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Thinking Virtually

#25: Episodic Plots, Part Two: Comic Books

by Shannon Appelcline
September 17, 2001  

"You know who had an arc? Noah."
--The Sopranos, Season One, Episode Eight

Last week I began to investigate how to turn singular plots into serial plots, where a story can be told over multiple episodes. If you haven't already read last week's column, I suggest you do now, because I'll be building on it:

Television shows were a great place to start. The average American (sadly) watches 4 hours of television each and every day; thus the medium provided a really terrific common ground.

However, television as an episodic medium has grave problems. A network can't guarantee that the same viewer will be there week after week, and thus there is some real reluctance to allow continuing stories which might alienate or confuse new viewers. Until the early 1980s this reality crippled the idea of episodic plots on television. Even in today's market there is a lot of resistance to continuity from both networks and sponsors. When Babylon Five, a show that made very innovative use of episodic storytelling, first went into syndication, there was discussion about not running the first season. The first season, you see, featured a different commander of the station than the rest of the shows, and there was a feeling that this might confuse viewers.

And that's why I want to move on to another medium this week, one where the publishers are much less reluctant to tell continuing stories because they know they have a captive audience who will keep returning to their product month after month. This different attitude, I think, helps the medium of comic books to more fully utilize episodic plots--just like RPG and MCRPG gamemasters will want to.

In a few moments we'll rejoin our old friends from last week: the no-future syndrome, character arcs, and plot arcs. But, first, I'd like to take a few moments to investigate how singular plots are managed in comic books.

Interlude: Singular Plots in Comic Books

Comic books have been around since the 1930s. They were originally comprised of reprints of newspaper comic strips, but very quickly publishers realized that it was much cheaper to pay starving artists to create new stories than to pay syndicates to reprint old favorites (1).

So they did. Writers and artists worked together to create 64-page books containing stories between 5 and 20 pages in length ... and so a new medium was born.

Now, with almost 70 years of history under their belts, you'd think that comics would have developed strong, solid ideas about how to generate singular plots, and that those singular plot structures would be well discussed and carefully followed in the medium.

Unfortunately, not the case.

The medium of comic books took a crippling blow in 1956 when a societal censor and religious zealot by the name of Fredric Wertham helped to force the comic companies of the era to self-regulate with a "comics code" which prevented any topic of cultural merit from being discussed in the comic book medium. It was twenty years after that before comic books were able to publish anti drug comics and another ten years beyond that before major publishers started to publish "mature" comics, which occasionally looked at real issues, and which didn't carry the Comics Code seal of approval. Just a few months ago Marvel Comics, one of the two biggest players in the industry, declared they were dropping the Comics Code entirely.

With the Comics Code in place, comic books became a medium for children, and that caused the medium to lose most of its respectability. Thus, little work has ever been done codifying, or even thinking about, how singular plots are structured in comic books.

However, there are a few ideas for structure floating about. Some of the following come from a comics writer named Chuck Dixon (2):

  • The Opening Action - Start off with either an inciting incident or a brief sequence which says something about the protagonist or the antagonist, but keep it to just a few pages in length.
  • The Splash Page - Follow up with a single exciting image that will draw readers in.
  • The Middle - Have some mess of growing conflict in the middle, often spotlighting events in numerous locations or from numerous viewpoints. Crank up the tension.
  • The Closing Actions - Finish off with a solid climax, that either leads to an ending and a denouement or else to a cliffhanger.

More carefully structured stories, particularly those now being released by "mature" labels like "Vertigo" or the late "Epic" line, or else those being published by independent publishers, tend to pay more attention to plot than this, and when they do so they follow the old traditions, like the three-act structure. However, these structures tend to be stretched out over a number of issues, and thus truly become episodic plots.

