Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The War Against The True Enemy of Comic Books

I've had skirmishes before. But today? Today, I declare war. War against the greatest enemy comics have ever known. Greater than Frederic Wertham. Greater than surrealism. Greater than Joe Quesada.

Today, I declare war ... on decompression.

Comic books aren't storyboards for films. The filmic viewpoint has infected the art of comic book making. I have nothing against movies. I like movies. Some of my best friends are movies. But comic books, sir, are no movies. I'm not saying that filmic devices and techniques can't be used in comic books. They can; but you can also brush your teeth with a mop.

Control over time is essential to the art of film-making. Unlike a book, where the reader has the choice of how quickly they experience the events of the story, a film decides not only what you will see but the rate at which you will see it. Comic books don't have that luxury. Oh, sure, they can fill a page with static panels to denote, say, an awkward pause in a conversation. But we don't feel that the way we feel in on screen; the mind just skips over the inactive panels and goes to the next word balloon.

Here's the world of "compression", exemplified by one of the great works of literature "The Monster That Loved Aqua-Jimmy" (as I recall, a copy was included in the Voyager payload).

PANEL 1: "You're going on an adventure!"

Superman is the catalyst who takes the protagonist out of his routine.

PANEL 2: "You're now Aquaman for a day!"

This panel establishes the hook of the story, tells you why Aquaman needs a temporary placement, makes it happen, and explains (roughly) why Jimmy is chosen: he's trustworthy.

PANEL 3: "Hey, I'm Aquaman for a day now!"
This panel conveys the information that Jimmy now has Aquaman's powers, enjoys them, and remains an enormous goober.

PANEL 4 "A challenge to my new powers ... from a pretty girl!"
This panel sets up a challenge to Jimmy's new powers, one that isn't life-threatening but challenges Jimmy's imagination, and provides a reason that Jimmy would accept the challenge ("She's pretty; why not?").

Okay, perhaps "The Monster Who Loved Aqua-Jimmy" isn't great literature. But it does not dawdle. Advancing the plot is paramount; comic books are about plot. Character moments are extremely enjoyable but they should be the beautiful scenery viewed from a hot-rod plot; please do not slow down, pullover, or (Schwartz forbid!) take a detour to find a character moment. If you can't find opportunities to reveal character in the natural course of a moving a plot along rapidly, then you should be writing novels, not comic books.

Let's compare "The Monster Who Love Aqua-Jimmy" to a more modern story ....

Justice League of America #1

Justice League of America #2

Justice League of America #3

Justice League of America #4

I'm not sure what the title of issue 4 is, but I always call it "The One Where They Stand Up!"

Now, I am aware that there are other things going on in those issues. I'm familiar with the Levitz model of advancing multiple plots and subplots. But I think you get my point; it seems that more happens in the first four panels of "The Monster Who Loved Aqua-Jimmy" than in the first four issues of the Justice League of America. This is what comes of editors encouraging creators to write novels using comic book characters rather than writing comic book stories.

I don't mean to pick on JLA or its writer, really; many modern comics are like this, since we live in a world where "stories" have been replaced by "storylines". I just wanted to pick one that most of my readers would be familiar with.

And please don't hand me that hokum about the economic necessity of writing for the trade. It shouldn't be an excuse to puff out what should be an action-packed 20 page story into a six-month snail race. If trades were composed of six action-packed stories (perhaps with some underlying theme to justify their compilation) rather than one bloated faux-epic, they would sell better, not worse.

Why do you think the Showcase volumes are so popular... nostalgia? In part, yes. But many people buying them have never read any of those stories before. They're not buying them out of nostalgia, they're buying them because they carry so much bang for the book.

Decompression is unsatisfying. Decompression is a root beer that's 80 percent froth. Decompression is like 4 hours of warm cuddling when you want 15 hot minutes of woo-hoo. If I wanted decompression I'd be reading Victorian horror novels like Frankenstein, with its chapter long digressions on Alpine scenery, not a sprocking comic book.

You know how many panels there are in Justice League of America #1 without any captions or word or thought balloons? Twelve. You know how many such "silent"panels there are in "The Monster Who Loved Aqua-Jimmy"? Zero.

In film, the director controls the passage of time; in comic books, the passage of time is in the hands of reader, who can take the story as slowly or as quickly as he likes. That's why filmic tricks like "silent panels", by the way, backfire. They don't create a sense of pacing and slow down your reading; they speed it up.

