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The Fifth Color | When miniseries are in for the long haul

by  in Comic News Comment
The Fifth Color | When miniseries are in for the long haul

To call something a “series of mini-series” seems a bit clunky, doesn’t it? There should be a better, agreed-upon term for comics published in short bursts of story arcs, only to return after a hiatus with a new No. 1 issue and new storyline. Mind you, that’s a difficult mode of publishing to define: Do canceled ongoings count as a series of miniseries? What about hasty “reboots” or creative-team switches that lead to the renumbering of a title? And how do you even sell a book that comes with an expiration date?

There’s a habit of readers jumping ship after an ongoing has announced its final-issue date, and people are frequently more comfortable waiting for the trade paperback when they know there’s only going to be so many issues. Series of miniseries (see how awkward that is?) are a low-investment opportunity, both monetarily and plot-wise.

And yet they really work when the right effort is put in. They keep heroes that have been relegated to the back burner fresh in everyone’s mind without adding yet another character to the Avengers roster. The arcs they follow might be smaller in scope, but they give a bigger focus to the hero at hand. I’d much rather read a series of minis about a fan favorite than watch the character jockey for space in an event title or (again, because I pick on them) an Avengers series.

There are so many characters in the Marvel Universe, and our access to them is unparalleled. Every reader has a favorite who, unless it’s Wolverine or Spider-Man, might not be getting the page time he or she deserves. During virtually every convention panel, there are readers asking to see long-forgotten heroes or villains that there’s no room for in developing storylines. So why not take a few months here or there and tell a story when you have the time?

The first time I really noticed the series of miniseries (ugh!) was the Black Widow books written by Richard K. Morgan. These political thrillers came out about a year apart and couldn’t seem to break past six issues — which is a shame, because I rather enjoyed the look into the past of Natasha Romanov and, at the time, really wanted this storyline to continue. However, there’s a sort of brilliance after the fact, as the two collections read nicely and cover a lot of ground in the character’s history with a new, modern spin. They capitalize on the previously existing lore, Yelena Belova and all, to tell their story in six-issue bursts. These trades (when in print) are easy to pick up and digest, and they advance the reader’s knowledge of Natasha Romanov without requiring them to reference a handbook or commit to an ongoing series. You could read the first volume, Homecoming, without the second, or continue through to The Things They Say About Her.

Avengers Arena and the now-ended Avengers Undercover work in a similar fashion, just in a little longer format. The premise of the former — Murderworld meets teen gladiators — couldn’t support an ongoing series; the drama and suspense would have to be padded out, making the series drag on, and losing readers in the process. It featured a large cast of fan-favorite characters, including the Runaways and Avengers Academy kids who were languishing without their own books, tossed in a blender with newer characters who simply couldn’t get introduced on their own.

Mind you, that blender was set to puree in Avengers Arena, but everyone still got screen time. When that scenario was finished, readers could end the book with a sense of accomplishment, as it had a clear beginning, middle and end. But for those who wanted more, Avengers Undercover picks up after Avengers Arena and is a natural extension of the first series. Characters advanced from where they were left at the conclusion of Avengers Arena and were once again left in a state of self-containment. There were no tie-in books to grab to find out what happens next, and the characters grew and changed in a way that didn’t need them to continue into a third series (although I wouldn’t complain if we looked back again in a few months; just saying).

A character that could really benefit from the series-of=minis style of writing is Shang-Chi: the Master of Kung-Fu. The Marvel Bullpen has a love for this guy, and there’s a lot of fun in the martial-arts master. However, he doesn’t really lend himself well to an ongoing title, and he looks absolutely absurd next to Hyperion on the Avengers. So why not hook the guy up with a miniseries that leaves some promise at the end for more adventure? We could look forward to seeing him pop back up on the shelves after a brief hiatus, and a shorter story could provide a better focus on the character than doodling him in the margins of epic event books.

As much as I might enjoy them, anthologies don’t typically sell well in the direct market. Done-in-one stories are few and far between, and they’re an anomaly in this write-for-the-trade era. The series of miniseries can provide just enough story for the writer to tell his tale, and the reader to take it in without being overwhelmed in continuity or tired of the premise. They collect nicely into trades for fans to catch up on, and draw in the curious with their low-commitment style.

We just need a better way to refer to them …

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