Certain genres of comics once tended to follow certain plot structures. For example, the "group" comic, from the 1930s to the 1960s or so (i.e., All Star Comics or The Justice League of America), used to always follow the same formula:

  • Introduction - Group as a whole finds out about a new menace.
  • Rising Action - Each group member (or possibly small teams of group members) goes off to investigate some portion of the overall problem. He is either victorious and learns a part of a larger puzzle or he fails and seems to be in dire straits.
  • Climax - Either the building puzzle pieces or the continuing failures bring the whole group back together to defeat the looming over-menace.

In more recent years, though, comic plot structures have become a little more homogeneous. A structure like the one I described above for group comics only tends to be used now for nostalgia value.

So what lessons can we glean from the singular plot structures of comic books? Probably the greatest is that comic books are truly treated like an episodic medium, rather than a singular medium that just happens to be serialized. Cliffhangers in comic books are thus treated as not just acceptable, but nearly required, and are actually a part of the singular plot structure.

And that's a lesson we should be able to bring forward to apply to RPGs of all sorts.

With that said we can move on to the true meat of today's discussion--episodic plots that can cover months, years, and even decades.

No Future! in Comics!

The Golden Age of comics is widely considered to have lasted from 1938 to 1956, and for some people the entire era has an aura of nostalgia and purity that the medium will never again reach. Granted, in those years before the Comics Code, there were interesting and thoughtful stories that would not be told against for nearly a generation.

But, when looking from the viewpoint of episodic plot, the entire era must be considered a failure ... or at least immature.

Comic books in those years were treated much as television was before the 1980s. A collection of characters and a setting was created, but once they came into existence they were firmly set in stone. Nothing changed.

In group comics, such as All-Star Comics (1940) you had occasional roster changes, but those were solely based on business decisions. National Comics might decide they wanted to spotlight Green Lantern rather than Wildcat, and so change the members of the Justice Society of America around, but there was almost never a reason given within the comic for this change (and, indeed, it was usually ignored.)

It'd take the coming of the Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s before things actually could change within comic books, and before that time--before The Fantastic Four (1961) burst onto the scene--there was no future in comic books: no continuity and no true use of the episodic nature of the medium, with one exception.

Character Arcs: The Brain Wave and Recurring Villains

As early as the the 1940s comic books were making one real use of continuity: recurring villains. For example the Brain Wave, a nefarious master of illusions first appeared in All-Star Comics #15 (1943) and would later recur in All-Star Comics #17 (1943) and All-Star Comics #30 (1946).

It was common in those days for each singular plot of a comic to have a solid beginning, middle, and end. And, at the end, the villain would usually meet his end in some obscure, off-camera manner. It was good enough to allow for plot closure but not good enough to prevent the villain's later return. Thus, when the writer wanted to bring the villain back, he would (sometimes) spend a page detailing how the villain had gotten out of his previous dire straits. Though, just as often, those dire straits would be ignored (perhaps forgotten), and it would be up to a writer 1 or 5 or 30 years down the road to determine what had really happened.

Use of recurring villains (and recurring guest stars, though they were much less frequent) did create a very narrow thread of continuity in comic books of the Golden Age. But, little was done to take further advantage of the idea. Though the same heroes were often fighting the same villains there was little reflection that those past conflicts had actually occurred. You didn't have relationships developing or anything of the sort. The reader got the enjoyment of seeing old friends (or foes) reappear, but no more.

And this too would not change until the Marvel Age of Comics began, with the aforementioned first appearance of The Fantastic Four.

Character Arcs: Peter Parker and Character Events

I've built up the so-called "Marvel Age of Comics" a fair amount, but the honest truth is that it did really change the way the episodic plots were presented in the medium of comics, particularly how character arcs were created. And that started with two comics: The Fantastic Four #1 (1961) and Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), featuring Spider-Man (3).

In the Golden Age of Comics, most characters were pretty flat, even interchangeable. You had a lot of super-powered do-gooders flying around, all of whom had very conservative and trouble-free secret identities. In fact, there are a number of issues of All-Star Comics from the mid-1940s where the artwork of the issues was touched (4) up to change one superhero into another due to copyright issues (in All-Star Comics #26 (1945) the mystical Spectre was changed into the speedster Flash and Starman became Green Lantern).

