When I try to introduce comics to non-comic-readers, I choose what I consider to be fairly straightforward modern comics, and frequently I get the same response: “I liked it, but I had a hard time reading it.” Those of us who are devoted comics readers often forget how much skill mainstream comic book reading requires, particularly from people who haven’t read comic layouts more complex than Dilbert.
If you compare a random comic book from 2011 and 1961, you’ll notice that comic pages are more complicated now (not necessarily clearer or better, but definitely more complex). Dropping someone with simpler comic reading skills into modern comics can be like whisking someone out of the classical cinema and sitting them down in front of Inception.
Just as mainstream filmmaking uses increasingly flashy techniques, mainstream comics have developed sophisticated ways of telling stories. Look, for example, at two pages from artist J.H. Williams’s spectacular run in Detective Comics. Williams’s art calls attention to the panels’ graphic shapes, actually making it more difficult to parse the page instead of straightforwardly presenting the story world.
In economic terms, Williams is a craftsperson differentiating his work, much as (say) Gregg Toland made a name for himself as a cinematographer with a particular “look” in the classical period (Williams’s work garnered him an Eisner Award – the comics’ version of the Oscar – for Best Artist). In terms of artistry, Williams was being innovative in his use of the comics medium.
All this is fine within the comics community, whose members are more able to manage the complexity because fans are more familiar with the changing “language” of comics. But what is showy within the tiny world of comics can be daunting to the uninitiated, to those who are looking to extend the experience of the Green Lantern or Captain America films by reading actual comics. Not only is it hard for a new reader to plop down in the long-running narratives of superhero comics, but the actual form of modern comics (developed for a niche audience) can be a barrier. Because the comics language has developed within a small community of producers and readers, it can be hard for someone to learn that language when entering the comics world.