Think of those two or three page sequences where the characters silently engage in kick-ass martial arts conflict. Exciting, aren't they? Of course not; no matter how well they are drawn, you naturally blank over them ("Oh; fighting.") and dash forward in your reading to the next written word. In film, such scenes are exciting; but comics, like it or not, are a static medium, and such scenes read like Egyptian wall paintings. Why do you think comic books so often have people talking, thinking, or being narrated during fight scenes? Why do you think fight scenes are spiced with energy blasts, batarang throws, giant props, and needless acrobatics? They are speed bumps.

Slow storytelling means fast reading; fast storytelling means slow reading. The first is boring; the second is exciting.

You can dash through modern decompressed stories in moments because the rate at which you read is determined by how much is happening in the story. Try to dash through a story like "The Monster Who Loved Aqua-Jimmy" that way and you'll get a pounding headache after two pages. Compressed storytelling is exciting literary espresso; decompressed storytelling is boring weak tea you have to drink gallons of to get even a slight buzz.

Compressed storytelling has gotten a bad rep because it's associated with crappy stories. Yes, many of the stories written before the advent of decompression were stupid, but that doesn't mean they were stupid because they weren't decompressed. Sure, un-decompressed stories are challenged to get in the necessary exposition without using bursting word/thought balloons. But, face it, we have to suffer through those in your average Wonder Woman story anyway; wouldn't you rather have them advancing the plot than simply being so much empty badinage?

Think that a modern balance between quality and compressed storytelling isn't possible? Hogwash. There are many examples, but the easiest thing to do is read some Justice League Unlimited. Small wonder that JLU is popular with longtime readers yet still accessible to new readers and children.

Oh, look:
a panel that contains both necessary, plot-advancing information and
a gratuitous but delicious character moment.

Apparently such things aren't impossible, after all!

Decompression, by the way, makes comic book myth very opaque to new readers; too little information is conveyed about who's who and what's what. Decompression is only possible if you rely on the reader to know a lot of information you aren't willing to stop to explain (What is that purple starfish? Who are Felix Faust, Prof. Ivo, and T.O. Morrow? Who the heck is Trident? Geez, I don't even know who Trident is). Decompression is the enemy of comic books because it's the enemy of new readers.

DC; stop worrying that your writers are going to run out of ideas. Stop worrying that longtime readers will be annoyed if you repeat an explanation of a character or their powers. Stop worrying that your readers are going to get the bends without decompression. Return to the done-in-one, the back-up story, the high-octane elements that employ the medium's strengths rather than its weaknesses, and the kind of storytelling that only comic books can do.


Anonymous said...

There might be another factor besides writing for the trades: the Manga influence.

Mangas are slower than traditional comics and younger readers may want a different pace.

David C said...

Bravo, sir! This and "Keeping Company" are two of the best pieces I've read about the current comics scene.

I think a lot of comics people need to print out big signs reading "COMICS AIN'T MOVIES!" and hang them all over the place.

That's one big problem with the "silent panels" business - that *can* work, but it usually requires an artist with great skill in things which the current comics market undervalues - expressing emotion and character through facial expressions, body language, etc. Just as, in a movie, you wouldn't call on Steven Seagal to demonstrate complex emotions without dialogue (or, OK, even *with* dialogue, but you get my point), calling on Joe Random 21st Century Mainstream Comic Book Artist to do the same is also unlikely to work.

Decompression has its place, but making it the default is a big mistake.

Scipio said...

"younger readers may want a different pace."

If there's any evidence that younger reader want SLOWER comics, I can't imagine what it would be.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't know any young readers and I know even less about Mangas, so I would not know.

The Bendis/Meltzer style of decompression may not be an example of Manga choreography but silent panels look sometimes similar to the transitions which were studied in The Invisible Art.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, I agree almost completely with your point of view. I think Justice League of America has a LOT of good ideas floating around, but the glacier slow pacing is really bugging me.

Just look at the last storylines of the new JLA and JSA books. JSA had all the new members introduced, a new HQ, a team of villains dealt with, and a year's worth of stories set up in 4 issues. JLA took 6 issues to do this, and didn't do it half as well. I still don't even know if Geo-Force is supposed to be on the team or not.

I've enjoyed JLA, it does manage to have some fun bits, but I think "writing for the trade" is one of the worst developments in comics.

Anonymous said...

Compressed storytelling is exciting literary espresso; decompressed storytelling is boring weak tea you have to drink gallons of to get even a slight buzz.