The fact that heroes could be changed out so easily--and it's likely that fans of the era never noticed--makes it obvious how little opportunity there was for character continuity, because character itself was somewhat lacking.

This began to change in the early 1960s when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others began to introduce a new breed of heroes at Marvel Comics. They created heroes who were people with problems. The Fantastic Four came first, but it was in Spider-Man where Lee really excelled.

He created a character, Peter Parker, with real problems--money, grades, an ailing Aunt. And, being in High School, Peter had real opportunities for change as well. And the change began to occur fairly soon.

When I talked about television shows last week I mentioned that most change was fairly arbitrary in pre-1980 shows. An actor would decide to leave the show and so they'd get written out in some way--their character would suddenly die or move away or something.

This was pretty much how things worked in early comics too. Rather than having character arcs you had character events which were one-time things which were not always foreshadowed well: Peter Parker got a job at the Daily Planet; Peter Parker started dating Gwen Stacy; Peter Parker graduated High School; Gwen Stacy was killed.

It was a sort of sporadic continuity, but true continuity nonetheless. Slowly the characters changed in ways that made sense, and future actions that they took were always dependent upon the past.

It should be noted that as Marvel Comics evolved it wasn't just heroes who were experiencing character events but supporting characters and villains as well. Flash Thompson, originally a rival to Peter Parker, eventually headed off to Vietnam. Harry Osborn, once one of Peter's friends, became the villainous Green Goblin after the death of his father, the first Green Goblin.

Character Arcs: The X-Men and True Arcs

With the Marvel Age of Comics truly begun ... everything changed. From the innovation that began in 1961, the idea of character continuity slowly evolved in comic books. By the mid to late 1970s characters were experiencing true arcs, where they were undergoing gradual change that influenced their individual actions and eventually caused larger changes within the characters.

The whole question of where a series of character events becomes a character arc is a fuzzy one, but it's clear that by the mid-1970s character arcs existed in the comic book medium. It was happening all over by the end of the decade, but there was one comic book where the whole things really got rolling: The X-Men.

Beginning in X-Men #94 (1975) author Chris Claremont chronicled the lives of a group of young misfits, cast out from society. And, these were real characters who evolved and changed as the years sped by. Some were cloaked in mysteries which were gradually revealed, others were visited by tragedy. But no one stayed the same.

Chris Claremont's best-known character arc is the final story of a young woman named Jean Gray. It began in X-Men #101 (1976) when Jean Gray nearly died during a shuttle crash but instead arose with the greatly increased powers of The Phoenix. Over the next years, Jean Gray eventually became comfortable with her new powers, and their existence caused the X-Men to begin acting in the interstellar scene. However, in the end, the power became too much for her. She fell prey to dark forces and began to abuse her god-like powers. Finally, her dark side took over and she began destroying worlds. During a brief moment of sanity, in X-Men #137 (1980), Jean Gray's good side reasserted herself ... and she committed suicide, to save the universe from her awful power.

The Dark Phoenix Saga--as the last eight or so issues of Jean Gray's final character arc came to be called--is often considered one of the best stories in comics. It was clearly one of the best to date. And, it was definitely one of the finest examples of how character arcs could be used in the medium of comic books (5).

Claremont wrote many other character arcs during his fifteen years as the writer of X-Men, including: the mystery of who Madelyne Prior was; the secrets of the cajun X-Man Gambit; and the identity of the man destined to betray the X-Men in the future--to name just a few. They all revolved around changing characters and our changing perceptions of them as the answers to mysteries were revealed.

Though he was considered a master of his craft, Claremont was also subject to some criticism, particularly in the later years. Some people said that his character arcs were endless, and that he usually didn't know where they were going.

The latter claim is an interesting one, because it mirrors something I said about The X-Files last week. I mentioned that X-Files' arcs were somewhat haphazard, by which I meant that I don't think the creators usually knew where they were going.

