Friday, August 6, 2010

Comic Events and The Passage of Time

For better or for worse, the publishing method of the big two companies in the American market is defined and shaped by their large sprawling events that take months to come out, and are usually a huge drain in reader’s wallets. Like any other reader, I have bought some of these, though in my mind there is something that makes or breaks an event story line: the passage of time inside that particular universe as the event goes on. Hit the jump to see more.

Before I delve deeper, I wanted to make a distinction: the discussion I am interested in is in what makes an event work, not necessarily if the story contained is good or not. A good story and a good event are not explicitly tied to each other in my mind, and hopefully I’ll make myself clearer as I explore this idea.

The Persistence of Memory

It is no secret that events are usually big sellers in the direct market, and they usually involve lots of characters within their respective universe, so they take months to develop. Some of the most extreme recent examples are Blackest Night and Civil War, which took somewhere around nine months from beginning to end (more if you count prequels and aftermaths, but let’s keep things simple for now). Even though these two events took a comparable amount of time to be published, the passage of time in-universe was completely different: Blackest Night was several hours long,a full day at most, while Civil War was weeks or perhaps a months long. Both of these approaches have their benefits and their drawbacks.

Because these stories are serialized, I think a larger passage of time in an event makes it more interesting. Characters are not just reacting with the situation at hand, solving threat after threat, without rest to ponder their actions. If they take time to regroup, to consider their positions, or hatch plans, and so on, it gives the event in itself more validity. It means this is not just one bad day for the characters involved, it’s an important event in their lives, and they must adjust accordingly. It means that this event will stay in the character’s history for a longer time (not counting retcons, of course), because it took a considerable part of his or her life and altered it. I think an event that did this almost to perfection was Annihilation, which truly felt like a war as opposed to a single battle. A war with fronts, with changing tides, with strategies that took time to develop, where you could see the wear and tear in the characters beyond some tattered clothes: they were tired of the conflict and wanted to end it as soon as possible. It took a toll on the characters as they grew more desperate, it forced them to change, to reconsider their alliances. On top of all that, Annihilation actually kept track of the passage of time, with handy captions reminding you how much it had passed since the first day of the event. Any character can have one really bad day and just forget about it, but weeks, months, or years worth of conflict? You can be sure that's going to stay in the memory of a character and the reading public for the foreseeable time.

A Week In The Life

The passage of time is also important to the reader, who is investing months of their time and money to an event. Nothing frustrated me more during Blackest Night (the main series), that characters didn’t really do much from issue to issue. The time didn’t pass for the character, but it did for readers. Months of reading, only for hours worth time passage makes for a frustrating experience in my opinion. The flip side of that is that once the serialized story is collected in trade, it reads much better because there is no wait in between the chapters. Because of the lack of passage of time in-story, it means that such a story becomes fast paced and a vertiginous experience, where cliffhangers are quickly resolved, and new ones are introduced without respite for the reader, keeping you at the edge of your seat, so to speak. On the opposite end of that spectrum sits 52, probably one of the most critically acclaimed and well regarded events in the last decade. Even though 52 was year long series, published in a weekly schedule, the characters went through the exact same real time as the reader: a week passed in each new issue of the comic.

Interestingly enough, companies have been experiencing with shorter events. For example, Siege was only four months long, half as long as other events, though it still suffered from the same defects as Blackest Night, where it is all one contiguous series of events. The battle was literally shorter than a day, and it all takes place within the book, but we barely see any of the fallout in there. An even more interesting experiment was War of the Supermen, dubbed “The 100 Minute War” because that’s how much time passed in the story, which was released on a weekly schedule. While I can’t vouch for the quality of the story, I think it was a smart move to release it in that schedules. Can you imagine what it would have been to read 100 minutes worth of fictional events over the span of four months?

Of course, this fast paced approach has some drawbacks as well. Tie-ins are a popular staple of our industry, but when something is released in a weekly schedule, there’s not much time or space to allow other titles to adjust to this event. At the same time, if there is not much happening within the story, it makes tie ins to “dance within the raindrops” a little bit too much, and we end up with repeated scenes like in Secret Invasion. The events of Secret Invasion took a couple of days at most, yet it was published over eight months, with more than a hundred tie-ins. This meant several scenes were repeated, such as the Skrull speech appearing in almost every one of the tie-ins. If there is little passage of time in an event, it doesn’t give tie-ins room to stretch their legs and craft their own story, just briefly expanding on what’s already there.

At the same time, give too much leg room, and the tie-ins lose relevance and their ties to the event become tenuous. Final Crisis did a great job in conveying the passage of time, and it helped assert the seriousness of the situation (Darkseid was in power for some time before being taken down). The problem stemmed from the tie-ins which, because of the scope of the story, were basically allowed to tell stories that barely connected with the main event.


It’s a hard balancing act to strike that perfect level where the story moves forward at interesting pace, while still allowing time to pass at a rate where it doesn’t cripple the story by making it too short for it’s own good. Which events do you think have struck that precise level, where time passes at just the right speed so reading it in serialized format doesn’t become tedious? Let us know in the comments section.

