You had me, then you lost me.
My DVR is littered with unwatched episodes of series I just can not seem to force myself to watch anymore. Shows like Bates Motel, Sleepy Hollow and Once Upon a Time are shows I would catch week to week and enjoy… until I didn’t. Now, maybe these issues are not related to the writing, because it is very rare, honestly, for shows to completely change the quality of their writing in a span of s season, give or take CW’s Arrow (of which I will write about another time). No, it is probably more of a form of fatigue. I’ve just spent long enough with these characters and their stories, and maybe whatever niche the fit for me has been filled by something newer, or I am just done with those sorts of experiences.
I start with TV because it is a more accessible form of media for most people who will read this. However, my major point to this post is to explore this phenomena through comics, which I am both passionate about and almost completely over at times. Comics take these issues I have with television shows but amplify them a great deal. Basically, my thesis is this… the longer a story goes on the more likely it is to drive away an audience. Now this is not a new and unique thesis as I’ve heard variations on this idea before, but it is one I am passionate about, and have experience with.
I consider myself a storyteller. I have an ongoing webcomic called Cosmic Dash and recently spun all of the in-universe short stories onto their own site. I spend a great deal of my free time outside of studying the English language and tutoring students at a community college thinking about my stories, but more importantly, how my stories relate to other stories I am experiencing. I study stories and their structure in any media I consume. I can’t help but do so because I want to be better at telling my stories. I mention all of this because I want to emphasize that I take all of this very, very seriously - Perhaps even more seriously than I should. So, when I write that I feel like a story has gone on for far too long you can understand where I am coming from. I’ve read, watched, interacted with and written many stories.
The proposal is this: Content creators need to look at how they tell their stories and embrace shorter content models, and I am particularly adamant that the American comics industry should put this into practice immediately.
Keeping it Brief
Despite the money coming into the comic industry from blockbuster movies, booming collectable figure markets and the whole world going gaga for just about anything “geek” right now, comics seem to be going through the motions they’ve gone through since the early to mid 2000s. The industry as a whole is still relying on repeated reboots, copious crossovers, numerous renumbering, and constant character shuffles. This indicates a stagnant and directionless industry. Yes, the money from Captain America: Civil War is great for the industry as a whole, but the movie bares little to no resemblance to the source material, which is kind of representative of the whole host of creative issues the industry is currently facing… and that was way back in 2006! Look at The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was also divorced from the comics the film to it’s title from. Let’s not even get into Batman v. Superman ignoring foundational elements of characterization from 70 years of comics. For an industry that is supposedly doing really well… not a whole lot is being adapted from the comics themselves. This is not a good sign of a healthy industry.
Putting it bluntly, I think the Marvel Studios is telling better stories than Marvel Comics, and a lot of that, I think can be placed on a simple fact: Each movie, while part of a connective tissue of a larger cinematic universe, is a story that exists on it’s own, which has a beginning, middle and end. With the exception of Iron Man 2, these films are focused on telling stories that resolve themselves and change their characters in some way. In turn, story delivered, the studio is then able to introduce to other stories and characters. Now, maybe I’ve not actually worked on a Batman, or a Spider-Man, or any other ongoing superhero book, but it seems to me that it would be near impossible to have these organic stories in titles that are anywhere from issue 70 to 120 or issue 20 to 40 if the series was rebooted in the last year or so.
Comics are not friendly for anyone wanting to jump in and experience a character and their adventures. Titles are forced, to their detriment, to exist in a continuous state, drifting in and out of stories constantly. If we’re lucky we get clear, delineated arcs that line up with the trade collections, but more often than not most comics simply throw a wall of content at readers… and continue to throw walls of content. Even my favorite ongoing comic of the last 10 years, IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, has lost me. While admittedly my local comic shop has closed down and limited my access to books, I also realized that it’s just more of the same to me now, drifting from event to event in an ongoing format, rather than exist as self-contained arcs that were linked together like sequels. When I heard rumors that the comic was going to end at issue 50, I was excited. Finally, a self-contained story that leads up to a final confrontation with the Foot Clan. I got what felt like a good ending point. It seemed to me that maybe it was a good place to stop, put on the brakes, explore something else and let the next installment cook for a bit before it came out. That didn’t happen. The Walking Dead is even worse in this regard, and this is from someone who read it since the beginning. When there is a clear sense of story, the comic is great. Between these arcs, however, the series falters. Robert Kirkman said he wanted a zombie movie that never ended, and while he got his wish, I wish maybe he stopped for a while, explored another group of characters in the setting, and then came back to Rick’s group once he was ready to start the next story. Imagine the shot in the arm The Walking Dead could get if Kirkman stepped away from the Alexandria survivors, spent some time with another group, and then once done telling that story was able to come back to Rick, Carl, Negan and everyone else. It would make the world he’s built far richer and allow him to fine tune his next story arc for the original cast. I don’t write The Walking Dead nor would I want to because I think Robert Kirkman has really shown some genius in his creation and I want him to continue writing it. All I want is to not repeat the same mistakes I see in the stories in love appear in the stories I write.
