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Why Read Comics?
In recent years, much attention has been given to how comics have grown and become more mainstream and that's largely been attributed to works such as "Maus", "The Dark Knight Returns", and "Watchmen" which have achieved literary recognition outside of the comics world. While its true that those works have attracted non-comic readers, they haven't really converted those readers to become regular buyers of comics. They're remarkable works on their own and deserve all the praise they receive. However, I don't believe they're the reason why people have continued to read comics despite all the other entertainment choices available these days.
A general increase in the caliber of creators is definitely a major factor but its really the combination of quality stories (the result of quality creators) and continuity that gets people hooked and keeps them reading. Comics had continuing stories long before prime-time TV did (at least on a regular basis) but TV soon realized how such stories could keep viewers coming back week after week and now you can't find a TV drama that doesn't use this technique. That's something that seems to get overlooked in critical discussions about comics and its something that shouldn't be glossed over so easily.
Prior to the change with prime-time dramas, TV did already have daytime soap operas which really make for the best comparison to comics. Viewers have watched those shows for decades and they keep coming back to see what happens next. Immersed in the world playing out before them, they care about the lives of the characters inhabiting that world and want to keep up with what's happening to them.
With both comics and TV though, continuity is clearly a double-edged sword as stories that get too bogged down in it are almost impenetrable to new readers or viewers. Still, having stories that don't build on what's come before makes it easy for readers to give up when an issue or two doesn't suit their tastes. They don't care as much about the characters when nothing ever changes and events have no consequence. With continuity though, a reader always wants to know what happens next and is rewarded for being a long-term reader by getting a new story that uses events from the past as its basis.
Recent stories like the death of Steve Rogers and the return of Barry Allen are well-crafted in their own right but its the history of those two characters that make readers truly care about the stories.
Although big "event" stories have their detractors, they continue to sell as long as the quality of the work is high and the stories build on what's gone before while paving the way to something new. Crisis on Infinite Earths did that in the 80's while Civil War and Dark Reign have done the same more recently. Civil War could have been just another Atlantis Attacks if it were all about the fighting to see which side would win. Dark Reign would be far less significant without the history of Norman Osborn. With those elements though, the best stories become exceptional and even the mediocre stories become enjoyable.
The few comics here and there that attract national attention and lead to academic discussion are beautiful works of art but they're just a blip in terms of total comic sales and rarely result in readers continuing on to read other comics. Its the creators working every day on comics and making readers always anxious for the next issue who keep people reading and make comics really matter. That's what's made comics a medium to be enjoyed by both young and old. It has people looking for back issues and trade paperbacks to catch up on what they've missed. Its what's kept comics going since the 60s and its what will keep comics going on for the foreseeable future.