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Clayton Magnet said...

Aside from a bit at the ending, Marvel's Second coming was pretty good for pacing (1 book a week). Also, the original Annihilation fed pretty well.

Rick Sand said...

Batman: No Man's Land. Best event story ever.

It was contained within a limited group of characters, so there were no unnecessary tie-ins (or fat) to the story. Each character had a prominent role, so the event crossing into their book wasn't frivolous.

No Man's Land crossed through Batman, Detective, Shadow of the Bat, Legends of the Dark Knight, Azrael, Robin, Catwoman, and Nightwing (that I can remember) for a total of 85 issues in the course of one year (according to Wikipedia), which averages out to about 1.5 issues per week.

The way the story was structured (the heroes regaining turf from the villains) allowed multiple related plots to work individually and ultimately come together.

I'm not sure exactly what the time-line of that event was supposed to be. It's been a while. I know Oracle had a log going counting the days, but i think it was less than a year.

The massive scope of the story and multiple plot lines kept this story in a very natural time line progression with the real world duration of the story.

Kevin Bell said...

One of my favorite Batman events was "No Man's Land", and while it covered a year real time, it also covered a year in the world of Batman, so you could see what the first three months were like without him, and then the resulting battles over the rest of the year and how it wore at everyone, but closer to the end there was more of a glimmer of hope.

Of course, it leads to another problem I have, on parallel note and that's the passage of time in comics; we know that our heroes can't age realistically or they'd be ancient by now, but sometimes it irks me when the put a frame of definitive time in the story because then it leads to problems (well, for people like me with OCD traits when it comes to continuity and organizing my comics). For example, the same story, NML, covered a year of time in the Batman world, too, but it didn't accurately reflect the time in the characters' ages. Robin was 15 right before Knightfall, and he was still 15 after NML - he didn't even have his 16th birthday until a few years after NML. The time Superman was offworld on New Krypton, it was a year out time, and it was said in the story Superman was off planet for a year, too, in one point, and it just makes me wonder WHY editors put definitive time stamps down when they could just very well go "a few months in space".

Sorry if it's a rant, just something I ponder sometimes. I'm a DC fan, having stuck mostly with DC after the 90s with the prices of comics and what not, but before I quit Marvel, the X-men had one interesting thing I found nice. They had a comment in the Magneto War that 18 months had passed since the events of X-men #1 where Magneto had used Asteroid M, though it had been about five years our time. I thought it was neat how you could look at that 5 year period of X-men stories and have an idea of how time worked.

Anonymous said...

And, uh, I put my name down as Kevin Bell in the comment above, since I don't know how to sign up not to just be anonymous, but it had a different name listed; don't know if that's temporary or not, but just felt I should point that out

MisterSmith said...

I think Secret Invasion was just about the worst paced events in recent history. Over eight months for a story that took place over what...a few hours? (I thought it was hours, at least. Maybe it was a few days.)

Annihilation on the other hand, was done incredibly well.

Lucho said...

Time is a problem in every narration. I think that if you stop and analize every story (not only in comics, books and movies too) you´d find there are big problems.

The movie Se7en did a great job in telling us in how many days took place the story, for example.

The events of JAWS take place maybe in two weeks time.

In books you´ve got Larson first (and lame) best seller The men who hated women where he carefullly displays how many time passes between each event.

DOOMSDAY for Superman happenned in a few books but the events started in the morning and ended at the end of the same day.

I couldn´t know how many time took Knightfall to happen though.

Kraven´Last Hunt took place in two weeks.

And Batman Year One -and this is the best of them all, can´t believe no one remembered it- took place in a well documented year leaving a lot of gaps to be filled freely.

Great post, man!

nf said...

I don't think that events that happen over a brief period of time are problematic, rather it just needs to be interesting and exciting each issue. It doesn't matter to me as a reader how much overall time the events relates or takes in issues. Crisis on Infinite Earths is my favorite event and it takes place rather quickly, but Secret Invasion was an example of something that just didn't work even though it took place quickly too. Pacing was the problem. CoIE was quickly paced and exciting and each issue had great moments. Secret Invasion had a definite lull in the plot and therefore couldn't keep up the excitement.

Matt Duarte said...

Good point on Batman: No Man's Land! I haven't read all of the comic version, but the novelization (by Greg Rucka) did a pretty good job on the passage of time, with Oracle keeping track of the days passed.

I think Secret Invasion and Blackest Night are the biggest offenders. Between the two of them, probably only three of four days passed, even took they took almost a full year to publish each.

@Kevin Bell: That is a good point regarding the passage of time in regards with characters, but it is a whole other article waiting to be written.

@Nf: I don't think Crisis takes place rather quickly. There's a very slow build up in the beginning, and there's even a point where everyone goes home, thinking they won, only to realize that the fight isn't even over yet. There is no explicit mention of how much time has passed, but the events hint that it takes place over an extended period of time.

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