Plus it makes you have to get up and pee every fifteen minutes.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I think that Mark Waid's character summaries in the back of every issue of "52" were examples of compressed storytelling. Unfortunately, they were fragments of compressed storytelling. Specifically, they provided the first half-page of a classic compressed story. These lengthy summaries are likely unnecessary in comics. I do, however, like a text summary of the character and the metaplot. I seem to recall that these have been provided: (1) on the inside of the cover, (2) on the splash page, (3) after the opening scene and (4) on both the splash page and after the first scene (the "Legion" model). So maybe Mark Waid is the avatar of compression? Interestingly, the new "Battlestar" television series utilizes the "Legion" model.

Rob S. said...

Only when the Justice League stands up, can we stand down.

Anonymous said...

I'm still shocked that there is a planet somewhere that a)knew about Aquaman and b)needed his help.

Anonymous said...

Over at Dave's Long Box he touched on this a week or two ago in a review of Uncanny X-Men #202. Say what you will about the Claremont style, in the 80's he wrote stories in a way that within the first 4-5 pages you knew who every member of the X-Men were, what their powers are, and who they were fighting and why.

He did employ a lot of devices that are now criticized to do this, such as thought balloons, panel captions, and sometimes stilted expository dialogue; however in the first few pages of a story a new reader would instantly know what was going on and could get into the story (even good mainstream entertainment employs these tactics still today, for example Gillian Anderson on X-Files and Katherine Erbe on Law & Order:CI spout an incredible amount of expository dialogue)

I like the new JLA and ordered a subscription after buying #3,4 on free comics day at Big Monkey Comics in DC, however I have been reading comics for 24 years now and know JLA lore like the back of my hand.

I agree with Scip that these comics are hard enough to get a grip on for a longtime reader and are certainly not bringing new people in which is what you think you would try to do with a crossover writer like Meltzer who has an audience that is not the typical fanboy.

Jon McMaster

John Chidley-Hill said...

I agree with you completely. Look at the Mighty Avengers issues #1 and #2. One battle, and the gathering of eight heroes has been spaced out over two issues (And counting!). In the first issue of the Avengers they'd formed, battled each other, then battled Loki in the span of a single issue.

Siskoid said...

While I would disagree that "comics are about plot", you only really address comics that ARE about plot (mainstream superhero comics) so I'm not quibbling. In fact, I very much agree.

Mentionning Mark Waid isn't so crazy given that a LOT of stuff happens in his Brave and the Bold, the only monthly (oops, almost monthly) I'm currently buying. Hey, I've got tons of compressed Showcase/Essential material to get through...

Captain Infinity said...

How I long for more done-in-one stories. JSA #10 is probably my favorite part of the whole series. It's self-contained and still advances the overall flow of the book.

Paul Dini's done-in-one Detective Comics stories actually got me to pick one up...and I don't like Batman that much.

Brian Hinshaw said...

I don't know, maybe there's something to letting the mystery build, or delaying gratification. And, like, verisimilitude. Or whatever. In fact...

[continued next post]

David C said...

"Compressed" storytelling doesn't have to mean "done in one," though. You can have long stories with many chapters, mysteries building, etc.... but *also* with something actually *happening* in each chapter.

BTW, a side issue of interest is that decompression and late shipping do *not* go well together. If that issue of Uncanny X-Men had shipped two months late (which would have caused heads to roll at Marvel back in the day!)... it wouldn't have been *as* big a deal. People could at least pick it up and figure out what was going on, even if their memory of the previous issue was hazy.

Tom the Bomb said...

Amen to this. Decompression has been criticized before, but this is one of the best laid-out arguments I have yet read.

“Decompression, by the way, makes comic book myth very opaque to new readers; too little information is conveyed about who's who and what's what.” Countdown #51, I’m looking at you. Infinite Crisis, that goes double for you; I still haven’t looked up the Amazons’ Purple Death Ray (wha?), just out of protest at the lack of explanation in that contextual wasteland.

To the spot-on discussion of lengthy, silent action scenes I would add the dialogue-swamped conversation scenes that have become the vogue in many of both of DC and Marvel’s headlining books. Ostensibly they are meant to advance the plot, and sometimes they do, but just as often they’re a case of a writer telling rather than showing. Writers like Metzler or Bendis enjoy pages of banter that show how much they “get” the characters and their relationships, even at the cost of putting a reasonable amount of, y’know, story in the comic.

