The Perils of the Grand Design

This all began with a comic script I was working on.  I had a killer idea, one that would quietly build up steam over the course of (let’s just ballpark it and say) 18 issues into a stunning, heartfelt climax.  So I scripted the first issue and it was boring as hell.  Literally.  Picture the hell of an adrenaline junkie.  Picture the BMV, except with endless lines and you STILL can’t bring a water bottle or cell phone in lest you get yelled at because what if it were a bomb and the terrorists were attacking a suburban Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in northern Ohio.  Then, turn that into a comic book script.  That’s how boring it was.

I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong, so I looked at my outline for the issue, then for the arc, then for the series.  Sure enough, I had two major events in that first issue, two huge hooks that would make for a killer pitch… but I had nothing else written in there.  There was nothing but those two huge events, and while they suggested what might have become a great series later, they didn’t make a great issue now.   Issue 2 might pick up.  By issue 5, we’d be in full swing.  But only when they were read together… and only if an unforgiving fanbase stuck with me through a rocky start.

So, I did what I always do when my writing hits a wall and I get frustrated: I did anything and everything but write.  I visited my favorite site on the Internet, the A.V. Club, where I came across this article on Fringe.  There, they talk about Fringe as a possible successor for LOST, and the lessons so many writers have so improperly learned from ABC’s surprise genre hit.  If I may quote Noel Murray briefly…

“The problem in the years since Lost debuted is that too many creators have taken the wrong lessons from Lost’s success. They think it’s all about freaky reveals and teasing out a mystery, and too many head writers start their shows thinking that they’re going to improve on Lost, by having a clearer idea from the start where they’re headed. The end result are shows that have five-year-plans but don’t last ten episodes, because they’re too dull and/or confusing in the early going.”

Now, almost as if to prove my point here, I’m 500 dull words in and I’m only now getting to the meat of the issue  And that’s this: much like these TV writers with their multi-year plans, comic book writers seem more and more willing to let an issue or two or ten slip in the name of setting up their grander arc.  They want to write the next Watchmen, so they take the violence and the multi-issue mystery with a surprise payoff, leaving out the fact that Moore’s work is more than just a coherent whole – it’s a damn fine read, issue to issue.

Look at the recent Brightest Day #0.  It’s a full issue of set-up for later in the series.  Not only that, it’s a full issue of expository set-up for later in the series.  It isn’t even a story of set-up – it is a 4$ issue of nothing but us being told, almost entirely through narration, how cool the story will be in the future.  Now, maybe Brightest Day #9 will be totally worth it, and Brightest Day #20 will blow your mind… but think about how many people Johns might have lost (like myself) entirely by opting to write for a collected edition instead of a serialized medium.  And you can say the same thing about countless other books, whether its the bland expository set-up of The Heroic Age: The Avengers #1, the disconnected, jarring Final Crisis #1, or the blatantly manipulative nature of the Titans: Villains for Hire Special.

That last one is of particular interest, both because of the impact it had coming so soon after an article decrying the white-washing of the DCU and for the author’s own response to the fan outcry over his work.  Here’s a quote from writer Eric Wallace’s interview with CBR:

“First, everyone at DC wanted to show right off the bat what this new Deathstroke-led Titans was capable of and how far they would go to complete a mission. And secondly, Ryan’s tragic death is a part of Deathstroke’s larger plan. Readers will see a clue as to what I mean in “Titans” #24.”

The translation is obvious: you might not have liked THIS issue… but wait until you see what’s next!  The flaw in this argument, however, is that he gives me no reason to want to see what’s next.  In 56 pages, for 4.99$, a team was assembled and they had a single fight.  In very nearly the space of two full issues, Wallace accomplished less than what most writers do in one.  Ignoring the fact that the fight scene made no sense – how did Deathstroke stab someone who can control his own density?  why didn’t Ryan just shrink down so small they couldn’t hurt him and leave, or jump on Deathstroke’s brain? – the fact of the matter is, Wallace opted to use a lengthened fight scene to convey that the fight scene was long, and used a brutal murder to convey the fact that someone named ‘Deathstroke the Terminator’ who is an assassin and has murdered hundreds of thousands of people will still brutally murder people.

