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 Walklin on January 18, 2012 at 2:34pm

Thanks, Chris, for another great article. 

I've always wondered if our love for the done-in-ones is because there aren't that many of them around anymore.  If the publishers decided that the one-offs were sure fire money makers, they would crank them out by the truckload.  Some good and some (maybe many) not so good.

And we would start to ask why they aren't doing more story arcs.

I like a well-told done in one.  Paul Jenkin's Spectacular Spidey story with Uncle Ben and Peter going to the baseball game immediately comes to mind.  But I also love the Korvac Saga from the classic Avengers.  That story ran for a year, if I recall.  Claremont, for all his faults, would take a breather every once in a while between major arcs to throw in a one-off that would focus on one or two characters. 

I think what we all would ask for is well written, well drawn stories in a variety of lengths, in a variety of genres, by a variety of writers and artists.  In other words, I want it all.  Is that too much to ask?

Comment by Rich Steeves on January 20, 2012 at 8:01pm

I am a huge fan of subplots, and that is really what I want to see. Whether they are character-based plots going on in a team book, or a story about a supporting character that continues throughout, or a couple team members off on a side-mission that eventually becomes the main plot for a while, the ebb and flow of these subplots is what hooked me during my formative years. You can have single issues and two-parters, sprinkled about, but it felt like one big story with subplots coming and going, forming a backdrop, woven in and out. I think the trade-paperback collection has definitely stifled that trend.

Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 22, 2012 at 12:49am

 

In my opinion the question should be considered first in a commercial context; what kind of products does the audience want to buy? I'm not sure the Tintin volumes are all the same length, but I'm pretty sure many of them are; they read very well (and their pages are larger than a US comic's and often have many panels, so they're really quite long).

 

The number of pages doesn't wholly determine the length of the story, as that also depends on the number of panels and the amount of text.

 

We're used to monthlies ending on climax-cliffhangers, which confers a certain pacing on such comics, but they don't have to be paced that way.

 

Incidentally, the Tif and Tondu volume I once got out from my university's library had a couple of stories, so it's not always the case that European albums carry just the one.

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