Putting It Into Practice
The model I am advocating is more content being delivered in a self-contained manner. That requires a complete re-thinking of the current industry model, and I am sure smarter people than myself can weigh in with reasons why this is a bad thing. All I can do is speak first and foremost, as a consumer and, ironically enough, as a consumer… I want to see less content. It’s a strange dynamic, but let me explain. Take a look at this list of current, ongoing Batman books on the market. While they are all unique, many of them exist in the exact same continuity. Many of them are released monthly. By my count, at least 13 titles are currently being written about the same sets of characters by multiple writers. Trying to coordinate a single story set during the events of another series is hard enough and I applaud the effort of DC’s writers for keeping this stuff as straight as they have, but as a consumer I only want to buy one Batman book. I want a self-contained Batman arc, like a feature, and then I want the company to do something else that stands on it’s own. Maybe set aside Batman (sacrilege, I know) and do a Catwoman story that Batman can pop up in. We can see he is still active (the Dark Knight is ALWAYS watching over Gotham), but we can also explore other characters. What I want is a Batman series where each story arc has a beginning, middle, and end, and then goes somewhere different, but is free to cameo characters who have already had their stories, allowing us to check in on them, much like how the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.
This is great for a publisher for two reasons: One, it allows the publisher to make sure their creative teams get the time needed to craft truly memorable stories. I don’t like to use the word “filler” but this truly does trim that sort of stuff out. Instead readers get tight, focused narratives that develop the characters and actually feel impactful, like a movie release. However maybe this second reason is why this model is so good for a publisher — this model allows for publishers to experiment and give each IP a time to shine. Think of how many IPs the big two introduce in their relaunches only to cut a couple of months in. What if these IPs were in this one and done format. If the self-contained book does well, then fantastic, work on a follow up later. If the completed story wasn’t well received then you don’t need to worry about hanging plot threads, as you can visit those in other books through special appearances Even more obvious, a completed story is infinitely more marketable than an incomplete one.
Let’s return to The Walking Dead for a moment. If I were Robert Kirkman, who I am not, despite a surprising visual similarity between us, how would I apply this model to his flagship comic starting right now?
- Complete the Whisper War arc that is starting.
- End in it such a way that it’s a natural stopping point for the series, announce that the comic will step away from the Alexandria safe zone, and travel back in time to another location. Promise to revisit Rick and company eventually.
- Tell a new story earlier in the timeline of the series, in a wildly different location. Unveil new characters, tell a complete story with them in 10 issues.
- Repeat the process of developing a new story within the continuity while noting how the fanbase and critics have reacted to the previous story as you work on this new one. Was it favorable? Slot in a follow up after this story. If not? Begin crafting the next installment for the Alexandrians.
- Play around with this, using other stories to take a break while you figure out where you want to go with these plotlines. If a storyline does not take off, you can pick it up in an existing story you’re doing (perhaps the survivors of the popular spinoff make their way to Alexandria?).
I don’t know if this would work for every comic out there, but I definitely see merit in treating the stories like features, or even seasons. Television in a lot of ways really is in a golden age where great stories exist. Nothing excites me more as a viewer than reading that the show-runner is planning on ending his series. If we were to extend this hypothetical model to television, then Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are great examples of this. Without Breaking Bad you can’t get Better Call Saul, and Breaking Bad is all the richer because of the work Better Call Saul is doing in building it’s version of Albuquerque. If Vince Gilligan and his writers said they wanted to bring back Breaking Bad for a limited follow up that would be something to celebrate because odds are the break between the first show and doing Better Call Saul energized them and led to the development of a great idea. Of course, something of vital importance with Better Call Saul is that it does not require knowledge of Breaking Bad to exist as a good story. It does the legwork of any good story and introduces viewers to the scenario and characters.
The key, really, is to treat comics structurally like films or seasons. Seasons and movies open with moments that establish the baseline scenario for the characters. Then in the process of telling a story the writers introduces the stakes, follow through on those stakes, and then tie things up. With this model, you need to do all that, so even if you’re following up a Batman story immediately with a sequel story, you need the baseline in the first few pages to allow people to jump in as comfortably as possible.
Putting it all out there, the American comics industry should really, really consider changing up their publishing model to focus on self contained story arcs. Comics are notoriously unfriendly for new readers, and self-contained stories allow for easy jumping in which can only benefit an industry whose typical consumer skews older and older. Beyond this, the benefits to creators are enormous because they can revisit a character without needing to write “filler” issues between storylines and even better, creators can also take their time to really fine-tune and craft the story to their satisfaction. For publishers it allows them to position new IP to audiences in a manner than can land more eyeballs on it and also allows for new IP to be a stronger investment because these IPs would be complete stories at the very minimum.
From the Pages of Cosmic Dash
I am not one to give advice and not practice it myself. It is easy to sit back as a consumer and criticize, but as a creator I damn well should listen to my own advice. When it comes to my own comic, Cosmic Dash, I am very conscious of every little thing I bitched about in the paragraphs above and it factors into how I work on my own stories. You can find a good overview of the comic on my new reader guide, otherwise, we should just dive right into the structure and how I put my critiques into practice.
Cosmic Dash is an ambitious project on my part, and though I feel I have established a setting with a great deal of story potential, I am the only one who draws it. I have assistance in writing by my friend Deft Beck and I get assistance with the inking by Tobias Van Den Bergh, but so much of the project is a result of my own two hands. As such sometimes I have to make hard decisions about what stories to visit and when I can step away from the main narrative to plant the seeds of future stories, but so far I think I’ve done pretty well. The short stories website is certainly a huge help. However, another part of that success is attributable to my being self-conscious about long running stories losing readers. That is why my approach to Cosmic Dash is to structure the story arcs into three issue volumes. I try to establish the first few pages of each arc as that baseline I discussed, to layout the stakes, introduce the players, and make sure a new reader won’t be lost. I may explore this more specifically in a future post, but at least you can see I am trying to practice what I preach.
This was my first post on medium and is likely going to be subjected to multiple revisions and edits. If you have any suggestions or feedback concerning this post, or my comic, please contact me via twitter or e-mail me (hpkomic @ gmail.com). You can also learn a great deal more about me by visiting my website.