The Importance of Return Reading

Earlier in the week, The Comics Reporter had a very interesting article about "return reading" as it pertains to comics, appended by some personal examples. It's an illuminating and thoughtful read, and though we all here see where Tom Spurgeon's going when he invokes comics' "impermanance" as a big factor in making comics less pleasurable for return reading than literature, we all kinda disagree too.

Though yes, what's going on in this month's Spider-Man may not "matter" in a year or even a month, the emotions of the story (when the story has them), and the subtext of the story (when it has some) don't ever wash away. And due to this "impermanence" in presentation and even form--even a 500 page graphic novel could be read in a few hours--comics, almost more than literature demand return reading. There's a visceral-ness to comics, when they're good especially, as you're just sorta speeding through the pages, maybe not even to "see what happens" but just sorta absorbing the narrative and dialogue and art and everything else through osmosis.

For me, the work of Moebius is like this and is ideal for re-reading. Not even because his stories are usually pretty allegory heavy and cryptic but just because there's a kind of stringing-along that his art and deceptive simplicity creates. What happens exactly in Gardens of Aedena, I couldn't really tell you, but I know how it makes me feel.

Returning to the comic though, time and time again, makes plot and narrative matter even less (I know where it's going) and it's almost a kind of rote reading, like those moments when you're driving and you don't even recall the time or actions between Point A and Point B, just that like, rush of completion. But well, Moebius is an awful example because he's known for being a guy whose work demands return reading--though as I said, not for reasons I cited--and so, here's Jesse, David, and Sammy with some additional thoughts.-brandon

For me, re-reading comics is essential. Something about the way my eyes move from the text to the art, or the way the brain translates the two--they just don’t properly cohabitate. Whenever I encounter a great comic, especially a serialized comic, I read through it fast for plot, generally focusing on text, and then go back and just look at it, panel-to-panel. Nine times out of ten, I noticing something new, like a certain character’s expression or the background detail in a panel. A lot of times these are the details that make or break a work. So, really the second time through is really more like the second half of the first.

Anytime I go back and re-read through a comic later it’s at a considerably slower pace. I already know the plot, so my frenetic "get to the end" mentality is gone. You could stare a panel from Big Guy and Rusty all day or zoom through, absorbing it like the fast-paced adventure comic it is. Or purports to be, that second reading could reveal all kinds of wonders.

This is really only applicable with the best though. The comics I find myself revisiting are my absolute favorites, but especially ones with great art. These are ones that I have the easiest time picking up, because I can just sit down and lose myself in the art and even sometimes flip through, just reading random pages. I think this ability to set your own pace is what makes comics so unique. There are different ways to read the same comic and only way of really capturing these is to go back and take another look.

For me, reading is re-reading. I would almost go so far as to say that you cannot really say that you've read something—I'm talking about all literature here—until you've re-read it at least twice. I think this is especially true for comics and this isn't just because they are relatively quick reading. Obviously with comics you are dealing not just with text, but with images, as well, and your brain processes verbal stimuli differently than it does imagistic stimuli.

Beyond that, comics, perhaps even more than other narrative forms, are constructed with elements that tend to commandeer readers' attention—things like plot and action and affective elements—and these often make it difficult for us to look at things analytically, especially on a first read. Thus, it is difficult for readers to see what's really going on in a comic, its sophistication and subtleties, until we read it again and again. I think this might have a lot to do with the reason that mainstream, superhero comics are generally dismissed as being less sophisticated than your garden variety indie "comix."

People tend not re-read things that at first appear quite simple. Thus, many readers might scoff at the idea that, say, Elephantmen is more sophisticated than Maus, when what is really happening is that all of the sophistication of the latter rests on the surface, ready to be mooned over by any half-attentive reader, while in the case of the former, it takes multiple reads to see the actually complex moral world painted on the pages of the comic.

Anyone paying even scant attention to my contributions to this blog of late will recognize that I am in the midst of burgeoning love affair with Japanese comics. Because of the exigencies of the industry in Japan, there are a lot of manga which typify this view of the benefits of re-reading. On the surface, comics drawn by such masters as Osamu Tezuka, Akira Toriyama and Naoki Urasawa embody a simplicity of style that allows the creators to write and draw stories at a pace that would put many of the most prolific American cartoonists to shame. But if readers only read these comics one time, they are likely to miss the almost miraculous sophistication and subtlety buried within the simple designs.

