The Gap between Panels / Comics as TV

So I’ve just finished reading the first two volumes of Satellite Sam by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin, a book about TV shows in the early 1950s. In the interview between the creators at the back of the first trade, both make the point that comics are a lot more like television than they are like anything else. Chaykin worked in TV for a while, and was obsessed with it as a child. He argues that the skills required to work in either format are similar, and he made the transition quite easily as a result.

Let’s unpack that a little bit. Leaving graphic novels and anthologies to one side, for the most part comics tell serialised stories – characters develop and a setting gets explored as issue piles on top of issue (the Marvel and DC universes are the most extreme manifestations of this principle). Back in the first column I tried to get my head around the insane restrictions comics creators have to work under. The TV I grew up with was the same – having to fit within a predefined length and be structured around regular ad breaks. To not alienate viewers who may have just flicked onto a show, most TV shows were procedurals where episodes could stand alone. Comics strike the same balance between developing an overarching plot and periodically “resetting” the scenario to provide a way in for new readers.

The mediums are so close that often TV supplies the language we use to describe comics – we can speak in terms of “episode” arcs and “season” arcs. The canonical continuation of Buffyin comics form is explicit in this regard: fifty or so issues get bundled into “seasons”, and the ten or so trade paperbacks feel like “episodes” (not least because some are written by former staff writers at the show). The individual issues become more like segments leading to an ad break, rather than “episodes” in their own right.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the practice of collecting issues into trade paperbacks changed the way comics were made. Buffy Season 8 was viable partly because readers were already used to reading six issue arcs as “episodes”. Decompression allowed creators to slow the pace of comics down and include scenes that were mostly about characters and conversations, rather than plot and action. Brian Michael Bendis set the trend in his ten plus years at Marvel. Decompression meant he could showcase his masterful way with dialogue. The long strings of word balloons he can reel off are not to everyone’s taste, but they are very effective at creating the sense of repartee you get when actors trade lines on a TV show. One of the reasons I got so heavily into comics as a teenager was because I thought the writing was usually smarter than on television. Bendis was my Exhibit A.

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The problem with six-issue “episode” arcs is that the individual issue is devalued. I collected some of those Buffy comics when they came out, and the “ad breaks” between issues were month-long canyons (life in between was more than one long ad break, but still). Spending £3-4 a month did not buy an awful lot of satisfaction. Decompression allowed for more complex stories to be told and new effects to be brought to the table – but there were risks nonetheless.

I think Matt Fraction is very conscious of those risks. His and David Aja’s Hawkeye is one of the few superhero comics I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s brilliant in a lot of ways, but one of them is in how they restored the single issue as the container for the “episode”. As with so much else in today’s comics, the precursor is Warren Ellis. His Moon Knight with Declan Shalvey (another of the few superhero books I’ve read in the past couple of years) was just a series of stand-alone issues featuring the same character – a technique Ellis had experimented with previously on books like Fell.

Compression to the single issue has its own risks of course. Satellite Sam is reckless enough to throw the reader into the world of 1950s television-making, trusting that they slow down and take the time and effort to familiarise themselves with the environment. It’s not easy. The comic is an ensemble piece, and getting to know the characters is harder when you have Chaykin’s artwork instead of a cast of actors. Sex Criminals, Fraction’s Woody Allen-esque comedy with Chip Zdarsky, provides a far gentler introduction. The first issue has one of the main characters speak directly to the reader in captions, revealing the concept of the book, and adding the friendly encouragement that it will get funny soon.

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Satellite Sam is a little like Sorkin’s Studio 60 but set in sordid post-war New York. It moves very quickly, and in the first trade I sometimes lost my bearings. Interestingly, I found that Fraction and Chaykin were aware of the problem – in the single issues they included an eight panel dramatis personae at the beginning to bring readers up to speed. These are reproduced at the end of the trade, although tbh I needed them before then. It’s one of the few books that I can imagine working better as single issues – a short intro to the main characters and plotlines, before you dive into the meat of the “episode”. It’s a return to the principles of television in more ways than one – and a welcome one.

Not that those TV principles are static of course. I should admit here that I actually don’t watch much television anymore. This isn’t due to snobbery (as much as I like to pretend otherwise). Although comics felt smarter than TV when I was growing up, I don’t think that’s true anymore. The subscription-based model pioneered by HBO broke apart the restrictions TV creators worked under. Box-sets and Netflix have now comprehensively killed off stand-alone episodes and ad breaks, and also the self-censorship that comes with being funded through advertising. Fraction and fellow travellers are returning to a format that is becoming more like the prestige Vertigo comics of the 1990s. TV is feeding off comics in turn – with books now optioned for television before they are 20 issues deep.

The fear is that one medium becomes parasitic on the other. I don’t watch as much television as people say I should mainly because I have less time for serialised storytelling and I’ve made a bet that comics can stay one step ahead. I still don’t know if I’ve backed the right horse. But I suspect one fruitful way comics can develop is by going back to excavate television’s past – as Fraction and Chaykin have done.

 

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