I second John’s comment on Mighty Avengers. After the big reveal of Issue #1, the team spends the entire second issue staring at Ultron, or almost attacking it but then stopping, or having flashbacks about why they joined the team. Bendis’s attempt to use sophisticated non-linear narrative structure, instead of adding tension, is sapping any excitement the story might have.

The Icon said...

I first read your entry this morning and was ready to disagree on some of your points (not all mind you, just some), BUT, this afternoon I got bored and was reading some old Justice League of America. The story was the one where Mr. Terrific is killed during a JLA/JSA meet and greet.

Now, I pretty much agree with everything you said. Compression doesn't have to mean shallow stories or even out-right stupid. I was reading the death of Mr. Terrific thinking the whole time that it pretty much did in two issues what books like Identity Crisis take seven or more to do. On top of that, you were never left wondering who the hell any of the characters were or about their powers. It was all there.

There were even a ton of character moments. That story dealt with coming to grips with old age, the death of a parent and betrayal.

All in two issues.

So yeah, I think I'm going to stand with you on this one. Enough trying to pretend that comics are movies on paper. They're not. They're comics and the tools of that medium should be exploited instead of shoe-horning the tools on another.

Great post and extremely insightful. Good job, man.

Scipio said...

Thank you, Chris.

G. Bob said...

Spot on.

My son is 6 and really starting to get into comics (and sadly, heroclix no thanks to your site but that's another story). You know what I wind up reading him? Old FF stories from an essential collection. You know, you look at that Galactus story. It starts halfway through one book and finishes halfway through the next. Basicly one issue of kick ass story telling. How long did it take Ultimate Galactus? Did that thing ever finish? Was it even half as good?

Hell, if not for Marvel Adventures and a couple of DC titles there's really nothing for the next generation of readers to pick up. Imagine when you were first buying comics. How long would you be wiling to wait on a story? Over half a year before the climax? That's 8% of your entire life just to see the bad guy punched in the jaw!

What a revolting development.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I have ever agreed with one of your posts more.

Anonymous said...

Well said, sir. I am glad that the Absorbascon continued (after that one month long hiatus).

Anonymous said...

C'mon, baby!

Tell me All Star Superman doesn't fulfill your needs in that department! It fills your hole, baby!

Anonymous said...

Decompression is helping to kill tradisional comics by make them a terrible value. What other method of storytelling makes you wait *six months* for a story that takes a half-hour to read ... and charges you $12 for it?

Comics are good at compression, far, far better than the movies or TV. Why not play to the medium's strengths instead of trying to make comics something they're not?

Derek said...

Yes, anon. That's what I was going to say.

Comics aren't a good value when decompressed. I'm not gonna go into a spiel about how comics cost too much these days, but I think it's worth keeping in mind the price difference when you buy four-to-six issues of a story that could have been (more satisfactorily) done in one or two issues.

It's not just a storytelling problem, it's a financial one as well.

We should be outraged.

MaGnUs said...

Gak, I'm not going to read all 24 comments before me, but I must say the following:

Scipio, I agree on the principle of your post; but I do think there is a middle ground.

While I don't want to read stories like JLA 1 to 4 (which, as you said, could have been resumed in 20 pages); neither do I want to read cheesy Silver Age stories (which were good for their time, and are good for sentimental value) like Aqua-Jimmy here, nor do I want to read stories where every two panels they have to do exposition to tell who a character is.

In this day and age, you don't need that kind of exposition... if you don't know who Trident, or the purple starfish are, look it up in Wikipedia, or elsewhere in the net.

I also don't want to read one-shot stories (not all the time, at least); I think comic books, especially Marvel and DC, as ginourmous shared universes, have the best potential for continuing storylines.

Again, I don't want eternal storylines like JLA, which could be told in one or two issues tops; and the writin-for-the-trade thing is despicable too.

And really, what kind of sad little alien planet knows and needs Aquaman?

Marc Burkhardt said...

Hey, don't diss Aquaman. He'll have a dolphin lay you out ...

Of course, I fully agree with Scipio on this one. Old Silver and Bronze age comics may have been stuffed to the gills, but they actually took a bit of time to read.

When you look at the modern JLA - or heck, a lot of comics - it seems as that less happens in an entire year's worth of stories than in a few issues of the Lee/Ditko Spidey or those old Silver Age Aquaman stories drawn by Ramona Fradon.

As far as manga is concerned, the slower pace still give readers more for their money since you essentially pick up bi-monthly or quarterly graphic novels that deliver about 10 times the pages for only three times the price.

