Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to Do Continued Stories and Next or Future Issue Teases – Part 1


Continued Stories 

I was taught that if a story continues in the next issue, end with a climactic cliffhanger

Well, duh….

And yet….

And, as I learned on my own, that “rule,” taught to me by Mort Weisinger, like pretty much all rules applied to creative work, is far from absolute. There are plenty of ways to go about continued stories. More on that later.

But first, the end-with-a-climax/cliffhanger way:

In the first issue, introduce the characters and establish their situation. Introduce the problem, threat, opportunity, whatever that generates the conflict. Develop the conflict to an intense climax/cliffhanger, and end there.

Second issue, elegantly, succinctly introduce the characters. Re-establish the climax/cliffhanger situation from the end of last issue. If possible, intensify the situation. Resolve the climax/cliffhanger—that is, brilliantly get Batman out of the death trap or whatever. Do it in such a way that A) the overall conflict is not resolved but is in fact increased, or B) a related-but-new, greater conflict arises to succeed the resolved conflict. Develop that new or increased conflict to an intense climax and bring the story to a resolution.

Or, you can end with another climax/cliffhanger and continue the story into a third issue.

And a fourth? Or more? There are no rules. But, you’d better be good if you’re going to continue a story that way for many issues. Keeping the dramatic tension building over many issues is difficult. And, the longer you make the audience wait, the bigger and better you’re going to have to make the final payoff.

The above is not a formula, by the way. No, I am not advocating formula writing. First of all, introducing the characters, establishing their situation, etc.—those are just elements of a story. Any story. Every story. Every Shakespeare play, every episode of Lavern and Shirley, every Michael Crichton novel, every Fleischer Popeye cartoon...etc. Hard to have a story without ‘em. They’re just the bricks. You can build a cute little Lego shanty out of them or the Taj Mahal. My Mother the Car or Hamlet. No limits.

And the technique of building to a climax/cliffhanger is just that, a technique. It’s the most often-used technique. How many times have you seen it done on TV when a show has a two-part episode?

And, by the way, it’s generally good policy to try to seamlessly weave your introductions and establishments the info into the action so it’s invisible exposition. And provide only the info necessary to understand the story in hand. I have to add that or some people assume that I’m advocating starting every story with a documentary about Spider-Man or whomever.

And, let me add, just in case, of course you continue to introduce/establish characters and what have you throughout the story. Uncle Scrooge is a miser every time you see him, not just the first time. 

Get the feeling that what I say has been misconstrued a lot? There's no end of examples out there of people repeating my supposed advice completely wrong. 

Anyway…. 

Another approach to a story that continues over several (or many) issues is to construct each issue as a complete story, each story being a part of the tapestry of the overarching story. No cliffhangers. Just strong, one-issue, related stories adding up to a bigger story. 

I used that approach for Steel Nation, a Magnus Robot Fighter story published by VALIANT. Steel Nation consists of four issues. Collectively, they tell the tale of a rebellion of freewill robots against humankind. Each issue has a complete story devoted to a phase of the war, and to the evolution Magnus undergoes as his eyes are opened to the justice of the robots’ cause. The stories are entitled “Protector,” “Soldier,” “Traitor” and “Savior,” which should give you a hint about the hero’s journey.
Later, a prequel, “Emancipator” was added. 

As I said, there were no cliffhangers, though I did use teasers, especially important with that approach. Stay tuned.
Another approach to continued stories that you don’t see much in comics is the Hill Street Blues technique. Hill Street Blues was a TV show about cops. As I recall, in each episode, they started at least one storyline concerning one or more characters, they had the climax/conclusion of a storyline concerning other characters, and they had a “middle” of yet another storyline. Something started, something finished and something was in mid-development every week. And they kept it rolling that way.

Naturally, that technique is best suited for a group or ensemble. 

Doesn’t have to be three stories lapping. Could be two or as many as in a Russian novel. But that’s a very high-degree-of-difficulty dive. Chris Claremont wandered off into Russian novel-like territory sometimes on X-Men.

Any more?

Sure. Run a continuing story intertwined with complete episodes of other stories. For instance, Green Lantern is involved in a multi-issue pursuit of Sinestro, but in each issue also deals with a villain du jour in a complete story—Star Sapphire one issue, Myrwhydden the next, etc. 

Or, as Moench did with his best Master of Kung Fu story, a six-parter, issues #45-50 plus an epilogue issue, I think—he built each issue around the star and one principal member of the supporting cast as the overarching story developed, each issue teeing up the next. 

Or Christopher Priest’s great Quantum and Woody blackout sketch technique, which told their tale over many issues in bits and bites from all over their lives. 
Many other ways, including combinations of the above. 

One of the great things about a serial medium is that you can do stories bigger than will fit in one issue. Getting readers to come back for the next issue is the challenge.

Not us. We’ll be back anyway, because we love this stuff, love the characters and it takes a great deal of awful to drive us away. But the new readers, and those on the fence? Them. 

Or any general audience, less hooked on whatever than we are on comics. TV viewers, for instance. Yes, there are some people who will not miss and episode of Law and Order. Yes some shows survived and succeeded because of a dedicated fan base, famously Star Trek. But even the producers of Star Trek made the effort to reach and hold onto new people. That’s why the climax/cliffhanger technique is so popular. It’s effective. 

But, for something that sounds simple and self-evident, in comics it’s often not done well.

I’ve seen this too many times: The writer takes us through twenty-one pages of set-up, what he or she thinks of as “human interest,” like hanging around the mansion drinking coffee, and maybe an action scene that’s trumped up so there will be an action scene. The hero stops a bank robbery or something. Something ultimately irrelevant to the overarching story. Then, on page twenty-two, Doctor Doom or some villain appears. Doesn’t do anything, just appears, looking menacing.

We get it. We know who Doctor Doom is. We know that this means trouble. And we probably didn’t mind spending a quiet day with the hero.

But the guy on the fence, or the new reader isn’t nearly as impressed, even if they know, or have an idea who Doctor Doom is, or intuit from his looks that he’s trouble. What it means to them is that they sat down to read a story, this issue—but, apparently the cool stuff starts next issue.

