry Allen died.
Crossover: A crossover is when one franchise meets another. Archie Meets Kiss is a crossover in which Archie and his pals unleash a gang of uncool monsters on Riverdale and have to summon the members of Kiss to help them make the town cool again. Go on, google it. See if I’m messing with you. I dare you.
Event: An event is a series, mostly published during the summer, involving an entire comic book fictional universe. Its purpose is to change the status quo, bring major changes to one or many characters and keeping the universe interesting. The 2007 Marvel event Civil War brought changes felt even to this day.
Crisis: This little word has caused so many fans of DC Comics to pull out their hair, it’s hilarious. The 1986 event Crisis on Infinite Earths was a way for DC to suppress the multitude of alternate universes it had generated since 1938 and make one cohesive universe out of them. The series is still very good when read today and, at the time of its publication, the changes it made stuck. Of course, superhero comics being in constant flux, those changes were slowly undone in series such as 2006’s Infinite Crisis, 2007’s 52 and 2008’s Final Crisis.
Pre-Crisis/Post-Crisis: At the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the way reader viewed the DC universe was separated in two eras: Pre-Crisis defined all that happened from 1938 to 1986 and Post-Crisis was everything happening from 1986 and on.
Golden Age: Comic books happen in ‘‘ages’’. The term is similar to ‘’Literary movements’’, it’s a word we associate to a time in writing. Like literary theory, it’s not an exact science with dates set in stones, it’s an approximation based on important stories at the time. The Golden Age starts with the publication of the first issue of Action Comics in 1938. This is the dawn of the superhero. Masses of amazed children and bewildered adults witness the image of a man in blue circus garbs with a ‘‘S’’ crest on his chest and a red cape lifting a car over his head. Superman would herald the coming of the superheroes, bigger-than-life champions of the people who replaced the heroes of the pulp. This age, like every other, ends where the next begins.
Silver Age: Like a streak of lightning, the Silver Age of comics begins with the publication of the fourth issue of DC’s Showcase in 1956. This issue introduces Barry Allen, the Flash of the Silver Age, an age marked with scientific advancement and the promises of space exploration. Allen is sleeker and more powerful than his Golden Age predecessor Jay Garrick and a new kind of superheroes follow in his red trail. The most popular among those are the Marvel superheroes of the 1960s: The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, The Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other illustrious talents, these heroes were household names as soon as they hit the newsstands. With problems readers could relate to, living in the very real New York City and possessing powers derived from science, these heroes are still seen as relevant now as they were then.
Bronze Age: The beginning of the Bronze Age comes with the death of an innocent, in the 1973 story The Night Gwen Stacy Died published in The Amazing Spider-Man issue 121. The Bronze Age is where the costumed adventurers stop and think about what they’re doing. What real impact do they have on the world? Are they creating more problems than they solve? These are hard questions to answer when cradling the dead body of an innocent woman and they haunt superheroes to this day, growing louder and louder as the bodies pile up in the next Age.
Dark Age: Violent personalities, moral absolutism leading to oblivion and explorations of sexual themes are just a few of the elements of the Dark Age of comics. It’s the Age of 1986’s Watchmen. Readers now crave stories in which superheroes can kill and books like Image Comics’ Youngblood and Spawn are happy to deliver. While freedom of content is important in any medium, some of those stories push the envelope to the point of ridicule in hindsight. Still, the same freedom of content is what allows DC’s ‘‘mature readers’’ imprint Vertigo to publish works like Sandman, The Invisibles and Preacher. The reading public, after the release of Tim Burton’s 1988 Batman, want to see their heroes treated with serious, leading to a lot of heroes sent to their deaths and eventual rebirths and everything done to keep them fresh. Everything is done to try and forget the silliness of the past ages.
Modern Age: Would you believe that it’s everything the comic book industry tried to forget that now leads it? In 1997, Grant Morrison put the superhero back on its golden pedestal in a big way with JLA. This new series saw the return of the 7 original members of the Justice League back to save the world. Sure, the Green Lantern and the Flash were legacy characters, but the team still worked together to insure the safety of humankind. This Age is dedicated to both going back to old tropes and exploring them and creating new ones as the cast of heroes grows steadily more diverse. It’s an Age of legacy characters, forgotten concepts back with a vengeance and of boundless ways to look at the superhero.
Comics Code Authority: In 1954, psychiatrist Frederick Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent to draw attention to what he considered to be the harmful effects of comic books on children. This caused a lot of trouble to the comic book industry and not just to the companies like EC Comics and Lev Gleason Publications which published horror and crime comics. The superheroes were also caught in Wertham’s crossfire as he saw them as violent homosexual fascists hell-bent on the overthrow of law and order. To shield itself before the American federal government imposed censors, the comic book companies agreed to a set of rules on what could and could not be shown in comics. Thus the Comics Code Authority was created. Over the years, companies like Warren Publishing circumvented the CCA by publishing horror magazines like Creepy. Eerie and Vampirella. Magazines were not comics and didn’t have to bend the knee. Today, with the passing of the Bronze and Dark Ages, the CCA is a thing of the past as no company uses it, not even Archie Comics.
