One of the standard complaints about comics is that the continuity and backstory is a massive turn-off to new readers (as I’ve mentioned in the past). One of the supposed purposes of DC’s reboot was that it was supposed to sweep away continuity and make it easy for newbies to follow along.
Reading the first TPB of All-New X-Factor by Peter David and Carmine di Giandomenico (cover by di Giandomenico, rights with current holder), I wonder if the problem isn’t so much that people can’t follow and grasp the backstory as that they don’t really care.
The concept of the book is that the mysterious Serval Corporation has recreated X-Factor (a team which has bounced around in multiple incarnations since it’s origins in the middle 1980s) to serve as it’s on-staff team of super-heroes. The CEO explains it’s so the company can do good in the world, but shockingly, he has a hidden agenda (gosh darn, now I’ve spoiled it for everyone!). The recruits in the first TPB include Magneto’s daughter Polaris; her half-brother Quicksilver; Gambit, Cajun mutant and thief; the AI Danger; the ET Warlock; and former New Mutant (another super-mutant team) Doug Ramsey.
All these characters come with a shit-ton of backstory—not just that they’ve appeared in lots of stories, but lots of changes, transformations, tragedies, etc., etc. (as I mention at the link above, backstory is both more complicated and much more important to characters than when I was a kid). To his credit, David does a great job making everything we need to know clear (of course I’ve read enough X-books that I don’t have as many gaps to fill in as someone starting cold) but it’s beyond him (and possibly anyone) to make it interesting. The history of Magus and Warlock and Doug actually makes them a little less interesting: when Warlock’s been a super-hero, super-villain, fused with a human being, unfused, fleeing from his father’s murderous intent, now back with Dad … as I said at the ink, I’m a comic book fan and when I see that stuff boiled down to a single-paragraph CV, even I can’t take it that seriously.
Or consider when Polaris finds the supposedly dead mutant Fatale alive and gets a long-winded info dump on what Quicksilver did to Fatale and why she hates him. It sets up Fatale’s understandable hostility when they meet, but I don’t think we really needed the details (the old school of footnoting the story in question would have worked fine for me).
Not that the story was a standout anyway. Everything seems fairly familiar—the team members have different agendas, corporate super-teams aren’t even new and the personalities have little beyond snark going for them. Still, I wonder if I’m the only one turned off by heavy backstory—and of course, someone who doesn’t have as much X-knowledge as I do might not even follow it easily.
This is, in a sense, a variation of a standard writing problem. How much do people buying book two of a series need to know about book one? Even if it’s a standalone, how much backstory should characters have? How much of it do people need to know and how early in the book?
I’ve seen stories that explain away all the backstory very early on and some that keep it hanging. I’ve read reasonable arguments you should omit all backstory if possible, though I don’t think that always works (for an action hero maybe, less so for a character-centric book). But the one thing it mustn’t do is bore readers. And by that standard, the new X-Factor book fails