It’s not a cliffhanger. It’s a tease. And if what a new reader has paid four bucks for is twenty-one pages leading up only to a tease, there’s a fair chance they won’t have enjoyed the experience. Not nearly as much as we do, anyway. You know us. We enjoy Spider-Man stopping a miscellaneous bank robbery any old time. 

The other way writers in these decompressed days blow it, in my opinion, is that they use a “shocking development” as if it were a climax/cliffhanger. To take a recent example, at the end of Ultimate Comics All-New Spider-Man #2, the shocking development used is that all-new Spider-Man Miles Morales discovers he can stick to walls.

I wasn’t really shocked.

Lots of us enjoy the discovery of whatever Miles’ spider powers are being played out. Is the shocking revelation that the new Spider-Man can stick to walls enough to entice a new reader to come back?

Well, who knows? The art is nice.

Once more, with feeling. There is no one way, no “right” way to go about a continuing story. But, as with any commercial endeavor, there are goals. Goals give us a yardstick with which to measure the efficacy of the effort.

You can’t argue with empirical evidence. One may criticize the writing on Star Wars IV, or the butchery that took place in the cutting room, but they got the job done, didn’t they? The many strengths overcame the weaknesses, like Biggs Darklighter’s death having less meaning because the earlier scene of him with best friend Luke was cut. (NOTE:  I’m citing that from memory. It was 33 years ago that I read the screenplay. So feel free to correct me, SW-o-philes.

The comics biz at present is succeeding somewhat less well. It’s especially troubling because of that nagging feeling that we’re letting the ship go down without firing all our guns. 


TOMORROW:  The Art of the Tease
No, not that kind.


TOMORROW:  The Best Cliffhanger Ever and Baiting the Hook

61 comments:

Van GoghX said...

I always thought that Luke's journey towards and away from the darkside would have had more meaning if the scenes with his buddy Biggs Darklighter had been included.
Essentially in the first movie the only things he loses are his aunt and uncle (I don't want to minimize that loss... they were his mother and father figures) and an old man he had just met (Obi-Wan). Losing his life-long best friend would make it that much more meaningful when he eventually denies the darkside.

Great article, as always!

Anonymous said...

Miles sticking to walls resembles the original Ultimate Spider-Man No. 1 which basically ended with Peter sticking to the wall in his room. I was not a new reader then and I had been reading Marvel comics for a good 20 years when I read that issue.

I remembered I liked that ending, since it was a way of showing us a cause and effect in the same comic: Peter is bitten-Peter has now super powers. Of course this was before I read all those Bendis comics that convinced me that he is essentially a bad writer with a good PR agent.

-Freyes2011

Anonymous said...

Recently, a friend of mine pointed me to a script-critiquing blog that did a breakdown of Star Wars--one of the more interesting things he pointed out is how the film is actually structured in a very unconventional way. You can read it here, but the short version is that the movie opens with ancillary characters (one of whom doesn't speak English), doesn't introduce the main character until 15 minutes in, and hides the main goal of the plot until near the end of the movie--the main character doesn't even know what the goal is! Read the whole thing--it's an interesting analysis of why the movie works in spite of its weird construction.

He also does an analysis of Empire and ROTJ, relevant to the cliffhanger topic here. And for me, an example of of how a decent cliffhanger can be let down be an unsatisfying (okay, semi-satisfying) conclusion. The Star Wars films peak at Luke and Vader's lightsaber battle in Empire and never reach those heights again.

--kgaard

Lax Guy said...

I have to agree with Van GoghX. Of all of the tinkering Lucas has done, why hasn't he restored that scene? Makes a hell of a lot more than Greedo shooting first or (later) shooting at the same time and missing either way...

I am not a fan of the Ultimate line. Never have been. I have never understood the need for the line when 616 is so full of characters than can fill many of these roles and have so many potential stories just waiting to be told.
Look, I love the increased diversity in comics, but the All-new Spider-man comes across as pandering. 'Oh, let's be trendy and turn our most iconic character into a double minority! He'll be black and Latino!' The only way this would be more obvious was if he was also gay.
Seriously, why not create an all new character or redevelop a less prominent character (like DC did with Blue Beetle) to meet the perceived need for a new minority character? Killing off Spider-man only to introduce a minority character with the same name and basic power set is disgraceful. It disrespects the character, the fans, and the minorities the character is designed to "appeal" to. Besides, Marvel already has some of the best minority characters in the business. Why not spotlight Falcon, Luke Cage, or Black Panther as a featured player in the Ultimate line instead of this cheap trick?

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

Today is the start of National Novel Writing Month and a lot of participants might benefit from your advice in this newest series (as well as everything else you've written about writing!). Novelists trying to figure out how to end a chapter are in the same boat as comic book writers trying to figure out how to end an issue.

Mort Weisinger's rule about continuing stories seems to have been the rule up to the Silver Age. I can't think of any stories from that period which employ techniques like Moench and Priest's. But Claremont's Hill Street Blues technique might have its roots in 60s Marvel. The earliest 60s Marvel issues were self-contained, progressing quickly to cliffhangers (what'll happen to the Fantastic Four without the Human Torch who quit at the end of FF #3?) and ultimately to overlapping subplots. A history of comics storytelling techniques - both verbal and visual - would be interesting to read.

TV writing is worth studying because few people watch a series from the very first episode onward. To paraphrase you, every episode is someone's first episode. The number of first episodes I've seen is very small relative to the number of TV series I've seen, yet I can't even think of a TV show that totally lost me.

But it's much easier to think of comics that lost me. Those comics tended to be those featuring establishing DC and Marvel characters. Recognizing names and costumes isn't sufficient for true understanding.

Writers of comics with less established characters seem to try harder, perhaps out of necessity (though of course I've also read incomprehensible stories with unfamiliar characters and some take the history-instead-of-a-story approach).

Dear kgaard,

Thanks for the link to the Star Wars analysis! I've forgotten most movies that I've seen, but Star Wars has stuck with me since I saw it in theater in 1977, and this article may explain why. The key line for me is,

"It just goes to show that any story can work, even nontraditional ones, but only if you understand what rules you've broken, and have the requisite tools to make up for those choices."

