Marc Alan Fishman: Compress the Decompression
Just for funsies, I cracked open my DC Archives: Green Lantern hardcover the other day. An hour later, I’d reminded myself why I was never the biggest fan of Hal Jordan. But that’s a discussion I’ve bemoaned about here before, so I’ll spare you. What struck me, though, was the sheer density of the material presented. Oh, how have times changes. Some argue for the better. Others say nay. Concerning the amount of plot presented today in the standard off-the-rack rag we all love so much, it’s a debate I’m willing to fill a few inches of babble about.
I can’t personally put a pin at the exact moment of time when comic book writers started decompressing their material. My best guess is that it was a slow burn starting in the mid-eighties, that reached critical mass somewhere around the time Brian Michael Bendis was being knighted by Joey Quesada. Truth be told, I’m not a comic historian (like the incomparable Alan “Sizzler” Kistler) and I’m inspired by Michael Davis’ Lazy-Man, so I’m not doing the research to find out exactly when. Suffice to say, it’s no difference to me when this all happened, so much as whether it has been for the better of the medium. And that answer isn’t exactly black and white.
The thing is, when I read through those Silver Age reprints I couldn’t help but feel slighted. Huge problems for the titular hero were dispatched in a matter of a few panels. Why? Because by the turn of a page, we were already onto the next plot point / problem / story beat. In one story, Hal is called to a prehistoric world where he must save the blue skinned Neanderthals from evil yellow dino-birds. One panel? He’s punching them. Next? He’s blasting them with a big green canary. Next? He’s home. In less than a handful of pages, the entire story is wrapped up. For anyone out there that wants to defend that as being higher quality that last months’ issue of GL… come see me behind the shed. Simply put, this “gotta cram an entire story in 12 pages!” mentality may have suited people 20 years ago… But not now.
When it’s done right, modern comics have the pacing, depth, and content akin to a good movie. Take the first arc of Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. Not only do we get origins for Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant Man, the Wasp, and Captain America, but we get true moments of cinematic glory. When the Hulk rampages in the city, horny and angry, it’s a moment earned through the build up of tension across the four books it took to get there. If the same book were made in the Silver Age? Hulk would have been tearing up a building in one panel, booted out of it in the next, and laughing about the lessons learned before the page turn. In other words? Decompression gives the reader a chance to absorb characterization and depth.
When it’s done wrong, a book becomes a banal burden. How many times in the modern era have we plunked down good money to read a book that doesn’t move a story forward, for seemingly no reason? When an arc is immediately all too familiar, we can end up purchasing six or more issues of a story despite our ability to glean the entire plot beat for beat.
Case in point? Justice League International. In the very first issue, it was as clear as day: The team would assemble for the greater good, but show terrible cooperation. The big bad guy would do increasingly bad things and the team would eventually have to unite in order to win the day. And because I knew that this would be the arc they’d travel on, I simply dropped the title. The idea that all stories must “write for the trade” is a double-edged sword. When the plot comes out of the box of “been there done that,” all you’re doing is wasting ink and paper.
Let me not poo-poo the Silver Age without pulling back my anger just a bit. These older tales had something modern comics lack. Balls. Big brass ones. Do you think, even for a second, Batman of Zur-En-Arrh could have been pitched and published as an original concept in 2012? Not on your life. The older books had a mentality to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. It allowed ol’ Hal Jordan to be on a primitive planet fighting dinosaurs on one page, and then be whisked away to the anti-matter universe for a skirmish with the Qwardians on the next.
With the way modern books are published, those two concepts alone might take up the better part of a year to explore. Modern books slow time down to a visceral crawl. Case in point? For as good as Ultimate Spider-Man is… did you know it took Bendis five-plus years of bi-monthly issues to cover a single year of Peter Parker’s life? In 60 issues in the 60s, Spider-Man had fought 47 villains, went to college, teamed up with the Avengers, became a lounge singer, and still had time to forget to bring the eggs home for Aunt May.
The key here, in this carpy columnist’s opinion, is balance. Not every book needs to “write for the trade.” Some of the best comic books I own are single-issue stories that aren’t anchored to one trade or another. When done well (for example, GrimJack: The Manx Cat), a dense story across six books can feel like a novel in and of itself. When done poorly (the middle 30s and 40s of Irredeemable), a decompressed story can feel more like a worthless stall and cash-grab.
Far be it from me to spend so long pontificating about the pacing of a story as my article gets longer and longer. I guess when it comes down to it… to summarize… or in other words, wrap things up: Pacing in modern comics has never been more important. As a fan, all we can hope for is a feeling that we’ve gotten our money’s worth by the time we place the comic in its bag and board.
SUNDAY: John Ostrander