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BVC confronts "ongoing" problem

"Outpost", the Op/Ed column over at Broken Voice Comics, this week argues that the ongoing format so common among comic book titles is stifling good story-telling and is responsible for reducing most comic plot-lines to mediocre soaps.

As far as the original

As far as the original article applies to DC and Marvel it's dead on. Those franchises are all about collecting the merchandise, and sadly the comic books are just another collectible nowdays. Yes they get different writers or artists now and then to freshen things up, but mainly it's the same old thing.

I don't think that applies as much outside of the cape and spandex world. Yeah, there are several by the larger companies besides the DC/Marvel complex that do the same. But that tapers off the farther you go into indie territory. Terry Moore is ending Strangers in Paradise for gods sake! Many are mini-series that exist as sequels, but the good ones don't wear out the stories with repetition.

And as far as webcomics go, I agree with Aleph that it's story-telling ability and not length that defines it. And, of course, I'm only talking about comics with stories because, as was said in the article, so many are newspaper strip-type comics with jokes instead of much or any story. I'm sure Fred Gallagher will end Megatokyo eventually. And Michael Poe already ended one very popular comic and Errant Story will eventually end also. Most story comics do end. And the best ones work well while running. It's the ability to tell a long story. It's hard and I do think many authors have trouble with that. But it's true with books, movies, whatever continues with the same theme for so long.

I guess it boils down to the fact that major company comics, especially superheros, are on a different playing field. They are not meant to begin and end. Only continue to make money because they have an audience that will buy no matter what. That doesn't exist outside of the hardcore fanboy universe. So the DC and Marvel models don't apply to indie comics and webcomics. Because people WILL turn those off if they don't like what goes on.

But what do I know... my comic is going to take forever a long time to tell. But at least I know it will end. I wrote that first. (yes, I had to get a plug in somehow.) ^_^

Lots of great ongoing, serial literature

LineItemVito's picture

I agree with what Aleph wrote.

But I admit that knowing that Batman will be back next week at the same Bat-time at the same Bat-channel seems incompatible with a serious drama about serious characters with serious consequences.

But it ain't necessarily so.

There are many well-written examples of ongoing, serial literature available to prove that opposite:

- George Smiley in John Le Carré's spy novels.
- The ongoing story using related characters and incidents in James Clavell's Asian Saga: Shogun, Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin, etc.
- Tolkein's "The Hobbit" led to calls for more, thus "The Lord of the Rings" (Well, OK, Tolkein always intended these to be part of his large oevre, but still, the success of Hobbit created the marketing demand for LOTR).
- Twilight Zone: never-ending stories around a connecting theme.

Point is, a serialized format can still yield seriousness.

BTW, speaking of the "seriousness" of the movie industry. Ever notice how much pressure there is on movies to recycle the same characters and storylines into sequels? The pressure for repeating financial success is a driving force, not the format, genre, or medium.


Vote Vito: Line Item Vito

Vote Vito: Line Item Vito


Aleph's picture

I didn't want to get into citing examples, but if I were to stop and start compiling a list, I'd have to say, these would all be on it.

And yet Night Gallery, same host, same idea, different writers, different mindset, arguably a much inferior show and much less remembered.

It's the people, not the form.

(and thanks for the approval :) )

Ongoing, ongoing ... gone?

Well, I'm not going to answer every point here because (a) we'd be here all day, (b) we're already in danger of repeating the same arguments (and thereby creating our own diretionless ongoing series!) and (c) to a large extent I feel some of the arguments here already reinforce the original point, rather than disproving it. Yes, there can be exceptions within the ongoing format. I specifically made that concession. But they are exceptions rather than the norm precisely because the ongoing form does not lend itself to strong story-telling. Sorry, I stand by that as firmly as you stand by your conviction.

Have I noticed that the movie industry is increasingly looking to make sequels of successful movies? Of course I have. Two things of note there: (i) whilst there are, again, obvious exceptions, these are driven by commercial considerations rather than a need to continue the story and it usually shows; (ii) most of the movies which are part of a series still contain a complete story within themselves just as - to use the above example - the John LeCarre novels do.

