Comics / Spotlight

Decompression Chamber


By Koppy McFad
Sep 10, 2004 - 15:11

ULTIMATE BATMAN # 1

First page shows the world spinning in space.
Second page zooms down to the east coast of the United States.
Third page focuses on one city, dark and gloomy with a lot of gargoyles hanging from the buildings.
The succeeding pages travel through the entire city, the streets, the alleys, the skyscrapers, the slums. The Gotham police station is shown along with other notable landmarks.
Finally, the second to the last page goes to a mansion in the suburbs.
The last page explores the mansion till finally it reaches the bedroom of a pregnant Mrs. Wayne.
Last panel: "it's boy, Doctor Wayne."

The next four issues will show young Bruce Wayne in school, his warm relationship with his parents and the faithful butler, Alfred. We will get a one panel cameo by police cadet James Gordon. Issue four will end with Dr. Wayne telling his family, "why don't we see a movie tonight?"

That may seem like slow going but think of it this way: "Ultimate Batman" could actually celebrate its 100th issue with a truly momentous event-- the first appearance of the lead character in costume. Then, we can have the first appearance of the Joker in issue 150, the first appearance of Two-Face in issue 200 (fitting, eh?) and maybe Catwoman in issue 300.

The new generation of fanboys will probably eat this thing up, especially if it has the name "Bendis" attached to it. However, for the old-timers who are used to reading comics where Hawkman saves the Earth in the space of 12 pages, this type of thing would be unthinkable. But apparently there are people who will sit still for this. And they say young people today have no attention span!

This may sound like a rough generalization but didn't Marvel just spend an entire year retelling the origin of the JLA in the pages of "Supreme Power"? Gardner Fox would have polished this off in one panel saying, "and so the greatest heroes in the world come together to meet this new threat..." (with such dialogue as: "it's great that we can finally all meet." "Gosh, yes, I've long been an admirer of all of you.")

Amazingly, at a time when new comic titles are lucky to survive beyond 12 issues, we are seeing comics where an entire month is devoted to the protagonist talking to his girlfriend. Most of us have had relationships that didn't last that long. It is only a matter of time before we will see a superhero title get cancelled before the hero even makes his first appearance in costume. Imagine "Superman" getting the axe just before the rocket lands in Smallville.

You would think that with all the time and panel-space devoted to such minor details, the writers could come up with something more informative. Something that actually moves the story along. Instead, we get paragraphs and paragraphs of lines like:

"Uh, so now...."
"Yes, that's how it is."
"Okay, like..."
"Uh... no."
"Then you.."
"Yes."
"Well, uh, alright then." (flies off into the distance.)

You can't tell if the characters are breaking off their relationship, arranging a second mortgage or plotting to destroy the world. Some writers defend this kind of dialogue, saying that real people actually talk like this. Yeah, but some of us graduated from high school. These kind of dramatic pauses and clipped phrases may make sense in a movie or play where you can actually hear the actors' voices, communicating all sorts of nuance and emotion. But in comics, all it says is "the letterer had a headache today."

Ironically, the fanboys that eat this kind of dialogue up are also fond of sneering at the old-school writers who still feel the need to spell everything out to the reader. Take this old-fashioned exchange for example:

SUPERMAN: I'll use my X-ray vision to search the factory complex for my arch-foe Lex Luthor! Great suns, all the buildings in the complex are lined with LEAD!
BATMAN: Lead! The one substance your X-ray vision can't penetrate. That criminal genius has found the perfect hiding place!

How obtuse, unrealistic and stiff. Here's how some hot new writer would do it.

SUPERMAN: I'll...no. No."
BATMAN: Hrrrmm.

No wonder it now takes five issues for Spider-Man to beat the Green Goblin nowadays.

Perhaps we can all blame this on the changing market. Used to be comics were sold to kids, in drugstores and news-stands. There was no guarantee that the kid was going to get the second part of a continued story so you had to fill him in. Additionally, kids back then, didn't have the encyclopedic knowledge of superheroes that we all now possess so you had to spell out everything for them, tell them who the guy in the longjohns is, what his powers are, who his enemies are, what their powers are, what their social security numbers are, etc., etc., etc.

Today, comics are sold in specialty stores. The consumers know damn well when to show up to get the next chapter of the story... and if they don't, they can just wait for the trade paperback. All the readers know who these characters are. And if they don't, they are suppose to pick things up on the Internet... or maybe buy back issues. God forbid that the writer should have to tell them these details within the story! These writer-guys are all artists now, not some Trivial Pursuit contestants. Yes, yes, yes, there used to be this rule about how the writers should "treat each issue like it was somebody's first." But seriously, when was the last time anyone but a dedicated fanboy picked up a new comicbook?

Guess that partly explains how this decompressed story-telling works: the fanboys are willing to pick up issue after issue of "Daredevil" because they know the character and won't get lost even if it takes two years to explain who Matt's latest girlfriend is. With all the re-boots and "ultimatization" out there, many of the fans already know what is coming so they are willing to wait for something big. Hey gang, just eight issues before Ronnie Raymond returns. Just a year before "Ultimate Kang" shows up. Just six months before Monsieur Mallah and the Brain express their feelings for each other.... well, maybe not the last one.

