When Words Collide

Wed, November 26th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 26th, 2008 at 2:58pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

KILLER SERIALS

Protecting Sector 2814
I don't know what the data shows to back this up, but from where I'm standing, the trend seems pretty clear: more and more readers are shifting to the trades. And I know my thinking here seems about ten years out of date or something, but bear with me. It's way too late in the game to make any kind of judgment about the trend toward trades over "floppies," and since I have no financial stake in a direct market comic book shop, I'm really not the right person to speculate on how the comics marketplace needs to change to accommodate such a shift in readership preferences.

But I do know this: I am a fan of the serial format.

I didn't realize this until recently, and maybe that's because I'm dense and lack self-reflection, but I prefer getting comics on a weekly -- or monthly -- basis. In my younger days, when comics were harder to come by (at least in my neighborhood) and regular trade paperback collections were practically unheard of, I often speculated about how much better it would be if I could get my favorite comics in some kind of collected edition, where I could read a whole bunch of issues all in a row. It seemed like a dream come true when that sort of thing started happening on a regular basis, but now, as everything from the best-selling comics to the D-list spin-offs end up appearing as trades, I realize that while trades are easier to store if you have enough shelf space (which I certainly don't, anyway), a great deal is lost in the conversion from serialization to collection.

And, often, what is lost is the heart of the story. What is lost is the thrill of being inside a story as its being told. When the collected edition comes along, and hermetically seals the story forever between two cardstock covers, some of the life drains out of the comics trapped inside.

It's the difference between feeling like you're part of the story and hearing about a story that already happened to someone else. It's the difference between exploring the jungle in person and watching the Discovery channel from your living room. And as much as I like collected editions for reference purposes, my comic book delivery method of choice is still the twenty-two page pamphlet, injected into my brain on whatever regular schedule the shipping gods decree.

I can image that some of you out there are crying, "but that's old-fashioned thinking, built upon a distribution model that has become increasingly irrelevant!" Or, "have fun with your bags and boards, nerd-boy." Or, well, you get the picture.

Others might say, "but online serialization will surely replace direct market distribution within another decade, anyway." Or, "you still go to a comics shop? Weekly?" Or, etc.

Something's lost in collection.
And to those straw men of my imagination, I say this: the world of a comic book story grows exponentially when it is serialized in twenty-two page installments. Sure, the twenty-two page format is arbitrary, and it has shifted to meet demands over the decades, but it is a satisfying chunk of narrative, even in these days of decompression. You just can't get that online when serialization is one page a week, or even eight pages a week. And because the online serialization doesn't come in discrete doses, it usually doesn't work like that anyway. It works like this: "oh, yeah, I haven't checked that webcomic in a while, what's new? Oh, wait, did I read this part yet? Where did I leave off?" And so on.

Make no mistake, I do think online serialization is inevitable and I can understand why, but I just don't find it as satisfying as a reader, for reasons that have nothing to do with resolution, or screen size, or refresh rates.

And the reason I even started thinking about this topic -- about my preference for the twenty-two page packet of comic book goodness -- is that my recent rereading of Grant Morrison's "Batman" run (in preparation for my "Who is the Black Glove?" column from a couple of weeks ago) shocked me. I say "shocked me" because I was genuinely surprised to find that the Morrison run seemed so small, so relatively unambitious, when read all in a single sitting. Each issue of Morrison's "Batman," especially in the past six months, has evoked such speculation (from me and readers around the world) that the story had grown far beyond the bounds of its pages. Being "inside" Morrison's "Batman," as it popped into the world every month or two -- and then decoding it, guessing about everything, discussion possible theories, recognizing patterns, talking about all of these things on blogs and message boards -- that made the story so much richer.

When I read all of the issues from a much colder, "outside" perspective, Morrison's work seemed so much smaller. So much less evocative. Less grand, by half. And I'm sure the conclusion to "Batman R.I.P." (scheduled for release the day this column will run) will hermetically seal Morrison's run all the more tightly.

Some might say -- perhaps those same imaginary straw men from before -- that's because Morrison's "Batman" isn't the dense masterpiece that some readers and critics would like to believe. That, when all is said and done, it's just another in a long line of Batman stories. More of the same.

Yet, even if that becomes the consensus when everything is wrapped up (and I'm not sure that it will), it ignores the quality of the run as a piece of serialized entertainment. As a piece of serialized narrative. As a living story in which the reader could take an active role, even if the role affected the outcome not in the least. It's difficult to recognize such quality after the fact. After it's been slapped between two covers and placed on the shelf.

