What’s the best way to tell a story? Last week, an article in the AV Club by Ryan McGee questioned if the rise in serialized television dramas had killed off the singular episode as a way of telling the story. McGee said that as longer storylines emerged, the basic episode stopped being its own story, but rather became just a segment of the overarching plot, which took away its viewing pleasure on an individual basis.
Comic books face a similar dilemma. Many years ago, a single issue of a comic could pack in multiple, one-and-done stories to a single issue. That changed to one issue equaling one story. But as time caught on, multi-issue story arcs became more popular.
At the turn of the century, this practice began to pick up. Companies started collecting story arcs into compilations called trade paperbacks, with usually six issues from a series in one package.
Brian Michael Bendis, who quickly became Marvel’s top star, handling almost all of its event titles and major ongoings such as The Avengers, wrote stories that excelled for this trade format. His dialogue-heavy, spaced out and decompressed plots lent themselves to a longer narrative. When his writing began to take off, other writers with similar styles rose to prominence.
Long-form story arcs offer some advantages. For readers who want a story meatier than the 22 pages of plot in a typical comic but don’t want to commit to following a series for years, collected story arcs strike a balance. Similarly, readers might not be fans of a particular title, but might like the creative team that jumps on it for a short run.
But this has also led to some unfortunate results in comics. With trade paperbacks growing more popular and lengthy story arcs earning critical acclaim, many writers and companies are pushing for more series to fit that mold. “Writing for the trade,” as it were, has become a common tactic.
Not every story was worth six issues, however, and not every writer is into decompressed tales, leaving many stories floundering, whether read as monthlies or as trades. Stories end up getting padded with filler content, be it longer action scenes, tangential dialogue or tacked on subplots.
Not only that, but it could actually be hurting the market. As more stories get padded and stretched out for trades, readers might not see the implicit value in going out every month and getting each individual series. “Trade waiting” has been on the rise in the last decade, with readers turning to trade-heavy bookstores instead of local comic bookstores.
According to ComicsBeat.com, sales of monthlies have dropped — and that seems to be endangering retailers. And while bookstores brought comics to a wider audience, the collapse of chain stores like Borders is putting the distribution line at risk.
But it seems like the pendulum is now swinging away from trade-focused writing. Creators are focusing on giving single issues a stronger center, while not abandoning character arcs or narratives. For instance, Mark Waid’s relaunched Daredevil title packs in new adventures and adversaries each month, while slowly developing the titular superhero’s psychological issues. The end result is fun issues that leave the reader craving more -— not because the story is unfinished, but because the reader wants more of that specific narrative.
At the same time, writers trying to tell one major, overarching story are working to ensure that each individual issue offers something relevant to the plot, rather than just as a filler until the climax of one narrative arc. Take Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ, for instance. It struck the balance between major, arc-specific plots and an ongoing look at war and how it affected those caught in it.
It’s not that writing for the trade or trade waiting are inherently bad. Some stories just work best over a longer format. In television, shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be enjoyed in one season-long marathon via DVD, not unlike trade paperbacks in comics. But then there are shows like The Prisoner or Fringe, where each episode offers its own unique story while still playing a role in an overall narrative.
It depends on the series and how the creative teams want to approach it. For a long time, it seemed like arcs would replace one-and-dones, but now the industry seems to be shifting to a balanced median.
The single issue isn’t dead, despite growing concern over the last decade. Though the fad of writing for the trade definitely gripped writers, it never cemented its hold. If anything, it offered an experimental counter to the isolated one-and-done issues of the past. Neither extreme is preferable. Now creative teams are pushing out comics that are satisfying on a monthly basis and also propel a longer storyline. Because of this balance, readers are benefiting.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.