The comic medium is completely caught up with story length. Always has been. Everything is measured and structured so that you can’t always go outside of the boundaries, which must be limiting. Whether it’s pages in an issue, panels on a page, or words in each panel, there’s a rule to everything and it’s interesting to see how storytelling differs from the 1960’s up until today. Our stories are becoming longer, and how does that change what the reader is given? Hit the jump to find out.
Take in mind that my thoughts on this style of storytelling are not judging it as necessarily bad. This was just how things went and there were economic and social reasons for this. Comics were very much a purchase of want not need and so to convince the adults who had lived through a depression to spend their money on entertainment like this for their kids it needed to have some perceived value.
To get a character’s entire back history and motivation jammed into each and every issue the pages were often quite text heavy. Characters would think in expository slabs and an omniscient narrator would explain whatever you needed to know in enough detail to keep you on track to understand this brave new world you were being introduced to and immersed in. It was a style of telling instead of showing, but most editors didn’t mind because comics were just for kids anyway, detailed and complex narratives structures could be saved for the adult novels. Even Stan Lee was a pseudonym because he thought he’d grow up one day to write the great American novel and his real name was to be saved for that glorious moment in his career.
Lee lived by the edict that each comic was somebody’s first and so he wanted to ensure that everything they needed to enjoy the show would be given to them in that one purchase. A satisfying experience that would hopefully bring them back for more in the future.
It seems that as comics entered the 1980’s so too did much of their readership enter later stages in their life. Those who were in the Merry Marvel Marching Society were now in their 20’s with jobs, or older. Their tastes were possibly more refined and their desires larger than just seeing their favourite heroes tackle the villain of the week with a speedy and simple catch at the end. These men and women looked for something a bit more serious, in motivation and execution, and so the comic companies did their best to give the public what they might want.
Crossovers also came into vogue and no good crossover could ever be told in just one issue. These were epic tales and to fit in all of the characters we needed plenty of issues. But this storytelling technique was not yet the norm, it was the side dish, the guilty pleasure. It was for hardcore fans, not the average man on the street.
It’s interesting to see that the major storylines from the 80’s era try their best to give us everything we need in their set of issues. Stories like Secret Wars and Crisis On Infinite Earths are all relatively self contained. Obviously, creators will often come back to the character moments or changes that ripple out of these stories but mostly these tales are meant to be completely enjoyable as they are.
Pages in the 80’s started to become a little easier to read, the text slowly thinned out and the development of splash pages became closer to what they are today, more about the art than the introductory establishing shot. Omniscient narration wasn’t so easily used to drop everything on the reader and a more literate sense came into the structure of the writing and the pages.
To compare this storytelling style to the era, you can see that many films of the 80’s revelled in being a neat little story set or trilogy. Star Wars and Indiana Jones had not yet bloated out and on television we might get a season long story, on things like Dallas, but each season generally stood on its own two feet. It’s not a perfectly mathematical theory but it does continue to be proved if you’ll continue me down the page.
Brian Michael Bendis has been steering the direction of the Marvel U for the better part of a decade and it seems that his overall Avengers tale has been 7 years from start to finish. He kicked things off with Disassembled, where the broke the Avengers apart, and then he wove them through New Avengers from the Raft break out to the Secret Invasion of the Skrulls, and then into the Dark Reign and finally ending in Siege. It’s been an arduous journey, with many roster changes, and though each story can be enjoyed on their own it is meant that each and every arc and event is building to a complete story. Where Bendis’ new, relaunched Avengers work will fit into this tale remains to be seen.
Bendis also made this work for his run on Daredevil by making it a truly cohesive and epic piece of spandex storytelling. Everything counts towards the end and he really builds to a fiery finale. Ed Brubaker is doing the same for Captain America by having the story follow the one main thread for years. It only now feels resolved and he’s starting a new chapter of it all in the Heroic Age. Jonathan Hickman is also well into this style of storytelling in his Fantastic Four run, and Secret Warriors also feels like one big tale, except for the Dark Reign and Siege tie-in issues which were clearly weaker as he strayed from his vision.
Grant Morrison has also done a very impressive feat of making his Batman arcs stand alone, mostly, by having them almost subversively mean something more later on when presented with the entire tale. He’s taken the character into death, a major event, a new title, with a new man as the main character, and then a mini series about the return of Bruce Wayne and you can elect to read it as one massive saga or you can enjoy segmented pieces that generally stand alone for your enjoyment.
Many complain of the decompression of the stories being published today, and I can understand why readers do not want every story to be expressly stretched for the trade experience (Diggle and Johnston’s latest arc on Daredevil stands out for me in this regard) but there are also benefits to having a story be told over many years. You get to completely immerse yourself in the tale, and with the characters, and that’s an amazing experience to share with the creators. I am a massive fan of long term storytelling because you can fit so much more in, obviously, but you can tease out the slow burn and truly make the characters grow and change within the context of the events being presented to them.
Pages in today’s comics seem so much lighter in terms of text and story density but this is because writer’s are obviously spreading the story out, so they don’t need to cram as much action into every page, but they are also placing some of the continuity onus on the reader to understand who each character is and what their prior story is, thus not needing as many expository narrations to be delivered. I feel that the writers have also better learnt how to make the words balance with the art so that only a line need be written to convey emotion, motivation, and foreboding for what is to come. Each line must be necessary for inclusion now and the language and complexity of what is said has been lifted where not all lines need to be spoon fed to the reader.
We also now get massive double splash pages that sometimes feel like padding to fill out an issue and other times are true representations of the majestic scale on which some stories are told. Mostly I see these splash pages, especially when there is more than one in an issue, as a bit of place filler to get the requisite page count right so that the issue ends on the right beat to set up the next issue. It’s a shame that this happens so often but readers are getting better at reading a tale to fill in the gaps and appreciate the art. There has even been experimentation of silent issues, but this is usually to tell a story in a different way, not because of laziness. Some might even argue that it’s more difficult to plot and plan an entire issue through images and not have the words let the reader in on the full intent.
Movies and books today also usually look to the longer form of making everything work together for the larger tale as we see Harry Potter and Twilight both build momentum and fans as they trucked along their pieces of the whole picture. It seems that most fans seem to appreciate being given a sprawling saga that they can lose themselves in. They don’t want characters to go away but rather prefer to see them through from the cradle to the all important grave. The longer the story the more invested we become in the characters and the greater the weight of the story can be.
I wonder for the future of storytelling whether there is any further to go. Can our stories get any longer. Could we see a long form tale take 10 years to tell, or even longer. Imagine an epic about one character that spans decades. Or, at least, imagine another one after Cerebus did it. Could you stay on board that title, with that singular creative team, for that long? It would be an investment that would challenge but the rewards of seeing such a massive portion of one character’s story and journey would surely yield an impressive result. Or have we swayed far enough away from the early days of singular stories filled with text that we’ll settle back into a happy medium. I think each story needs its own amount of space to be told, to stray from that and be locked in by the mandated segments that you are supposed to align with is to ruin the organic nature that is the act of forming a universe within your mind and then best expressing it. Some stories work best for comics, others for movies, others sonnets and songs, so I think you should go with what works. If it’s not organic, and you force it, then the bitter taste left with the public will be the only lasting impression you leave.