Shelf Life: The Sweet Art of Short Stories

Thu, November 8th, 2012 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

Telling Stories, Short and Sweet

One of Ron's latest shorts appears in "The Ride: Southern Gothic" #2 with art by Tom Raney

I like writing short stories. "Short" meaning eight or ten pages, half (or less) the length of a standard single-issue comic. I wrote a lot of them early in my career, and two decades later, I'm continuing to do so when opportunity allows.

Yesterday, "The Ride: Southern Gothic" #2 from 12 Gauge Comics hit stores. It contains a 10-pager by me and Tom Raney, the second part of the "Paid in Full" story (the first half was drawn by Rick Leonardi). Short and brutal.

Also in stores, either this week or last is "Heavy Metal" #259, which contains a short story also by me and Tom Raney, with color by Tom's wife, Gina Going. It's called "Pair of Rogues," a creator-owned piece introducing a fantasy world and two of the characters who inhabit it. The intention is that Tom and I will continue with the characters in a series of short stories (in various venues), building a storyline that eventually becomes its own larger, more epic series. Short, but a foundation for something much more.

I've got three more short stories on my plate for the near future. I like the format, I like the particular craft of it, of telling a complete tale in a finite space. Writing a short story forces the writer to get in, make your point, and get out. You can't waste an entire page on someone walking through a doorway, or contemplating a shot of whiskey. Decompression is not really an option; you don't have the space. Nothing extraneous, no self-indulgence. No subplots, just story.

The writer's job in a short story is to create a perfect little confection, a satisfying dessert, as compared to the complete entree that a single issue should be. Writing a short story allows you -- compels you, really -- to focus on structure and brevity. Each panel is precious. You have to squeeze in more story, not pad your story to fill out the page count.

The writer's job in a short is to complete a perfect little confection, a dessert rather than a meal

Short stories were once a standard proving ground of both writers and artists. They represent a limited investment of resources in new talent, which might not prove to be all that talented. Whether it was for back-up stories (as little as five pages) or anthologies, short stories were auditions. If you passed, you might get to try your hand at an entire issue.

Now, the role of that proving ground is most often played by other, smaller publishers, and even Image. Hopefuls hone the skills in other venues, and the Big Two come calling to harvest the crop. And there's nothing particularly wrong with that. I usually liken breaking into comics to playing minor-league baseball. You have to work your way up through rookie league, then single A ball, then AA, then AAA. Finally, a fortunate and talented few get called up to the big leagues. Some stay for a storied career. Some only get to stick around for the proverbial cup of coffee.

I think the first short story I ever wrote was for "Marvel Comics Presents," a Punisher story called "Vices" that appeared in "MCP" #101, drawn by an equally young and inexperienced Scott Kolins, who was one of the "Romita's Raiders" production assistants at the time. I remember Scott telling me, years later, that he was given little more than a weekend to draw the entire story. Not the finest hour for either one of us, but I still rather like that story, as clumsy as it is.

I wrote a fair number of short stories early in my career, backups in Annuals, anthologies like "Green Lantern Corps Quarterly," wherever there was an opportunity. At the time, I was just doing the work that was in front of me, excited to be playing with the toys. I don't think I realized how much those concise stories were teaching me about my job. I became a better writer, because I had to write shorter and write smarter.

The first two pages from the Marz-Stelfreeze Daredevil story in "Marvel Shadows & Light." Originally black and white, these pages were later colored by Rico Renzi.

At first glance, there are fewer venues for short stories in the present American market. Anthologies are notoriously tough sells; readers are wary of paying full fare for an issue or collection in which they might only like one or two stories.

Yes, Dark Horse has relaunched "Dark Horse Presents" with an admirable and eclectic mix of stories, as well as anthologies like "Creepy" and "Savage Sword." And there are some other high-profile anthologies, "Thought Bubble" to name one, and some backups here and there. But shorts stories are the exception, instead of the rule (as opposed to something like "2000 A.D.," where the reverse is true). A story notion worth eight or ten pages is more likely to be puffed up to an entire issue now, because that's a more viable economic package. Short stories can be orphans, without logical venues for collecting them (and creating another needed revenue stream).

The advent of original digital content, though, will hopefully herald an eventual resurgence of short stories. The 99-cent price point still seems like the most natural fit for digital comics, but that math doesn't work for full-length issues. But eight or ten pages for the price of an iTunes single? That's enticing. I truly believe shorter is better for digital, while print continues to move in the direction of longer, more complete packages.

DC's current "Legends of the Dark Knight" stories for less than a buck? Perfect. The same with much of what Monkeybrain Comics publishes, including my pal Matthew Dow Smith's "The October Girl." And those are just the tip of the spear. Short stories may be dwindling in print comics, but they're already a growth industry digitally. Better to read ten pages and be satisfied, than read 22 pages and be left unfulfilled.

Marz and Raney also did a creator-owned short called "Pair of Rogues" in "Heavy Metal"

Whenever I'm asked what my favorite work of my own is, I usually say it's like trying to pick your favorite child. Creator-owned material like "Shinku" and "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" are always at the top of the list. But if the questioner persists, and wants one, specific story, the answer is always the same: a ten-page Daredevil short story called "Devils & Angels" that I wrote and Brian Stelfreeze drew for "Marvel Shadows & Light."

It's likely a story that not many people have ever seen. "Marvel Shadows & Light," which was a short-lived series in response to DC's "Batman Black and White." The Daredevil story is not a "big" tale. There's no earth-shaking revelation. There's not even a fight scene. It's a conversation between Daredevil and a blind man, who wonders if Daredevil isn't perhaps some kind of angel. It's a story about faith... and hope, and charity, I suppose.

I rarely look back at my own work. But sometimes I'll pull out that Daredevil story, because Brian made the shockingly generous gesture of giving me all ten pages of original art. It's lettered on the boards, so I can actually read the story as I revel in the artwork. It brings a smile to my face every time. It's exactly what I wanted it to be, as perfect a little gem as I'm capable of producing. Sometimes ten pages is all you need.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" for Top Cow, "Prophecy" for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, the ride, the ride southern gothic, 12 gauge comics, heavy metal, pair of rogues, tom raney, brian stelfreeze

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