Talking about comics is hard at the best of times, especially so when comics are long. And comics are long a lot of the time. Canonical books like Sandman, Preacher, The Invisibles and Transmetropolitan(standard recommendations for newbies and perennials on library shelves) run over 50 issues and took years to produce. They are also formidable undertakings to read, digest and think about.
However, all of those collected trades were initially serialised (if you’re lucky) on a monthly basis as floppies. If you read trades, you’re getting probs six issues compiled into chunks that come out (if you’re lucky) every six months or so. And that serialization means that comics can also be very short. If you’re reading every month that’s just 22 pages – maybe six to ten ‘scenes’ to take the story forward.
A lot of comics therefore have to work at three different speeds all at once – issue, trade, series. I’m using the word “speed” deliberately here – rapid binge-reading is easy when you’ve just borrowed every Hellboy book in the library. If you’re waiting patiently for the next issue of Saga to come out, you’re gonna wanna pore over it.
And you’re going to read it differently. Focusing on a single issue will privilege the immediate sensation of the story and the artwork. You might pick up on the information revealed by the way a character is dressed, or the mood set by how a panel is coloured, or the peculiar appropriateness of a well-chosen line of dialogue, far more.
On the other hand, reading a bunch of trades all at once privileges the big picture. You’re more likely to spot the connections and contrasts across issues – those bits of repetition that build meaning. You will be able to see characters develop, the world change, and out of that process the themes of the work will reveal themselves.
Apologies if all this is stating the obvious. I do so to make two points:
1. Producing a story that works at three different speeds is an impressive technical achievement. Just imagine how frustrating it must be to try to corral your story into 22 page units – the amount of cool stuff that has to be jettisoned or distorted in order to fit the narrative into a series of identically-sized boxes. Screenplays or novels have their own rules, but it’s hard to imagine them being more onerous than the demands of writing comics.
2. Although we read at different speeds, we always do this at the same time. That is to say: despite the various exigencies of the format pulling us to read in this way and that, we can and should be able to pay attention to both craft and themes as we’re reading.
Craft is always difficult, I know. As much as it is important to know the pain that creators have to go through to make their books seamless to read, a lot of that talk is still shoptalk – the equivalent of film buffs talking about camera lenses. Nevertheless, issue by issue discussions of the sensory impact of a panel or layout can be fascinating. I’m actually quite bad at participating in those conversations, but I think that’s partly because I haven’t found many places where they are happening.
The big picture is easier, although here my worry is conversations tend to coagulate around the discovery of a hot new book, rather than the excellent conclusion of a long running series. I know that Sex Criminals is technically impressive (in the widest possible sense of the word ‘technical’), but I’d struggle to sum up exactly what the book will end up being about. Meanwhile, the Unwritten wrapped up last year and deserves more scrutiny than it has received. Good treatments of those canonical series I mentioned at the start do exist, but my sense is that they are too few and far between. Instead, a lot of comics talk is caught uncomfortably between a focus on craft and themes, tripping over the different speeds of the issue, trade, and series.