You can have a car without any wheels, but it had better hover or fly.

M Hull said...

My personal frustration with Big Two comics is that they are nothing more than a continuing run of teasers. Issue A teases for Issue B, which teases for Issue C, which--you get it.

That's why I gave up on Marvel. I loved Thor and used the JMS run to get back into comics after a few years' hiatus. But as soon as JMS was gone it was nothing but teasers leading to teasers. Nothing of consequence happened! (this was around Siege time when I gave up)

That's why I love Dark Horse and Vertigo books. With them your chances of getting contained stories or properly executed cliffhangers greatly increases.

Even with great art and great characters, new and old readers will quit if all they get are teases. That's why I quit comics in my poor college days and why I avoid Marvel now. At $3-$4 a pop I deserve a complete experience and decompressed can and should be complete. If they can deliver, I'll pay. If Fables were to cost $5 an issue, I'd pay up. Same for anything in the Mignolaverse.

The doorway to mythical new readers and increased sales is solid story telling. That's why DC has had success with the new 52. People are hungry for the promise of something good that they can follow and that will be worthwhile.

If you build it, the right way, they will come.

Greg Morrow said...

The "Hill Street Blues" method is also known as ABC plotting -- the A story foregrounded, B progressing, and C getting groundwork laid. In my circles, at least, it's generally attributed to Paul Levitz's 80s work on Legion of Super-Heroes, and it's crucial to how he managed the enormous cast.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh! Spiderman can stick to walls! Astounding!

:)

OK. That's the problem, here and now comics are thought to be collected on TPBs and you have lots and lots and lots of pages in wich nothing happens, (they call it decompressive storytelling, I call it con). One of the points I enjoyed the New Universe was the amount of things happening in each issue. Everything seemed possible. What had happenned with the sense of wonder, the rings and bells, the pure joy of reading?

Shane said...

Like somebody said, the Miles Morales ending is meant to reflect the ending of the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man years ago, where Peter Parker found out he could walk on walls. The difference, and what actually makes this (I think) a good ending, is the reaction--Peter is astonished and says something like "Woah" or "Cool", and Miles says "Oh no." For a long time reader, it's a really interesting way to contrast the characters and demonstrate that Miles just isn't going to be a black Spider-Man--he's his own character.

With that said, no, if a brand new reader was picking up the comic, he probably wouldn't find this to be a very intriguing ending.

Jason said...

Another example of varied storytelling is the show Burn Notice. Every season has an overarching story, and each episode contributes to it, but each episode also stands alone. Generally, it makes the stand-alone story the A story, whatever case the main character takes on that week, and uses the B story to deal with the overall story, often having the goals of the two conflicting with each other in some way.

Jason said...

By the way, thank you Jim for doing more posts about storytelling. I always appreciate reading your take on it.

cloudmover said...

I'm 42 years old and a long time comic book reader. I inherited that silly wonder one get's after reading a comic book from my father.

Over the years my father and I collected about 15 thousand comic books. Dad loved Conan, Spider-Man and Batman. I was fanatical about the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and anything by Starlin, Wrightson, Windsor Smith or Byrne. We purchased Marvel, DC, Pacific Comics, First Comics, Dark Horse, Valiant anything with a good story and/or good art.

I don't buy comics anymore. No… that's not quite true. My monthly haul has dwindled from dozens a month to maybe ten every six months.

Why? Somewhere in the mid 2000s, six of my fellow comic book friends and I noticed that we were always saying the same thing about the new books. "Yeah… the art is nice but, nothing happened in this issue."

From what I understand, this is actually done on purpose! I think the phrase is "written for the TPB." Unfortunately, this decompressed storytelling technique makes for a horrible monthly reading experience. Some comics in the last decade read like an hour long TV episode divided six times before the first commercial.

Buying these books made me feel cheated.
… as if I just wasted my money.

There are so many other choices for entertainment these days that I don't have the time or money to waste on an origin story that will take six issues to get to the costume reveal.

I know for certain there are six other FORMER comic book buyers who feel the same way.

Lincoln G. said...

Unrelated to this but going back to a previous post, Steve "the Dude" Rude has been arrested after an altercation with his neighbors. His website has cut prices on his art so he can post bail... But he's totally NOT crazy...

JediJones said...

Shane, that brings up another problem writers have to watch, which is how they execute past references or "in-jokes" aimed at older fans without alienating new readers. Even when I'm familiar with all the past stories, I don't like it when a story hinges a major development or moment on something that is referenced from old material. It always seems more effective when all of the important elements of the current story are something the reader just witnessed, as opposed to the narrator or character dropping a hint to "remember how this relates to something you saw several years ago." It trips up the narrative flow even for longtime readers and of course leaves new readers completely in the dark. If the contrast in Miles' reaction had been to something another character experienced on page 1 of the same issue, that would work well. But going back to something that long ago wouldn't resonate for me.

Some other examples of unorthodox but effective story construction...

Pulp Fiction, which told its story out of chronological order but had the thematic "beginning, middle and end" in the right place. Pulp Fiction actually reminds me of the original Star Wars in the way that it kind of contructs a new movie out of borrowed ideas and scenes from older films. There aren't many original ideas in either film, but the way they were put together was like nothing we ever saw before.

Back to the Future II, which used the plot of the first movie as a "setting" for the second movie (in the second half when Marty goes back to the past). I thought they successfully pulled off a clever storytelling stunt, basically repurposing the events of the first movie as obstacles to be overcome in the plot of the second movie. It was definitely something original that probably hasn't been done since.

Then there's Rashomon Style, where contradictory tellings of a story are given from the points-of-view of multiple characters. This is the only style of storytelling that originated in an Akira Kurosawa film and ended up on Happy Days.

Shane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shane said...

JediJones, I agree that it lacks the emotional resonance it would have with somebody who's read the original Ultimate Spider-Man, but it also doesn't prevent a new reader from understanding the story, because it does fit in with his actions through the issue. It's a perfectly legitimate page in the story, but it's also a reward for somebody who's read the original Ultimate Spider-Man volume (and with how many copies that first TPB sold, I'd argue that it's not that crazy an assumption).

