I’ve been reading Jay Faerber’s new crime noir series, Near Death.  (Full disclosure: I’m a big Jay Faerber fan from his earlier series Noble Causes and Dynamo 5.)  The premise is that a killer for hire named Markham has a change of heart after a vision in which he sees all of his previous victims.  He doesn’t suddenly become an altruistic do-gooder or a pacifist.  Rather, he pragmatically decides that he should to try to save as many lives as he’s taken as some sort of a metaphysical balance.    

            The first issue moves along at a brisk pace.  We see Markham’s vision and are present for his change of heart.  We even see Markham’s first mission as a new man. 

The second and third issues also move quickly.  In each issue, Markham takes a job.  He presents himself as a problem solving soldier of fortune and a bodyguard.  He finishes the job but there’s always a twist along the way, showing that the job isn’t quite what he was told from the beginning.  Yet Markham manages to fulfill his responsibilities while also staying true to his new ethic. 

Three issues, three stories.  Near Death is an excellent example of a done-in-one comic.  Yet Near Death also left me wanting more.  You see, after three issues, the formula was already becoming stale.  Markham will take a job.  There will be a twist.  Markham will finish the job.  Despite its interesting premise, I was concerned that Near Death would become an excellent example of the limitations of the done-in-one or stand-alone comic. 

There’s a long-standing debate in comic book circles as to what is the right length of a story.  Many Silver Age aficionados will argue for the supremacy of the single-issue story as that’s what they grew up with.  Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter infamously decreed that no story should last more than three issues, since Jack Kirby’s famous Galactus story was only three issues.  And in the last decade, most comic book publishers pushed for six-issue stories so that they could more easily be collected in trade paperbacks. 

I’m not going to argue for a six-issue standard.  It’s difficult to sample new comics when you’re only getting a sixth of a story.  Plus, one ill-conceived story could last for half a year.  The publishers have pretty much admitted that it was a mistake as they’ve abandoned that mandate in recent years.  The first story in the new Captain America series lasted 5 issues; the new Uncanny X-Men went for three.

I’m not going to argue for the done-in-ones either.  Sure, the reader gets a completed story in every comic.  However, the brief nature of that story leaves little room for complexity.  There’s one twist, maybe an obstacle or two.  But there’s scant room for character development or growth. 

That was my concern about Near Death.  We didn’t know Markham any better by the end of issue three than we did at the beginning of issue one.   And while each story had an interesting or surprising twist, they didn’t have time to build a lot of tension.

I would argue that the right length for a story is relative to that story.  And I would also argue that the length of story within a series should vary. 

Admittedly, I hold this view partly because of the comics I grew up with.  I came of age during the Bronze Age.  I started out with Wolfman and Perez on the New Teen Titans.  That title serves as an excellent example of variable story length.  Issue 20 is a stand-alone story.  Issues 21 and 22 are a two-parter.  22 through 24 are pieces of a four-part story, including that year’s annual.  26 and 27 are another two-parter.  28 and 29 are both technically stand alone stories, though they help to form a much longer arc concerning new character Terra. 

Yet, while I acknowledge the basis and possible bias behind my opinion, I honestly think that’s the way comics should be.  The length of a story shouldn’t be determined arbitrarily by convention- whether it’s one, six or three.  It should be determined by the needs of that particular story.  Plus, in order to keep the reader both entertained and surprised, the length of the story should vary.  Variety is, as they say, the spice of life.

I should have remembered that Jay Faerber grew up reading the same comics that I did and watching many of the same television shows.  (He’s written about many of them, including the New Teen Titans, in his “Under the Influence” afterword).  The stand-alone stories in Near Death were the way in which he got the series off to a quick start.  However, the fourth issue changed pace and answered many of my concerns. 

This time, Markham finished the current job before the half-point of the issue, complete with the now-expected twist.  That gave Faerber room to include a scene in which Markham discusses the implications of his new life with a close acquaintance.  Faerber deepened and developed Markham, without hitting us over the head to tell us that’s what he was doing.  One of the implications of his new life is that Markham’s old associates don’t approve.  Those old associates return at the end of the fourth issue, introducing the first cliffhanger to the series. 

 It looks like Near Death isn’t going to be a done-in-one series, even though it started out that way.  Faerber is already varying the length of his stories, giving himself the room to include more character development and more complicated plots.  He’s not tied to either single issues or to story arcs.  And that’s a very good thing. 

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Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on January 17, 2012 at 9:56am

Every point I thought about making while reading the first half of your essay, you yourself addressed second half. I will just reiterate that there is no right or wrong length for a story to be, story length should not be artificially imposed (such as to fill a trade) and a variety of short and long stories seems to work best. I might also add that following a lengthy story of heavy material, a short light-hearted tale helps break the tension. The storytelling style I prefer is when even chapters of longer tales can be read and appreciated on their own merits.

