This might seem crazy, as the summer comes to an end and for teachers like me work begins again in earnest, but I’m actually in rather a good mood.
For a start, it’s the end of summer 2012 which – in the UK at least – has been a summer of unbelievably miserable weather. This meant two things. Firstly, it meant that I had an excuse to sit indoors and watch the Olympic Games. Secondly, it meant that I had an excuse to sit indoors and read comics. Had the weather been sunny I would have felt obliged to go outside and tend the garden, or go on hikes up the great hills of this great county of Yorkshire. Since the weather utterly sucked I felt fine about sitting on my arse.
My “TO READ!!!!!!!!!!!” pile hasn’t gone away, but it has become my “to read” pile. It’s about half the size it was at the start of the summer and I’m basically caught up on everything except the core of the batbooks. Somehow I can’t bring myself to get stuck into the slightly incomprehensible Night of the Owls thingie, so I might now wait until it’s all over and then read the stuff that comes next.
What has struck me in the last few weeks, as I’ve ploughed my way through more than a year’s worth of books like Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Catwoman, and Fables. These were stories which had been intended to stretch out over a year, and I crammed some of them into an afternoon. In some ways it was an odd experience. I’ve rambled on about narrative pacing in comics before, and I don’t want to go back over old ground – the thing is, I think I noticed a change.
You see, back in the old days I always felt that “reading in arcs”, that is to say, saving up comics until you had a complete storyline and then reading them all at once, made the story feel rushed. I would maintain that monthly comics were written to be read in twenty two page sections with a month between each one. That gap was, I always felt, rather important. Since as a rule each individual comic ended with a cliffhanger, you got to spend a whole month chewing over what might happen next. It gave the reader a sense of real engagement in what was going on in the narrative – reading an entire story arc in one go often made the cliffhangers rather jarring, giving the narrative experience a somewhat “lumpy” feel.
That was what I was expecting as I sat down to read ten issues of Swamp Thing in one go. But I didn’t. Same with Animal Man. No lumps. No bumps. Just a smooth as silk narrative flow. Each issue still ended with a cliffhanger, but somehow not having to wait to find out what happened next didn’t make any difference. It was definitely a different experience to doing the same thing say ten or fifteen years ago.
So. What’s changed?
Either the way comics are written and structured has changed in some way – which is possible, popular writing styles do change over time* – or the way I read comics has changed. Well, that’s possible too.
In fact, the more I think about it the more I think the whole way we consume episodic stories has changed. Serials still exist in every medium – TV, prose, movies, comics, you name it. But for most people the stories we consume in the greatest quantities are on TV. And we don’t watch TV in the way we used to. Not at all.
Thirty years ago, at the start of the eighties, you watched shows on TV when they were on. If you missed them, you missed them. Some people, if they were pretty well off, had video recorders by then, but most people didn’t. Even if you did you had to make sure that you had a blank tape with enough space on it and that you’d set the timer correctly – because there was no way you were going to be able to rent or buy a video with a TV show on it. You could get movies on video, but not TV. Hell, at the start of the eighties there were still questions about whether recording off the TV was even legal!
By the end of the eighties, when I started reading comics, video recorders were so common even my family had one, but pre-recorded video tapes were still expensive. You might record a show to watch later in the week, but you wouldn’t record a series and then watch it all at once. TV stories, like comics, were still essentially episodic, and the spacing of the episodes was under the control of the networks, not the consumer.
But then things changed. Somebody invented the DVD. Then somebody else worked out a way of making them cheap. Then somebody else came up with YouTube and somebody else started the fashion for TV companies to make their back catalogue available online. In these heady modern times you can basically watch anything you want, any time you want, any where you want. I had some time to kill in a pub in the lake district recently. I was on my own, the pub had WiFi, so I watched Doctor Who on my phone. We live in the age of consumer control. An age where the standard response to a cliffhanger is to say – “Stick the next disc in the player will you?”
I think that this might have changed the way in which we approach all episodic fiction. I don’t think that it’s the way comics are written that has changed, I think it’s me. I didn’t notice it happening, but my approach to serialised stories really has changed. I don’t really want to spend a month cogitating on the myriad ways Batman might get out of the predicament he was in at the end of the last issue. I just want to know! My attention span – or at least the span by which I am prepared to delay gratification – seems to have shortened somewhat. Is it just me?
I hope so. Because if it isn’t, well, it could have a profound effect on the whole comics scene. You see, for a while now there has been a tribe of comics readers who haven’t bought monthly comics, but have “waited for the trade”. If the general comics reading populous slips into this new “gimme the answer NOW!” mentality that I seem to have descended to where does that leave the traditional twenty two page “floppy”? If we all just “wait for the trade”, where does that leave the monthly comic?
Honsetly? I aint sure I want to know. But we’d better think about it, because if we don’t the whole of comic book culture could be under threat.
*If you don’t believe me, compare some eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century novels.