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Compressed storytelling versus decompressed storytelling: pros and cons

by  in Comic News Comment

Greg Burgas wrote this piece over two years ago. However, these last couple of days, the topic has come up in a few different places online, and when three separate places all link to Greg’s two year old piece, I think it’s a sign that perhaps this piece is worth sharing with you folks. Enjoy! – BC

So the big thing in comics these days is the struggle between what is now known as “decompressed” storytelling and its opposite, which never had a name but is now called “compressed” storytelling. The reason compressed storytelling never had a name was because everyone knew it as “comics” storytelling – it was the standard, and nothing really deviated all that much from it. Of course, I’m not the greatest comic book historian, so if you can show me a romance comic book from the 1950s that exhibits decompressed storytelling, you’re a better person than I am (and you need to move out of your parents’ basement).

However, in the past decade or so, decompressed storytelling has come into vogue. What’s the freakin’ difference, you might ask. Well, compressed storytelling takes as its central point the idea that a story needs to be told in 22 pages – the length of your average comic book. That is why it’s compressed, don’t you know. With the advent of longer books, more “literary” aspirations on the part of writers (who read too much Proust in college), and, especially, the arrival of the trade paperback format in earnest, decompressed writing has come into its own. Writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and J. Michael Straczynski said: “We don’t need to tell a story in 22 pages. That is an artificial construct.” So they (and many others, but this ain’t a list) began to write stuff that didn’t necessarily fit into 22 pages, or even 44. They began to write stuff that got resolved in 6 issues … or 8 … or 12. One of the reasons they could do this was the collecting craze that hit comics. Back in the day, comics were almost instantly disposable. You simply didn’t save them, which is why Action Comics #1 is worth so much. Now, we have acres and acres of long boxes in our garages or bookshelves and bookshelves devoted to trades, so we can remember what happened six months before when a conversation in a book started and is just now wrapping up. It’s all good!

To any comic book reader, this is old news. What I want to look at today is the differences between these two styles of storytelling. I ranted a few weeks back about things not happening in all of my purchases, and it pissed me off. But today, I want to show you why these things piss me off explicitly, and show you why this idea of “decompressed” storytelling as gone too far, even for the masters of the genre.

First, completely at random, I opened my Essential Spider-Man Volume 2: issues #21-43 and Annuals #2-3. Here’s what I got (Me again, I swapped in a color scan I made of the same page – BC)


Then, also completely at random, I picked a page from a current (as of August 2005 – BC) comic:


Okay, I lied about the second one. I didn’t pick it at random. I went looking for it. But let’s take a look at both of these.

I’m a writer. Maybe not a very good one, but still. So I know something about the basics of storytelling. One thing I adhere to pretty strictly is that a writer should not waste the audience’s time. We have a lot of reading options, so a writer who wastes our time is just useless. This does not mean you should have the throttle down all the time, mind you. This just means that every word (since I write prose) should either propel the plot forward or tell us something about the characters or at least make the sentence work better. That’s why when I write (not here, since here I generally don’t do drafts) I try to get rid of “to be” verbs. They waste time. Sometimes they are necessary. Often (mostly) they aren’t. Anyway, in a comic book, things are a bit different. Art goes along with the words, so there might not be any words, but the art is propelling the story along or telling us something about the characters. That’s fine. We have all read comics with no words in them. It doesn’t mean they don’t tell a story.

Okay, the Spider-Man page. What do we learn from this page? That’s the truest test of whether a comic book is wasting your time or not. If you open a page at random, can you learn anything about the story that would make you want to continue? Or, if you don’t learn anything, is the art so spectacular that it makes you want to continue (splash pages sometimes serve this function). Page 12 tells us:

The guy with the moustache doesn’t like Spider-Man (“You overrated clown! You bumbling incompetent!”).

The guy with the moustache is self-absorbed (“Who cares about you!? That furniture set me back a fortune!”).

The superhero in question is named Spider-Man, and he’s fighting the Scorpion (unless they’re named Spidey and Scorpy, which is how they’re referred to on this page).

For some reason, the cops are wusses (“Hold your fire! Jameson’s in no immediate danger!”).

The guy with the moustache is named Jameson, and his first initial is J.

The Scorpion is an ex-con (“I’m not gonna be tossed in the stir again …”).

The Scorpion and Spider-Man can both stick to walls (panel 5)

Jameson is a coward (“Boy! Jameson sounds mighty brave today!” “Sure … Since we got here!”)

Jameson is some sort of businessman.

Jameson knows Spider-Man quite well, and probably has some sort of knowledge about the Scorpion.

Spider-Man cracks jokes while he fights.

That’s quite a bit of knowledge. Even if you have never opened a comic book before and you happen to see this page floating along the street after it was ripped out of a book and thrown away, you could get a lot of what’s going on. Now, let’s look at the page from Ocean. What do we learn?

It’s a city in the future (a bagel breakfast cost 9 dollars, some futuristic cars and ad scrolls, the parking meters, the coffee cup disintegrates before it hits the ground).
The main character is black and looks like Avery Brooks, as someone pointed out to me when issue #6 came out. (Sorry, I can’t remember who it was.)

