Serialized Storytelling

One of the aspects to comics I enjoy the most is their use of serialized storytelling.  This is not unique to the comic book medium, but the way it is handled is interesting.

Serialized storytelling is telling a story in installments.  Contrast it with a typical movie or novel that contains a complete story.  Each comic generally contains only a fragment.  Contrast it with a sitcom which may be serialized, but which generally doesn’t carry plot and character elements forward between installments.

Serialized storytelling happens in many mediums.  Epic fantasy series, tv miniseries, movie franchises and more are common.  In the past there used to be radio serials and serialized novels (Dickens did this).  Comics distinguish themselves from other mediums in two ways.  First, they engage in a long form serial.  Often the comic has no planned end point and will continue as long as interest in the series and characters is maintained.  Second, the series is not tied to particular creators.  If an artist, writer, inker, colorist or letterer should leave the series they will be replaced by another.

Obviously this storytelling style is not used in all comics.  It is most common at the big two publishers – Marvel and DC.  At other companies long form serials exist, but are often tied to particular creators (E.g Hellboy, Spawn) or have an eventual end point to reach (e.g. most Vertigo titles and manga).  Other publisher do short form serials (We3), original graphic novels (Blankets), or use a sitcom type storytelling (Archie).

What are the advantages of this type of storytelling?  For the publisher it is obvious, they maintain a successful franchise.  And lately that franchise can be a source of licensing and other media adaptations.  For the consumer, there are a number of benefits as well.  Often it is possible to grow up with the characters in the stories.  There are suspense techniques such as the cliffhanger that are most effective in serialized stories.  It can provide a sense of continuity and consistency which many might find comfortable.  In fact, getting a monthly dose of story can be habit forming.  The contrast between different creators working on the same property is exciting.  Finally, the accumulated history of a long running serial is itself a source of interest and future story ideas.

This storytelling type does place several constraints on the story though.

Endings – there are no true endings in a long form serial.  So the satisfaction of finishing a story may never be reached. Normally comics deal with this in a variety of ways.  While the A plot may continue across many issues, often each has one or two B plots that are told within each installment.  Another option is to provide a single character POV arc in each installment – the plot may not finish but some resolution is found for the POV character.  A third option is to resolve parts of an A plot.  In most complex comics all three approaches and others are followed to give each installment a sense of completeness.

Change and the illusion of change – One of the hallmarks of a good story in most forms is that the characters are profoundly changed by the end of the story.  In a long form serial this might be difficult because either there is no end or the character change would cause the characters to no longer be suitable for the continuance of the story.  This is often bypassed through what is called the illusion of change.  True change might only occur to minor characters or characters specific to a certain A plot.  Major characters might change, but certain key attributes are left the same.  Aging is not generally acknowledged and in fact stories that deal with details associated with signs of aging – like graduations, marriage or having children – are only rarely done.  And often the changes are reversed the next time creators change on the property.

Unknown continuity – One of the most common tropes in character based dramas is unresolved issues from the past.  This can be tricky in a long form serial because the past in often very well accounted for and issues were resolved as they were raised.  When this is ignored it is called retroactive continuity (or a retcon).  Retcons take two normal forms.  In the first there is an assumption of an untold relationship or event from the character’s past.  This often happens when a new character is introduced – the existing characters might already know them from some unspecified point in their past.  The other example is when something that did happen is changed ala Bobby Ewing in Dallas trope.

These constraints can be met in a variety of ways.  While explicitly acknowledging that they are being handled rarely results in good stories, often the most powerful stories occur when these constraints are an inspiration to the stories.  An egregious example is the mystical annulling of Spider-man’s wedding.  A lackluster example is Morrison’s insistence in current Batman that everything that has happened to Batman and all the styles in which they were told are equally true and valid.  My favorite is using the discrepancies in Daredevil’s character and past portrayals by Miller in Born Again to allow for a mental breakdown and rebuilding.

Paired with another interesting aspect of comic storytelling – the shared world – serial stories can be truly unique.  I’ll talk about shared worlds some other time.

For fan of comic books, the serialized story is often one of the aspects that is most attractive.  However, that aspect is not commonly acknowledged in most reviews.  It provides opportunities and drawbacks for the creators.  It results in stories that are not often found any where else.

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2 thoughts on “Serialized Storytelling

  1. Dano says:

    First, how is this related to your enjoyment of RPGs. Clearly one of the strengths of an RPG as a game is that it has long serialized story arcs? I ask, becasue this is one of the things I love about RPGs yet, I just don’t enjoy comics.

    Second, I think another strength, and in my opinion the biggest strength, of the serialized story telling is that it can be truer to life. Yes, even in a superhero story. A long story more closely approximates reality. A movie, for instance, has an artificial completeness to it. At the end of the movie the bank stops looking for the crooks as soon as they outdrive cop number 3, or whatever. In a comic, actions can have long term consequences that are truer to life than you could ever see in a movie or even a novel. The story can get messy and stay messy for a long time, just like life.

    Of course, this is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy comics. They tend to avoid or retcon away this, their best feature. Nobody stays dead, nobody faces the legal consequences. The great comics are the ones that pick up these threads and deal with them. These are the comics I do enjoy. But, they only ever last until the next creative team comes along . . . then retcon all gone.

    • I’d hazard that my enjoyment in both is partially due to the serialized nature. It is certainly a common thread. But I’d be careful there – there are certainly far more differences between the two form than similarities.

      I’m not sure about truer to life though. Some form of conflict, suspense, a protagonist and a climax – while these sometimes exist in life they are necessary in a story and set its boundaries. (I’m talking in generalities there are exceptions to every rule.) When we relate personal incidents we encapsulate them as stories. When we record history, making stories of it is something to be avoided (or not it depends on your philosophy concerning the role of histories).

      The peak of this style of storytelling was the 80s. Take the X-Men. The A plots would burble in the background for a long time (sometimes for years). They would take centre stage for a few months and after a climax there were always a hoard of loose ends. Meanwhile there were also generally 2-3 B-plots an issue and their development is just as complex.

      Modern comics always have an eye to the collection. A plots generally happen in 2, 3 or 6 issue arcs. And the finish of the arc is often much neater and tidy. B plots are fewer and map alongside the A plots – often commenting on them or crossing into them. In general a lot of the storytelling conventions have been borrowed from cinema – ironically at a time when cinema is pillaging comics for ideas.

      Anyway, mimicking life is not something most are concerned with. You’d have to hit a slice of life comic like, say, Box Office Poison to really see what you are talking about.

      The retcon is almost necessary at DC and Marvel. But there are comics without them. Comic where consequences are kept. Within the Superhero genre I’d recommend Invincible. Or smaller series at the periphery – Alias, Young Avengers, Rebels, Gotham Central.

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