I see your (and Jim Shooter's) argument, for sure, and I'm usually among the first to acknowledge that Bendis frequently has flaws as a writer (he's fantastic at developing great moments, but frequently struggles with the transitions between those moments and with providing individual voices), but this is something I'm okay with (or, at least, I see what he was going for.)

Chris Arndt said...

JediJones... There was an issue of Fantastic Four where the FF are back in time fighting Rams-Tut. That story was used as the setting for an issue of Doctor Strange. There was then an Avengers West Coast story that used those tales as a backdrop.

William said...

As a person who creates his own comics for fun, I absolutely loved this article. Awesome subject and a great explanation of various techniques.

I even learned that I actually maybe did something right with my own writing. Not too long ago I did a 4-part Marvel/DC "Crossover" action figure comic, and each of the first three chapters ends with a cliffhanger that I think pretty closely sticks to the rules that Jim outlined above.

I mean it's far from being a literary masterpiece or anything, but if anyone is interested it can be seen and read here (along with all my other action figure comics) at...

http://www.billscomics.com/afcomics.html

JediJones said...

If you get the chance, anyone interested in how the first Star Wars was reshaped in the editing room needs to check out the fan-edited "Star Wars: Deleted Magic" video. It's an incredibly thorough compilation of every cut scene or modified scene that's ever been shown anywhere (far more than I ever realized), mixed in with all kinds of trivia and detailed analysis.

Of course the Biggs scene is in there. It also shows the scene where Luke was originally introduced much earlier, watching the first space battle from Tatooine with his binoculars. It even has the final Death Star battle recut into the way it was originally scripted (where Luke misses his first shot). Apparently the guy went to the trouble of restoring and cleaning up cut footage that came from low-grade sources. Look for the newer "Revisited" version where he upped the quality of some footage.

Unfortunately it USED to be on YouTube but apparently got pulled due to a copyright complaint this year. I don't think it's being sold or distributed officially, but some places sell DVD-Rs of it. Otherwise you'd have to get it through file sharing. It's quite a treasure trove of trivia and well worth tracking down. This is the official site.

Anonymous said...

The Blu-Ray of Star Wars (in the complete set with the bonus disc) has a lot of deleted footage and stuff too (including the original edit of the Cantina scene, the cut Biggs footage, etc).

Mister.44 said...

Anyone interested in the history of Star Wars should check this out: http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/articles.html

Some awesome article and a preview of the book. I found this one really interesting. Basically they had to 'save' Star Wars from the master reel that was falling apart. It really was a monumental task to save the film. http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/savingstarwars.html

There is a site somewhere where they have a list of edits. This includes various edits done in the 80s in theaters.

I have the original Star Wars Storybook, and it has both Luke viewing the battle above, and him talking to Biggs. I have both the remastered laser disc set from the 90s, and one of the modern DVDs which has the laser disc port. They are still the best copies of the mostly unaltered films.

The one pet peeve I have is that there are a FEW places where flat lines could have been cleaned up. The worst one in my book, at the beginning of the attack on Hoth there comes over the intercom, "Imperial troops have entered the base. Imperial troops *skeertch*"

Notice I used a "." - not a "!". The guy says it with all the passion and urgency of a bored secretary. He may as well said, "General Solo you have a call on line 9, General Solo, line9."

Anonymous said...

Off topic but somewhat relevant to your "Rude Dude" posting from a few weeks back

Steve Rude was arrested for assault.

"HELP BAIL OUT THE DUDE
Steve has had a back and forth with the neighbors for quite some time now that started over their barking dogs. Last night Steve got hauled in.

We are currently lowering prices on Steve's art to make bail and pay for legal fees. We also are offering the above print for sale as well as several other pieces."

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Steve-Rude-Arrested.html?soid=1101744842181&aid=RT-L0yXvHuU

Rob

ELS said...

Mr. Shooter - not that there was anything wrong with the tease that you used. If you'll have more, I'll be sure to be back for tomorrow's column! (Yeah, yeah, I'm a sucker... I'll be back anyhow. But some Natalie Wood would be nice. :)

Ms. Jackson, did I notice your spectrum of skills on that Magnus page? (Yeah, I know, not as if I had to be Holmes to figure that one out... :) I would like to ask you - and Mr. Shooter as well - a question about coloring. Personally, I believe that a color palate of 256,000 colors (or millions now, perhaps? Dunno - I'm not a colorist) has caused serious damage to comic book art. I know that four color was very limiting, but I think that 256 colors might be enough without making comic art look so damned MUDDY. What do you two think? Four color? 256 color? Two million colors? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The Dude shall abide, I hope. But it's evidently more of a struggle for him than lots of other people.

Shawn James said...

At $4 a pop a comic cliffhanger should have the reader eager for more and anticipating the next issue. But today's slow pacing of comic books has them headed for the door. Miles Morales discovering he can stick to walls isn't strong enough to get a reader buying the next issue. So what if it mirrors the original Ultimate Spider-man, that book was too slow as well. A 32-page comic has to give a reader a reason to buy the next issue. And at this pace a new reader will stop after the second issue because the book is going NOWHERE.

This slow approach to story building works well for novels, but not for comics. Comics have to be built up like 30-minute sitcoms or TV shows that are supposed to be 2-part episodes. Opening teaser, Act I, Act II Act III, and a final Teaser to compel the viewer to catch the next episode. There isn't much time for tiny details, like Bendis is focusing on. Comics are a VISUAL medium. If we can't SEE IT on the PANEL it shouldn't be there.

There needs to be a build-up of ACTION to make the reader CARE about buying the next issue. We need to see him taking out some bad guys, something BIG happening, like a villian making a move to steal something, a big confrontation. Nothing is going on here. Nothing is building to go anywhere. Nothing to make a person continue plunking down $4 a pop for the next issue.

In an age where people have cheaper better options for entertainment, comics have to be at a fast-pace to compete with them. When I write I understand I compete with other forms of media for the customers attention. So to keep them compelled I write shorter, faster chapters to make the book read faster and compel the reader to stay with the storyline. The pace on this new Spider-man is just too slow.

