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Compressed storytelling versus decompressed storytelling: pros and cons

Greg Burgas wrote this piece over two years ago. However, these last couple of days, the topic has come up in a few different places online, and when three separate places all link to Greg’s two year old piece, I think it’s a sign that perhaps this piece is worth sharing with you folks. Enjoy! – BC

So the big thing in comics these days is the struggle between what is now known as “decompressed” storytelling and its opposite, which never had a name but is now called “compressed” storytelling. The reason compressed storytelling never had a name was because everyone knew it as “comics” storytelling – it was the standard, and nothing really deviated all that much from it. Of course, I’m not the greatest comic book historian, so if you can show me a romance comic book from the 1950s that exhibits decompressed storytelling, you’re a better person than I am (and you need to move out of your parents’ basement).

However, in the past decade or so, decompressed storytelling has come into vogue. What’s the freakin’ difference, you might ask. Well, compressed storytelling takes as its central point the idea that a story needs to be told in 22 pages – the length of your average comic book. That is why it’s compressed, don’t you know. With the advent of longer books, more “literary” aspirations on the part of writers (who read too much Proust in college), and, especially, the arrival of the trade paperback format in earnest, decompressed writing has come into its own. Writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and J. Michael Straczynski said: “We don’t need to tell a story in 22 pages. That is an artificial construct.” So they (and many others, but this ain’t a list) began to write stuff that didn’t necessarily fit into 22 pages, or even 44. They began to write stuff that got resolved in 6 issues … or 8 … or 12. One of the reasons they could do this was the collecting craze that hit comics. Back in the day, comics were almost instantly disposable. You simply didn’t save them, which is why Action Comics #1 is worth so much. Now, we have acres and acres of long boxes in our garages or bookshelves and bookshelves devoted to trades, so we can remember what happened six months before when a conversation in a book started and is just now wrapping up. It’s all good!

To any comic book reader, this is old news. What I want to look at today is the differences between these two styles of storytelling. I ranted a few weeks back about things not happening in all of my purchases, and it pissed me off. But today, I want to show you why these things piss me off explicitly, and show you why this idea of “decompressed” storytelling as gone too far, even for the masters of the genre.

First, completely at random, I opened my Essential Spider-Man Volume 2: issues #21-43 and Annuals #2-3. Here’s what I got (Me again, I swapped in a color scan I made of the same page – BC)

AmazingSpiderman29-12.jpg

Then, also completely at random, I picked a page from a current (as of August 2005 – BC) comic:

07-31-2005 04;44;49PM.jpg

Okay, I lied about the second one. I didn’t pick it at random. I went looking for it. But let’s take a look at both of these.

I’m a writer. Maybe not a very good one, but still. So I know something about the basics of storytelling. One thing I adhere to pretty strictly is that a writer should not waste the audience’s time. We have a lot of reading options, so a writer who wastes our time is just useless. This does not mean you should have the throttle down all the time, mind you. This just means that every word (since I write prose) should either propel the plot forward or tell us something about the characters or at least make the sentence work better. That’s why when I write (not here, since here I generally don’t do drafts) I try to get rid of “to be” verbs. They waste time. Sometimes they are necessary. Often (mostly) they aren’t. Anyway, in a comic book, things are a bit different. Art goes along with the words, so there might not be any words, but the art is propelling the story along or telling us something about the characters. That’s fine. We have all read comics with no words in them. It doesn’t mean they don’t tell a story.

Okay, the Spider-Man page. What do we learn from this page? That’s the truest test of whether a comic book is wasting your time or not. If you open a page at random, can you learn anything about the story that would make you want to continue? Or, if you don’t learn anything, is the art so spectacular that it makes you want to continue (splash pages sometimes serve this function). Page 12 tells us:

The guy with the moustache doesn’t like Spider-Man (“You overrated clown! You bumbling incompetent!”).

The guy with the moustache is self-absorbed (“Who cares about you!? That furniture set me back a fortune!”).

The superhero in question is named Spider-Man, and he’s fighting the Scorpion (unless they’re named Spidey and Scorpy, which is how they’re referred to on this page).

For some reason, the cops are wusses (“Hold your fire! Jameson’s in no immediate danger!”).

The guy with the moustache is named Jameson, and his first initial is J.

The Scorpion is an ex-con (“I’m not gonna be tossed in the stir again …”).

The Scorpion and Spider-Man can both stick to walls (panel 5)

Jameson is a coward (“Boy! Jameson sounds mighty brave today!” “Sure … Since we got here!”)

Jameson is some sort of businessman.

Jameson knows Spider-Man quite well, and probably has some sort of knowledge about the Scorpion.

Spider-Man cracks jokes while he fights.

That’s quite a bit of knowledge. Even if you have never opened a comic book before and you happen to see this page floating along the street after it was ripped out of a book and thrown away, you could get a lot of what’s going on. Now, let’s look at the page from Ocean. What do we learn?

It’s a city in the future (a bagel breakfast cost 9 dollars, some futuristic cars and ad scrolls, the parking meters, the coffee cup disintegrates before it hits the ground).
The main character is black and looks like Avery Brooks, as someone pointed out to me when issue #6 came out. (Sorry, I can’t remember who it was.)

Umm … yeah, that’s it. Four panels for that???? If you found this comic page floating along our hypothetical street after someone in a fit of pique after spending 3 bucks on this ripped it out and hurled it to its fate, you would know absolutely nothing about this comic book except that it’s set in the future. That’s it. Would that make you want to buy the book?

Since I couldn’t scan everything in, let’s break down, in more detail, both books and what we learn (bear with me – I know this is long, but that’s the way it is):

ASM #29: Peter needs new clothes; Peter is poor; Peter digs Betty Brant; the Scorpion escapes from jail and swears vengeance on Jameson and Spider-Man; scientific equipment is being stolen around town; Betty has a crush on Ned Leeds, who has been in Europe but is now back; Peter is jealous of Ned; Jameson created the Scorpion and fears the law because of it; Peter fakes being scared of bad guys so no one will suspect he’s Spider-Man; Jameson has a plan to get Spider-Man to fight the Scorpion; Spider-Man swings around the city making himself a target; the Scorpion’s costume enables him to climb walls; the Scorpion can propel himself from roof to roof by using his tail; Jameson claims Spider-Man and the Scorpion are partners; the Scorpion plans to kill Jameson while Spider-Man is out swinging around, but Spidey figures it out; Jameson is a coward; Spidey doesn’t like Jameson (and vice versa); Spidey has a bit of a temper problem; Jameson is cheap; Spidey can use his webbing in innovative ways (he makes bolas from it); Spidey is very agile; Spidey’s webbing is waterproof; Peter lives with Aunt May; Jameson is a liar; Aunt May totally babies Peter; Aunt May has a health problem.