By contrast, American comics offer a pretty slim package for 3 bucks and don't even come out on a regular schedule.

You don't get much bang for your buck, which is why our weekly purchases are dwindling ...

Finally, regarding All-Star Superman, with the exception of the latest issue that book is delivering complete stories within a larger serialized framework. Therefore, despite the delays and slow pace, we still get the satisfaction of reading a good tale, rather than the fragment of one.

The same holds true for The Brave and The Bold. That's why those books are so good.

Anonymous said...

Decompression is the drum solo in the middle of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". Discuss.

Fred Perry said...

I like the premise of this, but I need further clarification of what "decompression" is. Marv Wolfman and George PErez used multiple threads in their early New Teen Titans run. hints about the whole Trigon epic were given out for about a year before Trigon ever showed up in person. Is that "decompression"? If not, what is the difference? (And, by the way, if that *is* decompression," I'll take it any day.)

Anonymous said...

I think the real key to battling decompression is to put forward the idea that as an ideal each issue should be complete in itself while advancing the overall story. It could be part 2 of Batman's six part epic confrontation with the Joker, but if that issue concentrates on telling the complete story of Batman stopping the thermite red-hot gum that has been planted in every gumball machine in Gotham then it doesn't feel decompressed. It can fit the overall story arc and give readers a reason to look at that one particular issue.

That kind of balancing (writing for the issues and the trades, I suppose) requires a deft hand and it's really easier to write to a 130 page format instead of a 22 page one so that is where things tend to slip.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Scipio. And I've enjoyed the comments. At the risk of bringing the wrath of the comics community down on my head, I think one of the better non-decompressed superhero comics being published today is Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog. Big casts, big stories, but a complete story in each issue that advances the larger story. That's the kind of comic most people can get into.

Scipio said...

Fictive; no, that's the Levitz Method (multiple running subplots that become central plots).

Click on the hyperlink on the word "decompression" at the beginning of the post and it will take you to the definition.

if you don't know who Trident, or the purple starfish are, look it up in Wikipedia, or elsewhere in the net.

Well, yes. But should a computer be necessary to read a comic book? Would we take that attitude toward a television show, movie, or a book that omitted necessary information and about which the author simply said, "Oh, it does make sense, but only if you look up on the internet everything I excluded"?

I think great works of literature -- even mediocre ones -- should contain at least the information necessary to understand the story. Perhaps not to appreciate it at its fullest, but at least to understand it.

I wrote once about a scene in 52 where Ralph Dibny commands the attention of the press to reveal that Booster Gold is a shallow, money-grubbing publicity hound. The comic book did contain everything you needed to understand that scene.

But to fully appreciate the scene, you need to know that at the beginning of Ralph's career he was just like that himself. That irony isn't necessary to understanding the story but it adds something extra for those who know their comic book history.

That should be the model for comic book stories. They contain all necessary information, but may have additional layers of literary value that are "unlocked" by knowledge of previous comic books.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The previous poster who mentioned In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida nails it. Decompression is like Prog Rock. Take a format that traditionally, and best, expresses itself in short, terse bursts (superhero comics, rock music) and stretch it out into long, meandering, slow-burning works. Whee.

Yeah, it creates a different flavor than the standard, but it's not an improvement, it's not really a radical innovation, and, most importantly, it's not using the inherent strengths of the medium. It's like using dress shoes to drive nails into wood; it'll work, but it's a waste of good shoes. The positive effects gained by decompression in superhero comics are very often overwhelmed by their drawbacks.

The evil part of me says if you wanna write a character study rooted in dialogue, just write a damn novel. They're excellent for stories like that.

Siskoid said...

Compression should definitely not be taken to mean "all-in-one", but really, that something significant happens in the comics unit you're reading. Whether that's a panel, a page or an issue.

If comics are gonna be sold in 22-page installments, then they should respect that "unit" and make it at least equivalent to a "chapter" in a novel. We don't buy scenes from movies, we buy movies. Literary magazines don't publish serialized paragraphs, only chapters (or short stories). And so on.

I was raised on French comics (or really, Belgian) like Tintin, Asterix, etc. They usually sell these in 48 or 60-page full story (or rarely as part of a 2part story), hardbound and continually in-print. "Albums" they call it.

