The Lost Art of the Single IssueA column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic
Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.
He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.
This is what his brain sounds like.
No matter the sense of cool I try to project when I write things about other things (name dropping music nobody's heard of is a great, economical way to do so -- here's what I'm listening to right now), I still buy comics in single issue form. I know. I know. Don't get me wrong, to my right is a stack (to put it lightly) of OGNs, TPBs and omnibi towering over me and threatening to kill me in my sleep by toppling over. But my longbox also filled to capacity months ago.
One of the ongoing debates in comics is whether the single issue should die in favor of releasing longer but intermittent collections of the same material and skip the middle man. Both sides have their points, but for the writerly purposes of this column I'm only interested in the single issue (or floppy (or pamphlet)) because that's the "classic" handheld non-newspaper presentation of the medium. Even if it seems to exist to keep the money trickling in so that the creative teams are being paid performing a certain risk-assessment as to whether a series is worth keeping alive to sell trades. WHAT UP INDUSTRY
But, more importantly, the single issue format is the method by which many people buy mainstream comics. Even if they complain about how much it sucks and how the single issue doesn't really matter these days. They still gotta have that instant gratification. So what's the solution?
How about making a single worth the money?
Personally, I like a single that gives me a lot to chew on. Density is important, even though few of my weekly reads actually give me that. That's why I publicly flipped for Casanova, The Defenders and Prophet. They were all single-issue reviews, but each one offered a lot to the reading experience. Casanova in the form of lovingly labored, pop culturally overdosed idiosyncratic spy-fi and illuminating backmatter (rarely ever in the trades!). The Defenders in the form of dialogue and weirdo narration, and the Marvel-style collaboration seems to be making for single issues that don't feel slight at 20 pages for $3.99. It's only one issue in, but Prophet #21 gave me not just unfamiliar territory (sci-fi with a pseudo-barbarian twist), but also highly detailed art that begs rereads and close study, not to mention the new and interesting sci-fi ideas on nearly every page. It's more bang for my buck than an issue of Justice League, that's for sure.
By contrast, the Icon iteration of Casanova debuted the same week as Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev's Scarlet. Those Cass issues were recolored reprints with new backmatter while Scarlet was structured like the typical Bendis story -- a long story cut up in five parts because the medium demanded. I bought every single issue of those reprints, but I didn't buy the second issue of Scarlet (sorry) because I knew I'd enjoy the trade more than waiting month to month for it. And I bought Herc month-to-month to keep the book alive (fuckload of good that did), and only came to appreciate the vague Fear Itself tie-in and when I read the complete story.
There's some belief that comics companies eschew done-in-one issues these days because they don't sell as well. I call bullshit on that, because comics sold way better when standalone stories were more common (let's ignore the audience drain of TV and movies and video games). And, speaking of TV, y'know what's really popular? House. CSI. Law & Order.
Me, I'm more likely to buy self-contained issues. The only issue of Northlanders I own is "The Viking Art of Single Combat" because I heard it was standalone, and I thought that thing was fucking brilliant (and not just because of the Vasilis Lolos art). That David Hine/Greg Toccini Batman & Robin issue with the surrealist Chris Burnham cover? Bought that, too. Ditto the G. Willow Wilson fill-in issues of "Grounded" even though the art made me sad.
As for lately...
Secret Avengers by Warren Ellis was a revelation these past six months. Sure, Ellis has lots of experience doing self-contained comics (Planetary, Global Frequency, Fell) so Secret Avengers must have felt like a walk in the park on some levels, but the amount of hard work doesn't matter so long as the story works. And those stories worked out amazingly, especially in the face of Fear Itself (not to keep going to that well). It offered something different every time based on the same premise (Run the mission. Don't get seen. Save the world.) from the Avengers driving a classic car around in an underground city to a time travel adventure with a comic strip-styled intermission.
O.M.A.C. (R.I.P. ~thUg anGeL~) is/was a different approach to the single issue from Secret Avengers. It was pretty much the same thing every time the same way that old school superhero comics were the same thing every issue -- Kevin Kho deals with some personal fallout from his servitude to Brother Eye, a thing comes for him to fight and then he OMACtivates and punches said thing to death. And I couldn't get enough of it, because it was fun and incredibly weird for something published in mainstream comics. I keep saying it's the only good book of the New 52, which I don't entirely believe but I say it anyway.
