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Opinion:
Writing for the Trade
By Joshua Elder

06.25.03


I collect nearly a dozen monthly titles, but only buy half of them on a monthly basis. The rest I wait to purchase in trade paperback format. And I know I’m not alone. A rapidly growing segment of the comic-buying public prefers putting its books on shelves rather than sealing them in plastic just so they can be cloistered away in the back of some dingy bedroom closet.

In an attempt to accommodate these readers (as well as reach out the vast, untapped bookstore market), comic publishers of every stripe have begun to reorient their entire business structure from that of periodical publishing to book publishing. As I’ve said before, graphic novels are the future of this industry, and the sooner the industry realizes that the better. But in their rush to cash in on the graphic-novel goldmine, the companies are forcing their talent to “write for the trade” with some very negative consequences: artificially extended storylines, first and second acts that never end, decompressed visual storytelling… The list goes on and on.
A typical trade clocks in at around six issues. This is primarily for business reasons (i.e. optimum price point and best distribution schedule) rather than creative ones. Sometimes the trades are split up into smaller arcs or series of individual issues but just as often (especially in the Ultimate line) the story arcs clock in it at the full six issues.

That’s a whole lot of story, the comic-book equivalent of a three-hour movie. In order to fill up that much space, writers elongate their first and second acts to several issues each. This not only makes the trades drag in the middle, but it makes the original issues all but unreadable since nothing of real consequence happens in half of them – they’re just the lead-ins to the next issue’s big revelation or climax. They’re not dramatically satisfying enough to read on their own. I love Geoff Johns and I love his work on Avengers, but his "Red Zone" story arc has me bored to tears. It took two whole issues to reach the end of Act One, and even then I barely noticed. The team has just been wondering around the red mist for three issues while Iron Man and the Black Panther indulge in their own subplot that moves the story forward but not fast enough.


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A writer could craft a story with five or six acts instead of three, but most plots simply can’t handle that many reversals without coming off as forced and artificial. Just look at Loeb and Lee’s Batman. Each issue is fairly self-contained, and should stand as acts in of themselves, but each ends with Bruce beating the bad guy and learning nothing. Nothing of any real consequence has happened – except for Bruce’s romance with Selina. Which brings me to the other way writers try to pad their scripts: Add subplots. They use them to create numerous mini-acts within the larger plot in order to add suspense and keep the audience interested, but this often leads to the subplots taking over the main plot, thus damaging the integrity of the story as a whole. This happens all the time in Ultimate Spider-Man (Admittedly, Bendis does it very, very well.) where Peter’s love life or Gwen Stacy’s problems with her dad will take up as much, if not more, page space than whatever it is he’s dealing with as Spider-Man.

Nor is that Bendis’ only sin. He decompresses his storytelling by including numerous talking-head scenes that eat up pages but manage to say a whole lot of nothing. A typical issue of Alias will often include at least one or two pages of the following: Medium-close shot of Jessica Jones saying “That thing you did was pretty impressive.” That’s followed by a medium shot of Luke Cage saying “What thing, b*@ch?” Then Jessica Jones retorts with “That thing with the super strength.” “Oh, that thing,” Cage replies. “Well, ho, what about that other *$#@ thing…” And it continues on like that for pages at a time! Sometimes it works on a stylistic level, but from a storytelling perspective it just stops the story cold. The many Bendis disciples out there have copied this and sadly they aren’t able to pull it off half as well as he can – and I don’t even like it much when he does it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the “talking-head syndrome” is “widescreen storytelling.” It all started with The Authority, which had good reason to use that particular style. Plus, Ellis and co. knew how to plot solid four-issue stories action stories. All main plot that just keeps moving ahead relentlessly with no subplots or long soliloquies. The problem is that practically every title under the sun has begun aping that style to some degree. Splash panels now seem to exist solely for their own sake. There’s no compelling dramatic or visual reason for most of them. They’re just there to look pretty and turn 18 pages of story into 22 pages of comic. Personally I’m not big on paying for a 22-page comic I can read in less than five minutes.

So how to avoid “writing for the trade” (EPIC writers and comic execs take note!)? Don’t make the story longer than it deserves to be. If it can be told in two issues, don’t try to stretch it to three or four or six. Even one page of fluff is too much. All that matters is that the story’s good. Once that’s taken care of, everything else falls into place.

 

 
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