Firstly, I have to say that it being convention season makes writing a comic industry/culture column with the specific goal of ripping topics from the headlines so much easier. That said, amongst the myriad of announcements to arise from this weekend’s Wondercon, the one that I want to focus on happens to be the take-over of Secret Avengers from perennial Multiversity idol Warren Ellis. However, its not the changing of the guard aspect that I want to focus on, but rather the angle Ellis plans to take with the book. Similar to his work on Global Frequency and Planetary, each issue will tell a complete story focusing on a portion of the SA cast with a beginning, middle and end within 22 pages. Frankly, it got me wondering why we didn’t see that method a little more often.
Click below for more musings!
I’m going to try and make as few judgement calls as I can with this one, since at the end of the day the quality of a story is what matters and not the format in which it is told, however Ellis’ strategy with the book (while not one exclusive to him by any means) does bring out a few key questions as to how comics are being written and why.
The first step is to take a bit of a deeper look at the two formats in play here; the more universal, ongoing format employed by the vast majority of comics today (wherein the story is told over several issues with each issue not necessarily containing a beginning, middle and end)and the one and done method (let’s call this one the Ellis Method for the purposes of this article). With the ongoing method, stories can stretch on for years, and possibly decades, broken up by planned breaks in the story (that sometimes aren’t really breaks at all). The space in between these breaks is called a story arc and can last anywhere between two issues to (if Matt Fraction writes it) 10 or 12 issues. Of course, one could theorize that every appearance of *insert character* is a chapter of their overall story, thereby making a story arc break almost arbitrary since as long as the character is written, the story continues.
So why story arcs? Generally, its because a writer conceives a specific plot thread for the character to traverse, generally motivated by conflict. Visualizing this thread as an actual piece of thread, one end of the thread is the beginning or the arc, and the other is the end, but there is still a lot more string on the ball. In that way, story arcs and one and done stories aren’t that dissimilar, just represented by smaller pieces of thread. Therefore, we have to look to other factors to determine a true differentiation.
Think about it this way: what kind of motivating factor would require a story to be broken up into multiple parts (which then extend the story beyond the confines of a single comic)? That’s right, our old friend “need to sell comics” is, for my money, a major reason that story arcs have become such a prominent storytelling device. By collecting these arcs into trade paper backs, hardcovers, over-sized omnibuses, etc., it creates an entirely new market for the story with different target audiences and percentage yields. Readers who do not have the patience to follow a story from month to month or the desire to accrue countless 22 page floppies are given the option of receiving a much more bookshelf friendly alternative that utilizes different relationships to literature to tell, literally, the exact same story. It makes these decades long stories more accessible than issue #542 of *insert long running book* that only gives you a fourth of whatever story is being told.
Ongoing storytelling also has the financial benefit of fostering the sort of indentured servitude of its readership. It’s not like those who opt to read a story in single issues seek a complete story any less than those that read them in trade, they are just more able to wait a little longer in between installments than devout trade readers. However, their desire keeps them coming in month in and month out, creating an almost addictive quality to the hunt for single issues. To many, this is the singular point of reading comics, but for others it is nothing more than a burden.Continued below
However, if every single issue comic told a complete story, as the Ellis method dictates, that changes the ballgame a bit. The full story hunters would be able to get their complete fix from a single issue, thereby eliminating (to a certain extent), the addictive nature of single issues. It puts a bit of the power back into the readers hands to pick up or put down a story and not have any dangling bits of thread to traverse. Each issue would begin a new story, continuing the overall story of the character, but there would it would not be the same immediate story being continued, making the innate requirement to read it less present. However, from a financial standpoint, the less concrete reasoning to come back from issue to issue is dangerous because it not only could result in fewer single issue sales, but it would make the idea of a trade less appealing to some of the trade buying populace (though the shelf-friendly angle is still in play.)
At the end of the day, the format in which a story is told really doesn’t impact the quality of the story itself (since lord knows there are just as many crappy one-shots as there are minis or ongoings), but it does create more of a sense of ownership over one’s reading experience, which for some could be a very large plus.