Uncanny X-Men #4 was a great "POV of the monster" standalone story, I thought. Kieron Gillen's great at self-contained issues -- see Phonogram: The Singles Club and that Journey Into Mystery issue with Loki's puppy giveaway. While I liked this week's #5 well enough, it was Part 1 of god-knows-how-many. Yeah, it had some nice character work, but the "reveal of a crazy new element" cliffhanger was simultaneously pretty cool and irksome. I wanted to find out more about this revelation, but not in a "I can't wait to see what happens next" kind of way. More of a "give me a reason to keep reading" kind of way. And I know Memorial will move up from "really like" to "really, really like, maybe even love if I muster enough confidence to ask it to go steady" once I read every issue in succession.
Not to toot my horn, but as a writer I'm aware of the demands of the single issue, and actively try to work towards satisfying them. The most recent thing I'm writing (I always call them "things") strives for some closure every issue. By which I mean, I'm trying to present a problem and a solution in each issue amidst the ongoing plot. In the thing before that (which you might hear about soon), I opted for Lost-style flashbacks that took a break from the forward-moving plot to paint the characters some more (but not just to reveal where they got their tattoos, if any) to give the present-day story an extra weight.
Speaking of which! I talk about this in the upcoming episode of CB's Comics You Can Dance To podcast, but Lost, for all its ongoing non-ending false promises, was at one point a really good example of serialized entertainment. The first episode I watched had the requisite weird breadcrumb mystery shit, but it was also about Michael's smothering relationship with his son and Jin trying to teach Hurley to fish despite the language barrier (Korean and '90s slacker doofus, respectfully). It was pretty good. I didn't catch up with the show until Season 2 was coming out, but once I was up to speed I watched it every single week until the very last episode. All because the first episode I saw was accessible enough for me to appreciate it. Oh, and it not being shitty helped a little. Even 24, despite its real-time shtick, had easily digestible episodes thanks to mini-arcs within each installment.
You know who's really, really good at single issues like that? Mark Fucking Waid. Homeboy is a former editor and a student of Silver Age DC Comics -- those salad says when the publisher was the place to go for done-in-one stories and science education osmosis. I recently read through his underrated run on post-Morrison JLA and it was a masterclass in storytelling. Pretty much every story in that run was a multi-part affair, but Waid knew how to structure each individual component so that it satisfied on its own while still servicing the story arc and the entire run's meta-plot. Even when I didn't particularly like the story, I couldn't argue with how readable it was, satisfying the needs of the reader if not the wants.
Even now, Waid is the man. I picked up Amazing Spider-Man #677 mostly for the Emma Rios art (sorry Mark, cash is tight and I borrow Daredevil from friends), and it was a ripping good read. But one bit surprised me: a splash of Felicia Hardy facing a quartet of policemen aiming their guns, declaring her arrest. Because I know how multi-part superhero comics are usually structured, I just thought "Well, shit, this was a short issue." Then I realized -- it's only Page 6. That kind of image (a character we care about in immediate danger) has become cliffhanger fodder in the days of "decompression," and for Mark Waid's two-part story it was just the opening splash.
The rest of #677 is exemplary of my point about Waid's abilities as a plotter. He establishes Peter Parker's current situation (bummed out for being dumped), introduces a conflict (Black Cat's been arrested!), gets the ensuing plot going (Spider-Man enlists Daredevil for help investigating said conflict) and still has room for interpersonal drama (Spidey, on the rebound, fails to bag Black Cat) and good ol' fashioned horseplay between Spidey and DD that's both fun and insightful to who the characters are (sign of a good team-up comic? maybe).
Oh, and I forgot to read the recap page and I didn't feel lost. Nor did I feel like I wasted four bucks (!) on a book I don't regularly pick up. Spider-Man #677 is a stellar read not for employing any narrative tricks or subverting the tropes of superhero comics -- it's great because it's really, really well-made and dense enough (in a content sense, not in terms of accessibility) to feel substantial for its nightmarish price tag.
(Let the art vs. commerce debate ensue!)
Not that I like imposing rules on art, but I think more single issues could stand to have some kind of mini-arc to each installment. If not that, maybe some compression is in order. Cover more ground, even if it means sacrificing some cute throwaway dialogue you're fond of but nobody else will miss. Sure, make sure the reader wants to come back for the next installment, but make each issue a course in a meal, not a bite. It baffles me how many comics read like the writer is completely unaware that the numbers single issues sell -- even the ones in the top ten slots -- are downright shameful and "the industry" is hanging on for dear life.
Memento mori, guys and gals, and make every issue matter. Your comics depend on it.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.