A reader to me should be at plot point 1 in a comic by page 10 and at the cliffhanger point at page 21.

Mister.44 said...

@anon rob - re: Steve Rude

Yes yes - it is trashy gossip - but are there any more details? Was it HIS dogs, or theirs? If it was theirs, one would have to be pretty silly to be the one arrested.

If they were his dogs - well - bring in your damn dogs. I can' freaking stand people whose dogs bark all the time. Either get an anti-bark collar, or - you know, actually take care of your pet and bring them inside.

I say all of this not knowing any details, just a rant about the subject in general.

Steven R. Stahl said...

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN might be a best-case example of someone wanting to demonstrate Bendis's strengths. His AVENGERS material provides worst-case examples of filler, poster pages that don't contain information for the reader, formulaic plots, etc.

One way to demonstrate the difference between comics from the '70s-'80s and now is panel counts. AVENGERS #147, from 1976, has about 133 panels in 17 pages. Issues of AVENGERS: CHILDREN'S CRUSADE have had panel counts in the seventies, with 22 pages each. The difference in information density per page is enormous.

NEW AVENGERS #16 supposedly had Daredevil showcasing his combat skills, but the story didn't actually have him do that. What it did have was idiotic enemies shooting each other, DD utilizing brute force tactics and defeating his opponents off the pages, and about five pages of talking heads commenting on how wonderful the Avengers and DD are.

Plots characteristically appeal to a reader's intelligence. The more intelligent he is, the more important the details are, as is remembering them and realizing how they factor into the story's resolution. Current comics writers focus heavily on emotional beats and moments, but without plots to balance them, they're wasted.

Studies have found that readers tend to prefer material which is easy to process mentally, and dialogue-only comics are that, certainly, but people have exaggerated their virtues. Prose writers routinely provide more details about their characters, develop them more, and even provide more emotional beats, but comics readers don't realize that.

SRS

Jerry Novick said...

A perfect example of what Jim writes about here can be found in Walt Simonson's run on Thor (which I recently rediscovered through Comixology - love the digital!).

In each issue he gives a deft recap of important who/what/where/how/why right in the flow of the action and dialogue - no clunky exposition boxes weighing things down (he uses captions for story advancement mostly, and not really for recap unless absolutely necessary). Each issue has a 1-issue contained plot - beginning, middle, and end - a complete story, while he seeds ongoing subplots, pays off some subplots and teases future events.

It really is a "how-to write comics" clinic. AND, he even throws in some pages with 3 or less panels, but because he advances the story and characters during those pages instead of giving us just poses, you actually don't realize that the page was bereft of a lot of panels.

Roger Stern's run on Avengers is also a fine example of what Jim teaches here. Hmmm... both runs edited by Mark Gruenwald... coincidence? I think not!

Anonymous said...

Jim,

I'd love for you to review the new 'Wolverine & the X-Men' #1 that came out last week, and get your views on layouts, story telling, etc. I've heard good things about it from a few sources, but when I looked at preview pages on Newsarama I was kind of baffled. Thanks for such a great blog.

Regards,

M

jimshooter said...

Dear ELS,

I think the frequent muddiness you see in comics has much more to do with a lack of skill and training on the part of the colorists and not the size of the palette. More options in the hands of a talented, trained artist should be a good thing.

Brian Logue said...

More options in the hands of a talented, trained artist should be a good thing.

David Mazzucchelli once said that he arranged for his wife, Richmond Lewis, to fill in for the regular colorist on Daredevil on one issue. (She's a gallery painter.) Jim, he said you were so impressed with the results that you held up the issue to any and all as an example of comics coloring done right. Do you remember that? I know he's not engaging in empty hype about Lewis's abilities. She also did both the serialization and book-collection color jobs for Batman: Year One. Both just knocked me out.

Mister.44 said...

re: "do with a lack of skill and training on the part of the colorists and not the size of the palette."

I first got into comics because I was into Dungeons and Dragons and a friend bought Transformers and Iron Man every month. So I would tag a long with him.

The D&D books were part of DCs deluxe line. Books were only $1 then, but these were $1.75 or so. But they were on brighter paper and the coloring had an airbrush quality to it. It really looked great compared to a lot of the flatter coloring like in Green Lantern (my first superhero comic I collected).

Then things got all funky with computerized coloring, like in Spawn and other Image titles - and really just about everyone else eventually. I have seen all of these previews for the new 52 and other books I have flipped through, and it really made me appreciate the people stuck with the 256 colors.

At a point all the gradient and airbrush effects are just over used. Things have a gradient because it can. Having solid blocks of color WORKS really well. Gestalts, people. So maybe I am old and bitter, but the older books with a great colorist I think stand on their own more than a lot of the newer books I have seen.

Lynn Varley MAKES Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Although it has the more modern coloring, it uses it brilliantly. Marvel's Epic mini-series "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" owe a lot to Sherilyn van Valkenburgh. There are a lot of browns and muted colors through out - but she does it brilliantly once again.

Piperson said...