Okay, now Ocean: There are coffins with people in them in the ocean, which is under a sheet of ice on some moon somewhere out in the solar system; the main character’s name is Nathan Kane; the story is in the future; lots of space trivia that Ellis (and all his characters) love; there are bases on the moon and Mars; in the future, identification is implanted in the wrist; someone wants to kill Kane but he takes care of them because he’s a bad mother … shut your mouth!; Kane is a special weapons inspector for the UN; the people who wanted to kill Kane weren’t just miners; Kane is on Deimos; Kane doesn’t like guns; the ocean is on Europa, a moon of Jupiter; there are corporations at Europa as well as the government; Kane gets busy with the ladies; the station commander’s name is Fadia Aziz.

We learn quite a bit in both books, but does anything happen? In the Spider-Man book, the Scorpion breaks out of prison, comes up with a plan to take revenge on the two people he hates the most, fights Spider-Man, and gets defeated. However, we also check in on Peter’s money situation, his romantic life, and his home life. We also get a lot of character development of Jameson, Peter, and even Aunt May. In Ocean, basically a guy flies to Europa. That’s it.

Times have changed, I suppose. Ellis is telling a science fiction epic, and wants to get us really into the futuristic world and how things work and what’s going on. That’s fine. However, we get a very good sense of 1960s New York from the Spider-Man books, and it doesn’t take 22 pages to do it! Peter hangs out with his friends for two panels, and we can get a sense of what it’s like. We don’t need pages and pages of a spaceship taking off to understand what’s going on.

Despite all this, I like some “decompressed” stories. My biggest issue with it is when it takes over the “compressed” side completely. This is the shit that’s really killing comics, because it drives more and more people away from the front-end stuff, i.e. the monthlies, and more into the back-end, i.e. the trade paperbacks. If you’re reading Ocean in trade paperback format, you don’t care that Ellis takes 22 pages to “set the mood,” because you know you can read the whole story in one sitting. Reading it in 6 issue chunks is unbelievably frustrating, however, especially when he fucks up the ending, which he did. When I read his similarly-themed (but much better) Orbiter, I didn’t care that he was taking his time, because it was a graphic novel, told as a single story. I didn’t have to wait six months for the pay-off.

The interesting thing about this is that people claim that comics in the 1960s were for kids, while comics today are for adults. Well, in the first panel of page 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #29, there are 45 words. I’m not saying that more words means more intelligent, but it’s interesting that kids were expected to sit down and read a comic book back then, whereas today’s adults can just gaze at Sprouse’s beautiful artwork and not worry about taxing their brains with too many words. Just something to mention.

I don’t want to go back to the way it used to be. Seriously. I’ve been reading the Essential Spider-Mans, and I enjoy them, but the breakneck speed with which Lee and Ditko and Romita flew through them gets annoying. I don’t mind stopping and catching a breath now and then. Unfortunately, with today’s comics, so much of it is catching your breath that there’s no more room for the breakneck speed. The pendulum has swung too far to the other side. If Marvel and DC want their writers to “write for the trade,” they should simply give up the monthly format. The serial nature of comics demands something happen every month. I’m sorry, but it does. If Ellis wants to tell a slow-moving story like Ocean, he should write it as a graphic novel (and, of course, get the ending right). Yes, we need a balance, as Lee’s overuse of caption boxes grates occasionally. Don’t accept “decompressed” storytelling just because Bendis tells you it’s good for you! Force him to make something happen in his books!

70 Comments

Didn’t read this the first time around, but I have to agree with almost everything in here. The fact that almost every story arc runs a trade-friendly number of issues rather than 2 or 3 tells you that the trade is dictating the length rather than the needs of the story, which is silly.

This is the first time I’ve read this article and agree with almost every point.

It would be nice to think that the comic professionals (writers mainly) might take note but that would mean that they would have to ignore one big “pro” as far as they are concerned: Decompressed storytelling means that they have to think up less ideas and can consequentley write more books.

Using the Bendis example, compare Bendis’ plot output to Lee, Ditko and Kirby or even Thomas, Englehart or Conway. Bendis can stretch a plot over several issues (don’t get me wrong – he can do it well) which might have only needed two issues in the 60s or 70s. Back then, the writers needed to keep coming up with ideas. This probably explains some of the dodgy stuff they came up with from time to time….

There must be a happy medium somewhere.

I’m all for the happy medium as well. While I prefer most of the modern elements of comics today over the sometimes goofy silver age stuff (which is enjoyable – don’t get me wrong – but essentially like a different species) the pacing of the story has to be right. When a story had to be told in 22 pages it sometimes got a really rushed feel to it, especially when writers would put three different villains in the same issue. With stories being told in five or six issues, writers get a lot more freedom to tell the story the way they want it to be told, but there still has to be a sense of the plot moving forward.

I’m a big Daredevil fan myself and collected Bendis’s run in TPB. While I like reading a comic that feels specifically aimed at adults, and puts high expectations on the ability of readers to follow sometimes complicated stories revealed one piece at a time, I think there is definitely such a thing as too much decompression. That doesn’t mean that there has to be a lot of straight action scenes (heck, one of the reasons I like DD so much is because he works so well out of costume…), just that the stories have to move forward. This can happen many ways, even through dialogue or captions, but it has to be done right.

