Comic Fodder

six-issue story arcs + new creative teams = bad comics

In a land that pre-dates cell phones, e-mail, and Gameboys, I picked up my first superhero comics. This reader can distinctly remember picking up Uncanny X-Men #210 (which should either make me very old to some readers, or a kid to others. To some, it's been an indication that I jumped on the comic book thing late in life) and going from a small crush on superhero comics to full-blossomed love. Chris Claremont had written a brilliant issue, falling just after a fantastic battle from the previous issue, and giving the X-Men a month's pause before hurling them into the Mutant Massacre. In 22 pages, a lot of things occur, and, unlike many of today's comics, many things happened.

I recall being blown away by one plot involving Kitty Pryde and Colossus facing down an angry mob, assaulting Nightcrawler. Another storyline with Rogue just wanting to feel "human" again after the battle, and saving a couple of construction workers who'd fallen from a skyskraper. And the final, closing bit with Logan and Storm pledging friendship and loyalty through whatever might come.

That was some great stuff to my young eyes. And it happens all too rarely in today's market.

The rise of the writer as rockstar phenomenon and the six-issue story-arc has taken the former serial format of long-running comics and attempted to condense all series into an endless cycle of mini-series. As editors attempt to draw marquee talent for just a few issues to drive up sales, and writers refuse to stick any one place in hopes that the next paycheck will be bigger (or, perhaps that was their one idea), even flagship titles can't seem to land writers who will publicly state that they will stay on a single book. Even if the checks keep clearing.

The effect has been chilling for readers. Writers, by necessity, do not write toward the long-term. Instead, readers can expect a story with as little impact as possible with respect to the tropes of a franchise. One could safely argue that it is the duty of the editor to ensure that the writer can bring whatever they would like to a title and assist them in working it into continuity, but, instead, readers often see stutter steps of half-completed thoughts and storylines. As mentioned before, the effect of multiple six-issue story arcs occuring one after another is that the stories often fail to ever reference one another, and one wonders if each arc couldn't have been part of an independent mini-series.

The trouble with mini-series, as those of us who were comic children of the 80's might remember, is that the mini-series rarely seemed to actually matter in the grand scheme of things . They were always meant to try on new ideas, but usually with the understanding that because they existed outside the numbering system, no real opportunity for change or growth existed, possibly due to the publisher's knowledge that the mini-series generally didn't sell very well and couldn't be easily referenced by casual readers.

There may be nothing wrong with writer-as-rock star. Older readers often refer to certain runs on comics such a Simonson's Thor, or more legendary runs such as Lee and Kirby on Fantastic Four or even just Kirby on Jimmy Olsen as great reads. These writers and/ or creative teams owned the books they wrote, plotting out stories and character arcs which could build for a year or more, giving characters time to develop on their own in an organic and understandable fashion. Too often the six or twelve issue story-arc seems to shoehorn in the Lois and Jimmy's of the series as the writers seize an opportunity to touch those toys, but don't really know how to handle them once they have them.

That is not to say that there are not long-running creative teams out there. Most popular, currently, is the team of Bendis and Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man. Both the look and read of Ultimate Spider-Man has a very specific quality readers have obviously embraced. Bagley's departure is difficult enough, but when and if Bendis departs, the voice of the writer who has so clearly developed a world will be sorely missed. Further, if not for Johns, it seems unlikely JSA would have remained the vital comic it remained, nor the powerhouse comic it has become with a relaunch.

Leaping from six-issue story to six-issue story necessitates a plot driven approach which abandons the notion that the characters do anything all day but slug it out with super-armored despots and bank robbers. Referring back to the example of Uncanny X-Men #210, the plots within the story did not necessitate going toe-to-toe with supervillains, but several small acts of courage on the parts of our protagonists. And yet, those moments were indelibly linked to the action of the previous few issues, just as they would link to future issues of the series. Claremont may have had some quirks of dialogue and some odd hang-ups, but his ability to create a world readers didn't just believe in, but wanted to be a part of never stemmed from the battles, but wanting to hit the baseball field with their favorite mutants.

Some writers can create a world in six issues or less. Miller. Moore. And perhaps those creators should get a pass. In the meantime, it's the books such as the Superman line, that have been all but choked the life out of the supporting cast, that a change is necessary. Superman always worked best with the Daily Planet (or even WGBS) as an anchor and giving him a recognizable world that was not all cosmic battles. Ironically, the very human supporting cast of the Superman books once dominated the main Superman titles and were popular enough to receive their own comics. And that popularity stemmed from the chumminess of downtime at the Daily Planet. This dedication to the supporting cast continued up through the changing of the guard that placed Eddie Berganza as editor on the Superman titles.

The six-issue story arcs here lent themselves to stunt writers and storylines, too few of which acknowledged basic continuity or much knowledge of the Superman comics at all, and that was the story which saw print. One was left to wonder what the original pitch might have been. Other writer's recently assigned to the books don't seem to be able to fathom not launching Superman into battle against an armored foe within five pages, and that leaves the reading experience all the poorer. (Special kudos to Busiek with his current run on Superman and the focus back upon Jimmy and Lois, even if it's a "possible future" scenario. Now if he'll just stay on for another few years). Meanwhile, the numbers on Superman books continued to fall, seeing the cancellation of two ongoing titles.

As mentioned above, the changing creative teams too often led to a marginalization of continuity in favor of sating the interests of a hired-gun writer who wasn't terribly interested in doing his or her homework. Across the board, DC Comics in particular suffered continuity gaffe after continuity gaffe, leading to the endless cycle of death and re-animation of established characters. While it's reasonable to argue that this sort of thing fell under editorial oversight, there's little question that simple mistakes such as dead folks wandering about within a month or three, abrupt career shifts for supporting cast members, etc... would have had far less of an opportunity of occuring had a single writer or team of writers been responsible for those characters and had grown to care about those characters.

By launching so many OYL projects with too few long-term committments, the flagship titles of DC threaten to once again stall between each change of creative teams. Between the Superman titles, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, it seems DC is still fighting the editorial battles which led to Infinite Crisis.


***Update***

To help illustrate my point, Marv Wolfman, in discussing ABC's Lost, began discussing his own plotting process, and how we enjoyed working in longer stretches and why.

I know exactly what they mean because when I wrote Tomb of Dracula or even The new Titans, I worked out my major story threads in advance, sometimes up to two years in advance, but I rarely knew the specifics of how I'd reach those moments. Fact is, you don't want to know everything or the job becomes boring because all you're doing is putting into words what you already did in outline. What you want is the points and explanations for everything you're going to do, so you know your direction, but you want to be free to move in and around the story, to keep surprising yourself, and therefore surprising your readers or watchers.

More here at Wolfman's blog.

Found this courtesy of The Beat.


***Update Update***

Welcome The Beat readers.

Lessons to be learned by this reader: Make sure you back up your points with evidence. I know this, but think I got lazy, feeling as if the Superman references were enough. They clearly were not. I confess that I absolutely failed to site specific examples. Won't happen again.

Feel free to drop a comment here. And, heck. Tell me why I'm wrong.

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-- Posted by: club Acme minnesota comedy at May 9, 2008 11:26 PM