Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Issue Too Long? How Long Should a "Typical" Comic Book Arc Be?

This week's roundtable discussion comes from a reader who wrote in with the following:

If I can suggest a question for your question of the day -- How long should a 'typical' comic book story arc be? I ask for various reasons but the main one is that it used to take an issue or two to tell an origin story and I've read several new titles that are on issue 6 and not sure if they've finished any origin story arcs yet.

I loved the question and thought it would be a great one, particularly for those of us who have experience in comic book writing. However, acknowledging the variation of questions included in that one, I broke it down into its pieces.

What determines the completeness of a comic book story arc of any length?

Erik Burnham: A "typical" arc, I think, should run anywhere between 60-120 pages. So long as someone doesn't try to make a 60 page story into a 120 page story, I think we're golden. But 6 issues/120 pp is the outside of where I'd like to see for a typical arc. Longer stories can be done, but then those would be atypical.

Chuck Dixon: The easy, and obvious, answer is a story with a beginning, middle and end. And the end must come to a satisfactory conclusion either through a change in status quo, an emotional catharsis, a resolved conflict or a major reveal. In the best case scenario an arc should either create a new character or show a character growing or changing in some way. In comics, it’s okay to leave a few dangling plot threads to be picked up in the next arc. But NEVER leave the reader feeling as if the purpose of the arc was only to build to the next one. It’s okay to leave the reader wanting more but wrong to leave them feeling as though you gave them less than they expected.

Bobby Nash: Usually, it's the editor or publisher who sets the length. When creating my own stories I generally try to stick close to industry norms. Graphic novels can be 40, 66, 80, or 100 pages depending ont he needs of the story. Standard comic stories tend to be 22 or 28 pages.

Lee Houston Jr.: For a story to be complete, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Granted, not all of a series ongoing subplots have to be addressed in any one specific arc, for many serve as springboards for future stories. But at the very least, the ones pertaining to the specific story in progress must be addressed and resolved, even if they result in new subplots for future arcs themselves. 

How do you work in the beginning, middle and end of individual issues against that of the central story's begging, middle and end?

Martheus Wade: I'm not average in this as I don't write issues. Writing trades allow me to block my stores according to story beats inside of a 70-80 page story. I started by knowing my ending of the story and work backward.

Chuck Dixon: Action. The simplest thing is to provide a solid action set piece in each part of your story. A reveal about a character or situation is also a good tentpole for an individual issue. “My girlfriend is from the Moon!” kind of reveal. But each issue should have something that makes it stand out as a unique reading experience. As, Andy Schmidt, my former GI Joe editor put it, each issue should have a “oh, that’s the one where Captain Skidmark found out his parents are dead” element to it. Or, I’m parphrasing him, anyway. Captain Skidmark is all mine, baby!

Lee Houston Jr.: But although I've heard the "writing to the trades" claim, the creative teams on any comic book should remember to treat each issue as just one chapter of an ongoing saga. "The never ending battle," etc. Sure, some of those chapters later get collected into a trade paperback or a hardcover, depending upon the popularity of the title and/or the creative team involved. Yet those on the other side of the page producing the comic books have to remember that a lot of people (like me) still acquire their issues monthly, especially now with the big push to promote comics in the digital realm.

Bobby Nash: I plan for that in the plot. If I'm writing a story that I know will cover multiple issues then I try to end each issue on a cliffhanger. I like cliffhangers. I wish we had more of them in comics these days. I work in the beginning, middle and end of individual issues the same way I do the overall story. I plan out my plot.

How is plotting different when you're already given a length for an arc and you must either (a) fill it or (b) cut to fit it?

Chuck Dixon: Plotting should be organic. In comics you have to think visual action first. Always trim your plot before you cut action. If you don’t have room for the action in your assigned arc then you have too much plot. Simplify your through-story and make your characters motivations more pure. None of this computer program format or Joseph Campell structure crap.

Bobby Nash: When you know you have a set number of pages to fill then you plot accordingly. Sometimes that means cuts have to be made or additional material has to be added. The later is easier, of course. It's part of the job. You just dive in and do what needs to be done to meet your publisher's expectations by your deadline.

John Morgan Neal: There's nothing worst than a story that is drug out to fill time or space.

Ken Janssens: It always depends if you are working for someone else or yourself. If you are working for yourself, you let the story itself determine how long it should be. If you are working for someone else (as a fill-in arc and not your own book), then they will likely give you an issue count for the arc. Sometimes your idea comes out of that constraint. If you already had your story in mind, then you will have to either lengthen or shorten your story. The best way to do that (I've found) is to figure the main points and themes then space them throughout the numbers of issues for which you have to write. Then you take the secondary plot points and scenes, placing them in between the main ones.  For the individual issues of arcs, they should all have beginning, middle, and ends, but since it won't be for the whole plot, those should be of theme, character, character path, or end just with sheer cliffhangers.

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To follow the works of these fine creators who took part in this roundtable, simply look at the list of Heavy Hitters links on the right side of this page.