Friday, December 31, 2004

Cronin Theory of Comics - "Avoid the Big Event"

This really has to do, I think, with the reason why so many writers are doing shorter runs on books nowadays.

When you look back at the "classic" storylines, you are likely to rememeber the "Big Event."

Heck, DC Comics, in its trade paperback department, has pretty much acted like they did not have any comic published after 1970 and before 1994, and yet they still have trades for both "The Great Darkness Saga" and "The Judas Contract."

Because those both were "Big Events."

So I can understand the impetus of current writers to want to each try to write the "Big Event" during their run on a title.

The reason, though, why this coincides with shorter runs is because, in my opinion, if you want to have a sustained impressive run on a comic book, you CAN'T have a "Big Event."

This is because, if you spend all your time leading up to a particular story, that story might be excellent, and you may always be remembered for it...but once that story is over, there really isn't anywhere else to go.

For instance, after Elektra was killed in #181, Daredevil was still an excellent comic book. However, when you reread the run, Miller is clearly just treading water after #181, as he has HAD his ending...but the book still kept going.

Byrne and Simonson avoided this by not HAVING any one "big event" during their Fantastic Four and Thor runs. There were memorable issues, to be sure, but no one overarching story (except, perhaps, for Simonson's last issue of Thor).

Other examples of when the big event just killed any momentum on a run.

1. The Judas Contract - People can rattle off so many classic Teen Titans stories PRE-Judas Contract. How many POST?

2. The Great Darkness Saga - Giffen has even commented that he and Levitz had basically peaked early, and Giffen specifically mocked the stories they followed up the Saga with.

3. Terminal Velocity - Waid had already dulled his momentum with the Return of Barry Allen, but Terminal Velocity just finished it. Flash #100 was, for pretty much all purposes, the END of Mark Waid's Flash run. The fact that he managed another 40 issues after that is...well...odd.

4. Under Siege - I would still buy Avengers with Stern post-Under Siege, but let's be honest, the title pre-Siege and post-Siege were dramatically different. And the former was much cooler than the latter.

5. Longbow Hunters - Did Grell EVER top this? Kinda weird to have your momentum killed BEFORE you start an 80-issue run. Still good stuff, but 80 issues of direction-less stuff.

6. Hawkworld - I know this was never trumped. The ongoing, in retrospect, was probably a mistake from the word go.

7. Dark Phoenix Saga- I hesitate about this one...because I think Claremont originally HAD a "Big Event" planned for X-Men #150 involving all the same characters, but that was trashed when he was forced to kill Jean in #137. However, since the X-Men under Claremont (besides a couple of interludes for Days or Future Past and God Loves, Man Kills) never really reached any major heights after this story, I guess I will tentatively count it.

8. Tony Stark's Alcoholism - Michelinie had a really good run on Iron Man going when he went into the long Tony's Alcoholism plot. But when the storyline finished, the rest of his run, while still good, really meandered.

9. Armor Wars - Michelinie II had the same problem. Once the major storyline was over, the plot just really meandered until he left. Some good stuff, though.

10. Pantheon War - Peter David did a pretty good job avoiding the "Big Event," even managing to combine the Hulks without stopping any momentum, but #425 was finally the straw that broke the camel's back. The book really meandered over the next 40 issues (not all of that was David's fault, he also had Onslaught to deal with, plus two completely unsuitable artists in Sharp and Medina).

11. Supergirl/Buzz - Like Hawkworld and Longbow Hunters, this was an example of a book having a good storyline, finishing it...then having 60 plus issues on top of that. Even if you enjoyed Peter David's Supergirl, I don't think anyone would really put up much of an argument that, after the first storyline, the book really fell off big time. That's because the first story told the tale, for the most part. Notice that there has only been one Supergirl trade (until the ridiculous "upskirt" run at the end).

12. Firestorm - Ostrander had a really good "on the run" storyline that concluded with Ronnie and a Russian fellow being merged together as a NEW Firestorm. The story really should have ended there - I think Ostrander's run would be regarded a lot better if it did.

13. Welcome Back, Frank - I think even Ennis knew he really did not have anything left after this story, hence the recent MAX relaunch.

Anyone know of any other examples?