Personally, I do want things to go back to the “compressed” side. I loved the pace of Silver Age comics, that continual break-neck excitement and intensity. Sure, the storytelling sometimes suffered (they usually had clunky exposition, due to the need to cram so much exposition into so short a space), but no more than it does from decompressed storytelling (‘Mighty Avengers’ #2 demonstrates perfectly how “decompressed storytelling” can be a polite word for “padding out a story for an extra issue or two”.) And at least compressed storytelling doesn’t stick around long enough to annoy. You read one issue of ‘ASM’, and whether it satisfies or not, you’ve read the whole thing in five minutes. You get irritated with a Bendis story, you’re still on the hook for another five months…more, depending on the artist. *rimshot*

The thing that bothers me is that so many writers feel they need to stretch things out to fill a book. “Writing for the trade” doesn’t have to mean “decompressed.”

Look at something like “Rock of Ages” from Morrison’s JLA. It’s six issues long and clearly designed to be read as a single story, but it moves as fast as any Silver Age story ever written. It never stops moving forward or going in crazy new directions.

It’s possible to both write for the trade and tell a well-paced story. It really is.

One problem with the decompressed style is it ignores time. A 6 issue Daredevil arc takes place in 6 months of real time, so in a year Daredevil comics, you’ve gotten all of two complete stories. This is hostile to new readers and assumes they’ll stick around six months for one story.
The other problem I have with decompression is it makes every arc equally important. In the old days, the FF would fight some loser like Blastarr for 2 issues, and save the longer arcs for heavyweights like Dr Doom or Galactus.

Good points here by all.

I prefer stories to actually suit the kind of tale they’re telling. Sometimes it’s nice to have a single issue tale, sometimes it’s good to get a long, sprawling arc. Sandman did this impeccably.

Mike Grell used lots of silent and one-line panels in Green Arrow & Jon Sable, yet managed to tell a complete story in one or two issues, even in extended arcs. I’m not saying it was all good (I liked most of it, but that’s just my opinion), but he made decompressed storytelling work as well as it can.

(I’m convinced Grell’s storytelling is one of the biggest influences on mainstream super-hero comics and their decompression, and that he got it and others didn’t. Anyway:)

Unfortunately, one could read most Grell GA or JS comic in about 5 minutes. Although I was usually entertained, I wished for a more complete reading experience. Compression or decompression, to me, translate into complete vs. incomplete reading experience. Like most readers, I fall into the “more compression” camp.

I miss the days of Suicide Squad, Starman, PAD Hulk, Alan Davis Excalibur, Astro City (when it came out more frequently), Spectre, Sandman, et al, when mainstream genre comics could give a complete reading experience even in the midst of long-running serials.

The very best comics in terms of technique do something that sounds utterly paradoxical: they employ cmpression and decompression simultaneously. That is to say, they use the information denisty of the comics page and the fluidity of panel framing to present lots of ostensibly decompressed sequences in a much smaller space, sometimes even overlapping two decompressed sequences.

To get the elephant out of the corner straightaway, Watchmen did this in two ways: first, by constructing from the get-go a symbolic set of visuals (the stained smiley/clock face, the graffitoes in the background, the Hiroshima lovers, et al.) that could be repeated throughout and accrue meaning as the books proceeded, and second, by using the ability of the prose component of comics to have multiple dialogue layers at once. The Dr. Manhattan/Laurie Juspezcyk dialogue issue really stands out for me in this regard: it’s decompressed in that it’s two people just talking, but between it’s narration-layered flashbacks and its visual and panel-to-panel complexity it manages to cover several decades and several epiphanies at once.

Ditto Frank Miller’s and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, which uses the asynchronous narrative box (that is, nartration not entirely of the scene or narration “longer” than the depicted actions) and the TV insets to rapidly and densely generate a world across which the slow four-issue psychological tale of an aging Batman can take place…while loads of kickass action (and actions) happen in each and every issue.

We3 used a simplified visual lexicon and some very innovative inset panels to tell a lot of story in comparatively little space. One standout sequence to my mind is 2’s razor-projectile assault on the soldiers. Rather than giving us one vast panel of compressed carnage, or endless panels of the shots hitting, Quitely employs the inset panel to have both at once — compressing the action to a 2-page spread, but expanding it into countless panels at once on those two pages.

But the stuff’s been around longer than that, and doesn’t just belong to OGN masterpieces. Eisner and his imitator Steranko loved using a row of inset panels to do the same trick Bendis uses a page to do: the slow, frame-by-frame character reaction shot. And they like to slap that inset reaction shot piece against a backdrop of faster-paced or more compressed actions.

This is the genius of comics: unlike film, which can really only give you one or at best two cameras on smething and have it remain trackable and coherent, and can only give you one mixed audio track at a time because we can’t follow multiple overlapping conversations by ear, comics can employ multiple time-layers, multiple dialogues, and, bestof all, multiple visual paces (!) on a single page.

I’m not bashing on, say, Bryan Hitch, Alex Maleev, or the rest of the primarily cinematic artists who’ve been as instrumental as Brian Michael Bendis, or Mark Millar, or Warren Ellis to the decompression-as-method movement. It was, I think, needed as a reminder of what decompression can do after the 90s decade of hypercompressed comics that still managed to run in place despite being ostensibly crammed with “plot.” The trick now is to look back and realize that we can have our cake and eat it too; comics can reap the benefits of decompressed pacing for presenting dialogue, permitting characters to “act,” and displaying the full conequences of a physical action; while simultaneously enjoying issues and OGN chapters that forward a lot of information and a lot of actual plot.

Fetishizing the movie-camera POV, the six-issue-exactly arc, and even, yes, the long dialogue scene is in the long run as bad for comics as a distinct medium as was fetishizing the done-in-one, dialogue-on-the-fly, and the slapdash plot built around the monthly fight scene. They’re all techniques and paces, and the more of them a single story or chapter deploys, the more that single story will do.

I’ll also say one other thing: just as we’ve sadly lost the short subject in popular film, we seem to have lost much of the short story in comics. There are exceptions: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy employed the neatly compressed and moody short story for some time to effectively fill out its character and his Lovecraftian cosmos. But fiction writers certainly don’t reject the short story; most novelists stil write them. Why don’t or perhaps can’t most graphic novelists, who have the advantage of a medium denser in informational terms?

“I prefer stories to actually suit the kind of tale they’re telling.”

This is a very good point. The writing needs to be good, and the story needs to be good. This should never be a question of style over content, and the whole “decompression” label should not be used as an alibi for padding slow-moving non-stories with insignificant fluff the way some writers probably do when they run out of ideas.

