by KC Carlson
We’ve been talking a lot lately about comic storytelling, especially of the so-called decompressed form currently in vogue in comicdom. (Hopefully you saw Roger’s excellent comparison between decompressed and traditional storytelling last week. If not, go here now.) I discussed how it relates to cover price, format, and comics publishing history last time in my column. This time around, I want to throw out a few more ideas and concepts to finish up the subject so I can move on to other ideas. (Which readers may find more entertaining than continued revolution around a single topic, even if it is one of the defining characteristics of comics of our era.)
When I started story editing at DC in the early ‘90s, one of the first important pieces of advice I received was to be wary of writers who want to pitch multi-part stories. This warning was almost always followed by colorful anecdotes about some of the biggest writers in comics history attempting to pad their 12 pages of plot into two or three-issue stories. That I heard this advice from such stellar editors as Dick Giordano, Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil, Mike Carlin, Paul Levitz, and Andy Helfer only rammed home how important it was. At the same time, it reinforced how prevalent a writer’s tactic it was. Many of them admitted that they had been taken in from time to time by the practice (and a couple also admitted that they had occasionally gotten away with it as writers themselves), which only underscored how important it was for editors to be vigilant. I also understood that this was going to be one of the major factors in how I was judged as an editor.
(As an aside, how cool was it to have that level of editorial judgment and experience available, often in an unplanned conversation in the hallway, or in an occasional editorial teaching conference? It really was a great time to be at DC.)
And, yeah, I got taken in as well a time or two, but eventually, I learned to question and challenge the writers I was working with. I also learned, most importantly, when it was appropriate to do a long, multi-part storyline. But it was also a confusing time. DC, in a publishing sense, was always looking for new miniseries, which automatically meant at least a four-issue story. And I just happened to start the story editing part of my career just as The Death of Superman (and its aftermath) and Knightfall were rolling out of the offices just down the hall from me. The Event storyline was being born at DC.
Thankfully, with the creative and editorial talent behind a lot of those early events, there was usually enough story and plot-shocks to justify the extreme length of most of the series. And no one can deny that they were sales, or in The Death of Superman’s case, media, successes.
The comic book Event became so prevalent, especially in the Bat-books as Knightfall beget Knightsend which beget Prodigal and so on, that occasionally issues of Bat-titles would cheekily feature a “Part 1 of 1” icon on their rare done-in-one stories between events. I miss those days.
(My wife Johanna has a different recollection from the fan side of the time. She recalls internet and fanzine discussions of the period about wanting more “done in one” stories, which may have been what the Bat-titles were referencing. There was a lot of chatter then about how important it was to have stand-alone stories and how they were necessary especially for new readers… but if she’s remembering correctly, editors who tried promoting that idea later said that “done in one” didn’t sell particularly well. Another example of sales patterns not matching what analysts think customers want.)
I Have an Idea About an Idea…
Another thing Paul Levitz told me — and I’m paraphrasing here — everybody’s got ideas. What editors should be looking for are the exceptional ideas, the ones that you and your creators can’t wait to get into print and share with the world.
Later, I considered what Paul had said in terms of comics history. You know those comic book stories that you still remember years — and even decades — later? Those were the really good ideas. All those comics you forgot about? Those were ideas, too — just not very good ones. Or memorable ones. (In contrast, you probably also remember the really, really bad ideas, too. Like when the Legion girls killed off the boys under mind control and then danced. My point here is that the ones that stick with you are exceptional in some way.)
Good writers should instinctively know what the exceptional ideas are. And most of them should know that often they are few and far between. Every writer begins with nothing — staring down at a blank piece of paper or a stark, empty computer screen — waiting for inspiration. Occasionally, there is none. But there are still deadlines to meet. When you do find that great idea, why not try to play it out for all that it’s worth? That’s better than staring into the void over and over. Why not throw in an extra fight scene or three to extend the fun? Or why not take an issue or two to explore the dark past of one of your characters, even if it’s not directly relevant to your current storyline? Or how about that story where your super-character has the day off, as popularized in the New Teen Titans by Wolfman and Pérez?
That last example became so prevalent in the early 90s, it formed the basis of one of my favorite lasting DC memories. At an editorial meeting, Executive Editor Mike Carlin became so frustrated at the current lack of action in certain DC titles that he roared in pure exasperation, “They can’t all be ‘A Day In the Life’ stories! Somebody’s gotta punch somebody else once in a while!”
