And then, in issue #482...

When we go to Berzerkeley, a trip to Comic Relief, my favorite comic book store in the world, is in order. I didn't buy anything, but only because I couldn't afford to. Had I the means, I could easily spend hundreds of dollars in that joint. Thousands, even. Anyway, even if I can't buy anything, it's lovely just to go in there and bask in its nerdly glow.

As I was perusing a shelf full of men-in-spandex, Emily says, "Hey, there's two different Batman comics. What's the difference?" I spent a brief moment wondering just how much detail I ought to go into. Not much, I decided. Not worth it.

The American comics industry frets and wrings its collective hands about how to attract new readers. Well, producing something other than adolescent male power fantasies would be a good start, but barring that...

Every month, DC Comics publishes "Batman," "Detective Comics," "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight," "All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder," "The Batman Strikes!," "Superman/Batman," plus a dozen or so other one-shots and miniseries, and Robin's own solo title, to boot.

So imagine you've decided you want a Batman comic, and you head down to the local comic book store. You're just looking for a good Batman story, but you're confronted with this bewildering array. Which one is the best? How can you tell?

Well, the simplest solution is just to buy 'em all. You get them home and start to read. Each one is a completely different story. None have any apparent connection to the others except for the characters. No one would blame you if you just chuck the whole mess in frustration and find something a little less impenetrable.

Superman is similarly over-exposed, headlining no less than three titles each month. The situation at Marvel is no better, where someone looking for a Spider-Man comic will find "Amazing Spider-Man," "Sensational Spider-Man," "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man," "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Marvel Adventures Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" (this last being Marvel's pathetic excuse for an attempt at targeting girls), and a similar confusing glut of X-Men titles. The closest thing the industry has to a trade or journal is "Wizard" magazine, which is essentially useless, especially to outsiders. It's nothing but drooling fanboyism at its worst, as inaccessible to new readers as the comics it covers. On a message board I like to read from time to time, someone recently made a post along the lines of, "I liked the X-Men movies and I'd like to try reading some X-Men comics. What should I read?" The responses were varied and certainly confusing to a potential new reader. The thread quickly devolved into yet another argument amongst nerds about which X-Men stories are the best and whether Joss Whedon sucks or not.

Now, that said, there are a lot of friendly, helpful retailers out there who are more than willing to help new readers find something they might actually enjoy. But there remains a hefty share of strangely elitist nerds a la Comic Book Guy of "The Simpsons."

It baffles me. The combined gross of the Spider-Man and X-Men films is something in the neighborhood of $1,300,000,000. 1.3 billion dollars at the box office, I assure you, does not come from comic book fans alone. And what, during these cinematic bonanzas, did Marvel Comics do to make their product accessible to new readers?

Nothin'. They trucked right along with their Spider-Man and X-Men titles mired in forty years' worth of backstory, playing to their miniscule loyal audience. They didn't use the movies' popularity as a promotional push for their comics. Their "Ultimate" line, a then-streamlined reboot, did debut at the time, but that was entirely coincidental. And the "Ultimate" universe is now nearly as convoluted and needlessly complicated as their classic line.

I didn't launch into this rant when Emily asked about it in Comic Relief yesterday. I just shrugged, said, "It's kind of a long story." The thing is, she's actually starting to kind of dig on comics. There's even some superhero stuff that she might actually enjoy - but most of it would take the liftime-long absorbtion of comics that I've had to even begin to why bother?

And people in the industry wonder why they're not generating new readers...