Comment by Lee Houston, Junior on January 17, 2012 at 11:24am

Chris:

I agree with both you and Jeff in regards to the debate on story lengths, but I would love to see more "done-in-ones" whenever possible on the first issue of a new series. I do understand all the whys and wherefores in regards to ending that first issue with "to be continued", but still feel that if the concept, character(s), and efforts of the creative people behind the endeavor are strong enough, the readers will still buy that second issue.

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on January 17, 2012 at 3:48pm

I agree with you there that the length of a story within a series should vary, and The New Teen Titans is an excellent example of why that works. I still have bad memories of a planned 12-issue storyline in Hellblazer years ago that was so god-awful, I was on the verge of dropping the title -- only to learn, in what was going to be my last issue, that they wrapped up the tale early. I guess I wasn't the only reader who felt that way.

My admittedly arbitrary preference is that six months should be the maximum for a comics story -- and four is even better. Longer than that, and the story bogs down. 

As for the done-in-ones, I cut my eyeteeth on those: lots of Silver Age DC superhero books, plus the horror, mystery and war books, especially Our Army at War featuring Sgt. Rock. Our Army at War rarely -- very rarely -- did stories that lasted more than one issue. There was a two-part tale in the '60s where Rock found himself impersonating a general who had been killed in action (#147-148, Oct.-Nov. 1964), and a five-part story with Rock in the China-Burma-India theater, far from his usual haunts, the European Theater of Operations (#256-260, April-Sept. 1973).

Once, there was a three-issue story of Rock against his nemesis, The Iron Major ... but it was done in a way that the three parts stood alone (#251-#253, Nov. 1972-Jan. 1973). I got those issues out of order and years apart, and didn't even realize it was a unified story. There was nothing on any of the issues to indicate such, like "Part 1 or 3" or the like. 

Comment by Figserello on January 17, 2012 at 7:37pm

I would argue that the right length for a story is relative to that story.  And I would also argue that the length of story within a series should vary. 

 

Wisdom indeed!  Another factor is that when the same creatives are producing nothing but 6-issues-for-the-trade at a time, the pacing is the same for each story.  The variations in length challenges them more and makes them think about how long the story should be, how much to include in this issue, where the beats are in each issue etc.

 

I think so long as the comics are being produced as monthlies, each issue should at least have some thematic unity and differentiation from the others, even if it is just part of one story.

 

The publishers have pretty much admitted that it was a mistake as they’ve abandoned that mandate in recent years.  The first story in the new Captain America series lasted 5 issues; the new Uncanny X-Men went for three.

I'm not sure that they have abandoned it as thoroughly as you say. At least not DC. I dropped out of Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Demon Knights and Frankenstein because the last few issues I bought felt too much like 'middle issues of a trade'. It was hard to see what was in them that made that issue itself worthwhile. They didn't seem to be paced as single issues, which would have sold them for me. Also a sense of conflicts being shown just to fill the time before the wrap up in issues 5 and 6, or the creatives just taking whole pages to show us incidents that would only take a panel or two in more old-fashioned comics. (Which seems like a swindle to me...)

Comment by Figserello on January 17, 2012 at 7:38pm

Near Death sounds a bit like a Noir 'My Name is Earl'.

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on January 17, 2012 at 8:36pm

My admittedly arbitrary preference is that six months should be the maximum for a comics story -- and four is even better. Longer than that, and the story bogs down.

I think that's a good rule of thumb. It's deadly when every story arc is stretched out to six issues, as Figs mentioned. I have enjoyed some good done-in-one-stories in Vertigo series recently--the Kalashnikov story in Unknown Soldier especially stands out--so that art has not died out completely.



Comment by Figserello on January 17, 2012 at 8:45pm

I've enjoyed Warren Ellis' Secret Avengers which are deliberately done-in-ones, but in a similar way to 'variety is the spice' objections, they would have been better placed between and among Bendis' interminable conversation-fests, to add variety.  Bendis' work would really benefit from there being more 1 and 2 parters in his Avengers runs.

Comment by Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man on January 17, 2012 at 10:36pm

I am a huge fan of done-in-ones. They are such a rarity these days that I will actually buy comics that I wouldn't ordinarily read because they contain a complete story within their pages. I loved Ellis's Secret Avengers, Jonah Hex, and now I'm loving Nathan Edmondson's The Activity because they are well-told done-in-one stories.

Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on January 18, 2012 at 8:26am

When I got into comics again about 10 years ago almost all of the stories I read were 6 parters. It seems just recently that writers have gotten away from the 6 part sagas. The two new X-men titles are a good example. I thougth for sure they'd be 6 issue arcs but nope, 3 and they moved on.

 

I like it best when a writer who intends to have long run on a story mixes it up a bit. They've got an end game in mind with a theme running throughout. So to get to it they've got done in ones and multi issue arcs. I don't always mind a long 6 part arc but typically they don't need to be that long to begin with.

Comment by Jeff Walklin on January 18, 2012 at 2:19pm
Figserello said:

Near Death sounds a bit like a Noir 'My Name is Earl'.

Dark roast coffee just shot out of my nose. :)

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