If you find these comments insulting to creators, maybe you should take a step back. Maybe the work you're thinking of just isn't a story. It doesn't mean it's without merit and if the creators (and fans) are happy with it not being a story then that's fine. Or maybe the creators are among those rare exceptions who are able to pull off a good story within the ongoing format, in which case even better. But, for the most part ... [return to top of thread, rinse and repeat!]

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids


Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Couldn't disagree more-- this is a fault in function, not form.

Aleph's picture

The problem here is not the fact that the story is ongoing, but that the people in control of those stories refuse to treat these ongoing stories with maturity. The solution is not to divide comics into short-form and ongoing-form as a magic bullet for better storytelling. It is just as possible to milk a short-form comic for every drop as it is for a story without an end. Even stand-alone stories in which the hero dies-- a la the Crow-- can be subject to the sequelization which ends up flogging the life out of the title. Some one-shot projects are blatantly designed to appeal to readers in hopes of generating demands for more. Some projects which are clearly one-shot deals still fail to deliver anything truly decisive or powerful. How the story is handled is not determined by its length, even by the intent of its length, but by the story sense displayed by the artist.

Popular titles can and do spawn legacies all the time, and these legacies can keep the property viable even if a character dies. Good writers can use the death or disfigurement of a character to their advantage. Entire properties revolve around vengeance for lost loved ones. Even those properties, BUILT on the bones of other titles, can suffer from this problem. There's just a dearth of good writing and a serious lack of courage traditionally displayed in the face of a sea of rabidly pith-happy fans and greedy old men waving print contracts.

The formulaic nature of mainstream superhero comics is more a symptom of the superhero subculture than an indictment of the serialized comic itself. Looking at the article the writer as much as admits that-- it is not only the /hero/ which suffers from perpetual phoenix syndrome, but the /villain/ as well. Villains are easily replaced, now aren't they? Killing off a villain does not end a popular and lucrative title.

Part of the superhero comic culture is that nothing will ever be final. As decisive as victories seem, there is always a chance that anyone can rebound. It's kind of a rubber world, swathed in spandex cliches stretched as thinly as need be over any situation. Finality is antithetical to the superhero comic fanboy, because these stories represent perpetuation of youth. They exist in their own reality ruled by familiarity, in a world where people can be thrown through walls and not break bones, where they can seem to die but always return, a world which encapsulates childish ideas of what can be done by a single person with enough determination.

If the actual format of endless storytelling has any defining issue, it's that creators push themselves past the point where they have run out of ideas for a particular property. This is often the point where stories outside the superhero culture start desecrating their characters. This is often the point where heroes fall from grace, people suffer disfiguring pains whether the disfigurement is external or internal, and characters are killed off for no other reason than to stir things up. This isn't even confined to webcomics. See also: Joss Whedon. He needs a swift reality check with his own happy-couple-whuppin' stick.

For the most part, since we don't have to meet production deadlines or fulfill contracts that include penalties and advances, webcomics actually escape most of these concerns. Publishing demands have less sway over webcomic creators right now, and so far I haven't caught sight of any disputes between creator and collective along these lines. Webcomics tend to be far more brave than you're giving them credit for, even those with established fanbases to infuriate. Todd and Penguin saw the tragic loss of a baby, and it made an impact. Wish3 starts out with the assurance that things will NOT be OK, and though I'm sure Sylvia Leung's fans are rooting for Basil to survive, there's also a significant anticipation involved as to when and how he will finally meet his end-- and the author's never expressed having any clear idea as to how long that comic will be. There are others but my crappy memory only brought those examples to mind. Smarter people will add more.

So in terms of webcomics, I just don't see this as applying the way you say it does.

Sorry, but this just didn't fly with me. Maybe if it had a cape.

Okay, so here's the cape.

Okay, so here's the cape. Firstly, the article isn't directed at webcomics specifically. It's about story structure. Many webcomics never set out to tell a story in the first place. They are quite happy to consist of a series of standalone or loosely linked pieces. Nothing wrong with that. Charles Schulz did it for years (though not as a webcomic, obviously!) Those comics can have individual moments which are funny, exciting, moving, thought-provoking, poignant or - as in the Todd and Penguin example you gave - tragic. But that alone doesn't make them a story and many would never pretend to be.