Now, Wallace claims that he has a plan for the long run.  He claims that we’ll all see what he means.  He promises us it was worth it.  But what evidence do we have of this?  The only evidence we can have of this is the only chapter of the story we’ve seen – Titans: Villains for Hire Special – which featured one poorly written fight scene and nothing else.  Wallace was imaging the big picture and forgetting that, in order to make us care about that epic he wants to construct, he needs to make the smaller picture worth our time and money.

I have a great deal of respect for all these creators I’ve talked about, and I know for a fact each of them is capable of doing so much more in the space they were allotted.  A normal comic has 22 pages of content, last I checked, and believe me, those pages fill up faster than you’d think.  With the price of comics rising rapidly, there’s little chance that we’ll see expanded monthly content as a possible fix, and, to be honest, I’m not sure that that’s the answer, at least from a storytelling point of view.  We’ve seen comics do great and glorious things with nothing more than those 22 pages.

Hell, we’ve seen writers tell great stories in 8 pages, in 3 pages.  The stand-alone comic short story is rare and getting rarer, but unless I’m mistaken, a lot of the greats got their starts with things like that.  Web comics can tell coherent stories in a page or less.  No, I’d say that the issue has less to do with the length of the comic and more to do with an awkward match between runaway ambition and a lack of confidence – in their own skills, in their readers, in the marketplace.

Now, I love serialization.  Done well, there’s nothing quite like it.  But in order to do it well, there is one thing that I think is absolutely key, and it’s something most comics lack: trust.  I don’t know if it’s the editors or the creators, but somewhere along the way, someone asks, “Will they understand this?” and someone else answers, “No.”  Until everyone involved trusts the audience, trusts their own skills, and trusts the marketplace, I suspect we’ll keep seeing a sloppy integration of the big-picture narrative and the monthly comic, which is really a shame, because no other medium has quite so high a budget for locations and effects.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and James Robinson’s Starman, for example, couldn’t really exist in any other form than comics, nor could dozens of the greatest comics ever produced, and part of that is the serialized nature of the stories (both within themselves, and in context to a greater shared universe).  But because so many comics have used it so well, it’s become commonplace for creators to think that that’s what made them great, that it’s part of a formula.  Building 20 or 40 or 80 issues to that grand conclusion is great when done well, but it’s just a storytelling tool, not the only tool, and it seems more and more like it’s becoming THE go-to storytelling device.

I recently observed that a potential serious problem with Garth Ennis’ otherwise solid The Punisher MAX series was that he seems to have written every arc very specifically for the trade.  While taking this view has its strengths – he has a series of easily-collectible arcs that all build upon one another, presumably to a stunning conclusion – it also has its weaknesses, which first appear in the “Mother Russia” arc.  Namely, because of the structure of the stories, you end up with a lot of filler material, essentially junk pages or inessential side-plots that contribute nothing.  In worrying about the big picture, about collected editions and serialized plotting, Ennis let something very basic slide: some of the issues just aren’t terribly good.

Comics are still very much trying to figure out what they want to become and how they want to get there.  Many want to follow the ‘grand design’ storytelling techniques that have become so popular on TV, that many of their most critically acclaimed stories have used to powerful effect.  But at the same time, they aren’t confident that their audience can keep up with that desire, and I don’t think they’re confident that their creators can, either.

I think they can.  And I think we can keep up.  I don’t think we need two full issues of exposition before you get your story started, and I think the tendency to aim towards that, especially as the stories get bigger, is only hurting you, both critically and in sales.  If you want to have that grand story, study how the best of them did it – watch The Wire, read Starman, look at Dickens – and learn from them.

I know a lot of comic fans have aspirations to be writers or artists within the industry one day.  If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: above all else,  make sure every issue you put out is the best goddamn issue it can be.  Don’t be satisfied with the trite or the mediocre just because you think the pay-off will be worth it.  Remember, if you’re writing a serialized story, it has to be more than just a good TPB 9 months later, but a good read every month.

