I just finished watching The OA on Netflix, and I was very, very impressed. There’s been a lot of buzz about the show’s “paradigm-shaking” approach–that it presents itself as a single eight chapter story rather than a season with eight self-contained episodes. The hype would have us believe that this has never been done before. But The OA has plenty of antecedents, from the pulps of a century ago, old Hollywood film and radio serials, to Twin Peaks, Lost and Game of Thrones. Netflix’s other vanguard shows, House of Cards, Bloodline, Stranger Things, also follow this architecture. So it’s hardly new. Hell, some of the longest running shows in TV history are daytime dramas. Long-form storytelling has been a dominant strain in popular entertainment for a long time.
Which is fine with me. I love a story that takes its time, like a grand and sprawling novel, a good epic fantasy or SF series. Long before I ever heard the term, I was a fan of long-form storytelling. So when, and why, did I embrace the power of the long form?
While considering this question, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend about the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. He grimaced slightly and said, “I don’t like that show. It’s too soap opera-ish.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. Did he mean having to keep up with who was romantically entangled with whom? In part, it turns out. But what he actually objected to was having to know what was happening outside the frame of the individual episode. My friend was not a fan of the long form–at least when it came to Battlestar Galactica.
That conversation, however, cemented in my mind the fact that Galactica’s long-form approach was exactly what I loved about it. No surprise, from one who spent his formative years on a steady diet of Dark Shadows–and comic books.
Yup: comic books. Comics were my entry point into my love of the long form. They had the approach perfected long before the first Battlestar Galactica, let alone the reboot. It was part of a storytelling one-two punch that resulted in my seeing the likes of Peter Parker, Rogue, Reed Richards and Matt Murdock as more than simple characters on a page. (Yeah, I’m mostly a Marvel guy.) Their struggles and challenges and victories mattered to me. In the days before social media, a new issue of X-Men or The Fantastic Four sometimes felt like letters from friends who you care about but can’t see every day. I remember enthusiastically awaiting the next issues of my favorite titles with the same fervor I now bring to the wait for the next season of Orphan Black. Of course, the creative talents behind these titles deserve the credit for bringing such engaging characters to life. But they had help on two fronts. First, many of these characters already had rich histories to draw upon–and to harness. And second, readers like me were willing to exercise the patience and do the extra work of following the longer story arcs that became apparent only across many issues.
So what makes the long form so powerful? Why bother with all this “soap opera-ish”-ness? Quite simply, when it comes to storytelling, the bigger the canvas, the more detailed the painting. The long form allows for more ambitious, nuanced and complex narratives. It allows for more deliberate layering of plot elements and character development that would have to be cut or condensed under the restrictions of a shorter page count. It gives the reader time–time required to absorb new developments, to connect them to the larger narrative, to consider the implications, to feel for the characters, to care about the stakes. And when all these strands are artfully woven into an overarching narrative encompassing many installments, the payoff can be infinitely richer and more rewarding than it would be otherwise.
Just as importantly–long-form storytelling is a vital counterpoint to a world shaped by Adderal and Twitter, in which most people do not watch YouTube clips in excess of two minutes. The attention a long-form story requires breaks us out of this mentality, and reminds us that we actually have an attention span.
Some of the standout comic long runs from my younger days:
Because duh. Considered by many to be the gold standard–for good reason. It changed comics. Chris Claremont is a master of the long form. This deeply emotional and psychological story about the price of ultimate power taught me that not all comic book stories had happy and heroic conclusions, and that tragedy can also be transcendent and transformative. The Phoenix Saga marked me for life. I can only hope that the rumored upcoming film treatment will finally do it justice.
The Mighty Thor: The Surtur Saga
Walt Simonson was one of the artists who taught me how to draw. I spent hours meticulously copying panels from his Alien: The Illustrated Story. When he took over Thor, he showed that he could also tell one rockin’ story. (Or should I say Ragnarokin’… Sorry–low hanging fruit!) This story about an ancient evil seeking to wreak havoc on Midgard had me from the first rumbles of “Doom, doom, doom.” Those rumbles set the tone for the conflict to come, and illustrated just how in command of his narrative Simonson was. From the first bold stroked panel, he knew exactly where his story was going. Taking the ride took patience, but the long wait was well worth it.