As for the timeline issues someone mentioned above, I don’t really think that’s generally a decompression problem. I mean, comic book time is different from real time either way in that the characters don’t really age. In fact, telling a story that covers a single event over a time period of six months, real time, actually makes it easier to believe that all our favorite characters don’t age at the same rate we do. Then again, Bendis decided to insert an entire missing year, which was only partly filled in in later issues, during his run on Daredevil… Eh, what do I know? :)

I have no problem at all with the plot * story being drawn out over several issues… as long as something is actually happening. Even if it’s an issue of 9-panel pages of talking heads, I’m OK with that, providing the exposition goes somewhere. Go ahead and string it out a bit. Continued plots in the backdround along with the “main” story tie the arcs together nicely.

What I DO have a problem is what is now known as “writing for the trades”. Tkae the first two issues of the new Thor series. Issue one – Thor comes back into this plane of existence. Issue two – Thor brings Asgard back and places it ik Oklahoma. Neither needed an entire issue dedicated to it. With the lack of dialogue, #1 could have been done just as effectively in 4-8 pages, leaving the remaining 14-18 for the return of Asgard. Granted, there was some nice dialogue in #2, but it was wholely unnecessary to drag it out like it was.

Issue 3 was OK, though. The conflict between Thor & IM needed to be addressed, as well as his new place in the MU. There wasn’t enough to fill an issue, so it was drawn out a little. I feel the space could have been more effectively used to introduce or develop the supporting cast, but I won’t complain too much. It was a dang sight better paced than 1 & 2 combined.

Give me story, not fluff. If it’s drawn out, combine it with other stories. Have 2 or 3 plots going at once, or trim the fat. Whatever. Just give me my money’s worth.

“We don’t need to tell a story in 22 pages. That is an artificial construct.”

That’s a valid point, but in practice, the alternative is mostly replacing one artificial construct with another (“Your story needs to be 110-132 pages long.”)

Omar touches on a subject I’ve thought about a bit, and possibly a better way to frame the issue than arguing about how to define “decompression.” I think there’s an over-fetishization of the “cinematic” in comics nowadays.

To be sure, comics and movies are pretty close relatives as media, and looking to movies for inspiration gives comics creators a lot of good toys and tricks to play with. But a lot of people seem to go overboard, and unthinkingly jettison things that can *only* be used in the comic book medium.

There does seem to be a movement back towards ‘compressed’ storytelling. Which ironically (but not really) Ellis lead. The Marvel Adventures comics are done-in-one, same with Fell, the first Casanova ‘album,’ Paul Dini’s Detective Comics (at least the early issues, I haven’t read it in awhile), All-Star Superman and Local.

I’m all for recompressing single issues too. I refuse to buy any single issues that aren’t relatively ‘compressed.’ I sometimes get obsessed with counting panels. I figure that if you average less than 5 panels per page you’re wasting my time.

Decompression = Writers trying to be Dave Sim.

Really.

Cerebus did the decompression/writing for trade stuff first, and did it better. Marvel’s just playing catch-up.

I also agree with Omar–it’s possible to compress and decompress at once. If the artwork contains enough details, it provides information, just not as straight-forward as in the old Spiderman issues.

In Alan Moore’s Top Ten, the Baxtar Building floats off its foundation in one panel and half a million things happen in the background throughout. Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come did that was well. They provide a steady stream of information but not necessarily information vital to the plot.

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend toward “recompression” too, occasionally even too much. For example, IDW’s Star Trek series (“done in one” stories) often read like a 1-hour Star Trek episode edited down to fit a 30 minute time slot.

I agree with Beta-Ray Steve in the fact that all of these so-called “grandiose” TPB operas have been staged so often that they now become common-place and are no longer the “shockers” that they were originally meant to be. Huge stories like the Galactus Trilogy, The Kree- Skrull War, Superman’s plight with Kryptonite X were all “stand out stories because they took 3 or more issues to play out. Then a one or two issue plot came along, and later another huge story would break, and the cycle continued.

Back in the 60’s, I thought a 2 parter was “something”, then the “Kryptonite X” 5 parter hit or the multi-part “Saga of the Tablet” in Amazing Spiderman, or Aquaman’s seacrh for the kidnapped Mera storyline came along to stir up kettle!

I’m all for the “de-compressed” stories when they are really something impressive, but the more of these types of TPB “fillers” that come out just continue to water down anything that comes behind.

Addendum to the Dave Sim decompression thing: he even out the time. After a two-year storyline that took place over two weeks, he had a single issue which detailed TWO YEARS of Cerebus’s life, which was nothing more than him drinking ale all alone. Now, MU/DCU can’t do that, because time is varibale, but Sim knew he had to walk to walk in exchange for long storylines.

And I know this is a licensed book, but did anyone else rememebr John Rozum and Charlie Adlard’s work on the X-Files comic? After a year of solid one-off stories, they tied EVERY SINGLE ONE into a giant conspiracy that make perfect sen (y’know, for a conspiracy). Single-issue readers got their fix, and trade readers got to see all the hints that were laid out.

I don’t think a compressed story neccesarily has to be complete in one issue. Most of the old Marvel stories took more than one issue. But something happened in each comic. And either an aspect of the greater story or a subplot or something was resolved or moved forward. Too much of the writing today does seem to be writing for the trades, and padding comics needlessly. A perfect example of this is the New Avengers issue where the guy with the missing powers of all the former mutants crashes to earth. His crash to earth was told in 8 or more consecutive splash pages, with no words. Just to show that something crashed to earth. Instead of one page, Bendis took half the freaking comic to show that. That was the last Bendis comic book I ever bought, and I haven’t regretted it since. If I’m paying 3 bucks for a comic, I better get an actual story inside that comic.

We don’t need to tell a story in 22 pages. That is an artificial construct.

This would be true if comics were published to fit, but they aren’t; they’re published tyo a specific format. Refgusing to acknowledge that AND refusing to change it, as the major publishers (and by extension, their writers and artists) do, is refusing to exist in reality.

There seems to be a pernicious idea among proponents of “good stories, bugger all else” that good stories exist in some magical vacuum where things like markets, cultural contexts, and reading communities do no exist or ought to be discounted utterly.