I'm so happy to see you talk about this Jim! It's such a pet peeve of mine. There is so much popular media that is all tease and is so bereft of plot or story structure.
I know I will step on toes here but I prefer to be honest and have real discussion and critical analysis over gushing fanboy hype so please excuse my critical analysis of your all time favorite series. It's not personal.
The hugely popular Walking Dead is a good example of minimal plot. It has some, but just enough to keep things going. Nothing of consequence ever happens. Even when a major character dies, the outcome is glossed over so that no real results come of it.
I think this is one characteristic of good writing, the characters will grow as a result of having had that experience.
I think the highly praised Claremont X-Men is another example of the Tease with no results (at least the mid 80's X-Men. It was probably much better in the late 70's with Byrne on art.) And now let the rotten-fruit-throwing commence!
People praise the X-Men to no end but it's really not very good writing. When I read it in '85' Claremont would regularly introduce new villains, or elements, get his characters into some trouble, leave the story half finished by the end of the issue only to start a brand new plot the next issue. Claremont would introduce plot threads like "Who is stronger, Colossus or Juggernaut?" "Will Forge and Storm get together? And how will she feel when she finds out Forge created the machine that took her powers?" "What will happen when Warlock's omnipotent father finally comes for him? Will the X-Men or even the Earth survive?" "Nimrod, the ultimate mutant killing machine has it out for the X-Men! What will they do?" Unfortunately in the 2 or so years I read it nonw of these issues were ever resolved. So because I was tired of reading unfinished stories I dropped it (around issue #220).
If you want great story-telling, check out Frank Miller's DD run, "Born Again". In it Miller has every conceivably bad thing happen to him short of getting shot or killed.Just as your positive that there is no possible way for this story to come out OK at least not in a believable way, Miller turns it all around and actually makes Matt Murdock the stronger in the end. Now that is masterful story-telling!
Moore did the same thing on the Swamp Thing. In issue #21 he strips away Swapies humanity and though it was a great issue, leaves the story with no conceivable place for the series to go from there, and yet Moore pulls out a miracle and gives us another 40 issues of incredible stories and cliff-hangers!
I find the same problem with many popular current TV series like True Blood and Dexter. People hype about it, but I'me sorry to break the news to you guys about your favorite TV shows...but they're not good stories. Just a lot of silly tease.

JediJones said...

According to Comic Vine, the Daredevil issue colored by Richmond Lewis was #228 from March, 1986.

JediJones said...

Piperson, it's kind of bizarre you mentioned the Born Again storyline since it ran from issue #227-233, which included the issue colored by Richmond Lewis that Brian Logue mentioned above without specifying what issue it was. I'm going to chalk this one up to a non-supernatural coincidence. However, somewhere in the world, right now, I wonder if there's a baby being born that's going to be named Matt.

Steven R. Stahl said...

You'd probably find widespread agreement that Claremont's X-MEN stories weren't as good as people thought at the time, but that's partly due to his deficiencies -- repeating himself stylistically, thematically, and in plot material -- becoming apparent over years.

That's also due, in part, to the "illusion of change" policy being combined with the heroes being mutants. Heroes who teamed up to fight racism specifically would have the same problems as years passed. The reliance of X-writers on alternate futures for so much material exists because the heroes are mired in a static present.

SRS

Anonymous said...

Piperson, I think you're actually kind of generous to The Walking Dead (I assume you mean the comic, not the TV show)--I read the Compendium (borrowed from a friend) comprising the first 48 issues, and for about the first half of it, there's no plot at all, just a premise. There's a sketch of a plot in the second half, but I cannot imagine finding it compelling in 20-some page chunks, given how tedious it was in a collection. That this series gets widely praised boggles my mind.

To anyone curious as to why I would read the whole thing when I found it so terrible? Sheer bloody-mindedness.

On the other hand, your examples of Born Again and Moore's Swamp Thing--especially the latter--are indeed examples of top-class storytelling.

--kgaard

Anonymous said...

Mister.44 said...
***
Rude is out on bail. His arrest was for assault with intent to injure and violating of court order (restraining order???)

His wife said that the neighbor threatened to call the police when Rude's children's frisbee went over the fence.

Rob

Andrew said...

Twenty pages of heroic downtime, with a couple perfunctory action scenes and Doctor Doom on the last page? Sounds a lot like Fantastic Four #305, my first FF issue and the one that started a lifelong love of that particular team. Looking back now I can clearly see the flaws in Englehart's run, but the idea that there can be gaps between one superheroic crisis and the next is still one that resonates.

Andy E. Nystrom said...

While I understand the logical arguments re: Bendis' writing, somehow his style works for me anyway. Mind you, due to rising comic costs I tend to wait for them to come on sale and then read a bunch back to back, so that probably helps. That said, even by Bendis standards Powers has been slow down the pace even further of late and I don't know if I'll be sticking with it. But I generally do enjoy his dialogue. Maybe he should write more straight graphic novels; my suspicion is that even without trades, he's writing at a pace he finds works for him.

Interestingly I just finished reading another story I found to be decompressed... and it's Jack Kirby's Madbombs story in 1970s Captain America. Though for him the decompressiion comes from extra action and not talking heads. Up to a point Kirby gets away with it because nobody draws action like Kirby, but even so the story could have been told in fewer chapters and not lost much of the story.

Defiant1 said...

In my opinion, the problem with modern line art looking so damn "muddy" is quite simply the math algorithms used in the software tools. With digital pixels, you have either a jagged square pixel edge, or you have a muddy mathematical guess of what the pixel transition should look like in order to appeal to the human eye.

I'm no expert by any means, but short of making it higher resolution and having the mathematically interpolated pixels smaller, I see no practical way to eliminate the issues of muddiness that personally bug me.

I did see a coloring tutorial by Neal Adams' son... Josh I believe. I think he included a step of making the black line art a protected layer and overlaying the black line art back onto the colored piece as a final step. That really makes a lot of sense, but either way, pixels are square in the digital image formats. There has to be some mathematical algorithms applied to tone down that sharp contrast, and making it muddy and adding a gradient "softening" effect is the only real way.

I assume video games are using hexagons rather than square pixels. That would in my mind solve some of the issues that bug me, but I don't know the details about how the data is stored if so. I don't know of any common image formats storing the data as hexagons.

I'm just rambling as a layperson who gets very annoyed with image quality problems like this. To me, a muddy line in an image format is just as annoying as cracks, pops, and whistling noises introduced by audio compression algorithms for music.

Jason said...

Defiant1: I think you're a bit confused, and possibly stuck a bit in the past. (No worries, it can happen to anyone.)

First off, Video games use hexagons in modeling, but still display in pixels. Have to, that's how monitors display things.

Second, the jaggedness of pixels can be smoothed out by algorithms (it's called "anti-aliasing"), but if the resolution is high enough, you simply won't see it. At 72 pixels per inch, yeah, there's jaggedness to curves and whatnot. If you go up past a few hundred per inch, you won't see it unless you look very closely. High resolution art is within the reach of even the weakest computer on the market today, and has been for years. In the 90s, it took quite a while to render, but now not so much. I think Jim's pretty much right -- it's not the tech, it's the skill (or lack therof) of those using it.

jimshooter said...

