Should A Single Comic Book Tell A “Whole” Story?

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from Justice League #20

This was originally going to be a review of the Justice League 2-parter “Endless” (#s 20-21) but a larger issue (if you will excuse the pun) came up when writing it. And that is: do single issues of comics—regardless of being part of an arc or not—tell a “complete” story?

Now, obviously I don’t expect Part 3 of a 5-part story to encapsulate the entire plot. But I do think it should either be written in a way that provides some exposition regarding the previous issues, or have some sort of “recap page” at the start.

I’m going to use three recent D.C. releases to make this point: Trinity #9, Teen Titans Special: The Lazarus Contract #1, and the aforementioned Justice League #20-21.

Let’s start with Trinity #9, which I just did a “mini-review” for. This book was drawn beautifully by Francis Manapul–everything from the page compositions to the rendering of the individual characters was gorgeous. But very little was provided in the way of exposition here, in terms of the storyline, for a new reader to the series.

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from Trinity #9

Consequently, I got bored and distracted trying to read this issue, and did not feel like hunting down any of the previous ones. While conceding that reading the series from the beginning in trade form—and indeed, I believe just such an edition is coming out right now—as a single issue I was just left cold.

Next, we have the Justice League comics. I started with the 2nd part of the two-part series, #21. Being a newcomer to the current team and storyline (and, for that matter, continuity)…I had a lot to catch up on. Like Trinity, the issue wasn’t great at adding the sort of exposition a new reader might need.

Why did I continue on to purchase the first part of the arc? Because the second part had a quirky type of storytelling device—that of the constantly “repeating” event, a type of time-fuckery—that was at least sort of “different” and caught my attention.

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from Justice League #21

Once I had both issues in my possession and read “Endless” straight through, I really kind of liked it. But this was really one “big” story cut up into two issues, not two “wholes” that could be enjoyed on their own. And there isn’t anything wrong with having that larger story—but when you are offering two single issues for purchase, you risk alienating new readers to whom that second issue is their “first.”

Lastly we have Teen Titans Special: The Lazarus Contract #1. This was a pretty ambitious story, tying up a bunch of storylines not only in the Titans books but in The Flash and Batman as well—and incorporating an old Teen Titans storyline. Could writer Christopher Priest pull this off and make this a comprehensible story to the new reader?

He actually did.

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Priest subtly worked in exposition throughout the entire expanded issue. It’s “tucked in” within the dialogue of the characters. Care is taken that you know what has recently just gone on in the life of Kid Flash, for example, and Deathstroke. Even details concerning supporting characters get nods. By the halfway point of the book, you have a pretty good handle on what’s going on and what the stakes are—whether you read the other issues leading up to this (I hadn’t) or not (that was me, the “not”).

The result is a satisfying read that actually increases interest both in future issues and the backlist.

One thing to note here is the experience level of the writers in the three books. Chris Priest has been writing comics much longer than both Manapul and Justice League scripter Bryan Hitch. In addition, Priest comes from a much “older school” of comics storytelling, in which such things as filling in the reader about the issues before was literally mandatory.

In contrast, both Manapul and Hitch use a far more “decompressed” style of storytelling, a narrative style that has been much more employed in “modern” comics. In the decompressed narrative, some action seems to happen more or less in “real time”…sort of unfolding seemingly without a need to immediately drive the plot forward. Sort of like taking the “scenic route” when traveling.

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more from Trinity #9

And seeing as Manapul and Hitch come from art backgrounds, such a storytelling style is not that surprising…though there are a number of artist/writers who do use a more traditional approach.

Further, it’s not like anybody is automatically “born” (as far as I know) with the ability to seamlessly incorporate the exposition of previous issues into a comic book story. It’s something that one gets better at over time. It’s gotta be something one (or one’s editor) aims for.

But is the priority there in modern comics publishing to make these single issues “new reader friendly” anymore? Does a feeling that the “money” is in the collected editions anyway? Will Comics eventually adopt a “Netflix” approach where full “seasons”—story arcs—are released all in one shot (whether that be in print or, more likely, in digital)?

Whatever the answer, it seems as if it is the comic retailer who gets hurt the most when single issues aren’t inviting for new readers. They are the ones who depend on the sales of these individual comics. Furthermore, the fate of the creative teams often sort of “live or die” on the single copy sales numbers.

So: something to think about.

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