I’m not sure where that idea comes from — the Romantic era’s largely fictional portrayal of itself, perhaps?

About writing for the trade, in some ways the decompression bothers me even more then. As you said, you can read the six issue Ocean book in one sitting, primarily becuase it will only take you about 45 minutes to do so, and $15 for 45 minutes of entertainment is not a good bargain.

The thing about comics is, we can spend as much time on one panel as need be. So, you don’t need eight panels of the same thing to convey a point. We can spend longer on one. I feel like it’s an effort to control the reader’s pace, and convey the significance of an event or location through repetition, but I’ll usually wind up just zipping through a page like that Ocean one because it’s not telling me anything you can’t discern immediately by looking at it.

That said, the Spiderman one is from a time when every issue was somebody’s first, do we really need to know who these people are, shouldn’t readers of the comic already be aware of that? For me, the critical thing that makes a comic worth reading, just in terms of dollars and entertainment time, is what it leaves you thinking about after. I’m never disappointed with a Morrison book because it’s full of ideas and connections to make after the read. With Seven Soldiers, you can spend hours making connections between the books, in fact, that’s almost demanded. Compare that to something like the recent Buffy comics, which are ok, but are nothing more then some stuff and a cliffhanger.

I hate, hate, HATE 90% of “decompressed” storytelling. Most of it is just belaboring a point or horribly self-indulgent.

Writing for the trade has the same problem as TV writers writing for the DVD set: If you miss ONE installment, you’re screwed. And what’s supposed to be a fun escape becomes an obligation I’m supposed to keep up with. No thank you.

Ongoing subplots are fine. Dragging on one story for half a year is not. If I’m paying $3 or more every month, I don’t think a complete, coherent story is too much to ask for.

If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. No one’s forcing you to read that issue of Mighty Avengers, honestly.

I think decompression is a valid storytelling style and it’s one of many styles in comics. If every comic told decompressed stories, I’d be irritated. But they’re not.

Brian Bendis’ run on Daredevil is one of my all time favourite modern comics. But another of my all time favourite modern comics is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, which is fast paced and action packed. There’s tons of diversity in storytelling on the shelves of the local comic shop.

And leaving all that aside, I think the whole debate around the merits (or lack of merits) of decompressed storytelling is reductionist. Plot isn’t the only reason I read a comic. I think there are strengths and weaknesses to both compressed and decompressed storytelling formats.

But I particularly take exception to this:

The interesting thing about this is that people claim that comics in the 1960s were for kids, while comics today are for adults. Well, in the first panel of page 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #29, there are 45 words. I’m not saying that more words means more intelligent, but it’s interesting that kids were expected to sit down and read a comic book back then, whereas today’s adults can just gaze at Sprouse’s beautiful artwork and not worry about taxing their brains with too many words.

I think that just as easily could be turned around to point out a flaw in compressed storytelling. You need extraneous dialogue and thought balloons to convey what’s going on to keep a story going in the 1960s, whereas it takes greater sophistication to follow a story that relies on greater amount of visuals with subtler nuances. Maybe not more time, but I think the idea that more text=good comics storytelling / less text=lazy readers is specious.

Fetishizing the movie-camera POV, the six-issue-exactly arc, and even, yes, the long dialogue scene is in the long run as bad for comics as a distinct medium as was fetishizing the done-in-one, dialogue-on-the-fly, and the slapdash plot built around the monthly fight scene.

…Or I could have said something as brilliant as Omar did here!

The thing about ‘writing for the trade’ is this: a trade doesn’t have to contain one six-issue story. That’s only one way of doing it. Assuming that a trade paperback typically represents six comic books, DC or Marvel could still compose their trades out of six one-issue stories, or a two-issue story followed by four one-issue stories, or a one, a two, and three ones, or 1-1-2-1-1, or 1-1-1-2-1, 1-1-1-1-2, 3-1-1-1, 1-3-1-1, 1-1-3-1, 1-1-1-3, 1-1-4, 1-4-1, 4-1-1, 5-1, 1-5, 4-2, 2-4, 3-3, 3-2-1, 2-3-1, 1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 3-1-2, 2-2-1-1, 2-1-2-1, 2-1-1-2, 1-2-1-2, 1-2-2-1 or 1-1-2-2. Lots of options, without having to stretch a story that ought to take two issues out to six.

The current run of the Legion is having problems with arc length. The first story, the Lemnos story, lasted thirteen or fourteen issues, depending on how you were counting. The second story, the Supergirl/Dominators/Wanderers story, lasted about fifteen or so and could have been wrapped up in half that. Bedard and Calero are now giving us a relatively compact six-issue story, but when Jim Shooter takes over, he’s going to give us… a sixteen-issue epic! Jim, what are you doing to us! Is nobody capable of throwing a change-up anymore?

I think Bendis has honed his decompression skills to a very predictable practice that actually goes past standard decompression. Looking at his recent run of New Avengers comics, each issue revolves around one single moment(or idea, if you will), which is usually the penultimate scene in the issue. Everything else is padding, which either builds up to the moment or distracts you from the moment.

I’m not necessarily saying it’s a bad thing either. I’d actually say he’s got a nice formula for writing monthly books for today’s Wikipedia Comics Audience (as I call them).

SOMEthing happens in each issue that progresses the story, and there’s lots of filler action and dialog (that he’s known for) to fill out the rest of the pages.

Now, I don’t particularly like it, but I can see how it works for disposable comics. Personally, I think the formula was brought on from writing too many books at once, but that’s just me.

It doesn’t hurt to remember that compression has been badly overdone in the past as well. One of the best examples of this is the Showcase Presents Green Arrow volume. Now, any collection of short backup stories is going to suffer if you try to read too many in one sitting, but the GA stories are so compressed that they don’t have room for a supporting cast, interesting villains (when the best villain in a 500-page collection is Clock King, something is seriously wrong), plot twists, or much of anything beyond the trick arrows. (I can’t help but feel that having two more pages per issue would have helped the stories immensely.)