Of either a run that managed to avoid "Big Events" or a run whose momentum was cut short by a "Big Event"?


Blogger obsolete said...

And how do you feel about the "big event" stories? Would you prefer long runs of decent quality, or do you like these shorter event-driven storylines where writers know exactly when to stop before they jump the shark?

Personally, I prefer the in-and-out. Obviously it depends on the quality of the writing, but I believe that if a writer actually has something to say, has an actual story to tell (beginning, middle, ending), they're more likely to do it over a shorter run, a set period.

This isn't always the case, of course. Often we'll get something like the abominable Loeb/Lee collaboration "Hush."

But I think this is, overall, a good movement for comics story-telling. Instead of long, drawn out, meandering subplots that may or may not even reach a conclusion, we're getting a complete story. For good or for bad.

12/31/2004 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

It's funny you mention it, Paul, because I was just thinking about how it appears to me that Bruce Jones' horrid end of his Hulk run was an example of Jones writing a "Big Event," but then just decided to not end it, so what do we get?

A bloody 40+ issue long storyline that ended up going nowhere!

In any event, I think I prefer the "avoiding the Big Event" method, because yes, it may end up going nowhere, but if it goes nowhere, it is unlikely that even had that writer DONE a "Big Event" that it would have been any good.

12/31/2004 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger obsolete said...

See, I think the longer, drawn-out runs are much harder to have "go somewhere," unless you're talking about something like "Preacher" which was more-or-less planned from start to finish. Monthly serial fiction is just too...unstable without a strict, strict plan and the ability to follow that plan unhindered. Mainstream super-hero rags are subject to so MANY outside forces.

I think having a writer come in and do a 6 or 12 month (or however long) PLANNED stint is the best way to avoid stagnation, silly meaningless subplots, and the abrupt whims of writers/editors/publishers. It means they've got something specific they want to say. In many cases, it means they'll say something stupid, but in those cases, all you have to do is wait six months and it's all over.

Stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. And it takes a very talented writer/editor team to make a bunch of smaller stories fit together into one big, long story. So I think, unless you have a pretty good guarantee of that kind of talent and a rock-solid plan, the easier path of rotating creative teams telling solid individual stories should be taken.

Obviously, current editorial teams that install "regular" writers think they DO have a rock-solid plan. It just hardly ever works out that way.

12/31/2004 09:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Morrison's run on New X-Men was hampered by Planet X being a Big Event when it shouldn't have been. I think the Big Event nature of Planet X made many people look on Here Comes Tomorrow as Morrison covering his ass instead of reading it as the last chapeter in a novel.

Stupid people....

You bring up the Great Darkness in the Legion. Legion is a series that continues to have the Big Event letdown. Great Darkness, the Earthwar of the adult Legion and Legion Lost were all Big Event stories that were followed by rather lackluster stuff.

I'm all for getting rid of the Big Event stuff. Look a the texture and power of Love and Rockets. While Los Bros Hernandez write stories that encompass deeper themes and events they don't write Big Event. Everythying flows into the ongoing stream fo characterization. I'd love to see writers at Marvel and DC learn from this and be given the freedom to write that way.


1/01/2005 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Mr. Rice said...

Hmmm. I think the combination of Paul and Brian's points is the one I'd go with.

Having a huge "big event" in your ongoing story is a problem WHEN you decide to keep writing it for a few years afterwards.

I like shorter stays for creators. I want fresh material and multiple takes on characters and situations. There aren't many folks out there in this day and age who can sustain a corporate-owned monthly for indefinite periods of time.

Mind you, when it's your own stuff (see: Kirkman, Robert) then I think extended runs are fine. If you've got the plan, run with it.

But otherwise, keep it manageable. Tell your story, end your story, get out.

1/01/2005 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Having a huge "big event" in your ongoing story is a problem WHEN you decide to keep writing it for a few years afterwards."

Unless, of course, you have another one lined up for after the first one. Which, unfortunately, few writers these days seem to have.

1/01/2005 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Having a huge "big event" in your ongoing story is a problem WHEN you decide to keep writing it for a few years afterwards."

Yes, exactly.

1/02/2005 06:27:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Unless, of course, you have another one lined up for after the first one. Which, unfortunately, few writers these days seem to have."