If american comics are going to "write for the trade" and disrespect their basic unit (the issue), then they should really just adopt a European or Japanese model and come out with longer, traded-up stories and screw the 3$ rags. Decompression and late shipping because less relevant in such a format. Heck, when a new Asterix comes out, it's a frickin media event! (And they're really not as good as they were since the artist took up the writing reins.)

Just more of my ¢

David C said...

To be devil's advocate and sort of in agreement with siskoid, it seems to me that many advocates of decompression *also* speak derisively of the periodical "pamphlet" format, and would prefer a comics world where only "the trade" exists, and "floppies" are no more.

Personally, I think even if everything *was* a TPB, decompression would still mostly suck, but at least it sucks *less* in a long-form work.

Christine Smith said...

I want to make a quick point about 'static panels'. I disagree that that have to be boring and useless. And a fan of 'the college years' Doonesbury, I have seen a lot of panels that seemed interesting impart a moment of reflection, awkwardness, or what have you. However, they worked for reasons that are all too often ignored in comics today. First off is that the panels were drawn individually.... there was no copy-and-pasting of the same panel, repeating it three, four, five times or more. That's pretty essental, and is exactly what I think of when you mention your eye going immediately to the next bit of dialogue. Well, why wouldn't it, if you were being asked to take the exact same picture and interpret it as a series of different moments. I can deal with someone standing, staring, a little slack jawed for a moment. If his mouth is open, and his hair is ruffeled in the breeze so that the exact same lock of hair is astray for moments at a time, my brain shuts off, dismisses it as lazy and..... well. It kills the flow of time. Tredeau would often show the same character slouched in the sofa in the exact same position for panels at a time, but he's do so while drawing each individually, and in a pose that would rather imply ijnaction. It just read more true than Batman with his teeth gritted and fist raised essentally remaining a talking statue for good chunks of a minute. How many times have we seen the hero face off with the villian Spaghetti-Western-style, cutting from face to face, again and again to show the moment before action where enemies are siing each other up. Know why that worked in the movies? 'Cause you would SEE the reactions. You'd see fingers flexing, brows knitting, jaws setting. Not just an alternating between two still images. Also, Tredeau liked to play little games with small details.... little details would change from panel to panel, like a glass of water slowly emptying from panel to panel despite the appearent lack of movement. It may sound absurd, but I would look over those strips again and again, to notice the little detals. Now, the demands of a political satire newspaper strip or a film are quite different that action-based comics, but I think that the biggest culprit here really is that people are trying to take shortcuts that simply do not work.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree!

Take that!

Siskoid said...

Christa: I think a "silence" or other type of pause is "something happening" and shouldn't be mistaken for decompression. But if the entire comic is a pause or silence or inaction, then any kind of silence or pause would be lost and useless by virtue of lack of contrast.

Plus, as I mentioned in my very first answer, I don't agree that comics are all about plot, only that most superhero comics are. Comic strips like Doonesbury aren't about plot, so the theory doesn't necessarily apply.

I enjoy a lot of indy comics where nothing ever really happens (think of Chester Brown's autobographical work, or geez, American Splendor). Those comics aren't about plot, they're about character or about isolated moments, or even metaphysical rambling. But that's their intent.

What is a high-profile superhero team comic's intent?

Mallet: I better see a full answer on your blog ;)

Jacob T. Levy said...

I don't mean to pick on JLA or its writer, really

But why not? These were terrible issues. A bizarre combination of decompressed plot and packed-to-the-gills nostalgia porn and easter eggs. They were full of stuff but without stuff happening. And, in particular, as the way to kick off the flagship team book of the universe after the League had been disbanded for a year or more, it was just stupid.

But that doesn't mean that all use of decompression is like that. F'r'example: I don't think Powers is like that at all, even if the series has eventually run out of steam on other grounds. The silent panels, the very high dialogue-to-plot ratio, and all the rest work lots better there. Or the Robinson Starman series, which was overtly movie-ish, had a very high dialogue-to-plot ratio (and a very high characterization-to-plot ratio, which isn't the same thing). Starman was densely written; there were a lot of words, and a lot of subtle pictures of facial expressions, so it wasn't a two-minute read. But it wasn't densely plotted in the Aqua-Jimmy style; there were many issues of yak-yak. And I loved it.

