Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Perils Of Serialization, Part 2B

I could argue that part two of part two of this probably now-completed series came so late because I wanted to save it run alongside The A.V. Club's latest round of comics reviews, or because I wanted to make a point about "the perils of serialization" by doing my best imitation of a late-shipping Marvel comic. In truth I just got busy and lost the plot a little, which of course is one of those dreaded perils. Once you release the first installment of something out into the world, you've made a pronouncement of a kind; and the longer you take to finish your thought, the more your original point can fade, until you can't even remember what it was you wanted to say.

Anyway, when we left off, I believe I was arguing that the comics medium–while wonderful in many ways–is hampered by its means of production. Mainstreamers and alt-artistes alike tend to trip the longer they run, because it's hard to sustain a narrative that takes years to write and draw, and cartoonists tend not to go back and edit their own work. A notable exception is Gilbert Hernandez, who has been known to alter his "Palomar" stories between their original serialized run and their final published form. But he and his brother Jaime are also quintessential examples of the cartoonist's folly, since both of their magnum opus collections–the hardcover editions of Palomar and Locas–look and feel significantly different between their first chapters and their last. That's not something you'd say about most novel or movies or other forms of storytelling intended to be "art."

So having dispatched Love & Rockets let's run through a few more case-by-case examples of how comics do and don't work as a serialized medium:

Cerebus. Can't knock creator Dave Sim too much, because he did what he set out to do, producing a monthly comic book for 300 consecutive issues, and telling one long story. And his first 150 issues are a remarkably great, sustained run, even if the way the hero is drawn–and the nature of his stories–changes between issue 1 and issue 150. Other things changed too in that first half, like the addition of background artist Gerhard, who ironically gave Sim license to let his stories sprawl out across big, elegantly designed panels, instead of packed into the almost maniacllay compressed storytelling of his first graphic novel High Society. Of course the less said about the back 150 the better, though it's worth noting that Sim's cartooning skills remained sharp and his wit survived in fits and starts, even if it was all overwhelmed by a dense religious message that–no matter what Sim says now–I refuse to believe was part of his original design for the series back in the late '70s.

Hepcats. It's cruel to even bring up Martin Wagner's Hepcats, but outside of Alan Moore's Big Numbers and Chester Brown's Underwater, it's maybe the classic example of a stalled series. Begun as a college comic strip and then expanded into pamphlet form, Hepcats had a good 12-issue run as a funny animal soap opera, and then a Sim-inspired Wagner commenced an ambitious graphic novel, "Snowblind," that he couldn't complete. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that he then moved to a new publisher and reissued his original series on a periodical basis, with the idea being that by the time he got around to re-releasing the issue that began his graphic novel, he'd have more chapters to present. No dice. Wagner's been out of the business for years now, but some of his fans hope he still works on Hepcats occasionally, even if the completed graphic novel would now be hopelessly out of date.

Astro City. Speaking of ambitious projects, the premiere superhero comic on the market today has been plagued with a creator–writer Kurt Busiek–who plans bigger than he executes, and while the results are usually worth the wait, it's cold comfort to his fans that the series is now four issues into a 12-issue story that we know will take years to wrap. Those first four issues of "The Dark Age" were a humdinger though, and so far Busiek's snail-paced approach to his signature creation hasn't affected its quality. It was likely haste that marred the superhero comics Busiek riffs on; and in a way, it's admirable that he wants to take the time to do them right. But if the series ever starts sucking, his fans' time investment is going to be betrayed big-time. (See also "TV, Lost.")

The Flash. Specifically, writer Mark Waid's version of The Flash, which was clicking along beautifully until Waid decided to take a year off to gear up for the long-in-coming "Chain Lightning" storyline. Then Waid returned, and "Chain Lightning" turned out to be kind of lame. And frankly, his work on other books has been hit-and-miss ever since.

