Soundtrack: The Fastbacks — …And His Orchestra

“Singles” Looking For Love

It would seem that the current debate over the continued viability of monthly, pamphlet-style “singles” began with Franklin Harris’s article here. Since then, a lot of the people in the comics blogging neighborhood (stalwarts such as Dirk Deppey, Laura Gjovaag, Johnny Bacardi, Sean Collins, John Jakala, Ron Phillips, and Kevin Melrose, among others) have contributed their thoughts on this matter. Now, just speaking for myself, I will say that I have no particular preference as to the rigidity of my comic books, but this discussion also touches on the “issue” of monthly publication and “seriality” versus narrative integrity and a new-critical-type standard of structural coherence in art (for this, check out Rick Geerling and the prolific Mr. Collins)–and I do care about that!

Actually, I said most of what I wanted to say in a reply-comment to Rick’s Nov 19th “rant”, but I think it’s important enough to repeat here: serially published super-hero comic books (those which feature letters pages as integral parts of the text, anyway), beginning with Marvel in the early 60’s, offered a wonderful paradox to the world: synchronic, interactive narrative! (TV shows are serially aired, but they don’t integrate viewer commentary into the shows–unless you want to accept joke segments like Letterman’s “Viewer Mail”–and even soap operas are forced to move forward, given the tendency of human actors to age visibly over time). I would submit that the very things that intelligent fans seem to deplore these days (characters that don’t change, zero opportunity for “closure”, endless permutations that grow out of minute variations in the approach to a very limited number of existential situations, etc.–the super-hero comic, in its’ “open-ended”, monthly form is a bonanza for structuralist analysis!!) are the things that make this genre unique and fascinating. Think about it–what do you hate about the adaptations of Chandler’s books to film? Those final clinches, right? The damned closure! Who ever said it was more “artful” to have an ending to your story? There is no such thing as closure in life–with the possible exception of death, and who knows about that, right?–that kind of thing is always a subjective imposition upon experience, so why on earth should it be necessary in art? I would say that the temptation to offer the last word on anything is the single greatest obstacle between a creator and greatness…

I’m not saying that self-contained “sequential art” is devoid of interest, but I am saying that the “traditional” model for the presentation of these narratives is actually far more compelling (formally!) than the types of works that mature fans seem to be clamoring for. My message to the proponents of the monthly, “single” super-hero format? Do not equivocate, and do not apologize! Most of all–do not defend your opinion based on “sentimental attachment” (or, you know, go on doing so, by all means, but understand that you’re just asking to be patronized by the Dirk Deppey school!)By the same token, I say, if we must have rigidity, then bring it on!!! (sounds like the viagra e-mails I get by the gross every day…)

Oh yes–congratulations AC! Although–as usual–I disagree with you completely, this time on JFK, but we’ll do that dance later, hunh?

Good night friends



  1. Great points. I’ve been wondering why nobody’s brought up the idea of serial continuity w/r/t singles vs. paperbacks. Marvel doesn’t seem to realize that the interwoven fabric of its universe—which depends on its titles moving along parallel timelines—is its greatest asset (they probably think it’s Chuck Austen).

  2. Well, I think the problem is that the wonderful tension you described between seriality and change and it’s effect on the characters involved (from your blog on 10/18, in response to a question from my email: “So, the characters remember everything that happens to them, and they experience it all as “meaningful”, but they don’t “learn” or “develop”. They simply endure, and if they’re smart, they “suck the marrow out of life”–for its’ own sake (as a vegetarian, it pains me to admit this, but I guess marrow is tasty), not for its’ educational value.) just isn’t happening, for the most part, in comics that are out there. The problem is, I think, that sometime in the past 15 years or so this all broke down because the writers’ understanding of what and how they were writing changed. I would argue that they were structuring their stories around a novel/prose form, one that contains the implicit notion of closure. And that’s how the system broke down. If you look at Sandman (which I know many people have problems with, but I think structurally it is very tight “for a comic”*), Neil Gaiman set out from the beginning with the closed form in mind. This is not true, however, of any ongoing series. Maybe this is more of the Alan Moore/DK Returns syndrome; maybe more than just “grim & gritty” was misappropriated from their comics in the mid to late eighties.

