The New Narrative Structure of the Modern Comic Book Series, or How the Trade Paperback is Killing Pace.
I think the comic book industry has a problem, well at least one, and the only one that currently bothers me enough to comment on. The problem is pacing. The problem with pace is a product of the trade paperback. A trade paperback of comic book, for those of you not in the know, is simply several issues, now generally six, collected in a single volume. Its really a great way to collect and read comic book stories, takes up less space, and consolidates stories into an easy to access pacakage. It posses a huge problem though for a monthly book when it seems you are required to tell a story in six issue arcs.
Most comic books in the two big houses DC and Marvel seem more or less locked into the six issue story structure. For the tradepaperback crowd this has one benefit and one benefit only. It allows them to buy a book that has an ending, and a self contained story. Trying to force stories into the structure, though, is generally a failure. It encourages filler material, that is unnecessary to the story, and that reveals nothing important. That alone should be reason enough to abhor the practice. But the insertion of filler also detracts from pace and excitement more often than it does not. Now we have industry awash in books that take forever to get where they are going. Its not that I mind a long story. I am just bothered by having my time and money wasted on bullshit. I think a good, if vague, rule of thumb is that the story should dictate the number of issues it needs. A two issue story shouldn't be forced into a six issue format. It just looks thin however good the writing and the art is in the individual issues. I think the story quality would improve dramatically if story-tellers and editors would attempt to return to more organic processes. If you have come up with a story that takes two issues to tell, tell it in two issues. If you are writing Claremont style, with long character arcs set against the backdrop of other adventures, trials, etc then accept that, and try not to be bound by artificial punctuations of six. If your story is good, then people will buy the next trade even if it is open-ended, or if they have to go get back issues to be filled in. In short, just tell the damn story.
Let me just say that both houses are doing great work, and that in many cases they are figuring out how to tell some of their shorter stories without artificially stretching them out. Both DC and Marvel have been producing wonderful extra long one-shots, and short double features in other books, or short-series. So the good work continues, but certain series seem to be laboring under this six issue structure, and I think it is completely unnecessary. The latest Superman and Wonder Woman
story arcs, sort of written by J. Michael Straczynski, and featuring the excellent pencils of Eddy Barrows and Don Kramer respectively, are regrettably textbook examples of this unnecessary stretching of story to fit an unsuitable format. Jeff Loeb and Brian Michael Bendis seems to be masters at this sort of contentless storytelling. However let me hip you to some books that don't fit that forumla.
Power Girl: Fun, well paced stories not bound (too often) by the arbitrary six issue story arc. I would recommend beginning with Amanda Conner's run on the book, which luckily begins way back with issue 1.
Zatanna: The latest of DC's women to get her own book. Not quite as action packed as Power Girl and her incantations are a bit hokey (isn't any incantation hokey?) but she is a unique character. She is an accomplished stage illusionist ala Penn and Teller, but can do actual magic too, though never for personal gain. She inhabits DC's magical realms and has yet to feature a bad artist on the book. Even if the stories don't knock your socks off, they are good and always fun to look at.
Supergirl This book just continues to get better and better. Every issue engages in substative character development against the back drop of fantastic Kryptonian daring-do.
Those are probably pretty good to get you started. I cannot really think of a Marvel book not hemmed up in the six issue prison. Sometimes it works fine. Often times is seems stretched and oh so slow.