In addition, they achieve that compression in part through massive over-reliance on the narrative caption. This can be a good tool if used well, allowing the writer to step in directly and move the story along quickly…but it shouldn’t fight with the other narrative tools, such as allowing the art to tell the story. The Ocean page above puts the storytelling in the hands of the artist, but that doesn’t mean the writer isn’t doing anything; he’s just not sticking his nose in to highlight every detail that’s already in the art. (Would the last panel really be improved by a caption that read “And as the cup hits the ground, it begins to dissolve, due to futuristic anti-pollution technology!”?) In contrast, some of the GA stories are so text-heavy that the art is completely superfluous; you could read the captions and dialogue and follow the story with little to no difficulty. Comics may not be movies, but they’re not supposed to be radio, either.

Not to pick unfairly on Bendis, as he is quite talented as a writer, but he actually has simply pasted large blocks of text next to a few illustrative (rather than sequential) panels more than once. The “King of Hell’s Kitchen” TPB from his Daredevil0 run contains at least two examples of this within a span of seven issues, and in the case of issue #56 .

Of course, I’m of the opinion that the arcs between “Kings” and “The Murdock Papers” were filler, and in some cases had serious plot problems that the rest of Bendis’s really didn’t. Something was going wrong on the scripting end during that period. (Maleev’s art was still gorgeous, and even stretched impressively for “The Golden Age,” which I thought was the most weakly-written arc of their run together. A good example of one collaborator picking up the other one’s slack, IMHO.)

Perhaps I should post my take on the whole Bendis run of DD (excepting “Wake Up”) over at the forums. Could lead to an interesting discussion. Or not. In any case, it’ll keep me from banging on about it any longer here.

Quick question for any and all: Why the heck do people equate the amount of time it takes to read something with its entertainment value?

Example: I LOVED the second to last issue of Nextwave, even though it took me maybe all of three minutes to read. Even re-reading it and picking out the cuteness of the art, it still isn’t more than a good solid ten minutes, if that.

I’ve slogged through movies and books that had their shining moments, but seemed to take too long to get to their point.

Sometimes I vastly prefer a quick read, especially as someone with a young daughter, a full-time job, and a master’s thesis to finish. Economy of entertainment is important to me.

I think the people who are saying if you don’t like…don’t buy it are missing the point.

This is what is going to kill the monthly comic book. I know I only get one monthly per month now, because waiting a month between issues for a 5 minute read is not worth the time or money.

So I don’t like it, I don’t buy it, and I believe that when everyone starts doing that, monthly comics will be gone. The only thing keeping them going are ‘collectors’.

Exactly, Aaron.

“If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”

“I already don’t buy it, and 800,000 people just like me don’t buy it anymore either. Do you think that’s still a viable publishing strategy?”

It’s interesting to read this in light of the post just a few days ago on Death Note, as well as this post analyzing a page from Andromeda Stories. For manga authors, decompression is pretty much the norm, even in a done-in-one story like in Yotsuba&! or Sgt. Frog. However, I generally its use in manga to be much more compelling and visually pleasing than in Western comics.

Compare the page from Andromeda Stories to the two posted here. As the blog points out, Keiko Takemiya focuses a lot on flow. The panels and the scenes they depict are arranged in such a way that they guide your eye over the page. This is partly a matter of necessity: Japanese audiences prefer stories to move fast, and don’t like to linger on the page; however, given manga’s worldwide popularity, I’m inclined to think that they’ve struck on something appealing on a more natural, even visceral level.

I don’t get that sense of flow from either of those pages. In the first page, Spider-Man is shown at one point to be moving in the opposite direction as the eye; and the scene jumps from one action to another without really connecting them to each other, like an inbetweener in an animated cartoon. In the latter page, everything’s very static: there’s not really much of a trail for the eye to follow, so the page feels more like several discrete units rather than a real flowing unity. By contrast, the panels in Andromeda Stories are clearly connected to one another–when my eye finishes looking at one panel, it naturally drifts to the next one, on down to the bottom left of the page.

There’s also more emphasis on motion, so you feel more like you’re moving with the character; and the overall design lends itself to the flow pretty well. And even though very little concrete information is conveyed, it’s still enough to tantalize and carry us along.

So to sum up: manga roolz, superheroes drool lolololol

But seriously: I think the problem isn’t so much decompression, it’s that a lot of Western creators, quite frankly, suck at it.

“That said, the Spiderman one is from a time when every issue was somebody’s first,”

And therein, to me, lies the problem (although I’m not trying to pick on you, Patrick). Surely every issue should be able to be someone’s first. I only get to the comic shop once every couple of months. If I want to pick up a comic and read it, there should at least be enough in the comic to make me happy that I spent my money on it.

Another thing: if you think 6-12 issue arcs are too much, consider that a typical storyline in a Shonen Jump manga will last several volumes. I had to stop buying Bleach because I couldn’t keep waiting for the Soul Society arc to end (which it finally did in v.21, after about fifteen or so volumes)

But seriously: I think the problem isn’t so much decompression, it’s that a lot of Western creators, quite frankly, suck at it.

This actually is my problem with it. As most people here have stated, it’s not that guys like Bendis or Ellis use it that bothers me, it’s that every other writer on the market has tried to imitate them, and they’re just no good at it.

coughJMScough.

Excuse me.

I think the people who are saying if you don’t like…don’t buy it are missing the point.

This is what is going to kill the monthly comic book.

I think ghettoizing comics to the direct market, competition from other media that finally get what makes comic books appealing and the fact that the target audience is now a dwindling number of thirtysomethings with mild aspergers* who can still argue endlessly about whether the appearance of Stilt Man is continuity or not is a bigger threat to the medium than whether or not an issue of the Avengers features a bunch of people standing around talking.

* and I cheerfully include myself here

“Surely every issue should be able to be someone’s first”

Here’s the thing, though: we live in a time now where, if a new reader wants to jump into a series, all they have to do is go to a bookstore (or go online) and find the book labeled “volume 1.”

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 25, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Quick question for any and all: Why the heck do people equate the amount of time it takes to read something with its entertainment value?

Because if I’ve spent 20bucks on a trade, I’m expecting it to last longer than 5 mins, because when it takes less than 5mins, I’ve got to find something else to entertain me, and I’ve now got twenty less bucks to do it with.