The Silver/ Bronze Age style, with either done-in-ones that were chock full of story or dense continuing arcs where a whole lot happened in each issue, is wholly compatible with modern demands of characterization. See Astro City, or All Star Superman, or Planetary (though Planetary's got a lot of movie-ishness going on, it's just a much faster-paced kind of movie-ishness), or Morrison's X-Men, or Brave & the Bold. (Morrison's JLA was great fun and kind of what the DCU needed at that point, but in retrospect it had a higher plot-to-characterization ratio than I'd have liked.) Simone's Birds of Prey and Villains United and Secret Six: totally exemplary. Great! Love 'em all! But I think there's plenty of room for Starman, too. Compression and decompression are both styles that can be well or poorly done. There's no single dialogue-to-plot ratio I like best; I just like writers who can handle both and who make good use of their strengths.

I don't like bad writing; JLA doesn't need the name "decompression" to qualify.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing a thoughtful commentary on "decompression" instead of just bitching about it without explanation (are you sure you have the right internet?).

I've been reading a lot of the DC Showcase books (most recently "The War That Time Forgot" and if you aren't reading it, remedy that today!) and I did think after finishing the second page of the first story, "Wow, today that would have been the whole first issue."

Can you tackle "continuity porn" next so I can understand what the hell that means and maybe not want to kick the next internet malcontent who complains about it square in the crotch?

T said...

Batman: "Dick says he's ready."

Wonder Woman: "*gasp* Bruce!"

Superman (narrative caption): "Bruce has never been one to hide when he wants something. I haven't seen him this excited since Tim said he might make the next Robin costume legless."

Mangas are slower than traditional comics and younger readers may want a different pace.

The thing is, pretty much all the manga sold in stores are collections of several chapters of a manga series. In Japan, a chapter of a manga usually comes out weekly or biweekly as part of an anthology; the pacing's slower because the wait is shorter and it's part of a bigger package. If instead a new chapter of a manga came out each month by itself, like most American comics, kids would get bored of manga fast.

I second John’s comment on Mighty Avengers. After the big reveal of Issue #1, the team spends the entire second issue staring at Ultron, or almost attacking it but then stopping, or having flashbacks about why they joined the team. Bendis’s attempt to use sophisticated non-linear narrative structure, instead of adding tension, is sapping any excitement the story might have.

Yeah. Bendis has used non-linear storytelling to great effect before, but when I read the preview pages for Mighty Avengers, I felt it was just robbing the title of its sense of urgency.

Well, yes. But should a computer be necessary to read a comic book?

Good point.

But that doesn't mean that all use of decompression is like that. F'r'example: I don't think Powers is like that at all, even if the series has eventually run out of steam on other grounds. The silent panels, the very high dialogue-to-plot ratio, and all the rest work lots better there.

Haven't read the latest issues, but I've been reading the early Powers stuff on Newsarama and all those silent panels, repetitive dialogue, etc. kind of drove me up a wall. On the other hand, he used those techniques very well in the first half of his run on Daredevil.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!
I'm so tired of the trend toward comics merely being a serialized version of the real product, the TPB!
I recently read an issue of Thunderbolts - yes I know, it's Marvel and you have little interest - but this particular issue of Thunderbolts had not a single panel of action. Not one. it's a sad trend which has resulted in me no longer buying many comics, which I grew up on in the 60's and 70's!
Aren't super-hero comics supposed to have some super-heroic activity and a reasonable pace?
I guess not. Not anymore.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Aren't super-hero comics supposed to have some super-heroic activity and a reasonable pace?

Yep. And again I'll say: Birds of Prey. All-Star Superman. Brave and the Bold. And also: Manhunter. JSA (among the current batch of writers-who-are-writing-every-big-two-book-under-the-sun, is any *less* decompressed than Geoff Johns? Hell, someone gets decapitated more frequently than Meltzer's characters take any physical action at all!). Detective. And, based on her description of her 'ultimate warrior' plans, I'm willing to bet that Gail Simone isn't going to suddenly adopt decompression as a writing style when she starts Wonder Woman.

Not everything's being written in the same style.

Anonymous said...