Alan Moore. What else do I really need to say? This series originally ran in the British weekly 2000AD, with striking black-and-white art by Ian Gibson. I fell in love with Halo–the girl who just wanted to get out. And get out she did. Moore’s heroine isn’t a superhero, nor is she a femme fatale–not at first, anyway. At the end of the day, Halo is an everygirl, living a humdrum existence in a soul-stifling futureworld. When she gets her first glimpse of an aging starliner destined for the junkyard, her world is irrevocably changed. Halo’s unassuming humanity drew me in from the get-go, and her desire for escape compelled me to follow, as her circumstances demanded ever-increasingly desperate choices. But even as time and hardship chipped away at Halo’s soft edges, leaving her toughened and cynical, Moore never let us forget just who she was from the very first panel.
And just to show that I’m not completely antiquated–here are some runs from this century that I also enjoyed:
Brian Michael Bendis. The Quentin Tarantino of comics. Every comic book you read today has been tangentially impacted–or actually written by this guy. Like Claremont, he redefined the genre. And like Claremont, he knows how to structure and execute a lengthy narrative. I could have picked any of Bendis’ long runs, particularly his Ultimate Spiderman, but Powers was my introduction. The first major arc, Who Killed Retro Girl?, threw down the gauntlet. It was noir-ish–bold and gritty–and at the same time fresh and funny, with characters that defied the conventions of the genre, set in a world that upended and subverted the usual superhero-as-überprotector-of-the-public paradigm. The Retro Girl arc wasn’t excessively long–only six issues, setting the structure the book would follow regularly. Its expressionistic, economical visuals, along with sharp dialogue and expert plotting gives Powers the feel of a perfectly executed movie, the kind you realize how much fun you’re having while you’re watching it–and making plans to watch it again.
My introduction to Planetary occurred in a comic shop in Freeport, Maine. I asked the proprietor what titles were new and exciting and he handed me a comic book. I opened it up and in the first panel my eyes settled on, Elijah Snow was kicking Count Dracula in the nuts. I had to have it. The entire run of Planetary took more than the usual amount of patience–even for a long-form lover like me–with 27 issues over a 10 year period. Completely worth it, and even better in its Omnibus edition. A meta-comic set in a meta-verse, like Powers, Planetary set the conventions of the genre on their heads.
I picked this up for the stately and iconic artwork, and kept reading for the story–a sprawling, dieselpunkish, alternate-history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in which magic clashes with technology on a scale worthy of Peter Jackson. While each panel challenged my definitions of size and proportion, each also hinted at an even larger world extending beyond the borders of its frame. Although the canvas was grander, the arcs in Red Star tended to be shorter, usually around 4-5 issues, but the semi-regularity of their releases made each story feel longer. Not a problem, because there was a novel’s worth of subtext in the pages of each ground-breaking issue.
The long form also lends itself to the one-two punch of graphic storytelling–text and visuals. Unlike film or TV, or novels, comics require us read at the same time we are following the visuals. Some would say that this is for the benefit of unskilled readers. Maybe so–but they also engage multiple parts of our brains as we take in the narrative, thus enhancing the overall impact of the story. Skillfully combined with the inherent power of the long form, the resulting effect on the reader can be profound and perspective-changing.
Now, don’t think I’m throwing shade on standalones. I started life as a comic book reader on standalones. Just like short stories, shorter arcs and standalone issues are just as legit, requiring skill, discipline and economy of storytelling. The two-issue X-Men Days of Future Past arc and Avengers Annual #10 come to mind as brilliant examples of shorter, self-contained works.
I know what you’re thinking. If you’ve read this far, you are asking yourself, has this guy even picked up a comic in the last decade? The answer is: yes–but not nearly as many. I wish I had the time to settle into long narratives from multiple titles like I used to. I sometimes find myself passing my local comic emporium and feeling that pull to go inside, to check out what’s new, what’s hot. I hear tell Bendis’ Daredevil and Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men had pretty good long runs. I miss my old friends, and just seeing them on film every few years feels more like occasionally catching up on Facebook.
So these days, I’m thankful for shows like The OA–or Daredevil, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. They keep me in touch, and still give me a taste of that old long-form satisfaction. Bring on the next arcs.
Chris Duryea is a writer, educator, and blogger living in the greater Boston area. Read his blog at www.chduryea.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He is currently at work on a dieselpunk-infused fantasy told in a very long form.