Dear Brian,

I honestly don't remember the specific incident, but I was always looking for good examples.

Christie "Max" Scheele is a fine artist, too, by the way, as well as an outstanding colorist.

Mister.44 said...

What Jason said. Also with 'vector based' graphics like what is done in Adobe Illustrator, the colors and gradients aren't actual pixels. It is all lines and points with a color or gradient assigned to a shape. So a 1" square can be blown up to 100" with zero loss of detail or having pixelation.

jimshooter said...

Dear Andrew,

Once more, with feeling: There are no rules. Anything you can imagine can be effective if done well. If that issue worked so well for you, I suspect it worked for many others too. Englehart pulled it off. He's a talented guy.

Defiant1 said...

Thanks Jason!

What you say about hexagons, makes sense, but it also affects the math and the final product.

You grabbed the word that always escapes me... "anti-aliasing". The algorithm doing this affect is what makes line art look muddy. You said what I was trying to say, you just used the proper words. At higher resolutions, you don't see it. The problem is that some people "see" the "anti-aliasing" that others don't see and it bugs the hell out of them.

It's no different than the differences between analog and digital music. Digital will never equal analog, but with finer sampling, eventually the differences are imperceptible. The key is getting people to agree on what is imperceptible. Right now, a lot of people working with line art in the computers just don't get it. It's not just the colorists in my opinion. The colorists are a big contributor.

JayJayJackson said...

I think it's the colorists and not the tools. In the old days colorists had so little control over the finished product, it was frustrating and we were forced to keep it simple. At VALIANT we all used the same paints, but the results varied wildly. And, consequently, lack of understanding of the goal of making the art clear and telling the story sometimes suffered. Now that almost any painting technique is possible the most important goal is more lost than ever. If colorists made storytelling their primary goal, I doubt the art would be muddy or unclear. I see digital paintings frequently that are very hard to tell from finely hand painted paintings. And I see really bad digital paintings. They are done with the same tools, but results vary according to the artist. D, you are absolutely correct that a lot of people working with computers just don't get it.

Mister.44 said...

Defiant 1

I am wondering if you are complaining more about anti-aliasing - or something else.

With out anti-alias tools, you end up with what is known as the "Jaggies". I think they went to school with the Cavity Creeps. So your muddy line would look like jagged crap with out it.

Anyway - here are two samples:
http://images.eurogamer.net/assets/articles//a/8/6/7/8/5/1/Saboteur_Aliasing_000.jpg.jpg

http://forums.adobe.com/servlet/JiveServlet/downloadImage/2-2899889-31117/450-337/anti-aliasing.thumbnail.png

Artifacting is from making images too large and the computer has to fill in the missing pixels the best it can. It was harder to find an example of this - but here is one. It shows how on the left the computer is making up colors that were not in the original image. http://davidbrasgalla.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/ipad_artifacting.png

Maybe it's just the over use of gradients, some overlapping and not really making sense (problem I noticed when I was collecting).

Finally, I saw some of the new previews and some of them had a painterly effect. I recall a purple alien that either had a filter to give it a bit of a mottled look, or they used a program that mimics prismacolor markers or paint and can be built up.


I am not 'in' to comics like I used to be - but I am a designer and familiar with a lot of the tools. If you post a sample, I'd like to see it.

re: JJ - "you are absolutely correct that a lot of people working with computers just don't get it."

When I first went to school for design we were on the cusp of digital art going main stream. I really wanted to be a 3D artist/modeler - but failed to find a program for it I could afford in my state. (In hind sight, that was probably a good thing. I am not good enough to be a 'lead' modeler, and I would end up like the poor schmucks at Industrial Light and Magic working in trailers with 5 year old monitors with brand new Sun systems doing tweening or making intergalactic coffee pots.)

I'll be honest - computers were a bit of a crutch. I was messy and sloppy and impatient. Computers allowed you to be crisp, smooth, and it was easy to undo a mistake.

But the first couple of years in school were mainly doing all of the classic design exercises by hand - learning lettering, how color works (I had a whole class just on the use of color and how our eyes and minds perceive them.) I found it annoying at the time (yeah, yeah, patience, how long does that take?) but I am glad I did it as it was a solid foundation for the years later.

JediJones said...

Somewhat related to this discussion, Roger Ebert published this interesting essay yesterday on his more or less making peace with the digital format being on the verge of replacing film in filmmaking...or do we have to call it moviemaking now?

JediJones said...

Speaking of technology in comics, Jim, did you ever consider publishing any comics in 3D during your tenure at Marvel? I remember in the mid-'80s reading my first 3D comics from independent publishers. In fact, one of those was G.I. Joe 3-D by BlackThorne publishing. Incidentally, do you know if they had to make a special deal with Marvel to do that series? I do realize that may have occurred shortly after your time there.

It appears that Marvel has still never published a 3D comic book, aside from some Image crossover books in the '90s. I'm also aware that Valiant came out with "Valiant Vision" 3D after your time there. Was that something you had been involved in developing at all? What's your opinion on 3D in comics, or in movies for that matter?

Defiant1 said...

My problem is with the math. The algorithms.

I start with an image 64 pixels wide by 64 pixels tall. I make the bottom left quadrant 32 pixels x 32 pixels and color it white. I make the other three quadrants black. The starting image has a nice crisp line.

http://bit.ly/sbBaLf

If I choose to reduce the image 33% (intentionally a bad choice), and then resize it back to the original size, you get this image.

http://bit.ly/uoHeVi

Theoretically, it you reduce it at a 4:1 (25%) ratio, and then resize it back to the original size, there should be absolutely no loss in image quality. I just tried it with a program I own and it gave even worse results that the one reduced 33%.

Any image processing that requires the software to interpolate what the pixels should be causes it to deviate from the true crisp lines that were there at the start. This is an inherent problem with raster images. Coloring is just one stage where the pixels get that muddy look.

A skilled person can minimize the damage done to line artwork when it's scanned into the computer and they can even use the software tools in many beneficial way. Unfortunately though, once degradation to the original line has occurred, the only way to get that detail back is to go back and reverse the action that caused it. When people are getting paid by the page or job, nobody wants to waste a lot of time reversing the damage they've done and redoing it a better way.