Oh, and it’s very rare that the quick reads are the good reads.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 25, 2007 at 8:10 pm

The second story, the Supergirl/Dominators/Wanderers story, lasted about fifteen or so and could have been wrapped up in half that. Bedard and Calero are now giving us a relatively compact six-issue story, but when Jim Shooter takes over, he’s going to give us… a sixteen-issue epic! Jim, what are you doing to us! Is nobody capable of throwing a change-up anymore?

I got the idea from an interview with Shooter that it would be different storylines that add up to a 16 part epic – a 3parter here, a four parter there etc.
Plus, it’s Shooter – he knows comics, I’d be shocked if he suddenly gave in to padding issues.

Mainly, it’s a real pisser when a 2-issue story is dragged out to 6 issues just because 6 issues is the perfect size for a trade paperback.

AIR in the 70s-80s the “done in one” comics would often start in the middle of a book and end in the middle of the next book. (Not literally the middle, but on say page 17 of the January issue the conflict would start, and end on page 16 of the Feb issue, with the new “arc” starting on page 17 ending on page 16 of March, etc.) Which would reflect the ongoing state of the lead character(s) and at the same time make you pick up at least 2 issues if you want the whole story. Whereas decompression/writing for the trade makes every book a series of miniseries.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 25, 2007 at 9:18 pm

Remember reading comics before ‘padding’ was part of the vocabulary we used?

You can find DC letter columns from the late ’60s where the fans complain about “padding” in Marvel books. (I think they were talking about the mushy stuff.)

Lothor’s correct, there was a lot more serialized storytelling going on back then than we think. Reading Essential Marvel Two-In-One, I was struck by how much ongoing storyline there was. Granted, it was a pretty *loose* sort of thing, and you certainly wouldn’t be lost reading a random story in the middle of it, but the stories keep leading into and out of each other.

Seavey said…
“If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”

“I already don’t buy it, and 800,000 people just like me don’t buy it anymore either. Do you think that’s still a viable publishing strategy?”
Out of curiousity, John, where did you get the idea that less people buy decompressed comics? Is there any evidence to back this up? Because it kinda seems like the decompressed comics are the big sellers.

I agree with Graeme Burk- the whole “decompression” argument is incredibly reductionist, IMO. It’s just one way of telling stories, and it’s not really as simple as this post would seem to indicate.

If you look at the best Fantastic Four period from the sixties, there was basically one continual story that ran from issue #35 right through 67, including three annuals along the way. In #35 Reed and Sue announce their love, and in #64 they’re still hunting for a honeymoon spot. Along the way the Frightful Four, the Inhumans, Galactus and the Surfer, and the Black Panther are all introduced and provided a myriad of meandering subplots.

At the same time in Thor Kirby and Lee were also letting their storylines roll from issue to issue, continually introducing new subplots and characters that would explode into climaxes a few issues later, even as even newer menaces and cosmic concepts were emerging.

Any new reader at that time must have faced a huge challenge in understanding what the hell was going on.
I think this was the sort of “padding” that DC letter writers were complaining about.

The problem, imo, about “decompression” is that too often nothing happens for issues. Look at Dark Phoenix…it’s a single story that spans what, 10-12 issues? And things are happening. Even following the Hellfire prelude when we get into the true Jean is now Dark Phoenix, it’s several issues with constant plot momentum…..and this from Chris Claremont who never met a story he couldn’t add three more subplots to.

Compare that to, say, House of M.

Every comic does not need to be someone’s first (I’m thinking of mini-series, particularly), but every comic should have enough information to understand the characters and at least the immediate plot of that issue.

Scavenger mentioned Dark Phoenix Saga- the first X-comic I bought was a reprint of part 3 in Classic X-Men. I only knew about the X-Men from cartoons, but I could at least at the gist of who the principals were and what they were doing. From there, I could decide whether or not to keep buying. Now, I feel like I have to start with issue 1 or I’ll be lost.

It is the nature of some folks to see everything in two absolute shades.

It very, very rarely is a helpful or accurate way to look at anything.

(Alternate posts: These people that only see in black and white are idiots! The rest of us that see all the shades of grey are awesome!)

Mr. A wants to have a word with you, Joe.

Of course the plots will be continual, thats the nature of serialised media.

The problem is not in the plotting thats the problem, its all the s**t in between that does nothing really to serve the story. Why get a 22 page instalment of a story thats going to take 6 months to finish, when that particular issue does nothing to move the story along? It doesn’t leave you with a sense of anticipation for the next issue (like serialised art should), more likely dissatisfaction with the realisation that you’ve just wasted $3-$4.

At the end of the day, there are still a lot of good things to read, however because of this ‘decompressed’ story telling there is no real point in getting it on a monthly basis (unless like Greg and his mini’s, you wait for it to finish), and should just “wait for the trade”.

Except good writers can “write for the trade” while still making monthly installments viable entertainments/pieces of work.

To follow up on the estimable Mr. Rice’s points, I often find that the stuff that seems badly paced in the monthly ends up seeming badly paced in the trade as well. Again, that grand Bendis Daredevil retrospective I keep meaning to write would aim to illustrate instances of this in the latter half of the run.

But I can also see in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men; I sat down and reread “Danger” and “Hellfire” in one sitting, and both stories still seem to have a lot of fat for the trimming. It isn’t the bimonthly and decompressed storytelling that’s doing that, it’s the way in which the story structure is out of sync with the (rather modest) storytelling goals in general.

Uh, I should note that I’m following up Joe’s points by reference to the sorts of comics I suspect he wouldn’t touch with a thirty-foot bargepole.

I don’t even own a bargepole at all. Way to make me feel inadequate, Omar. Jeez.

Well, here’s the thing: any storytelling device works in the hands of a “good writer”. “Good writers” by definition are going to be able to break almost any writing rule and not just get away with it, but write it well.

So you hardly defend decompression or anything else by saying good writers can get away with it. The fact of the matter is that since so many good writers of the past few years favor a decompressed style, and many comics readers have low brain capacity, the perception has arisen among the sorts of fans unlikely to post around here (and, I suspect, many editors) that decompressed writing is inherently good and compressed writing is inherently bad.