This can be dangerous, but it can also be very freeing, particularly in a role-playing game. You too can follow the examples of Chris Claremont and Chris Carter. You can start character arcs without having to carefully determine where they're going to end. I doubt Claremont knew that he was going to kill Jean Gray when he gave her the powers of the Phoenix ... but the end result is so powerful that it's obvious this was OK.

Last week I initiated the discussion of character arcs by looking at them in the context of television shows. Examinations of comic books have, I think, offered a number of interesting new uses for the tool:

  • The mere reappearance of old friends or foes can lend continuity to an episodic medium.
  • Occasional unique events can create real change in character lives.
  • These unique events can add complexity to any character, not just the protagonist.
  • When creating a lengthier character arc the creator doesn't have to know how it ends.

Plot Arcs: Long Stories

And that brings us back to the other type of arc discussed last week: the plot arc. It's the close cousin of the character arc, but one where there's no need to actually center things around a single character. Instead, a more general type of continued story develops.

Stepping back to the dawn of the Golden Age of Comics we find that a single 64-page issue was usually made up of a number of shorter stories. Until the paper shortages of the second World War started to decrease comic book page counts, writers probably couldn't have even conceived of the possibility of a story bridging more than a single issue.

With the dawning of the Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s, the books were settling on the size we're more familiar with--just over twenty pages of stories--and as a result the first longer stories dribbled out. They were essentially singular plots, with no connections to what came before or after, but they were spread out over 2-3 issues.

Where they truly plot arcs? Definitely, though of simple complexity.

Plot Arcs: Braided Plots

It was the mid-1970s before plot arcs really expanded beyond long stories, with a technique that I call braided plots. I remember them best from The Defenders (1972-1985) and the second incarnation of All-Star Comics (1976-1978).

These comics contained what were essentially "long stories" of the type that I've just described. But, they took several different stories and braided them together. A single issue of All-Star Comics might feature as the main story the Justice Society of America battling against a strange foe from the moon; while at the same time one of the members, Dr. Fate, battled against death due to injuries sustained in a previous story; and at the same time another member, Wildcat, got into trouble which would lead to a story down the road. Interludes, prologues, and epilogues filled these books, as techniques to set off different plot threads.

Essentially, the braided arcs didn't do things any differently than the long stories that came before them. Plots still didn't produce lasting change. But, because plots were meshed together, running through each other like braids, there was a feeling that there was real continuity.

It was illusion, but a very powerful one.

Plot Arcs: Miniseries & TPBs

It's a little harder to trace the evolution of plot arcs than character arcs, because the simple truth is that the evolution of plot arcs has been a much more gradual and constant thing. In 1938 such things were unheard of; in 2001 plot arcs are constantly changing the environments in which comic book characters act.

One of the important moments in plot arc evolution, however, was in the creation of the first mini-series. This was a stand-alone book, separate from a continuing series, but featuring the same characters. It ran just a few issues in length--usually somewhere between three and six.

Contest of Champions (1982) was a pretty unaspicious start. It showed a big slugfest between the most important characters in the Marvel universe. But, it was quickly followed by classics such as Wolverine (1984) which, in four issues, dramatically redefined that character.

Comic book writers learned that it was OK to tell a short story that offered a single plot arc. This whole idea soon got brought back into the ongoing comics as "a-series-within-a-series".

Nowadays the best plot arcs tend to get collected in trade paperbacks--bookshelf comics--and as a result there is even more desire to tell stories which that last somewhere between 4 and 12 issues in length, not coincidentally the length that fits comfortably in a single trade paperback.

And this is probably a valuable lesson for any RPGer or MCRPGer out there: your medium will define the appropriate length for your plot arc. If you have online gamers meeting every day they'll probably stand for a much longer plot arc than a tabletop RPG group that meets once a month.

Overall the idea of mini-series or series-within-series or TPBs really isn't that different from the idea of "long stories" which first appeared in the 1960s. In fact, the only real difference is the length: 4-12 issues rather than 2-3. And, this longer length brings with it a great danger. You can totally lose your readers.

