Thursday, December 10, 2009

Serial Storytelling, Format, the 22-Page Comic Book and Television

A couple of things that have come up this week have caused me to consider the 22-page format that comics are released in from the big superhero publishers. The first being the recent round of 'comics aren't as good as they are now' bitching that, well, Tim and I participated in (and possibly kicked off... this time) where commenters will point to the 22-page pamphlet format as one of the negatives of the books and a reason to look elsewhere in graphic novels or waiting for the trade or other publishers that don't feel the need to release story in 22-page chunks. The second being DC's announcement of the two "Earth One" OGNs instead of the traditional issue-to-collection publishing strategy that's used the rest of the time where, again, the question of the use of the 22-page format is raised, particularly from a creative standpoint.

I want to begin things by saying that I like the 22-page format. I do. I think a standard format/structure/limitation is good, especially from a creative perspective. I look to the serial comic's closest creative relative, the serial television series to see just how successful a strict structure is, particularly when it comes to serial storytelling. A serial story requires consistency, for the audience to come back each time and know what they are getting, and one method of maintaining that sense of consistency is page count. Every issue (with some exceptions) is 22 pages. I know exactly what I'm getting.

Beyond that, look at television where shows are divided, basically, into two formats: the half-hour (22 minutes) or the one-hour (42 minutes). Even on HBO or other cable channels, they mostly stick with those formats, because it's what people expect. Granted, on non-network channels, episodes will vary by length a few minutes in either direction, but, by and large, the amount of time an episode takes is set out in advance.

Why do I never hear people bitching about that?

Even those who wait for the DVD collections of show don't complain that it's because episodes are too short or episode lengths are arbitrary, it's either about wanting to see the full, larger narrative in a short time (for shows where there is one) or that they simply find it difficult to watch the show every week, especially considering skip weeks where a rerun airs or pre-emption for sports and other special events.

Now, obviously, 22 minutes of television and 22 pages of comics contain very different storytelling possibilities or qualities, but if there is a problem with how much/how little is being done with the single issue format, why is that the format's fault? That format has been in existence for a long time and it was only recently that complaints arose over it not being enough (at least from the general reading population). Hell, I was online when that happened, basically. The rise of the trade paperback shifted storytelling from a focus on the issue to a focus on the storyarc...

Except, that also happened with the rise of the DVD: more shows now tell larger stories that take up chunks of seasons, complete seasons, or numerous seasons... But, even then, most of those shows still deliver satisfying complete episodes that don't leave people feeling they've been cheated. If they wait for the DVD, it's not because the single episodes are flawed, it's simply that they want to experience the entire story at once. When people say they've given up single issues, the desire to read the full story at once is there, but with the implication that single issues aren't satisfying or enough.

Maybe it is the format's fault... but, then again, think about the various series that have cropped up that delivered fantastic single issues that work both as a single unit and as part of a larger story (Young Liars, much of Grant Morrison, Joe Casey, and Garth Ennis's output), or, even, two recent series that actually went for shorter issues and managed to tell complete stories in single issues (one of which also delivered a larger story): Fell and Casanova.

Also, would things be different if there were two formats like television uses? What if issues came out in 22- and 44-page chunks? Or 16- and 32-page issues? Is it that there's only a single format that causes problems? Obviously price is an issue as well where it isn't in television, but I really do have to wonder: is it the format or that those working in it don't know how to make it work?