Umm … yeah, that’s it. Four panels for that???? If you found this comic page floating along our hypothetical street after someone in a fit of pique after spending 3 bucks on this ripped it out and hurled it to its fate, you would know absolutely nothing about this comic book except that it’s set in the future. That’s it. Would that make you want to buy the book?

Since I couldn’t scan everything in, let’s break down, in more detail, both books and what we learn (bear with me – I know this is long, but that’s the way it is):

ASM #29: Peter needs new clothes; Peter is poor; Peter digs Betty Brant; the Scorpion escapes from jail and swears vengeance on Jameson and Spider-Man; scientific equipment is being stolen around town; Betty has a crush on Ned Leeds, who has been in Europe but is now back; Peter is jealous of Ned; Jameson created the Scorpion and fears the law because of it; Peter fakes being scared of bad guys so no one will suspect he’s Spider-Man; Jameson has a plan to get Spider-Man to fight the Scorpion; Spider-Man swings around the city making himself a target; the Scorpion’s costume enables him to climb walls; the Scorpion can propel himself from roof to roof by using his tail; Jameson claims Spider-Man and the Scorpion are partners; the Scorpion plans to kill Jameson while Spider-Man is out swinging around, but Spidey figures it out; Jameson is a coward; Spidey doesn’t like Jameson (and vice versa); Spidey has a bit of a temper problem; Jameson is cheap; Spidey can use his webbing in innovative ways (he makes bolas from it); Spidey is very agile; Spidey’s webbing is waterproof; Peter lives with Aunt May; Jameson is a liar; Aunt May totally babies Peter; Aunt May has a health problem.

Okay, now Ocean: There are coffins with people in them in the ocean, which is under a sheet of ice on some moon somewhere out in the solar system; the main character’s name is Nathan Kane; the story is in the future; lots of space trivia that Ellis (and all his characters) love; there are bases on the moon and Mars; in the future, identification is implanted in the wrist; someone wants to kill Kane but he takes care of them because he’s a bad mother … shut your mouth!; Kane is a special weapons inspector for the UN; the people who wanted to kill Kane weren’t just miners; Kane is on Deimos; Kane doesn’t like guns; the ocean is on Europa, a moon of Jupiter; there are corporations at Europa as well as the government; Kane gets busy with the ladies; the station commander’s name is Fadia Aziz.

We learn quite a bit in both books, but does anything happen? In the Spider-Man book, the Scorpion breaks out of prison, comes up with a plan to take revenge on the two people he hates the most, fights Spider-Man, and gets defeated. However, we also check in on Peter’s money situation, his romantic life, and his home life. We also get a lot of character development of Jameson, Peter, and even Aunt May. In Ocean, basically a guy flies to Europa. That’s it.

Times have changed, I suppose. Ellis is telling a science fiction epic, and wants to get us really into the futuristic world and how things work and what’s going on. That’s fine. However, we get a very good sense of 1960s New York from the Spider-Man books, and it doesn’t take 22 pages to do it! Peter hangs out with his friends for two panels, and we can get a sense of what it’s like. We don’t need pages and pages of a spaceship taking off to understand what’s going on.

Despite all this, I like some “decompressed” stories. My biggest issue with it is when it takes over the “compressed” side completely. This is the shit that’s really killing comics, because it drives more and more people away from the front-end stuff, i.e. the monthlies, and more into the back-end, i.e. the trade paperbacks. If you’re reading Ocean in trade paperback format, you don’t care that Ellis takes 22 pages to “set the mood,” because you know you can read the whole story in one sitting. Reading it in 6 issue chunks is unbelievably frustrating, however, especially when he fucks up the ending, which he did. When I read his similarly-themed (but much better) Orbiter, I didn’t care that he was taking his time, because it was a graphic novel, told as a single story. I didn’t have to wait six months for the pay-off.

The interesting thing about this is that people claim that comics in the 1960s were for kids, while comics today are for adults. Well, in the first panel of page 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #29, there are 45 words. I’m not saying that more words means more intelligent, but it’s interesting that kids were expected to sit down and read a comic book back then, whereas today’s adults can just gaze at Sprouse’s beautiful artwork and not worry about taxing their brains with too many words. Just something to mention.

I don’t want to go back to the way it used to be. Seriously. I’ve been reading the Essential Spider-Mans, and I enjoy them, but the breakneck speed with which Lee and Ditko and Romita flew through them gets annoying. I don’t mind stopping and catching a breath now and then. Unfortunately, with today’s comics, so much of it is catching your breath that there’s no more room for the breakneck speed. The pendulum has swung too far to the other side. If Marvel and DC want their writers to “write for the trade,” they should simply give up the monthly format. The serial nature of comics demands something happen every month. I’m sorry, but it does. If Ellis wants to tell a slow-moving story like Ocean, he should write it as a graphic novel (and, of course, get the ending right). Yes, we need a balance, as Lee’s overuse of caption boxes grates occasionally. Don’t accept “decompressed” storytelling just because Bendis tells you it’s good for you! Force him to make something happen in his books!