If an average comic book arc lasts six issues, that means that any month I have a 5 in 6 chance of picking up a comic that's partially unintelligible. Sure, most comic book companies try and label their plot arcs, so that readers pick up #1 in a series, but there's still lots of opportunity for lost readers.

This is going to be a real issue in MCRPGs too, where there isn't a gamemaster ready to handhold every new player.

Plot Arcs: Hierarchical Arcs

I may sound a little dismissive when talking about "long stories". However, the honest truth is, they are plot arcs, no doubt about it. They're a pretty simple type of plot arc, without much complexity, but any creator should be proud of the episodic continuity they bring to their work through the simple use of long stories.

However, for an increased level of complexity there is another type of plot arc that can be considerably more rewarding. It's the type of plot arc that was the backdrop to Babylon Five, which I described last week. I call it a "Hierarchical Arc".

By that I mean an arc that is actually made up of multiple levels of arc, each one building and informing other arcs above and below it, until you have a cohesive story that might spans many, many years, and at the same time has shorter arcs that are self-contained, and also singular stories that are likewise contained.

I think The Sandman (1988-1996) is one of the best examples of Hierarchical arcs in recent memory. The whole series ran for almost 80 issues, so I can't really lay out all of the plot arcs of the system without dedicating an entire paper of this length to the series. But, I'd like to briefly outline some of the early arcs from The Sandman, to show how they build, and also to show how they result in singular issues (6).

The following chart concentrates mostly on the first third of the series, though it doesn't make any attempt to be complete. Beware, it does contain some spoilers for early parts of The Sandman.

1 [ MASTER ARC: The Sandman ] 

+--------------+     !  [ OVERARC: Rebuilding the Dreaming ]
1             16    21

+------+ [ ARC: Preludes & Nocturnes ]
1      8
   ! [ SINGULAR ISSUE: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" ]
     +-+ [ MINI-ARC: Dr. Destiny ]
     5 7
      ! [SINGULAR ISSUE: "24 Hours"]

         +------+ [ ARC: The Doll's House ]
         9     16

                 +--+ [ARC: Dream Country ]
                17 20

                     +------+ [ ARC: Season of Mists ]
                    21     28
                      ++ [ ARC: To Hell ]
                     22 23
                            ! [SINGULAR ISSUE: "Episode Infinity" ]

I've tried to outline a few levels of arcs and singular issues to show how they all fit together. Like I've said, there were a lot more arcs within this series. Here's brief descriptions of the arcs that I've outlined, to better explain them:

The Sandman (#1-78): Master Arc. This describes the changes that occur in the life of the protagonist, Morpheus, due to a pivotal event in his life--an imprisonment of half a century.

Rebuilding the Dream (#1-16, 21): Overarc. After escaping from imprisonment, Morpheus discovers that his realm, The Dreaming, has suffered greatly. He must gather his items of power and locate the denizens of The Dreaming who have left the realm. In the end a meeting with his siblings symbolizes his return to power.

Preludes & Nocturnes (#1-8): Arc. After escaping from imprisonment, Morpheus discovers that his realm is in disarray, and that he must regather his three items of power: The Pouch, The Helm, and The Ruby.

Dream a Little Dream of Me (#3): Singular Issue. John Constantine helps Morpheus retrieve his Pouch.

Dr. Destiny (#5-7): Mini-Arc. Morpheus tries to recover his Ruby, only to find it in the hands of a mad-man, Dr. Destiny.

24 Hours (#6): Singular Issue. Dr. Destiny uses the power of Morpheus' Ruby to terrorize the denizens of a diner.

The Doll's House (#9-16): Arc. While trying to gather denizens of the Dreaming who have fled, Morpheus must also deal with the sudden emergence of a Dream Vortex.

Dream Country (#17-20): Arc. Tales of the past reveal Morpheus' nature before his captivity.