This kind of writing can work. Heck, judging from the success of certain titles, it has worked. But I can't see it bringing new readers to comics. Despite all the changes in marketing and distribution, comics still come out only once a month and no matter how good the art is or how beloved the character is, sooner or later the reader is going to pick up an issue, read it in the space of 40 seconds and say, "Gee, now I gotta wait a whole month to see what happens next? What a gyp. I could get porn instead. At least that kind of thing can be read and enjoyed again and again (as long as you have enough privacy.)

Call me a reactionary but this ain't my cup of tea. It may be novel and innovative when used on occasion. It becomes a royal pain when you see it every week. At a time when comics cost more than a cheesesteak sandwich and are available only in some specialty store that you have to drive thirty miles to reach, I don't think I would be satisfied waiting a whole month just to see the hero complaining about his crappy car and dead-end job. I have my own crappy car and dead-end job, thank you. It's a good thing this comic store sells porn as well.


Last Updated: Aug 22, 2014 - 9:52
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I agree and would like to get together with anyone to discuss invading the Marvel Offices to swat Ultimate staff with old rolled up issues of, well, anything written in the 80's.
A-fucking-MEN. Picked up a half dozen trade paperbacks of Ultimate Spider-Man to see what the fuss was about, read them all in about, oh - hour and a half? And didn't take much away. Cumulatively, sure, there's a story, a mood, it's different, okay. But one issue that stands out? One defining moment? They don't exist in the context of this kind of writing. I don't see fanboys calling each other up like we used to and bragging they got their hands on "the one where Peter makes facial expressions as he talks to MJ for 10 pages and goes 'um' or 'yeah, okay, I -' on his end.". Dude! The angst! The fucking drama! I mean, MJ, let him finish a sentence, girl! (I have a whole journal filled with things he might've said if given the chance) And will we ever know for sure? No. Thought bubbles are to direct. What if people stopped interpreting the 40 different ways to make someone stand while having a three sentence conversation over an entire issue? Think about THAT.
It all doesn't have to be self-contained. Arcs are fine. But even arcs have flashbacks and re-caps per issue and can be taken solely on their own basis.
And while we're complaining - what the hell has happened to covers? These aren't Calvin Klein ads, people. They're COMICS. Instead of smash bang explosive letters announcing GREATEST MUST HAVE INCREDIBLE THING ISSUE BUY!!! It's invariably the hero of the book in question standing, squatting, sitting. Pensively. Arrogantly. In darkness. In light. Oh, and taking up the whole cover, of course. Background? Pfft. We have a solid color right there, waiting to provide a perfeclty interchangable backdrop, fool! No tags, no titles, nothing, for you!
They don't even speak on the covers anymore. Come ON.
#1 - Jaundice Voosell - 01/22/2010 - 15:50
Make Mine MARVEL (but marvel from yesteryear!)
I love your article and agree with Jaundice. I have a WHOLE bunch of rolled up 80s bronze age spideys and hulks ready for the invasion. Break out the ammo baby.

When I was a kid reading a comic was LITERALLY reading an "illustrated novel" as stan lee would call it. I mean one page of writing had 500 words on it! The yellow rectangular word ballons were ripe with narrative and as stan said "if a kid had to occasionally look up a word in the dictionary well we didn't think that was a bad thing." It was wonderful. And to be honest I learned English reading comic books when I was a kid fresh from Europe. And though I graduated to books without pictures the comics of that day were so well done I would still buy them alonside my novels.

I look around today at the 'fans' who think this decompression is so "kewl" and I honestly wonder if there isn't something in the water to dumb down a whole generation of Western teens. I mean really? They "read" a comic with a total of maybe a 100 words and they think that is ok or even 'kewl'. Im sorry that that is so F#@$#d its unbelievable. And to pay 4.00 a shot for what is basically a coffee table art magazine (mags that feature an artists work with page after page of different scenes and drawings) is crazy.

They might 'sell' now because of the movies but soon comics will take a serious nose dive. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to read my back issues of She Hulk from the 1980s! She Hulk you say? Why he can't be serious. Huh listen buddy She Hulk in 1980 sold more than the monthly AMAZING Spiderman does today! (you can see it right on the publishers required yellow note inside and compare with the CRB sales online).
Actually come to think of it almost ALL the marvel comics of the bronze age (let alone the silver age) regularly outsold even the best comic of today.

#2 - Forbush Man - 04/11/2011 - 22:25
PS
PS and please dont say its because 'it was a different time back then we had no video games, internet, or INSERT ACTIVITY HERE)' I call BS on that. Because novels sell well even today to both adults and kids. Look at Rowlings Harry Potter books, or God help us: Twilight, or almost any bestseller. So if novels still sell well in this age of 'video games to distract the youth' why not comics? Because comics are crap now thats why, sorry to say. Comics are crap now.

#3 - Forbush Man - 04/11/2011 - 22:29
I'm not a proponent of the school of "in the good old days comics were better."

What sold then could not sell today. I often cringe when I look at these older comics which at a time did entertain me.

Not sure it's fair to expect comics to never evolve and be fixed in one style and one period of time. I actually find what,s coming out these days more diverse and engaging than ever.
#4 - Herve St-Louis - 04/24/2011 - 08:34

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