by Roger Ash
There’s been a lot made in some circles of comic fans over the last few years about “Decompressed Storytelling” or “Writing For The Trade.” If you haven’t heard of this before, let me enlighten you. Some creators grew tired of the traditional storytelling techniques used in monthly comics and started writing longer stories that would read as a complete piece when collected into a book. That meant they could do away with the recap at the beginning of the issue and an issue did not have to have a cliffhanger ending. The monthly comics read more like chapters in a book.
The first creator I’m aware of who “Wrote For the Trade” was Dave Sim in Cerebus. He may even be the first, but I’m not sure of that. Early issues of Cerebus follow the traditional comic format, but with the beginning of the High Society story, Sim changed the game. This was a 25-issue story and issues flowed into one another seamlessly with no noticeable break between them. The following story, Church & State, was even longer, running a whopping 60 issues. Soon, many fans of Cerebus would save up a number of issues before reading them, because they read better that way. Even better, you could wait for the upcoming collection because that was the way Sim intended the story to be read. You may be wondering why he’d even bother with monthly comics at all. I suspect it had to do with the flow of money. If you’re working on a story that takes, in the case of Church & State, five years to finish, you need to do something to bring money in to do things like buy food and pay rent.
Other creators started doing this and then, in a secret meeting in a sanctuary protected by Yeti in the mountains of Nepal, it was decided that the perfect length for a collection of comics was six issues. It was also decided that it was best if these six issues formed one long story instead of two or three shorter tales. The Nepal part may not be true. Or it might. In Marvel comics, the recap at the beginning of the story was replaced by a text page telling new readers what had happened in previous issues and is not included in the collection. And while a cliffhanger isn’t necessary, there is usually some kind of hook to entice the reader to pick up the next issue.
I never really thought about the differences in storytelling styles too much. I simply read what I like, no matter if it’s written in a more traditional comic form or in the decompressed style. However, Marvel recently brought home to me how different these two styles of storytelling are by releasing New Avengers #5 and The Thanos Imperative #5 the same week. Both of these are the penultimate issues in a six-issue story and set up explosive final issues. But how they do so is very different. Let’s take a closer look at the storytelling techniques used in both of these issues.
Sort of a Spoiler Warning: I’m going to discuss these two issues in terms of storytelling and won’t go into story specifics since some people may not have read them yet. However, if you don’t want to know anything about either of these issues, you may want to read them first and then come back. I’ll still be here.
I enjoy both New Avengers and The Thanos Imperative, and these issues do share a number of things in common. Both of these books feature large casts of characters facing a threat that could have dire consequences if not stopped. We’re told heroes will die (they already have in The Thanos Imperative). They’re both engrossing stories with dialog that makes me laugh, or at least smile, every issue. They both have wonderful art that tells the story well. And, as I mentioned previously, they’re each the penultimate story in the arc, setting up (hopefully) big, blow out finales. Let’s see how they both reach that point.
New Avengers #5 is written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger. I don’t think I’d get much of an argument if I were to say that Bendis really knows how to work Decompressed Storytelling well. In the overall storyline, the New Avengers are facing an unknown mystical threat. This particular issue opens with a flashback featuring Wong and Dr. Strange that ends in a double-page battle spread. This leads into the former Brother Voodoo exploring a mystical realm. Then, the New Avengers, both singly and as a group, try to discover who their attacker is. Once they discern who that is – and it’s an interesting discovery – there’s a brief encounter with one of the adversaries’ minions. I hesitate to call this a fight, because it’s mostly posturing and is dealt with very simply. We then have more discussion as a decision is made as to how to deal with their adversary and things are set up for a big battle in issue #6.
Let’s break this down into numbers. We have a two-page spread featuring a fight, roughly three pages of an encounter with a minion of the adversary, and 16 pages where the characters mostly talk, and a two-page set up for next issue. When read as a number of issues in a row or as part of a collection, this may well seem like a needed respite in the action, allowing the characters to catch their breath and prepare for the final battle. Yet when read as a monthly issue on its own, it’s dull. Characters standing around talking does not make for exciting reading. When people wonder why some comic readers have abandoned monthly comics for collections, this story perfectly answers that question. Readers wait for the trade because, in some instances, that’s the best way to read the story because that’s how the writer intended it to be read.
In The Thanos Imperative by writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and artist Miguel Sepulveda, Marvel’s cosmic heroes face an incursion from another universe. The heroes have divided into two teams, which I’ll call Team Guardians and Team Nova for the sake of simplicity. The issue opens with Team Guardians in a heated battle behind enemy lines in which some important information is learned and our heroes are sent to a location where they could end the enemy threat. We then join Team Nova on the frontline of the war where options are discussed and a few revelations are made. We switch back to Team Guardians as they make plans, but are ambushed by the enemy, then back to Team Nova for a quiet moment and a set up for next issue. Finally we go back to Team Guardians for a battle that leads to another set up for next issue.
Let’s look at the numbers for this issue. We get 10 pages of fights and 12 pages of planning and talking. This issue is definitely a part of a longer story as you don’t get a complete story in this issue. However, it works as a single issue because Abnett & Lanning follow a more traditional style of comic storytelling. There are quiet moments, but they are offset by lots of action. And these are not just fight sequences as information is dispensed at the same time. This is an important difference between the two issues. In both New Avengers and The Thanos Imperative, there are “talking head” sequences; basically characters standing around talking and imparting information to the reader. However, there are many fewer in Thanos. By giving information during a fight, Abnett & Lanning have made the situation much more dynamic and exciting for the reader. If I were to pick up both New Avengers #5 and The Thanos Imperative #5 by chance, the Thanos Imperative is the one that would make me want to pick up the next issue simply because of how the story is told.
So which style of storytelling better? That’s really up to the preferences of the reader. However, I find that to be a ridiculous question because how a story is told really doesn’t matter. What’s important is if the story’s good or not, and I think both of these stories are good. The bigger question is if a story is written for the trade, why release it as a monthly comic? Some have suggested that comic publishers release only trades. Others defend monthly comics vehemently. As I said before with Cerebus, I’m guessing some of this has to do with money on creator, publisher, and retailer levels. But why does this have to be an either/or situation? Can’t it be both/and? Why not have both original graphic novels and monthly books that follow more traditional comic storytelling?
The bottom line is that how stories are presented will be dictated by you, the reader. How you spend your money is a powerful vote for the future development of the comics industry. The intelligent publishers will listen and make the necessary changes. The others will fall by the wayside to be replaced by those that know how to listen. That’s the nature of any business, and in the end, it will make for a stronger comics industry.
Now, go read a comic!
Special thanks to KC Carlson for being a good sounding board as I worked out my thoughts for this column.