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Troy Benson, Grumpy Old Comics Reader #1:
"Paul Levitz and the Mystery of Decompressed Storytelling..."

So a few weeks ago I read an article in the Comic Shop News. The interviewer had asked DC Comics’ President and Publisher, Paul Levitz, how the comic industry had changed since he had last regularly written an ongoing series. (The occasion is his return to writing JSA -- editor) Mr Levitz stated, “The last time I was doing this, I had just written for Legion maybe the first five issue story ever done for DC, the ‘Earth War’ story - at least the first one in a bunch of years. Now of course five and six parters are very common.”

This got me to thinking. Paul Levitz is right, stories and sub-plots now take forever to conclude but are comic books better for this?

Of course, I’m going to say no. These ongoing stories may keep the rabid fan hooked, but where is the newbie supposed to start?

When I first began reading comics I could for 25 cents go to the comic Collector’s Shop on W. San Fernando St. in San Jose and buy a complete story. I would usually pick the one with the most heroes on the cover. Marvel Two-in-One, the Brave and the Bold, Justice League of America or Teen Titans were always a good bet. Depending on the cover the Avengers, Fantastic Four or Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes might make the grade. If there was more than one member of the Green Lantern Corps on the cover or a JLA/JSA cross-over it was a no brainer. Sometimes there was even an 8 page bonus story staring Green Arrow or the Atom or somebody else that didn’t currently have there own title.

It was very frustrating even on the rare occasion when it happened to get to the last page and see the words “to be continued.” I had no idea when my father would take me to the comic book store again. I would have been very turned-off to the medium if every time I bought a book it meant I had to return to the store a month later to see how it ends.

Remember how long it seemed between Halloween and Christmas when you were a kid? Now imagine trying to remember to pick up the latest issue of the Ultimate Amazing Web of Peter Parker’s Spectacular Spider-Man #427 or were you supposed to buy the Amazing Peter Parker’s Ultimately Spectacular Spider-Man Web #338?

In Action Comics #252 Supergirl was introduced. She’s on the cover but her story was actually the third story in an issue that also introduced Metallo into the Superman mythos and had room to spare for a Congorilla story. In 8 pages Supergirl landed on Earth, met Superman we were introduced to Zor-El and Argo City and she established her identity as Linda Lee. How much do we know about today’s Supergirl after numerous appearances and her own ongoing series?

The origin of Spider-Man was told in 15 pages. In Detective #27 the world was introduced to Batman and Commissioner Gordon. By the time Batman #1 was published we had Robin, the Joker and Catwoman. Does Nightwing even have a Rogues Gallery or a meaningful cast of supporting characters? If the new Batgirl vanished tomorrow would anyone even notice? Is there a writer or artist in comics today who can even tell a complete story in only 8 pages?

I personally blame Frank Miller. I liked what he did on Daredevil but his cinematic style of story telling has influenced others into telling stories with an emphasis on style over substance ( I also blame Frank Miller for the wave of anti-heroes and “dark” stories that are being addressed now in Infinite Crisis but that is best left for another time).

Paul Levitz back in the day wrote the “Great Darkness Saga” that introduced Darkseid into the 30th century. It lasted only 4 issues but it truly was a saga. One of my favorite stories of all-time (Adventure Comics #369 and 370) was a two-parter that introduced Mordru to the Legion of Super-Heroes. The back-story for Mordru was done so well (in just a couple of panels) that I spent many years look for the “first” appearance of Mordru only to realize that I already owned it.

Comic books are not the only victims of an inability to tell a complete story or develop characters in a short amount of time. By the third episode of Star Trek it was already clear who the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy were. The viewers knew how they would react in certain situations and they stayed consistent throughout the lives of those characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation did not get good until the Third Season. Deep Space 9 did not find a voice until Worf joined the cast and they went to war. Voyager never got good and Enterprise…well, it was cancelled before the writers were able to get anyone to care about the characters. If Shakespeare was alive today there is no doubt that Hamlet would be told as a trilogy.

Maybe it’s determined by the marketplace. Maybe older fans desire a “soap-opera” to get hooked and draw them into the store month after month. I’m guilty. There are books that I have read for years and I honestly can’t tell you why. I don’t think that I regularly collected every issue of a title until Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans. Prior to that I mostly bought books by which one had the coolest cover. I was 10 but something in the Wolfman/Perez Titans made me come back and have to buy every issue. I was hooked.

These stories, however, did not take months or sometimes years to tell. “A Day in the Life” (New Teen Titans #8) was one issue. Deathstroke the Terminator first appeared in issue #2 and did not appear again for another 8 issues. “Who is Donna Troy?” was told in one issue.

Could a TV anthology series be produced today with truly original characters and situations each week? Rod Serling did it for years. M. Night Shyamalan was able to do it for one movie.

The trend in decompressed story-telling is both good and bad. It can add visual excitement to a story but it can also stretch out what use to be one story into several issues. Today’s society is characterized as having a short attention span. The trend in decompressed story-telling seems to contradict this notion.

What we may have is a nation so starved for true entertainment that we are willing to except it spooned out in small doses over a very long period of time. Don’t expect the industry to change. As long as we keep buying to “see what happens next” they’ll keep making money. That is, of course, until we all die and there is no one to replace us because they never began reading comic books in the first place.

Troy Benson

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