A book that I have found myself turning to again and again since first reading it a few months ago is Hideo Azuma's Disappearance Diary. Azuma's panels are drawn with a simplicity and cartoon-ish-ness that is unusual even for manga. But what has really become apparent to me through my process of re-reading is how Azuma's choice to create a manga with "a positive outlook on life," and thus to remove much of what is usually portrayed as "realism" in addiction memoirs, has resulted in a narrative that conveys more of the emotion, indeed, more of what is "real," in the experience of addiction and recovery.
Part of comics is collecting, for better or worse, and hopefully if you're collecting, you're re-reading and not just letting your white boxes and shelves fill with Marvel Essentials you'll never read and back issues you don't really care about. Re-reading is more than just re-visiting the story, but often the characters and time period, especially with comics, where from month-to-month, some big event is changing the way Batman reacts to certain characters, or even who Batman even is.

Going back in time and reading older event books, especially ones that changed the status quo the way Secret Invasion did, are essential to understanding each detail. Despite strong feelings of hatred towards Brian Michael Bendis (maybe the most legendary tweet-hound) felt amongst most of the comics community for his story arcs reach across the entire 616 Universe, BMB's backlog of books do put together a giant picture. Going back and reading his storylines and picking out small examples of characters "acting funny", or unwarranted malice completes Secret Invasion and also brings together the more recent events of "Dark Reign" and the older "House of M" series. What seemed like just another Marvel event, cool and exciting but purposefully fleeting, has me coming back to it one year later.


Vee (Scratch) said...

The Comics Reporter article links to another article about re-reading which I was about to read until I realized that I was going to read an article about reading.

I'll keep this simple, do people enjoy watching the same films? Do people enjoy going to museums to look at the same collection of art all over again? Yes. So what would be different with comics?

Quick examples of comics that I can re-read and enjoy for a variety reasons that includes art, story, emotion, presentation and pure fun.
The Walking Dead - Compendium
Asterious Polyp
Marguerite Abouet's Aya
American Born Chinese
The Scott McCloud's 3 "books"
100 Bullets (1-100)

Impermanance? Whatever.

TheJLD said...

I couldn't agree more: One has not read until they've RE-READ. Any comics that don't stick in my head, whether it be the art or some catch in the story, I am forced to purge from my library. It may sound harsh but why must one hang on to stories that they'd prefer to not read again? Sometimes, once really is enough.
I suppose there's nothing really wrong with keeping said onesies, but personally I only want those stories that I get excited about re-reading to take up shelf (or long box) space.

I must have read Paul Pope's masterpiece "100%" at least 4 times already and it looks like it's time to dust it off again! And I feel that I don't really KNOW his "Batman: Year 100" story yet because I've only journeyed through it once. I intend to change that.

Anybody else feel the urge to crack open the Bat-works of Loeb & Sale every time the leaves turn golden brown? It looks like this year might be another "Long Halloween" for me! (Those one-shots now collected in "Haunted Knight" are tops as well!)

Other notables:
Invincible / Walking Dead
Walt Simonson's Fantastic Four
Any "graphic novel" by Will Eisner
Marvels / Kingdom Come
Hellboy / B.P.R.D.
Grendel Tales: Devils & Deaths
Two words: Darwyn Cooke

samuel rules said...

Vee and Matthew-

The comics experience is so much shorter than other forms of entertainment, I feel like coming back to them is almost more satisfying. A day off from work with a stack of comics you've already read is the best way to spend any Saturday. Especially with interlocked series, or comparing things like FFs of today and these weird old Kirby/Lee ones.

Some other comics I revisit:

Brubaker Captain America
The first Immortal Iron Fist trade
Brandon Graham's Pillow Fight and KING CITY
Madman Vol. 1
Batman: Year 100 (this upon more readings is incredibly revealing)

shit, I'm seriously just going to end up listing half my collection. Every damn time I open an old white box, I read one issue and think of the interlocking series, the artists other books, it just goes on. Comics are a web, they NEED your attention.

david e. ford, jr said...

even though the flourishing of the market in trades has mitigated somewhat the aura of impermanence of comics, i think there is still a conception of mainstream comics as disposable, of-the-moment entertainment and nothing more. this has a lot to do with why i find re-reading interesting mainstream comics so rewarding. this gets into an idea that Brandon talks about a lot in reference to comics or books or movies, which is the notion of writers 'smuggling' sophisticated ideas into nominally simple entertainments. the people that write superhero comics are kinda like dudes like jim thompson or even georges simenon, who are laboring away writing these genre works that most readers simply view as genre works and thus don't give them the attention that is required for unpacking the more sophisticated and even subversive ideas that are tucked into the genre architecture.

and yeah, comics, in this way, are no different from movies or novels or poetry or fine arts or whatever, i don't care who you are or how smart you are or experienced you are, you simply cannot appreciate all that a particular creative work has to offer on a first reading or viewing. on the flip side, sometimes re-reading shows you how something you thought was great maybe isn't as great as you initially thought.

finally, a comic for which i think re-reading is absolutely essential is tezuka's black jack.