First I'm gonna touch on the whole “manga” aspect that has popped up in the comments, then my more direct opinion about decompression, so if you don’t care about manga skip until the “anyway”

Manga uses a lot of the silent panels that you seem to despise, but makes them work because the basic structure of manga is very different than that of american comics, specially superhero comics
You see manga has far less wordballoons or thoughtballooons than any western comic and usually have less words contained in them, the reason why this doesn’t bore it’s readers to tears is this:

Manga is all about making the reader look at the characters

A typically manga panel has no backgrounds and is only the character(s) that can be seen, you are supposed to pay a LOT of attention at the characters, not only when they’re doing something but in every conversation they have as well, many times a character’s expression while saying/hearing something is more important that what’s been said,
This is accomplished trough visual means, in manga every little change to a face means something different, eyes are particularly important but all conspires so that the majority of one’s attention is on the drawings, that’s how a static panel actually makes you pause, is what makes you “feel” how silent the scene is and what makes an action sequence really seem dynamic

But superhero comics traditionally have relied on exposition trough written means to tell they stories, so logically when a comic tries to makes use of the same techniques it fails horribly


I think the problem in decompression is that it separates story and characterization as 2 completely different stories
I agree that characterization can (and should) be done together with the plot, but I think it goes beyond that, I think they should be part of one another
The best comics I’ve read are those in which either the plot is an allegory to whatever personal problem the character is going trough or in which the personality of the character is what eventually solves the conflict
Most writers make the mistake of giving us a slice of plot then one (or four) of characters talking about their feelings instead of weaving them together or, better yet, of making one essential for the other
So in conclusion I think the problem is not just the pace but the very way the stories are being told

Scipio said...

"They were full of stuff but without stuff happening."

A wise distinction, Jacob.

Anonymous said...

1. 'Nuff said! (column was spot-on).

2. Decompression makes me even MORE hesitant to pick up issues from series I don't normally read. "Back in the day" of single issue stories, I would pick up MANY random issues from the racks. I could not bear to buy Wonder Woman regularly, but I would pick up at least two issues a year. I at least knew I'd get a whole story. Now, I have a 90-99% chance of picking up only 1/6th of a story. So I'm no more enticed to buy a random Marvel/DC comic these days than I'd be enticed to go to the library and read random chapters from novels off the shelf.

I believe decompression is significantly responsible for the decline of comic books sales to the general public. It's foolish to think casual readers are going to do all that legwork to complete all the parts of one story.

MaGnUs said...

Scipio said "But to fully appreciate the scene"

I understand what you say, and agree. I just don't think that knowing who Trident was (the point was that he was a nobody) or what the purple starfishes were (the reaction of the leaguers to them were enough clue to know that they harkened back to some previous plotline.

I think you could still enjoy the story (in all it's decompressed "glory") even without knowing those things.

But yes, we agree on the gist of the issue, and the Levitz method (that would be called the Claremont-in-his-old-day if we speak about Marvel) is still the best.

Mike-EL said...

I agree with almost every word. I'm a *huge* fan of Silver and Bronze Age comics, if only because they are such a satisfying, complete read. One issue of a modern comic offers only a part of a chapter of a longer storyline (that never really ends).

The only point I disagree with is your assessment of silent panels: while I do admit that I tend to skip over some silent panels (especially fight scenes or melodramatic 'over acting' by the characters), I can think of plenty of great silent panels in modern comics (mostly in Alan Moore comics) and a handful in Silver Age comics (Dick Sprang Batman) and one lone Bronze Age Shazam story that had a silent panel so unusual it halted the movement of the time/space continium, nevermind the pace of the story.

Cheimison said...

It's 2022 and comics are still ridiculously decompressed. The least trashy DC continuity book was Action Comics Warworld, which lasted 14 issues and a one shot double sized issue. Pretty much all the range of events happened in Superman #3 by Byrne, or two issues of DC Presents. And the fights were better!

Scipio said...

"a silent panel so unusual "
They can be quite powerful.
But only when they remain unusual rather than one or two per page.

Scipio said...

Sadly true, Cheimsion. Perhaps editors still think, "This is a way to keep readers hooked for 14 issues!" Me? I think, "Warworld? Well, I can ignore Superman for a year."
Perhaps writers think, "The larger my story is the more important it will be." Me? I think, "The larger your story, the more ineffective a writer you seem."

Scipio said...

"Writers like Metzler or Bendis enjoy pages of banter that show how much they “get” the characters and their relationships, even at the cost of putting a reasonable amount of, y’know, story in the comic."

Tom, the truth of your statement still hits like a bomb, 15 years later. It's why their stuff reads like fan-fiction: showing what the characters are like is their main point. The real writers who created these characters and made them famous weren't 'fans'; to them, although it might be nice to keep the character's personality and relationships consistent at least, the purpose of their personality and relationships was as tools to tell stories. To reiterate: the character's personality/relationships were used as tools to tell the story or weren't addressed at all. The story was NOT used as a tool to tell the character's personality and relationship.

I probably need to write a post about this.