Rise and Fall of the Long Form Narrative

All-New-All-Different-Avengers-Assemble-4-811f2

In the age of binge-watching and Shared Universes, Movies and TV finally seem to have caught up to comics in building stories that last and enthrall for years. On the flip side, with regular reboots and more competition than ever with paltry efforts at diversification have comics become more like TV of the past?

I love a good story. A good story is a good story, one might say. I’ve seen them in Movies, TV, Video Games, but most often I want to say in comics. Comics had the luxury (usually) of not having to worry about cancellation to waning readers the same way TV shows did. Having a devoted, ingrained fanbase helped establish many writers and various characters to prominence which future creators would build off of for new stories. This is pretty much comics history in its entirety, as far as the Big Two and even a portion of Image comics go. By the time I got into comics, they were slowly finishing up these long epics by famed creators as money/creative control concerns began becoming more like problems.

You spend years writing Batman or a B-list Marvel character that is now A-list, and what do you have to show for it? You get to keep doing that, if you want to earn money. Even these epic stories you put years into have to bend to editorial or other writers works, so you’re somewhat limited the whole time by what you want to do, to say nothing of someone coming along and undoing everything later.

Despite all of that, we had Vertigo series that ran 72 issues and were almost gold the entire span of their run. Brian Micheal Bendis revitalized not just Daredevil, but Spider-Man and the Avengers as well. Bendis’ Avengers run spanned about a decade, and he’s still continuing the story he started in Ultimate Spider-Man in 2000, just with a different character in a new Universe. Iron Man had almost no lengthy memorable run until Matt Fraction steered him (and crashed a few dozen times, but still). With all the praise Multiversity got, it might be helpful to remember Grant Morrison sowed the seeds for that almost eight years beforehand. All of this is to illustrate, that if you have the time and patience you can make some rad stories happen.

In the “Real World”, somehow people realized how empty reality TV is (HAH) and that writers are actually important in writing scripts. Soon we had shows that were worth sitting on the couch for hours watching, with layers and symbolism and mind-blowing performances. The first time I watched season one of Game of Thrones, it was over one weekend. Same for Breaking Bad I want to say. Of course, there was plenty for me to catch up on so there was opportunity but it would’ve been unfathomable for me to imagine as a kid I’d want to spend so much time watching the same show.

It took awhile, but comic adaptations are slowly resembling their source material complete with the fan rivalry. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is this expansive existence comprised of nearly twenty films with still more to come. Marvel has created a decent approximation of the 616 Universe. On Fox’s part, their X-Men movies are almost as diverse and convoluted as the comics. DC is still in the early stages of a Cinematic Universe, with doubts it can even sustain itself, but by Rao they’re killing it on the CW with 4-5 shows all interconnected. It’s impressive, so why does it seem the comics are moving in the opposite direction?

Every year, Marvel seems to relaunch every title with a new number one despite the book’s popularity. It automatically gives each one a sales boost and always carries a question of what continuity will be maintained. Instead of just being the history of characters and their universe, continuity is something of a toxic influence in comics now.

DC can’t seem to decide whether to forge ahead with a new continuity or pander to older readers who obsess over stories from 40-50 years ago.

Comics seem written for the trade now, in six issue arcs that stretch a four issue story. Reading an issue now can seem even more of a quick and shallow experience of watching a thirty minute show than it used to. There’s so many comics, so much to remember and so it seems every thing has gotten simpler to follow lest you lose interest until next month.

TV demands our attention with its stories, because our favorite characters might die or marry (or get married AND die, who saw that coming?) while comics seem more devoted to a status quo that is built on sand.

“Captain America is a Hydra Agent”. “Superman is dead, here’s another one that’s older and/or Chinese”. These are cool I guess but do feel more like comic gimmicks than even comic gimmicks got five years ago.

Readers used to complain that Marvel was making their comics match their movies, and I think it has done the exact opposite. Synergy is the name, but I can’t say with a straight face that’s what Marvel is doing with their comics. Their comics are actually looking more unique than their movies which are carefully controlled and sometimes even dictated to directors. It’s yielded great results in a lightning in a bottle kind of way, but then they have to move on to the next slate of projects before the year is over.

I’m not advocating every comic start planning stories to go decades, but they’re writing stories based on stories from decades previous to last less than a year. Literally.

Saga 34 Fiona Staples

Here’s one final example, Saga. Its almost universally praised as the best comic whenever it comes out and its run for a few years already, likely to run far more. Yes its greatly done with fantastic creators, but it also takes its time to tell its story. It wouldn’t work in six issues or even twelve. It may have so many things going for it, but time I think is its best strength. It has the time to tell the story Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples want to tell, which affords it a large canvas to play on.

That’s the kind of thing comics used to do more of, and I kind of regret the fact the Big Two are moving away from…

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