On the other hand there are comics (both on the web and in print) which do specifically set out to tell a story and, as any student of "Creative Writing 101" will tell you, a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. And ongoing comics don't have an end - not a real end.

It's not a question of length, it's a question of direction and purpose. A good story can be a few dozen pages in length (Animal Farm) or several thousand (War and Peace, Lord of the Rings). The important thing is that the events in the story are taking us and, more importantly, the characters, through a series of life-changing or defining experiences in order to get from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end). If the writer doesn't know what end he or she is aiming for, how can the events be designed to get you there? They simply become random and episodic.

And that's the problem with an ongoing title. Batman coming to terms with his parent's death is a great story. His coming to terms with his own old age in The Dark Knight Returns is a great story. Very little in the ongoing titles that happen inbetween, however, add anything to either story. They can't - the publishers don't want the Bat to change dramatically.

There are exceptions, of course. Staying in the Bat universe, the crippling of Barbara Gordon by the Joker in The Killing Joke and her coming to terms with that by transforming herself from Batgirl into Oracle is a strong story. But they are few and far between. This is largely, as you say, because so many comic writers are fairly poor but it is also because the ongoing format pretty much ties their hands. They have no real ending to aim for other than "oh well, there's another bad guy behind bars." It might just be a story. But not an especially good one.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids


Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Creators deserve way more credit than that, it's insulting.

Aleph's picture

I suggest you actually go read Todd & Penguin before you make that assessment, because that child's death certainly is a story, and its repercussions opened a dialogue about faith and its place in the lives of real people. The link shows you right where their lives turned, and they did turn significantly. It's certainly not an individual moment as far as those characters are concerned.

99 percent of the students of "Creative Writing 101" never make it past that half-finished Great American Novel stuck in their desk drawer that they swear they'll finish someday when they finally get enough money to take a year off and write for real. The beginning-middle-end idea is a simplified way of introducing people to the structure by which interest is built and closure is delivered. Any student of literature and writing will tell you, life is a collection of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, which sometimes overlap each other and sometimes support one another. People who write long-form stories well understand this, and set these story arcs in motion in a way which serves the greater narrative. Managing the rise and fall of the infinite narrative using the opening and closure of sub-narratives is mature storytelling, plain and simple. It's done well sometimes, just not in superhero comic culture. In literature, in webcomics, in comics, in television serials, in movies, many kinds of storytelling begin in the middle of the story and allow its beginnings to unfold as the story progresses, others begin at the end and illustrate what's happened via the aftermath. The classic 'introduce your characters, establish the world, reach a climax, close the curtain' idea is an essential tool to know, and certainly an underpinning to clear communication of any idea, but it's just not a rigid defining structure, it is a skeletal base upon which much can be built, and it can be expanded upon in infinite ways.

In the most oversimplified terms, everything does have a beginning, middle end, infinite comics as well because they are not truly infinite, all things eventually end. When the title is discontinued, it will have a set number of books, same as a miniseries. Certainly no creator imagines the title will truly last until the end of time, so the direction and purpose is still to get a number of books made that falls within the staying power of their narrative, they just haven't set a number on that yet. So the difference here is simply how well the story is handled, whether it is prolonged past the strength of its design or whether it really should have been let go once it had nothing left to say. To limit this to ongoing-form stories IS to make the discussion about length, and to deny that these problems occur even within the course of a /single offering/ from time to time. See also: Haley Joel Osmet in A.I. How many endings does one movie really need? Three to five less than this one had.

A good writer will bring a story to a close when it has reached its conclusion, regardless of whether or not they put a number on that when they started. Calvin and Hobbes was an open-ended story, but we all remember how hard Watterson fought to bring it to a close when it had nothing left to say. A good writer is going somewhere with the story, saying something with it, and the narrative may take turns they idn't initially expect and replace old goals with new ones, but that simply represents the close of one journey and the beginning of another. A good writer will handle that in a way which is meaningful to the reader as well as to the creator. The creator's ability to have direction and purpose in the writing is not determined by the form the writing takes, and so pinning all that to an open-ended narrative versus a closed one shows a lack of insight.