What are Trade-Waiters missing?
Take "Fables," for example. It's the only comic I read exclusively in trades. And I think I'm losing something when I read it that way. It feels too distant, too closed off, and even if I buy every trade upon release, it still doesn't remain active in my mind during those intervening six months or so. I have committed to reading "Fables" in collected form almost as an experiment at this point. I know it's a good series. I like it. And perhaps I keep reading it in trades out of habit, but I'm also interested in tracking my reaction to the series compared to other things I read in smaller, regular doses. "Fables," as good as it is, does not constantly whir around inside my brain the way that "Green Lantern" does, or "Ghost Rider." Is "Fables" artistically better than both of those comics? Perhaps. If you put all of their collected editions side-by-side, and made an aesthetic judgment, I think you could make a convincing case for the superiority of "Fables." But I like "Green Lantern" and "Ghost Rider" a whole lot more, and I suspect that it has something to do with the serialized nature in which I read the comics. It's not like I spend a lot of time actively thinking about the exploits of Hal Jordan or Johnny Blaze, but when the new installments come out, I can quickly recall what happened last issue, and it's all in my head somewhere, bouncing around. That's definitively not so with "Fables," as that part of my brain ossifies with all the trade waiting.

So, yeah, I'm a fan of the serial format. I think it enhances the comics reading experience exponentially. Will I continue to read as many serialized comics at $3.99 a pop? Probably not, but I don't think picking them up in trades will be anything close to the same experience.

HOW DO COMICS MEAN?

The reason I bring up serialized comics in the first place (besides my recent epiphany with the Morrison "Batman" reading experience) is that I was invited to speak at a workshop for librarians over the weekend, and I spent Friday night at the Holiday Inn Express talking with fellow educator and comics fan Andrew Wales.

Teaching with Comics
Wales, who I'll tell you more about in a minute, mentioned that he, too, is a fan of the serialized format, and we began riffing on some of the things I mentioned in the section above. He doesn't buy nearly as many comics on a weekly basis as I do (because he has more kids, more responsibilities, and he's probably at least 35% more sane than I am), but he still buys a handful of comics in their monthly installments, and he much prefers reading them that way. I don't bring this up just to show that there's at least one other bald, middle-aged guy who agrees with me. I bring this up because it made me think about why I make the comic-buying choices I do, above and beyond my reviewing duties for CBR, and my discussion with Wales helped me clarify some of my own attitudes toward serialization.

And, hell, will anyone care about "Lost" after the final episode airs -- as anything other than a cultural artifact? So the serialization effect is certainly not limited to comics.

But getting back to Andrew Wales: he's a twenty-year veteran of the elementary school art teaching ranks, and he does a brilliant job incorporating comics into his classroom. He and I were brought in as the "Comics in the Classroom" experts, with me taking the more conceptual end (talking a bit more about aesthetic theory and stylistic approaches) and Andrew talking about comics as a way to teach other things. He demonstrated how he uses the Sunday comics section of his local paper as the "text" for his class, having students not only learn about sequential narrative, but having them turn comics into prose and turn prose into comics. He even has a "Hey Kids, Comics!" wire rack in the back of his classroom, stacked with floppies of all varieties.

He's an excellent teacher, and I was glad to get to see him in action.

My section of the workshop, or at least the first of my two sections, focused mostly on sequential storytelling and style. I asked them to draw a page inspired by the "script" for Matt Madden's "99 Ways to Tell a Story." Keep in mind, this was directed at librarians, many of whom were quite unfamiliar with comics and graphic novels. And I tested them, just to be sure, and out of the 20 comics-related questions -- covering everything from Spider-Man to Chris Ware, Raw to Sector 2814 -- most only got a handful correct. According to my scoring guide, that would place them in Ma Hunkel territory, with no one even coming close to the perfect score of Beyonder status.

Yeah, I know. Nerd-boy.

But they had fun. Or, at least they seemed to.

The whole point of my section was to show that even in their untrained sequential narrative style, when given a script, they would all come up with something different. And those differences change the meaning of the work. Style creates meaning, so to speak. And that's what I spoke.

Panel from McGuire's "Here"
And we not only looked at Matt Madden's own variations on the same script, along with the ones the librarians came up with, but we also looked at how Will Eisner told a story compared to Richard McGuire. (For those playing at home, we used a "Spirit" story -- almost anything from 1947-1948 will do -- along with McGuire's "Here," a brilliant gem of a comic reprinted recently in the first volume of Ivan Brunetti's "An Anthology of Graphic Fiction.") Style and meaning, meaning and style. We explored and discussed, and the workshop participants seemed to understand the depth of sequential narrative.

But it brings me back to my original point about serialization. The meaning of a serialized comic differs from the meaning of a collected comic book. Even if the words and images are identical, the serialized style of delivery -- twenty-two pages of content, every month (or close to it) -- changes the way the story feels. An artist and writer can control pacing, but that month-long gap between chapters is part of the pace as well, and it's an important part in lodging the story in the reader's brain.

Artistic style is not the totality of meaning, but it certainly affects the comic tremendously, and delivery style does as well. So when you're kicking back and waiting for the trade, don't kid yourself into thinking that reading the collected edition is the same as reading the monthly installments.

It's a different structure, a different pace, and a different style. Hence, a different meaning. For good, or bad.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the in-this-month's-Diamond-Previews' "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, morisson, eisner awards, fables, batman

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