Other Current Factors
Today’s comic writers also have other external factors pressuring them. It’s ideal to have a good working relationship with the rest of the collaborators on your creative team, and the heart of any good collaboration is the connection between writer and artist (specifically, the penciller). This is especially true when the two creators are working together on a run of issues or stories. It’s not a stretch to occasionally refer to these artistic pairings as a creative “marriage”, as the partnerships have many things in common with that traditional romantic coupling: lots of give-and-take of ideas, working methods, constructive criticism, how best to deal with differences of opinion and arguments, and even figuring out how best to work together collaboratively while giving each other the space to work and create as an individual. Ideally, a creative rhythm and trust can be worked out between the collaborators, so that artistic “magic” can be made.
This kind of chemistry is so relatively rare, it’s why many artists and writers will go out of their way to keep a good creative pairing alive. You know many of the great ones. Some of my recent favorites include Loeb and Sale, Bendis and Immonen, Waid and ‘Ringo and Dezago and ‘Ringo (Mike is so missed…), Busiek and Pacheco, Abnett and Lanning, and in earlier years, Wolfman and Pérez, Claremont and Byrne, and of course, Lee and Ditko and Lee and Kirby.
I was recently reading an article where a writer was talking about the artistic demands made by his collaborator. The gist of it was that the artist flatly stated that he would not draw any page with more than four or five panels on it. This statement can be interpreted several ways. It may be a result of the artist trying to protect himself from “green” writers attempting to cram too much story or dialog into a single page. (A very common beginner mistake, and there are certainly a lot of beginning writers out there these days, no?)
It also may be that the artist is deliberately trying to cut down on the number of “unsellable” pages in the original art market. The things that sell best (and for the most money) as original art (in no particular order) are covers, full- or two-page spreads with either spectacular action or incredible detail, and pages with the characters — in costume — in “iconic” moments. Things that generally don’t sell: pages with lots of panels of characters (usually in street clothes) standing around talking. So that four-page sequence set in the Daily Planet — unless Lois looks really hot, or Perry White is punching Jimmy Olsen in the face (repeatedly) for getting his latte wrong — those pages define “unsellable” and probably won’t fetch much as original art.
Given that, it would seem that artists concerned about selling their artwork after-the-fact would be generally against decompressed storytelling… unless of course, the story called for pages and pages of fight scenes… with lots of full pages and double-page spreads that don’t add much to the ongoing story, but sure look cool (and will bring in a small fortune in the art market). Which sort of defines what decompressed storytelling is all about, doesn’t it?
Time to Decompress
Although decompression is often held against the writers of comics, technically, decompression is a visual storytelling choice, often decided by the artist. The best way to describe a sequence of decompressed artwork is a page (or two, or longer) of a single scene in which the background and other static elements stay exactly the same over a number of panels, while only specific elements (the main character in the scene, or some action, usually in slow-motion) are all that “move”.
The dirty little secret of the production of such scenes is that the artist only has to draw the background and the static elements once. Then they can be mechanically reproduced over and over again. If the background can be established over a number of pages, this really cuts down the amount of actual drawing time for an artist, although he’s paid the same for each full page of art. I’ve actually seen sequences that were so static that only the facial expressions changed from panel to panel — so that was all the artist had to draw. Back in the day, these were statted, cut out, and pasted directly to the art boards. These days (I assume) this is all done on computer — possibly by one of the artists themselves.
This is an idea carried over from animation, by the way. Many cartoons are done with static backgrounds, filmed separately from the figures, so that either one can be moved for individual camera shots. And in old-school-style “limited” animation, only the character’s head, or an arm, or legs walking (filmed as a repeating cycle) ever moved, and only those elements had to be animated. (Again, this is old school — most animation these days is CG.)
Bigger Than Any of Us Thinks
I had hoped to get into a little more about how the current trends of storytelling are affecting the entire comic industry, from issues of formatting to how current comics are marketed and sold. It’s even affecting how back issues are handled and patterns for the ordering of comics by retailers. Plus, why it may not matter, anyway.
So, my introduction was wrong. I do have a bit more to say about this. But I also want to get all the details right, and I’m currently distracted by other deadlines as well as life itself. Besides, comics could use a little less out-of-control rambling. And this is complicated stuff, with one thing having the potential to change several other things, so I want to get it right. So more on this later.
Next week: 10 Things, and our first batch of solicitations with the announced Marvel and DC price modifications. Should be interesting.
KC CARLSON just dropped over a dozen comic titles off his regular reading list. Normally, he’d feel bad about that, but most of his old friends in print have moved on and become different people, and they’re not really the kind of people he wants to hang with any more. He can’t really help them until they realize that they’re in a bad place and want to do something about it. So it was time to move on. And he’s really looking forward to using that money to meet some new friends! Maybe he can even get back together with a couple of old friends who were in that bad place for a while but have recently pulled themselves out of that. So he wants to be there to say welcome back!
It’s a very hard lesson to learn, but it’s a true sign of maturity to realize that sometimes the only thing you can do is to walk away, especially when you can no longer do anything to actually help.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.