[quote=Article in question's conclusion statement]
It can’t happen, of course, not in an on-going title. The better stories, therefore, will lend themselves more naturally to a stand-alone format - one-shots, mini-series or graphic novels. In a series of 3 – 6 issues, there’s no reason why the lead character can’t die, lose limbs or be left with serious brain damage as a result of his titanic struggles against evil. And, even if he is fortunate enough to survive unscathed, at least the reader isn’t on advance notice that this is going to be the case from Page 1.

Thus my above statement that bad storytelling can happen in a single stand-alone project or an episodic series or whatever.

If the writer doesn't know what end he or she is aiming for, the writer is simply not using good storytelling methods. Knowing how many books they're going to take to get there is not the point. Open-ended stories aren't excused from having direction, they just give themselves that excuse or lose that direction from time to time when they as individuals scramble to prolong their work. Good, confident writers of open-ended stories are exploring their characters, figuring out where life is taking them, and they stay /ahead/ of that process so they can guide their characters through it.

Telling a story without a goal, without a destination, that's just folklore to pass the time. Some people are content with that, but it's not a fault of the form. To blame the form for that just shows a failure of insight here as to what's really going on.

As for the Bat example, please see the above sections on why the superhero subculture rejects finality in any form. Batman is on the dark end of the spectrum there but it's still well within the spandex tent. Batman came to terms with his old age because the comic community was aging and needed to reaffirm its own virility and its ability to identify with their escapist figure. Batgirl got differently abled and transformed into the Oracle because Barbara Gordon was always supposed to be a progressive, challenging feminist figure, and 'Batgirl' had become outdated and backwards in that regard. In the 70s the feminists were wearing ass-kicking boots and demanding their place in the tableau. Calling yourself 'girl' while polishing your heels in some guy's face, being beautiful and taut and desirable while you flaunted your power, those were very challenging and female-empowering stances. Later on the culture of female mystery became more appropriate for the symbolic feminist figure, and in order to remain true to herself, rather than become a paradox, Barbara had to move on. In reality she wasn't even changing, she was just updating to remain what she was created to be, which is what all the titles do in that culture in one way or another. Elsewise the X-men would still be wearing yelow spandex rather than cracking jokes about it.

Even offhand examples here, you keep picking titles that were all about perpetuity. Charlie Schultz was about filtering the experiences of life through the eyes of a child, so it was quite important many things about them did NOT progress. The Sisyphusean struggle of Charlie and the football was a poignant example of some of the things that were sad about the inability to progress and the struggles involved in faith. Schultz' children illustrated how humanity were in essence children in God's world barely understanding what went on and trying to find their place and peace in it. These children were the inner children of himself and the ways he viewed people, there was only so much that was ever going to change. If he'd done a single beautiful book about them, he wouldn't have done anything differently within it. It's insulting to say that he only did that to keep the story going, and it diminishes the person behind the project. This wasn't something that was just fun for him to do, these children and their vignettes about the world were important to him, and if he'd had his way he would have done them literally till the day he died. As it was, he lasted about a week or so after they took his comic away :( It was an important thing to him to keep their little world going, to keep it steady and safe and secure, to make them go on forever so that the little pieces of childhood in us could too.

The point here is, it's not the form of the narrative that made these examples perform poorly or well. It's the perpetuality-driven mindset of some subcultures, the creators, and the fans. Looking beyond that, it's totally possible for an ongoing story to perform quite well despite not having any interest in any forseeable end. It's the skill of the creator in question here, not the format of the creation. A skilled writer can take a set of characters and bring them on a journey which has a goal, but not a pretedermined end-- and they will get as far on that journey as they can before they run out of time or steam-- just like any of us do. A courageous writer knows that they can irreperably change their characters and say something in the process, and that even if any of their main characters has to be sacrificed to that goal the writer can create something new which draws its strength from the legacy of the past.

You're attributing to form what is rightly attributed to the creators themselves, and you're using a really narrow set of skewed examples to do it. I really have to object to that, it's insulting. Yes, publishers can get people trapped in contracts which force them to prolong and destroy their stories. No, that does not exclusively happen to open-ended projects, and no, it is not impossible for a skilled creator to defy that kind of thinking.

So, sorry, still doesn't fly.