The end result is a muddy line that someone thinks should be good enough to the consumer viewing it. I personally don't like the differences I see between original art I own and the published pages.

This became a pet peeve of mine after buying a page of Gulacy artwork that I felt was classic for his style. Upon tracking down the actual comic where the art was published, I was horrified. All the qualities that made the original art page look good to me were gone. I thumbed through the rest of the comic and it looked equally bad. I just stood there thinking how much more enjoyable the comic would have been if the artwork had been true to the original inked art. On a side note, the page was colored, but they opted for everything to be a strange pink color. They made no attempt to bring any life to the page with a nice color palette.

But anyway, I'm just rambling. Had I not bought the original page of art, I'd never have known how badly the art was being reproduced.

I look back at some of my original EC comics printed on cheap newsprint, and they look stunning. EC worked around the the inherent problems with cheap newsprint and made the art look stunning. Today, it seems to be the complete opposite.

JayJayJackson said...

In the past when I have printed my work or had it printed I start with a very high resolution (400-600 ppi) bitmap of the black and white artwork. I color that, keeping the black and white art as a hard-edged bitmap style line on a separate layer. If I have to change the resolution at all for print I do not resample the art, so the black line art is never anti-aliased but always sharp. If you know what you are doing, there is no reason to have your line art get fuzzy when it's printed. If you need to make jpegs of the art for web usage, that's a different story. When I do web comics I try to be very careful about how I reduce the art size and do some adjustments after the reduction.

Mister.44 said...

Defiant1

I think your problem is with inept inkers/computer users.

There is NO reason to take a scanned page and have to up size it. None. You scan the page as a high res TIFF. Then if it is just too massive for your girly computer, you can size it down to the dimensions the printer specifies (11 x 17 @300dpi, for an example.)

If you down size the image, the lines should stay crisp. If you up size it - well - you can't really show what is not there. It tries to fill in the details the best it can.

For best results, you work much larger than what the printed work will be. (Say the full TIFF scan at 11 x 17 @600dpi). You can generally have more control, and you won't have the muddy issue from down sizing it.

Also - for your block example you could work with a vector based graphic like in Adobe Illustrator. It uses that math again, but it uses points, curves, and lines. So you can resize it up and down to your hearts content and not lose any detail.

jimshooter said...

Dear JediJones,

I don't think we published any 3-D comics while I was EIC. Didn't Roy do a "3-D Man" comic? Was that in 3-D? When 3-D technology reaches the point where glasses are no longer required, it will become standard.

Defiant1 said...

Mister.44

I increased the size to show where the math was interpolating the pixels. I don't have to increase the image size to see the muddy looking edge. My point was that the algorithms do introduce problems whereas an analog form of reproduction does not.

I brought up to JayJay elsewhere that modern coloring makes everything look "plastic". Gradients and other digital tools being used are introducing other non-organic qualities to the final product.

The use of colors not found in nature is another huge down side to the digital age. Unless you are in Hawaii, most water is not turquoise.

In my opinion, it all contributes to a less organic and less desirable final product. For every method outlined that describes how to properly reproduce and protect the line art, someone must not be doing it.

I've never looked at JayJay's work and had a problem with her technical abilities. You can bet I'm taking notes whenever she provides a tip on how to make something look better.

Defiant1 said...

3-D Man was not a 3-D comic.

Mister.44 said...

re: "My point was that the algorithms do introduce problems whereas an analog form of reproduction does not."

This is true.

re: "For every method outlined that describes how to properly reproduce and protect the line art, someone must not be doing it. "

This is also true.

JayJayJackson said...

Every medium is about learning to use the tools. Learning to deal with Photoshop's algorithms is no different to me than learning to deal with wet on wet watercolor. It's all technology and it can be learned. But, hey, it can be hard work.

Defiant1 said...

JayJay,

When I tinkered selling comics at shows, comic dealers viewed me as "one of them". They'd sell me expensive books at 50% off and expect me to give them a good deal when I had a book they needed. It was an arrangement that was mutually beneficial if leveraged properly. It was an added perk for standing on their side of the table.

In the same manner, I don't see a lot of sharing of information between professionals in the industry and the layperson who want to publish their first comic. I had a very poorly drawn comic strip published in a free local pop culture magazine for about 2 years in Atlanta. I wanted to do anything I could to learn the tips and tricks of the industry and everyone was hush hush about it. Are there any free published resources online to share the detailed knowledge of how to get the best results? My feeling is that professionals want to protect their knowledge because it gives them an edge over the next guy when it comes to securing work and satisfying the customer's expectation. My feeling is that the inexperienced people that will do crappy work cheaper are going to be the preference of employers so the employer can pay less, work the novice into the ground while demanding the same quality results for a lower rate.

Anonymous said...

"The writer takes us through twenty-one pages of set-up, what he or she thinks of as 'human interest,'...Then, on page twenty-two, Doctor Doom or some villain appears."

[MikeAnon:] Worst case that comes to mind was an issue of Ultimate (Peter Parker) Spider-Man by Bendis. Spider-Man and Iceman spend the whole issue chasing and talking to the newly-revealed Firestar, and in the last panel, Magneto shows up out of the blue. Worst thing about the issue? The scene with Magneto was put *on the cover.* I suppose that makes sense, given it's the only real scene of any import in the book, but imagine reading that comic wondering (from the cover) when Magneto's going to show up and why, only to learn that his showing up is the last thing that happens in the book -- no room for why. [--MikeAnon]

brianrogers said...

Piperson, re Clairmont's X-Men, you started reading after the glory years. The book really went into decline as far as unresolved plots when Louise Simonson (nee Jones) stopped editing the book in 1984. I've done some obsessive beat/plot analysis of the first 90 issues of Clairmont's run that I write about here
https://sites.google.com/site/kudzugames/home/gm-theory---key-essays/beat-structure/comic-books-beats
and here
https://sites.google.com/site/kudzugames/home/gm-theory---key-essays/beat-structure/comic-book-beats-ii