There is nothing wrong with pointing out the general faults of decompression in the hands of mediocre-to-bad writers… since, by definition, most writers aren’t going to fall short of “good” and end up in that spectrum. There are some writing tricks that can elevate mediocre material into the appearance of substance, and right now decompression is perceived as one. But it’s not, no more than compression is, and it’s very beneficial to everyone to point out why this is so. Someone in a position to make a writer try a different style might see it and reconsider his position.

“There is nothing wrong with pointing out the general faults of decompression in the hands of mediocre-to-bad writers… since, by definition, most writers aren’t going to fall short of “good” and end up in that spectrum. There are some writing tricks that can elevate mediocre material into the appearance of substance, and right now decompression is perceived as one. But it’s not, no more than compression is, and it’s very beneficial to everyone to point out why this is so. Someone in a position to make a writer try a different style might see it and reconsider his position.”

Amen!

If you look at the best Fantastic Four period from the sixties, there was basically one continual story that ran from issue #35 right through 67, including three annuals along the way. In #35 Reed and Sue announce their love, and in #64 they’re still hunting for a honeymoon spot. Along the way the Frightful Four, the Inhumans, Galactus and the Surfer, and the Black Panther are all introduced and provided a myriad of meandering subplots.

I suppose that is a good example of what Omar described above – a history that is both compressed and decompressed. Having a continuous plot can be good, but as you point out, it’s not like the reading experience did not offer secondary (or not-so-secondary) joys along the way.

I don’t think that is really optional either. The 22-page limit may be arbitrary, but no more so than the six-issues-tale. The simple fact is that a reader who has to spend about eighteen dollars and half a year to get some significant emotional payoff from a story is just not as likely to do so as he would be in the days of done-in-one (actually, mostly done-in-two) stories.

There is nothing wrong with having long-range plots, quite the opposite really. But that is no excuse for making individual issues feel like padding. Over-reliance on the art, for instance, is padding. I like full-page shots, but not if they consume more than, say, 15% of the total space of the story I am reading.

At the same time in Thor Kirby and Lee were also letting their storylines roll from issue to issue, continually introducing new subplots and characters that would explode into climaxes a few issues later, even as even newer menaces and cosmic concepts were emerging.

Any new reader at that time must have faced a huge challenge in understanding what the hell was going on.

I don’t think so. Lee and Kirby were rather good in this respect; pretty much every issue was a good jumping-on point.

I think one of the best examples of modern storytelling in comics is anything by Brian K. Vaughan, but especially “Y: The Last Man.” Each issue moves forward at breakneck speed, moving the story along, but the whole narrative basically is the whole series (60 issues). There’s plenty in each issue to enjoy and a lot of little things that might be missed, making it enjoyable to reread; and yet, it’s a story which also seems tailored for the trade format, a long, involved story and ambitious story with a big payoff. Vaughan’s probably one of the best writers in comics today though, so that must be taken into account. It’s a good example of how a good story can be paced, neither adhering to a specific style (compressed, decompressed) but exhibiting elements of both. Ex Machina is also another excellent story told over multiple story arcs, but moves along nicely from issue to issue and can be enjoyed either way. Although, there’s a little more decompressed storytelling used in Ex Machina at times. The point is, no writer should adhere to a specific style of writing comics, but just concentrate on writing an interesting story that moves along nicely. I agree that the much vaunted “decompressed” style has been overused in recent years, and we definitely need more of a balance, not of both styles sitting side by side on the rack, but within all of comics.

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The Japanese have been doing decompression for a very long time, and it works in Japan because the Japanese “read” images as deeply as they read words. It’s a cultural thing, and thus doesn’t assimilate to Western sensibilities that easily.

With that, I agree with those who say there ought to be a balance between compression and decompression in such a way that a story maximizes the advantages and strengths of each approach. When we’re rushed or slowed down, it still feels right in the context of the story. And, overall, it gives us our money’s worth.

Entertainment has to be worth our hard-earned money. And when we spend hard-earned money, we are entitled to something of substance. We have the right to it. We need to be wowed beyond “cool art,” and “cool character,” and “kick-ass writer and artist.” If I pay $15 to $20 for a graphic novel, I need it to feel like going on a mental and emotional roller coaster ride. I’d like to feel the richness and depth and scope of a prose novel.

And this is what I feel is lacking in a lot of graphic novels/compilations nowadays. There’s little effort to get down and dirty with the intricacies of plot.

So let’s have the compressions and the decompressions, whatever the story requires. But it better be a good story, one that would convince me to plop down money and never look back.

Omar, please tell us which We3 issue you referred to early in this post. I would like to look it up.

quote” We3 used a simplified visual lexicon and some very innovative inset panels to tell a lot of story in comparatively little space. One standout sequence to my mind is 2’s razor-projectile assault on the soldiers. Rather than giving us one vast panel of compressed carnage, or endless panels of the shots hitting, Quitely employs the inset panel to have both at once — compressing the action to a 2-page spread, but expanding it into countless panels at once on those two pages.”

thanks!!!

[…] net result is some extremely compressed storytelling–too much explanation!–which for me doesn’t have the elegance of the later, […]

[…] a six issue arc. That seems oddly…familiar. And, Levitz’s story is starting off fairly decompressed. Helena Bertinelli has arrived in Naples to investigate illegal shipments – human […]

You know what it really comes down to: Writers think they are worth too much.

It wasn’t good enough that thirty years ago a writer could produce enough story content to fill several comics a month at a page rate comparable to artists who were averaging a day to craft each page (not to mention how easy off writers were who used the Marvel method of dumping the bulk of the writing task on said artists). Now they want to produce that same amount of material and have the artists toil away on three or four times as much relative work, so they can collect three or four times the paycheck.

im sorry, but i agree that you can EASILY have the best of both worlds. I originally read watchmen one issue at a time, and every issue was full of information that heavily moved the plot along, and i couldn’t wait for the next one. chris claremont’s run on uncanny is a great example of having single issue stories and huge arcs that would sometimes take years.

[…] (By the way, if you want to learn what this decompression stuff is all about, read the awesome article here) […]

[…] decompressed read (for those unfamiliar with the term here are two articles – one for and one against – that do a good job of explaining. Don’t feel forced to read both, either one will […]

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