The Reason We Read Periodical Comics

There are two kinds of special thrills that periodical comics can bring. The first is tied to world-building, in which you get a piece of a story here, and another piece there, and eventually it adds up, building into something much larger than it's parts -- this is much of the thrill of the Marvel or DC universes, and one of the reasons that every other attempt to make a "universe" usually comes crashing down: it is nearly impossible to coordinate in that particular way, and it takes a multi-year dedication to build, with titles come out in a specific way. When you try to "erect" that kind of thing, the scaffolding is usually pretty apparent, and like a magic trick, you don't want to see how it is done.

(Because, of course, DC and Marvel both stumbled into their "universes" nearly by accident -- and they grew organically from there)

Even Marvel and DC have become pretty bad a really mining this special thrill. Look at the way sales figures have flattened as they've tried to geometrically expand the search for that thrill!

But this is something that really only main-veins as a periodical experience -- because that kind of manic soap opera thrill depends AT LEAST as much on sequence and spatial-relationship-in-time as it does about content. That is to say, to create a really lousy example that doesn't actually exist, anyone can team up Spider-Man and Daredevil to fight, but only comics can have Spidey start a swing-punch in SPIDER-MAN #123, and have him finish that arc in DAREDEVIL #213. When the inter-relationships-of-titles get reprinted in book form, you're generally only getting one strand of it, so you miss out on this whole kind of meta-thingy.

I could totally explain this better, I think, but THAT thrill isn't the one I actually want to really talk about today, it's the OTHER one: the cliffhanger.

I remember vividly the first cliffhanger that REALLY stuck with me -- at the end of the first issue of the O'Neill/Cowan QUESTION #1, Vic Sage gets shot in the head at point blank range, and falls into the river, apparently dead.


That was a very long month, I tell you.

In #2 it turned out that because of the caliber of bullet, the angle of the shot and the shockingly cold temperature of the river, the bullet just bounced off Vic's skull, and he was able to survive. O'Neill even told a story in the letter's page of a similar real-life incident that he took as inspiration.

But when you read this in the paperback collection, where one page he plunges down, and the next he is rescued most of the cliffhanger's power is completely abrogated. It's actually a pretty flat sequence.

It's a bit like, say, watching LOST on DVD box set, and just CHEWING through the episodes -- that can be satisfying in it's own way, but losing out on the week-between-airings and the time-to-think that stems from that is missing most of the cultural weight that LOST had on the Broadcast audience.

In fact, in really terrific network-style TV, you can get some awesome impacts of this kind of thing just from commercial breaks, which, again, get often minimized on DVD. The thing TV-on-DVD has going for it (as it were) are the musical cues which can help build suspense or otherwise manipulate your emotional reaction.

Comics don't have THAT particular trick (though they have a few native ones), so it is my firm belief that the cadence of periodical versus book-format is very very different.

Once one has been doing comics enough, it's very possible to make the periodical seams vanish when something gets collceted -- what we usually refer to as "decompressed storytelling", but unless you're very careful or very very good, it's pretty easy to short change the periodical.

I'd say that, consistently, really the only cartoonist who master the comic/book split right has been Dave Sim. Especially from, say, CHURCH & STATE through to MELMOTH or so, there are little jolty cliffhangers every 20 pages in CEREBUS, so that reading the monthly was generally satisfying (and often thrilling), but when you join those together in a book, almost every one of those cliffhangers is nearly invisible within the book as a whole. Things rise and fall differently in a book.

The other guys who have started to really figure out the trick are Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard in WALKING DEAD.

Which brings us to this week's issue of WALKING DEAD #86.

There's a potenitally massive massive game changer here, just one of those moments where your jaw drops and you're all "please god say you didn't!" and "I wantwantwantwant the next issue NOW!!!!", and now you've got to live what what you saw for the next entire month.

I'm not going to spoil it, but I KNOW it is going to read differently in the paperback than it does here. Why? Because similar things in previous issues have as well -- it read one way in serialization, and in a more subdued way in the collection.

And if you're one of the (many!) "I read it in trade" people, well you're missing out on one of the best thrills of WALKING DEAD -- the wait between events, and the suspense that engenders.

(Plus, the Big Thing isn't the ONLY thing that happens this issue -- there's at least one more Pretty Big Thing [and maybe 2] that gets undersold because of the Big Thing)

Anyway, this is really WHY I read comics -- for the suspense BETWEEN issues, and this was a truly EXCELLENT example of that.

What did YOU think? (though, if you comment, any spoilery ones will be deleted by me)