Monday, February 7, 2011

Is "writing for the omnibus" the next "writing for the trade?" Part 1

Brubaker's sublime Captain
America run is prime example
of this new school of
Welcome to Crakkajamma's first ever opinion piece, where I notice a new trend emerging in comics which I will dub "writing for the omnibus."  But first, a quick history lesson.  From comics' inception through the late 70's, the general trend for storytelling in comics was the quick one-and-done or maybe the exciting cliffhanger-fueled two-parter.  Occasionally, stories with a truly grand scope would merit three or more parts, but these were few and far between (see the seminal Coming of Galactus story from Fantastic Four).  As the 70's drew to a close and the famously "grimdark" 80's swung in, so did the graphic novel.  Sometimes, the stories were broken up into issues and released that way initially, but the success of graphic novels in this era was largely in the realm of standalone, independent stories (Maus, Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen).
    While collected editions of serialized monthly comics did exist then, they didn't catch on to much popularity until the 90's were over and the early 00's rolled around.  Starting in the early 2000s, "writing for the trade" came into vogue, both as a phrase and a writing style.  Nowadays, most high-profile books are written this way.  Each trade typically contains 5-7 issues (though an alarming trend is seeing a mere four issues collected without much decrease in cover price) that encompass a single story arc that is typically a self-contained story the gets from A to B and then sets up for the next journey.  Typically, when you think of writers like Geoff Johns, Brian Bendis or just about any writer for the Big 2, they're going to be writing in this style.

Hickman's Fantastic Four
is another example of long-
form done right. (so far)
However, it looks we may be in for another extension in writers' plans as the phenomena of "writing for the omnibus" seems to be coming into vogue.  Writers are continuing a few plotlines through 20-30 issues of their series, seemingly with the hopes that their run will become a seminal one for the title.  Perhaps that view is a bit jaded, but it seems to be a more frequent occurrence that writers announce they have several arcs planned out in advance for their title even before the first issue has even hit the stands.  While it's very unusual for one writer to last that long on a single title, those that have have made their mark on modern comic storytelling.  Ed Brubaker's masterful run on Captain America is prime example of this long-form storytelling style done right.  While continuing the plot thread of the Red Skull scheming to destroy Cap's legacy and take his life, Brubaker also told several arcs worth of entertaining stories along the way.  These were all fairly self-contained tales that can be appreciated separately for what they are.  However, when read together, (in omnibus format perhaps?) the story arcs stack into segments of a larger story.  Each one of these segments begin to build on each other, forming a "master" storyline that is moved forward by the plots of the individual arcs along the way.   Brubaker was able to repeat this "master" storyline segmentation with his run up to Captain America: Reborn, telling the tale of Bucky taking over the legacy of Captain America while Steve was in limbo.  Other writers enjoying success in this format include Jonathan Hickman with his Fantastic Four run so far, Geoff Johns with his Green Lantern, and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning with their run on Marvel Cosmic (how this hasn't received any sort of omnibus treat, I'll never know).

A victim of excessive
However, this long-form storytelling is not an easy skill to master and examples of failure abound as well.  Writers tend to fall into one of two pitfalls when attempting such grandiose plotting.  One I'll call the Invincible Iron Man(IIM) pitfall.  IIM, while still mostly enjoyable, is one of the most horribly decompressed, repetitious books I have ever read.  Fraction started his run off with a bang, crafting a well-paced thrill ride in "The Five Nightmares."  However, and this pure speculation on my part, once he got going in that initial arc and saw that the book was going to be around for awhile, it appears he allowed his plots room to grow and forgot to cut out the fat.  As a result, "World's Most Wanted" clocked in at 12 issues long, lasting about 4 issues too many and falling into a repetitious rut in regards to Tony's repeated flights from Norman.  Despite being a mere five issues in length, "Stark Reassembled" also fell into this trap as Fraction felt the need to show every last bit of progression in Tony's dreamworld and as a result, the plot seemed to drag by quickly.  Unfortunately,  Fraction continued with this storytelling into "Stark Resilient," another 9 issue story that fell too quickly into the  repetitive trap of having the Hammer women try and knock Tony down at every turn.  While Fraction's overall through line may have succeeded in that he successfully deconstructed, partially redeemed, and rebuilt Tony's character from the ground up, he took his sweet time getting there.  The also enjoyable Justice League: Generation Lost maxiseries started out with the objective of telling a master storyline of the reunited (sorta) JLI trying to take out Max Lord after he was resurrected in Blackest Night over the course of 24 issues.  While it started out at great pace, becoming one of DC's best new series, it has sputtered it's wheels in recent months as it keeps repeating the same story beats(Allies remembering then forgetting Max Lord exists, Captain Atom being sent to the future, the JLI being forced to fight their friends when they don't want to, etc.) in an attempt to extend the story to it's intended length.  Both of these stories, while still enjoyable in their own right, have been bogged down by excessive decompression.

  The other pitfall is when these long form stories are suddenly shortened or unexpectedly altered by editorial decree or the writer's own editing before he moves on to another project.  Hickman's Secret Warriors is  prime example of this.  Originally planned for 60 issues, Hickman has since shortened the series to a mere 27 issues (30 if tie-ins are counted).  That's HALF of the story gone.  In interviews, Hickman revealed that he had to cut out several whole story arcs, merge important character beats into other arcs, and generally readjust his plot until it became a Frankenstein of what his former plot initially was.  Unfortunately, it appears as though this series restructuring occurred after the book was well underway and the series has suffered from schizophrenic pacing.  The first three (arguably four) arcs are engrossing slow boil reads that generally ramp up the scales of Fury's personal war against HYDRA, adding new players into the mix and creating fascinating conflicts and a unique geopolitical terrain for the series.  However, once "Night" and the beginning of "Wheels Within Wheels" rolled around, the series suddenly shifted into high gear, skipping ahead six months and attempting to recap the tumultuous events of that time in a mere 18 pages.  After that was done, Hickman's pacing improved and Night became a more reasonably paced arc.  However, once "Wheels Within Wheels" started up, the stitches in Hickman's editing process began to rear their ugly heads again.  He introduces an entire team, only to kill them off in one issue.  As I stated in my review of last week's issue, there was easily a story arc's worth of content to explore there.  Barring an "Untold Tales of the Secret Warriors"-type mini exploring this team, the reader is felt feeling frustrated at the seeming wasted story potential and page space

   Now, most of the analysis and discussion here deals with trends emerging within the Big Two.  It's all speculation at this point, but I feel, as the market changes and collected editions/digital comics slowly become more dominant sales drivers in the industry, the appeal of these massive collections will only increase (Notable fact: the Walking Dead Compendium had the third-highest revenue numbers of any graphic novel for 2010).  As a result, writers are going to start tailoring their stories to fit consumers' appetites and I believe we will be seeing more and more of this type of storytelling become a dominant school of thought

  Some of you probably just looked at the wall of text and went "Blablabla, too long; didn't read"  For you readers, humbly present to you a scan of Thorcules kicking Hercuthor in the family jewels.
Nuhhkkrack indeed

End of Part 1, come back next week for Part 2, where I examine how this phenomena is affecting the independent and creator-owned book!


  1. Good stuff. Write part two.

  2. Ha! It's been too long since I got back to this. I'll try to get part 2 up within the week. I'm embarrassed to say that I have neglected it. Thanks for the reminder!