ELAYNE RIGGS: The PFVM Principle
There’s been a flurry of posts lately in the comics blogosphere, including Glenn Hauman’s last column here, about perceived value for money (let’s just call it PVFM) when it comes to comics. The consensus seems to be, American comics periodicals from the Big Two are usually about 22 pages long and take mere minutes to read through, which is Not Good. Added to that the current buzzword in vogue for what used to be called "padding," now rechristened "decompression," and the PVFM aggravation level shoots way up as the time actually spent reading the thing goes way down. And the conclusion is, there just ought to be more words per page, and possibly more pages per pamphlet, so the reading time (and thus the presumed enjoyment time) increases and fans don’t feel like they’re being ripped off and more readers will return to comics and all will be well with the world. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve actually seen online comics pages where a writer/artist will put up a page of wordless story and apologize for the lack of dialogue on it!
Allow me to ask: When did PVFM become a condition upon which entertainment should be created? Do all stories have to be dense, or should all stories strive instead to be good?
Look, I understand PVFM. I frequent an all-you-can-eat sushi place, for cripe’s sake. The sushi’s very good there, or I wouldn’t frequent it. But I’ve been to lots of AYCE places that made me wish I paid more for less-but-better stuff. As anyone who’s visited a 99-cent store would agree, quantity isn’t always synonymous with quality.
Particularly where such a subjective experience as entertainment is involved. Perhaps I’m the wrong person to ask this, what with my swiss-cheese retention abilities, but were all the stories you really remember fondly real long ones? I’ve been to some long, dense movies that were full of sound and fury and signified less than nothing; the concession candy had more fulfillment. And I’ve spent two minutes reading various pithy blog posts that stick with me far longer than the screens and screens of blather that, frankly, I usually can’t even make it all the way through. But okay, let’s be fair — comics aren’t blog posts, where brevity and getting to the point is often prized. And they’re not movies, where unspoken movement can convey so much that a constant stream of words isn’t necessary.
So tell me, without looking: what’s your favorite comic book story, and how many words does it contain?
Unless you’re some sort of supergeek anal retentive, chances are pretty good you can’t answer that, nor would you wish to. Because you recognize, at least on some level, that quantity doesn’t equal quality. How many words should a comic book have? How many panels? How many pages? However many tell the story.
And yes, there are practical considerations. There’s no denying that current constraints on comics have many writers "writing to the trade paperback collection" — pacing their pages on paper so that the story comes out to exactly x-number of issues which can be easily collected into a TPB with presumably a longer shelf life and a greater reward to the creators in the form of royalties. And I can certainly understand and even sympathize with this mentality. In fact, one of my biggest disappointments was when Peter David resisted "writing to the TPB" during his Supergirl run, and thus none of the four and a half years’ worth of stories on which my husband worked was ever collected for TPB posterity. The only royalties Robin’s ever seen on any of those issues came from the ones which crossed over into company-wide stories and were included in the TPBs of those tales. So when an editor or writer or artist argues that there’s great incentive to "work to the TPB," believe me, I know where they’re coming from.
And with talented enough people, fitting the tale to a certain length shouldn’t constitute that much of an obstacle. Page count restrictions are a fact of publishing life. Heck, as schoolkids I’m sure we all had those essay assignments that needed to be a specific number of words. And some of us actually relished expanding our vocabulary so our "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" assignments didn’t end with "And it was very, very, very [nine hundred and ninety-eight], very fun." It’s as much of a challenge to come in at a certain number of words as it is to fill in a crossword puzzle. There are ways to make it fun.
But that doesn’t mean every story necessarily calls for it.
Comics have an advantage, though. If you have a commercially-mandated number of pages you need to fill, and you as the writer have opted to pad your story rather than add elements such as plot and characterization and other things requiring a bit of effort, you can always fall back on your artists to create the thrills. And this is where, as a comics consumer married to a comics producer, I start to see the gaps in my fellow consumers’ logic based largely on their inability to take art into account.
I’ve talked about this before. The internet has made it easier than ever to be a widely-read writer with a fan-based sensibility, encouraging a whole community of same. And writers by nature are going to concentrate on the writing part of comics. It’s what we understand better, because we do it ourselves. Besides, it’s easier than having to learn how to "read" art. The vocabulary needed to talk about art is different, you really have to understand what you’re looking at. And hey, we may not know much about art, but we know what we like. And because we may not know much about art, we choose to profess that what we like is story, and story has nothing to do with drawing. Even in comics. To way too many fan critics, the art is there to help out the story, just like the lettering or coloring. It’s not there to tell the story at all.
I’ve read comics so full of words that they obscure not only just about any available white space in a panel, but often half the art as well. Those wordy tomes may have taken me a long time to get through, but that density didn’t make my reading experience of any greater value for me. Nothing leapt off the page, nothing struck me with its beauty and composition and linework and dynamism, because there was hardly anything to see!
Once you develop a greater vocabulary and appreciation for art, you begin to perceive value for money very differently. You realize that a comic book isn’t just a 22-page chapter that takes you five to ten minutes to get through. It’s 22 pages of sequential art, art that took hours and hours to compose and invest with simulated life. Do you know the cost of most art books? With comics you get panels of originally-created artwork for pennies a page! Doesn’t that deserve an investment of your time to "stop and smell the roses" by not only reading the captions and dialogue but actually looking at the page, taking it all in?
A funny thing happens when you do that. The comic is suddenly taking more than that precious five minutes of your life. And you’re gaining a more worthwhile experience.
This doesn’t imply that the art in every comic is worth taking in, any more than that the words in every comic are worth reading. But it’s a way to rewire your consumer brain a bit, to take into greater account what goes into creating what you hold in your hand or click through on your computer. And, in giving the unspoken half of comics its due, you may find your appreciation of comics increasing as much as your perceived value for money. At no extra charge!
Of course, and maybe it shouldn’t need to go without saying, when the writing and art actually work together is when you get the most bang for your comics buck. That’s where the true storytelling lies, in the balance between the words and the pictures. What happens when they don’t quite mesh? Well, that’s a column for another time.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix’s news editor, which she (1406) likes very (1408), very much.