Comic Formats

By | Thursday, January 31, 2008 2 comments
One of the debates that's been going through the comic industry lately has been "pamphlets vs. trades." There's been a growing market in trade paperback sales (largely noticeable in chain bookstores) and publishers have responded accordingly by increasing the volume of those types of books they produce. A number of comic fans, tired of dealing with constantly rotating creative teams, event-driven stories, and the often far-too-amateurish atmosphere of comic shops, have switched to getting their comic fixes in the comparatively cheaper TPB format.

Curiously, though, there's an aspect to this discussion that is largely absent (at least, from what I've seen). Namely, does the "main" published format make sense for the story?

Consider the newspaper strip for a moment. There was, once upon a time, a number of comic strips that contained serial adventures. Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Little Nemo in Slumberland... Over the years, they've largely been replaced by shorter gag cartoons with no real continuity, or ongoing story. The reason is because newspapers began cutting back on the amount of space devoted to any given comic, forcing artists to reduce the length of an individual day's story. The reduced story space meant that it was more difficult for anything significant to take place on any given day -- there just wasn't room for much. And, if the artist tried to do any sort of recap of previous events, they cut that limited space by 1/3 on top of it! Extended storytelling became extremely difficult to pull, and only a handful of masters were able to pull it off at all. Thus, we've seen the demise of the serial adventure comic strip, next to the rise of the gag cartoon precisely because of the format.

The same holds true for comic books. The serial pamphlet format allows for enough time to tell an extended story but, with a limit of 20-30 pages, longer epics need to be broken down into something equating chapters of roughly equal length. The format helps dictate the "beats" of a story.

Then we get into the decompressed storytelling that Brian Bendis has made popular. He (and many others, to be sure) have taken a more leisurely approach to comic storytelling, allowing for more "talking head" scenes where extended discussions can take place. But shunting that into the pamphlet format gives rise to complaints of "nothing" happening in any individual issue. To get the rise and fall of the full story, one has to read all of the chapters in close succession -- as one might in a trade paperback.

This is, though, something of hybrid approach to storytelling. Since many of these comics are still being written/read for a pamphlet format, many of the story beats are dictated by the shorter format. You wouldn't end an issue on a non-dramatic moment because you'd unnaturally interrupt the flow of the story, since there's physical break in the story because you've gotten to the end of an issue. But because you're in the larger story, the -- if you'll excuse the pun -- ultimate execution is directed more towards the longer trade paperback format.

So what?

DC and marvel have been tending towards longer stories suitable for easy TPB collection. The month-to-month continuity is being coerced into succinct story arcs and many writers, it seems, are then "forced" into hitting the beats of the monthly comic instead of letting stories flow organically to a final format. If they were writing with the monthly publication format top-of-mind, they still have to hit those 20-30 page dramatic points to end each issue on, but that doesn't mean that a particular story has to start and end exclusively on that beat. Many of the comics I grew up on in the 1980s were of this type, where sub-plots would be slowly ebbed into a title one or two pages at a time. Some of books had multi-page prologues to stories in the final pages of the comic a month before the "main" story began. The creators at that time were working towards the pamphlet format to, by and large, good effect.

Likewise, the graphic novel market of the 1980s worked well too (in terms of writing to the TPB format, at any rate). While I've heard editors from that period remark that some of the books produced at the time weren't high enough quality to warrant printing in that format, the fact is that they were designed to it. Can you imagine trying to break The Death of Captain Marvel down into some sort of serial format extended over several months? I'm sure Jim Starlin is talented enough that he could've done that, but I can guarantee the story would have read much differently.

Again, so what?

Comic creators today are being asked, often indirectly, to take on a more difficult job by writing to two formats simultaneously. Take Civil War for example. Regardless of what you thought of the execution of the story, or even the basic concept, the story itself was designed essentially as a single, continuous narrative like you'd find in a typical graphic novel. I think this can be seen pretty readily as some of the ending issue beats seemed forced (because, in many cases, they were due to the page limits) and some of the sequences seemed padded unnecessarily (because, in many cases, they were to try to end an individual issue on a natural story beat). The result -- again, whether you liked it or not -- is something less than what it could have been if the story was allowed to flow organically towards a single format. Instead, it was trying to serve two masters.

To be fair, you can't blame the creators. They're doing the best they can given the circumstances. And you can't entirely blame the editors and higher-ups at marvel and DC either -- they're in a position where they can't (at this point) financially afford moving entirely to a TPB-driven market without alienating a good portion of their existing customer-base who still want their monthly fix of Superman or Iron Man.

Personally, though, I think they're hedging their bets a little too much. After all, we've seen through any number of late books that those same customers, while they might complain, will still wait, in some cases, months on end for their stories. Think of the sales that would've been garnered from the initial hype if All-Star Batman had only been released as a single TPB once they'd actually finished writing/drawing the whole thing.

Personally, I would prefer seeing an approach where any given project is examined up front on a case-by-case basis and determined if it makes sense creatively to publish it in the pamphlet or paperback format. Granted, the financial side still needs to be considered, but it seems to me that you won't sell as much if your final output isn't as good as it could have been.
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Anonymous said...

As usual, you bring up a number of good points Sean.

I think the reason they're still 'hedging their bets' is because they're selling the same product twice. Once in a serial format, then again, without the associated talent costs, in trades. An analogy would be ongoing TV shows. The studios make their money airing the episodes and selling ad space, then again on DVD, and then sometimes again, by selling special editions.

Or, you could look at the serial version as a pre-release of the trade. The product is out there to garner reviews, get people talking about it, whatever. And then in turn, sell more trades.

Of course, that's all economics and doesn't necessarily speak to quality. But it keeps the gears greased and product coming out, and sometimes, that's just the cost of commercialized art.

Having said all of that, I would like to see more original material in 'trade' format.

Anonymous said...

It's always fascinating how form can dictate content. When record production techniques changed and allowed for the Long-Playing records, the album emerged. When CDs came out, suddenly you could do a 70-minute work (whether or not you had 70 good minutes of material).

There was a shift a couple years ago with the number of commercials in TV shows, which then affected the story structure in hour-long television dramas (I wrote about it here). As Col. Fury notes, with sales of shows on DVD growing so much, you're serving two distinct environments. Note the rise in Director's Cuts for films.

As for comics, I often swear I'll wait for the trade paperback, but then I get sucked in to buying the monthlies because I can't wait. I'd rather they handled this on a case-by-case basis, as you suggest.