Here, though, is where I get into semantic I think "Big Events" are all in how the writer approaches them.

For instance, the Trial of Galactus could have been a "Big Event."

The death of Odin could have been a "Big Event."

The combining of Hulk could have been a "Big Event."

The difference is that Byrne and Simonson and David managed to not make the event a clear finale. They used it to springboard into OTHER stories.

Unlike the Judas Contract, the Great Darkness Saga, the Pantheon War, etc.

Those stories just ended...and the books kept going.

1/02/2005 06:30:00 AM  
Blogger Hate Filled Poster said...

If you get rid of the big events don't the small events become the big events by default? The climax of a story should always be an event shouldn't it? The problem with serial fiction is you have a climax in every issue, a climax in every mult part story, a climax in every creator run, and sometimes a climax of the entire book if it ever ends at all. Serial fiction as a genre is a constant roller coaster for that very reason.

1/03/2005 08:26:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I don't think so, Shane.

I get what you're saying about the very nature of serial fiction, where you NEED an "ending" not only every storyline, but every ISSUE.

The difference, I think, between having a sustained creative run and a stalled one is how much importance you give the endings of each storyline.

If you use the ending of the story to springboard into the next story, then you'll be fine.

If you treat the end of the story as the end-all/be-all, then you're going to be in trouble trying to continue a month later, and still have the momentum and direction you had earlier.

1/03/2005 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Michael May said...

I'm a big Alpha Flight geek, so I'll use it as an example. After Byrne killed off Guardian in Alpha Flight #12, the series couldn't figure out where to go. That first year of the series was the template that should be used for all team books, but the second year was just a mish-mash of showing the aftermath of the Big Event and introducing new characters to try to inject new direction for the book. It didn't work and eventually Byrne threw up his hands and left the series in the incapable hands of Bill Mantlo.

1/03/2005 04:54:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Looking back, Alpha Flight really didn't get much respect from Byrne.

If you look at his comments about it, it is kinda funny. He talks about how he only did the series because Marvel thought it would sell, and if SOMEone was going to write the series, it may as well be him.

Notice all the weird tricks he tried with that series...

-Out of order sequences

-No team for the first 5 or so issues

-Killing off the leader in the 12th issue

In any event, yeah, Alpha Flight is a good example of a book that lost all direction after the "Big Event."

Here's a great resource for talk from Byrne about Alpha Flight.

1/03/2005 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger Michael May said...

"He talks about how he only did the series because Marvel thought it would sell, and if SOMEone was going to write the series, it may as well be him."

Yet another nail in the coffin of my love for John Byrne. Maybe it was because he didn't care that he was willing to take so many chances with it, but his risks in that first year paid off big time. I wish other series could be that daring. Shame on him for not standing behind some of the best work of his career.

1/03/2005 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff R. said...

Y'know, I can actually think of memorable stories well after the "Big Event" in two of your cases, and it's sort of interesting what they share in common: both were the arcs with which a new volume (and #1) of the series was launched. (Teen Titans, "The Terror of Trigon" and Legion of Super-Heroes, the big Legion-of-Super-Villians five-parter.)

But anyhow, I think that you can, in fact, have a "Big Event" and keep going. The trick to doing it is to have the Big Event actually end up changing the Status Quo for the character rather than going back to the same situation that you had before the Big Event.

To see some successful Big Events of this sort, I'll send you mainly to Peter David's Hulk run. He started out with a Big Event (Ground Zero), changing from hulk-on-the-run to the Vegas Hulk. A few years later, another Big Event (Countdown) upset that status quo, setting up the events that led to the Reintegration/Reunion with Betty Event that lead to the pantheon status quo. The Pantheon War doesn't even really rate as a huge "Big Event" to me; the Trojann War and the link-into Future Imperfect were more of the turning point to the next phase of the character, and then things started to go downhill due to editorial interference.

Another set of examples comes from Byrne's superman run: The Pocket Universe story and the Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite were both "Big Events" that made for new status quos for the character and drove future storytelling. The Ostrander Suicide Squad had a few like this as well.

So the real lesson is that you can have a "Big Event" as long as it actually means something, and you don't end up back at status quo ante a few months after it's done.

1/05/2005 02:51:00 PM  

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