Trust us fans to keep up.  We’re not as stupid as the Internet might make you think we are.

Cal Cleary


6 thoughts on “The Perils of the Grand Design

  1. Great F*ing post! It really annoys me when I am told that my dislike of a comic book is unwarranted because “we don’t have all the answers yet.” A good comic book should leave us caring about how we arrive at those answers.

    • Honestly, I was annoyed by that, too. Because I read comics primarily in trade for a long time, I could never QUITE figure out why that was. Trades will at least normally deal with A story, if not THE story, the writer is trying to tell, so while I knew the ‘you don’t have all the answers’ reply was complete bull-shit, I had a hard time vocalizing precisely why.

      It wasn’t actually until I started really getting into TV as well as comics that I figured it out.

      Every pilot is imperfect. There are some that are spectacular – JUSTIFIED, TREME, or GLEE – but for every one of those, there are great shows with terrible pilots – VERONICA MARS, for example. But because those pilots are used to pitch the networks and then, later, to hold onto viewers, no matter how bad the pilots are at conveying what the series may become, they always aim to at least be ENTERTAINING.

      Many comic #1’s fail even at that very basic prospect. Superstar creators like Johns or Bendis don’t need to hand in a finished first issue, art and all, before a series gets green-lit – they need to pitch the series, then make it from there. The more clout a creator has, the less likely an editor is to ‘interfere’ with the talent (putting aside that that is literally their job description, for better or for worse), which means that something that probably would have been cut from an earlier series they worked on won’t get touched now.

      • It certainly does seem that certain creators, the “superstars”, get way more leeway from editors. Against my own judgment, I just picked up Ultimate Avengers 2 #1 & 2. Issue #1 introduces Punisher, #2 introduces Tyron Cash. That’s it. This is a 6-issue series which is supposed to be about a new secret mission, and we haven’t even found out what the mission is in the first 2 issues (just a cliffhanger page showing that it has something to do with Ghost Rider). The two issues could have easily been condensed into 1. The first issue is mostly just Punisher gunning down random guys until he gets arrested in the end, and the 2nd issue is Cash fighting War Machine until he agrees to join the team in the end. Total filler. You could have cut most of the shooting and fights, and brought in both characters in #1, and then get to the mission. But, hey, we gotta make sure the story is 6 issues for that trade.

      • I mean, it’s a phenomenon that’s common in every medium, sadly. I’ve been researching how long most publishers want wordcounts to be for novels, and one thing everyone stressed was that, for a first time author, you should NEVER even try and turn something in above 120,000 words – and even then, an editor will almost assuredly demand you chop it down to 100k or less. But, as you get more recognition, they’ll cut less and let you get away with more. It’s why the last HARRY POTTER book was roughly 3 times longer than the first, including that poorly written epilogue that most editors would’ve cut up right quick.

        It’s worse in comics, though, I think, and your example is a good one. It does get worse as a writer grows in profile. Part of it is very probably rush, but I think a lot of it is growing ambition and buying into their own myth. The more ‘superstar’ a writer becomes, the fewer people are willing to call them on their shit in any professional capacity, and this definitely causes a deterioration of quality.

        Anyway, thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      • you’re completely right about it being a problem endemic every form of writing. Even academic writing. Take for instance, my favorite living philosophy Slavoj Zizek. His early is really tight, cohesive and thorough. But now he is really famous and his writing suffers tremendously for it. But it doesn’t matter because publishes like 3 books a year and they are all best sellers. His case is particularly funny because his first wife was his editor. He’s married to a model now.

  2. “I know a lot of comic fans have aspirations to be writers or artists within the industry one day. If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: above all else, make sure every issue you put out is the best goddamn issue it can be. Don’t be satisfied with the trite or the mediocre just because you think the pay-off will be worth it. Remember, if you’re writing a serialized story, it has to be more than just a good TPB 9 months later, but a good read every month.”


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