Episode 146: A brief treatise on the serial nature of comics

This is the current format of the conclusion of my chapter on comics. It probably makes more sense in the context of having read almost 30 pages of stuff beforehand but its fairly standalone all things considered.

The serialization model for graphic narratives is one that requires a certain discipline for authors and readers when it comes to both space and time. In the case of comic strips, the limited amount of content and the minimal amount of time between each installment means that narrative development and complexity needs to remain simple so as to facilitate the serial reading experience as much as possible. Comic books have more room within their documents to advance the story and there is enough downtime between installments that readers have a temporal of window to accommodate their serial reading experience. Graphic novels do not have to follow any specific industry standards when it comes to length of the text or the length of time between publications, much like format in traditional serial print publishing. Authors within each subset of comics have their own problematics when it comes to the narrative production of their works of serial fiction. The singular author now becomes subdivided into writer and artist with more roles credited to those responsible for each of the authorial performances done through the publication process.

The medium of comics would be dominated by the genre of superheroes, especially in comics. Authors would place their characters within a particular adventure that would be resolved by the end of one installment or over the course of several of them. While creators of characters generally have ownership of the content they create, comic book publication houses like DC bought the rights to these famous superheroes but continued to employ their creators to continue the serialization process. The change to a corporate model of authorship meant that the story could continue indefinitely by hiring people to complete authorial performances but the final say on determining narrative direction was with executives and editors rather than writers. As a corporation, DC ensured that all of its titles would maintain narrative continuity in the context of each other. The ability to further develop storylines that exceeded a set number of installments added layers of complexity and nuance to the narrative but it came at the price of readers becoming uninterested and confused if some installments were not to their liking or unavailable. Major events like Crisis cleaned the narrative slate to begin anew with the hopes of getting new readers but at the risk of alienating their currently faithful readership. These issues were magnified exponentially with the “Death and Return of Superman” storyline which rose comic books an age of success like no other and made it crash soon after. Writers now had the authorial performance of resurrecting their dead characters without having to restart the narrative but in a way that made readers feel tricked. The prime directive of maintaining narrative continuity lost its significance when something as final as death had lost its power.

Serialization within comics is ultimately a struggle between keeping the narrative structured within its own boundaries and having it be accessible to an existing and potential readership. As time goes on, authors will progress the story to the point that it may become unrecognizable to those who last saw it during its onset. These narrative growing pains limit creativity, as the story must maintain a lineal progression, and make it so that new readers need a history lesson to understand the current events. Authors of new characters, like Atomic Robo, can still encounter these difficulties if they do not plan beforehand. Classic characters will continue to have their past because even as the story may restart, within the context of the narrative, some readers lived through that serialization process and new readers can experience those events with the help of a proper archive. With all the authorial performances that writers and artists have taken with their works, it is a wonder that there is still new narrative ground to cover but there will always be another installment coming soon.

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