Season of Mists (#21-28): Arc. Morpheus' first meeting with his family since his captivity leads him to free a past lover from Hell, which drops him into the middle of a political maelstrom when Lucifer abandons his post. (And, as we'll later learn, the decisions that Morpheus makes within this arc will have a profound affect on the rest of the series.)

To Hell (#22-23): Mini-Arc. Morpheus makes preparations to leave for Hell, then journeys to that land to free a past lover. Much to his surprise his lover is gone and he is given the key to Hell when Lucifer abandons his post.

Episode Infinity (#28): Singular Issue. In the epilogue to the Season of Mists, visitors who had come to the Dreaming seeking the key to Hell leave, and Morpheus makes amends to the women he had once condemned to Hell.

Hopefully this extended example makes it clear how arcs can build upon each other until you have a whole hierarchy. It's a technique that is used in many modern comics, most notably Cerebus (1977-), whose master arc should last 300(!) issues.

Looking at comic books offers a few lessons on how to expand the plot arcs that we met in television shows, among them:

  • The most basic type of plot arc is simply a long story which can last for multiple episodes.
  • Multiple long stories can be braided together by allowing them to happen over overlapping periods of time, even if there is no true continuity between the long stories.
  • At the most complex level plot arcs can be built into full hierarchy, with singular issues informing mini-arcs, arcs, overarcs, and master arcs--and vice versa.
  • There is always a danger of losing readers if there is too much arc and too little singular story.
  • The balance between arc and singular story depends largely on the medium. Television shows, where viewers vary from week to week, have considerably less tolerance for arc than comic books which can often depend on readers staying around week after week.

The Yearly Grind

Before I leave comic books entirely, I want to talk about one last type of episodic plot: the yearly grind. It's a close cousin to the daily grind, which I talked about in the medium of television last week.

Comics that are built around the yearly grind carefully attach dates to happenings in the comic books. Some well-known examples are: The All-Star Squadron (1981-1987), a comic book set during World War II in which each year of comic books covered approximately a month of the war; and "The New Universe" (1986-1989), a whole series of comic books which was supposed to advance in real time, which is to say three years should have gone by during the three years of publication.

These, fairly rare, comic books work in the same way as E.R. and those other daily grind television shows that I talked about last week. Because they advance in real time, episodic content can be much more free-flowing, with episodic plots beginning, continuing, and ending depending on what real timespan is appropriate, rather than doing so based on some totally artificial means (such as a year of comic books, fifty issues, or whatever).

The lesson we can learn from this is fairly simple:

  • Attaching real dates to episodic plots can make things more fluid.

And that pretty much finishes things up for comic books this week. Next time around I'm going to see how the whole idea of episodic plot has been used in RPGs to date, and then we'll put everything together.

See you in 7!

End Notes

  1. For an excellent fictional account of the early days of comics, I suggest the Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.
  2. Chuck Dixon's ideas about plot appear in a book called Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, by Mark Salisbury, published by Titans Book, ISBN 1-84023-069-X. It's a British import that contains interviews with a number of well-know comic book authors.
  3. It took a book called Comic Book Nation to convince me how important the early Marvel Comics were to the evolution of the genre. It's written by Bradford W. Wright and published by The John Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-6514-X. It offers a great history of the medium and how that relates to the evolution of culture in the United States.
  4. This information courtesy of an article by Roy Thomas in The All-Star Companion, published by TwoMorrows Publishing, ISBN #1-893905-05-5.
  5. Go read it. It's been collected in a trade paperback (TPB) called X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga and should be available in many book and comic stores.
  6. If, in your entire life, you read only one comic book make sure it's this one. The Sandman is not just an excellent episodic story, well told, it's also a beautiful tale of how people change, of the duties that we hold and the loves that suffer. And, it's about mythology and history and stories. The whole thing is collected in ten trade paperbacks. The first one is called Preludes & Nocturnes but I often suggest people start with volume four, Season of Mists, because that's where Neil Gaiman really hit his stride.

Shannon regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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