Run: When a writer writes a series for more than two issues. Warren Ellis’s run on Secret Avengers lasted 6 issues.
Era: When a writer or artist leaves his or her mark on a series so thoroughly that it sets a standard. Chris Claremont’s 13 years era as writer of various X-Men comics and Steve Ditko’s 3 years era as sole artist of The Amazing Spider-Man are examples of both.
Canon: Much like Biblical canon, comic book canon is comprised of the stories authorities agree have happened and fit a thematic whole. Unlike the Biblical canon, comic books do not have ‘’authorities’’ in the same way that the Church has and so canon is always changing. Comics fan agree that certain stories have happened and others didn’t. As with the Biblical canon, there are apocryphal texts. In the Dark Ages, much of the silly Silver Age stories were considered has never having happened. Today, stories in which Batman uses firearms are apocryphal as they do not fit with our perception of Batman as a hero who never takes a life and never uses a gun.
Personal canon: Remember when I said comic book canon didn’t have the same authorities regulating it than the Biblical canon? Yeah, this is a good example of that. I myself believe that Bruce Wayne will eventually retire and that the mantle of Batman will be passed on to Terry McGuiness. I believe in the Batman Beyond canon. Others believe in the Dark Knight Returns canon. Everyone’s got a canon. It also applies to a reader’s favored version of a character. For example, ‘‘my’’ Batman is the world’s greatest detective who employs ancient weapons to fight crime. He doesn’t have augmented reality imbedded in his cowl and wears a simple armored batsuit. He does have many allies such as Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and the Batmen of all nations. He lives in an art deco/gothic hellhole built by opium fiends and devil worshipers and fights nightmares of the human psyche.
Continuity: A company’s inner canon. It is subject to change or alteration every time a new comic hits the shelves. An interesting example is Marvel Comics’ continuity: While the Marvel Universe exists since the publication of Fantastic Four issue 1 in 1961, every comic book published today happens 20 or so years from the time Captain America’s frozen body was found in the arctic by The Avengers in 1964. And Peter Parker has been 25 or 26 years old for a long time now even if his first appearance was in 1962 when he was around 15 years old.
Reboot: When a company decides to start everything anew. The recent DC New52 is a good example of that.
Retcon: When a past element of a character’s continuity is changed. One More Day was a story in which Peter Parker sold his marriage to Mary-Jane Watson to the devil to bring aunt May back to life and make everyone in the word forget that he was Spider-Man. This caused Mary-Jane and Peter to remember having dated for a long time, but never married and it resurrected Harry Osborne. I double dog dare you to google that one.
Team-up: A time honored tradition in superhero storytelling when two heroes come together to defeat a common enemy. Marvel’s Spider-Man Team-Up and DC’s The Brave and the Bold were two series dedicated to this.
What if?:At Marvel, a ‘‘What if’’ story asks what would have happened if something from continuity was changed. What if Daredevil was not blind? What if Conan the Barbarian were stranded in the 20th century? What if aunt May became the new herald of Galactus? What if Gwen Stacy lived? What if Uatu the Watcher found a hobby already? Little fun musings like that.
Elseworld: An ‘‘Elseworld’’ story is the DC equivalent of Marvel’s ‘’What if?’’, but with an added twist: Elseworlds often look at the entire DC Universe and how it would be changed. One of the best of the Elsworld stories is Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son and it asks what would happen if Superman landed in 1938’s Soviet Union. As you may have guessed, everything changes. Everything.
Speculator Boom/Crash: In the 1990s, many people started buying comics thinking they would be worth a lot of money in the future. Problem is they were buying a lot of recent comics and publishers were printing a lot of copies. This baffling misunderstanding of simple economics, coupled with people not understanding that old comics were printed on cheap newsprint and therefore some of them didn’t stand the test of time lead to the crash, or burst of the speculator bubble. This is why you can find whole boxes of 1991’s X-Men issue 1 and any issue of Youngblood for about a quarter a piece. Hell, if I had a comic book store with boxes of those old comics, I’d use them to practice origami.
Decompressed: In the beginning, a story would usually run the length of a single issue. As the stories got bigger and the writing and artistry started to get more sophisticated, stories could run for up to 3 or 5 issues. The concept was taken to extremes with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. The story ran for 12 issues and the panels were laid and spaced in a more cinematic way, sometimes spending two pages on a single moment in time.
Compressed: In those first issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee would have Peter fight a new villain and deal with his personal life. The superhero stuff was episodic, but it was the slice of life element that would get the readers coming back for more. It’s the best example of compressed storytelling I can find as it is mostly a thing of the past. The form is slowly coming back with creators like Matt Fraction and David Aja who use it to give their current run on Hawkeye a feel of faster action and funkier flow. Hawkeye’s compressed storytelling is a form experiment on Fraction and Aja’s part, but it’s a welcome one. Imagine someone mixing the best of jazz with the best of hip hop.