Sandman. In many ways, Neil Gaiman's Sandman is an example of how to do a monthly comic series right: balancing longer stories with one-offs, and having an ultimate end in mind. But though comics fans use Sandman as a gateway drug for their non-comics-reading friends (and, let's be honest, girlfriends), I've often wondered how the non-comics-readers react to the way the art changes seemingly from issue to issue, and the way some storylines are abruptly interrupted by fill-in issues. It's still a wonderful series, but cohesive? Not thoroughly.

Starman. The oft-neglected Starman, though? Ah, now that's how a long-form adventure story should be done. Yes, writer James Robinson suffered a change in artists about two-thirds of the way through the series, and yes, his "Times Past" fill-in issues and The Shade miniseries make the collected Starman lurch a little. But Robinson built for years to two big stories–his hero's trip into space, and his battle against the forces of darkness at home–and damned if both of those stories didn't prove to be masterfully executed and even poignant. Despite what must be low sales, DC has kept the Starman books in print, and maybe someday comics fans will fully recognize the generous gift to us that it is.

Concrete. The same goes for Paul Chadwick's Concrete, a thoughtful adventure series like none other in comics history. The key to its success has been that Chadwick doesn't even attempt sprawling epics. His Concrete stories are tight, well-plotted, action-packed and ultimately more interested in cultural minutiae than myth-making. And he doesn't publish a Concrete series until its done, and ready to come out monthly in seamless form. God bless him.

Alan Moore. I would never argue that Moore's immune to serialization-itis, because I've read his oft-incomprehensible run on WildC.A.T.S., and I know what about his never-satisfactorily realized Supreme and Tom Strong. But if Lost Girls proves anything, it's that Moore has the right mind for serialization, since he breaks down massive, mind-bending stories into digestible chunks. Be honest, Watchmen fans: when you re-read it now, are you eager to get to that last chapter, or are you more interested in savoring those devilishly engaging standalone stories of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan?

Black Hole. I intended to focus more on adventure stories and superheroes than alt-comics (though like I wrote last time, I think alt-comics suffer from the time it takes to complete them almost more than the cape-and-cowl set), but Black Hole is a special case, since it's kind of a horror book, and since it's an example of serialization at its best and worst. During the years it took to trickle out, Charles Burns' comic was consistently something to look forward to, with each individual chapter working as a haunting vignette. But I'll be damned if I could remember the story from issue to issue, and not until the collected edition did Burns' master plan become clear. Which is great, but I kind of missed the payoff I should have had when I first read that last issue.

Berlin. Hey, whatever happened to Berlin?

52/Civil War. I confess I've read none of Civil War, in part because Marvel does a shitty job of servicing critics (unlike D.C., who keeps us well-supplied and gets reviewed by us more often because of it), and in part because I've kind of had it with Marvel's Bendis-era decompressed storytelling, which tries to dodge the perils of serialization by taking six issues to tell a story that could be told in one, thereby allowing plenty of time for the writer to vamp and think up his next plotline. That method may make it easier to keep stories straight, but it's ultimately kind of unimpressive. Anyway, apparently Marvel's big crossover event is now off the rails because of shipping delays, while the tie-in issues keep coming out, spoiling stories yet-untold. (I guess this is more "the perils of crossover events," but whatever … it's still shamefully joyous to watch this train wreck happen from afar.)

Meanwhile, D.C.'s crossover event 52 is clicking along fairly nicely in its weekly edition, though the gimmick of moving the story ahead one week at a time has led to some awkward time-jumps and implausible plot-stalling. ("Oh, I was in jail all last week, but now here I am, ready to finish the adventure that the writers didn't have room for last issue!") I'm not going to pretend that 52 is great comics, but I really prefer it to the epochal miniseries and crossovers that D.C. has been springing on us every few years for the last two decades, all of which start with such promise and then end with about 50 heroes on a single page, all blasting away at some oversized cosmic villain for some inevitably confusing reason. (Then at the end, some hero no one gives a shit about is dead, and another hero no one gives a shit about is reincarnated.) The demands of 52's story-a-week format mean that there's been more room to explore quieter moments in characters' storylines, while other stories crank up. It's all pleasantly disposable, not too taxing, and proof that when it comes to superheroes especially, comics are better at the small than the epic.


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