  3. (cont’d)
    When I think of comics in which the notions of seriality are embraced, only a handful come to mind. Along the lines of superheroes, I’m thinking of the Batman Adventures/Batman & Robin/etc. Various permutations of this have come and gone, but they all evince the central tenet of seriality you expressed above. Which, to me, is why the animated versions of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and possibly Teen Titans (we’ll have to see on that one) are arguably the best current versions of those characters. They can’t (for re-runs’ sake) be as concerned with endings and continuity as an ongoing comic (mistakenly, in this case) be.
    What I’ve read of Madman (Allred’s character) and Hellboy also seem to embrace this (side note here: I would think think that Lovecraft’s Chthulu Mythos is inherently serial, racheted up several notches. The core premise of his horror–aside from “things man was not meant to know”– being “we cannot end the eventual destruction of everything we hold dear, we can only postpone it for a little while.” And, taken as a whole, a world where individuals matter much less, nothing changes, everything is just plugged into a greater cycle. Ok, enough with the distractions).

  4. (cont’d)
    Ok, now for the thing that may get me lots of venomous hate directed my way: I would also argue that some of the best alternative comics out there are serial in precisely the way you describe:
    Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie & Hopey work (even the “Death of Speedy” stuff, while a closed event with a beginning, middle, and ending, only allows for Maggie to endure and carry on, remembering the event, affected by the ordeal, but still Maggie.), and even, possibly, Gilbert’s Luba material (thus, certain characters are closed, do change, can have epiphanies, and the like, but Luba and her family are more locked into/by the serial structure). You could even argue that Joe Matt, in his autobiographical comic Peepshow–excluding, of course, the childhood issues because they are self-contained and more concerned with reflection, which it seems to me leads to an embracing of the form of closure– is one of the “characters” most (even because? maybe) trapped by seriality!

    Ok, I’ve gone on long enough. Hopefully this will read alright and not seem like the complete jumble the little screen I’m writing in makes it out to be…

    Justin Colussy-Estes

  5. Hey Justin,

    Keep those three-tiered comments coming! Your points about non-super-hero titles are very well taken. I mean, I’ve staked out Marvel’s Silver Age as the primary material for my ruminations because that’s what I know–but, apart from the special implications of the “super-hero-origin-as-conversion-experience”–the same arguments should apply to any monthly narrative that returns upon itself, which incorporates reader comentary into the procedings, and which is actually responsive to that commentary…

    I’ll come right out and admit that the only non-super-hero comic book that I know much about is Cerebus (at least up to 1991), and this has doubtless skewed my perception of what the various “indie” comics have been up to! Sim, of course, is famous for having all 300 issues of his series all planned out (although that seems like a dubious claim to me… the pre-High Society issues, at least, are all over the place) and therefore is anything but responsive to reader comments, despite the fact that he prints letters by the dozen (or he used to, anyway)…

    I’ve always ascribed the “pure seriality” of super-hero comics mainly to the fact that Marvel (and DC) creators didn’t own their characters–a positive and chastening situation that any artist should be thankful to find themselves in, as far as I’m concerned (& John Jakala touches on this briefly in his “Grotesque Anatomy” column today, although I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t share my point of view)–but certainly, an “independent” creator committed to an aesthetic of seriality could obviously give limit her/himself in the same way!!!

    More on this soon– I’ll make sure to get back to how Morrison and Gruenwald dealt with this stuff
    before my X-Mas work starts!!

    Thanks Justin!

  6. Really I have to thank you Dave; my paper on the rejection of telos and seriality of Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge wouldn’t happen without you (at this point, I’m still working on it happening at all: due tomorrow night, and, well, you can see where my heart is…).

    Rereading my comments, I forgot to add this:
    *By “for a comic” I don’t mean it in the typical value-comparative sense that the phrase is usually intended. Rather, read it as a formal comparison–ie: a novel or film structured like Sandman would be considered incredibly loose and meandering.

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