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Comic books are nerdy soap operas.
If you’re done raging at your screen, hear me out. First off, I love comic books. I’ve been reading them for about three decades now. My mom and grandmother have been watching soap operas longer than I’ve been alive. I have vivid memories of All My Children, The Young and the Restless, and Days of Our Lives dominating the TV while the sun was up.
The characters were overdrawn and overly dramatic. The relationships were complicated and ever-shifting. People who died might come back. Or it might be their long-lost twin suddenly arriving. Love and lust and betrayal were everywhere. The pauses were often even more dramatic than the music. My grandmother and mom still watch them all these decades later.
While soap operas were never my cup of tea, I grew to love professional wrestling as a child and teen. Those are basically soap operas with oiled, waxed, and roided-up athletes. Professional wrestling never had the time or the need to create complicated characters. If you couldn’t punch the problem, it didn’t belong in the WCE or WWE. During this time, I discovered comic books. And I found more of the same, but in a way that has lasted with me long beyond my love of professional wrestling.
Now, yes, I will concede that many modern comic books go beyond caricature. Characters like Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, or Witchblade have long and complicated histories. They have complex character arcs and relationships. And certainly, if you look beyond the bounds of superhero comics, there are VERY complicated stories that don’t have parallels to soap operas.
For the sake of this argument, however, I’m talking about comic books. They’re soap operas. And it is their often long and ridiculous continuities that make them great.
Let’s take a character like Cyclops from X-Men. I wrote a brief primer on the Summers family not long ago, and you can clearly see how wild and ridiculous it is. Scott’s continuity began in the ’60s, painting the character as an ambitious young man with great leadership qualities and a power that was also a disability. He’s been a leader, lover, husband, father, and even villain. Here’s the thing, though: some of those are contradictions.
Soap operas keep reinventing their characters and reworking relationships because they have made a promise to their viewers. They promise to keep finding new stories to tell. Sometimes, they bring in new characters to facilitate these new stories. Sometimes, they have to fundamentally change existing characters. Comic books are the same way.
I hear and read comic book fans complaining about various arcs they don’t like, complaining that “their character” would never do this or that. Marvel’s Civil War divided fans as much as it did heroes. DC’s Identity Crisis was met with some complaints that their heroes weren’t behaving like heroes. But that was the point.
How many stories can someone tell of Cyclops as a hero? How many as Jean Grey’s boyfriend or even husband? Sure, Emma Frost is harsh and behaves nothing like Jean, but that was the point. Putting Scott and Emma together created the opportunity for new stories. Just like in soap operas (or professional wrestling), though, nothing lasts forever. Scott is now with Jean, though not the same Jean that he married and who died. Emma is more of a villain again. But the context for all of them has changed.
And this is part of why I love comic books. Continuity can be daunting, sure. If you’re trying to get into comic books for the first time, knowing that there are years or even decades of stories feels overwhelming, but those stories make the characters into complex tapestries, too. Scott brings all of those experiences with him into every situation. His baggage is heavy. His experiences are wide and varied.
The soap opera nature of comic books also means that the genre will always surprise me. Nothing is off limits except retreading old stories. Even those can be done if they’re done well enough. Only in comics can Frank Castle, the Punisher, die and come back as the Ghost Rider, then go bananas and be given The Power Cosmic by Galactus. Cosmic Ghost Rider. Seriously. It’s a thing, and it’s brilliant.
So yes, comic books are nerdy soap operas. I love the characters, the stories, the art, and even the continuity. Embrace it all, and you will love comic books, too.