• Everything But Imaginary #396: Gratification in an Instant

    Last night, as has become traditional when I’m watching game five of an NBA playoff series between the New Orleans Hornets and the Los Angeles Lakers, I was talking to our own Mark Blicharz about comic books. Specifically, we were talking about the dissatisfaction many fans have had with the current Wonder Woman storyline, issue ten of which I believe hits stores today. Mark said that a lot of people are upset with the current story, in which something has happened to Wonder Woman’s personal history, making her disappear from the memories of almost everyone in the DC Universe, altering her own memories of her past, and changing her costume. (If this has anything to do with a deal with the devil, by the way, I will be pretty upset.)

    I pointed out to Mark that a lot of the fans that are complaining started their gripes with the unveiling of the costume itself, before the first issue of this storyline even came out. They automatically hated the costume (which I always thought and still think is just fine when she takes off that 90s-era leather jacket) and had made up their minds to hate the comic itself before they could read a single page. To me, going in with that sort of mindset invalidates their opinion. They never had had any intention of giving the story a chance. True, Mark says, but he then points out that after nine installments of the storyline, we still don’t have any real idea what has happened to caused the shift in reality, and that’s too long to wait. And that, I think, is a valid complaint. At least, to a degree.

    Charles DickensHere’s the issue, the way I see it. We live in a culture of instant gratification, where too many people are unwilling or incapable of waiting for a story to play out. I’ve got students in my class who refuse to pay attention to anything longer than a typical YouTube video. But there’s a lot of true satisfaction that can come from allowing a story to unfold in the time the writer intends. It’s not a new idea, either. As far back as Victorian times, you had Charles Dickens writing his books in installments, releasing a chapter at a time in various magazines or chapbooks, taking months or even years, always with the intention of collecting them as novels later on. (That’s right, folks – at least going back to Charles Dickens, people were already writing for the trade.)

    If we want to go back even further, let’s look at ancient Greece. Homer – that wacky, blind poet of our dreams – would roll into town and start telling the story of how Odysseus pissed off Poseidon by stabbing his son in the eye, then got smacked around by a storm or twelve. Rather than finishing the story that night, though, he would wink at the audience and say “Will Odysseus and Circe do the Grecko-Roman Polka, ladies and gentlemen? Tune in to tomorrow night’s bonfire and find out!” (I paraphrase, of course. Homer likely would have referred to his audience as “Righteous dudes and dudettes.”)

    Some of the greatest TV shows of all time – at least most of my favorites – have had long-term storylines that made the show better. J. Michael Straczynski’s own Babylon 5 was a work of sheer brilliance because he went in with a five-year story, which was only derailed at the end because of uncertainty that he would have the time to finish it. Lost began to plod a bit in seasons two and three because they didn’t know how long the network would force them to keep the series going, but after they cut a deal for a final three seasons – and no more – superfluous things like the much-maligned Nikki and Paulo subplot vanished. 24 did things on a smaller scale – each season was a story of its own – but it certainly wasn’t a show where you could ever watch a single episode and get a complete experience. Even one of the best comedies on television today, How I Met Your Mother, draws its strength from the way it is slowly, over time, parceling out the bits and pieces of the central mystery (who is the woman Ted is destined to marry and when and how will he meet her?) and the way seemingly insignificant details from earlier episodes – even earlier seasons – can crop up at any time and become important.

    Stephen KingThere is, of course, a danger in this sort of long-term storytelling: the fear that something will happen that prevents the story from being finished. This is even more dangerous in the world of novels, where it can take years between installments instead of a month (comics), a week (most television) or until the next bonfire. When Stephen King was hit by a van in 1999, the first thought many of his fans had (although we don’t like to admit it) was not “Will he be okay?” but rather, “Does this mean he’ll never finish the Dark Tower series?” It was even worse for fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time – Jordan died in 2007, having written a measly 11 volumes of his epic. The final volume, which has mysteriously been split into three final volumes, are being finished by an author selected by Jordan’s widow and using Jordan’s notes. So the story will finish, but will it be exactly the way Jordan would have finished it? Sadly, no.

    Great comics that have told long-term stories work the same way: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Garth Ennis’s Preacher, or Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets all took their time and told their stories. Granted, something that isn’t necessarily built on hidden mysteries doesn’t have this problem – Sandman, for all its brilliance, was not the sort of story where you were waiting for some question to be answered. Jonathan Hickman’s magnificent Fantastic Four/FF saga does have secrets waiting to be revealed, but he’s much more subtle in how those mysteries are being presented. The audience may not even realize there is a mystery until the answer is staring them in the face.

    The real test comes for a story built on mystery, such as Nick Spencer’s Morning Glories. Here’s a book that came out of the gate flying, with a wild premise and a lot of bizarre, shocking moments that left the readers immediately engaged. However, now we’re on issue nine. Mysteries continue to build and compound, but we’re still not getting any concrete answers yet. This isn’t as big a deal as it is with Wonder Woman, which is mucking with the continuity of an established universe, but it is the sort of thing that can start to grate on a reader if it goes on too long. Spencer has a long-term story planned. I believe he said that the first “act” of Morning Glories alone is intended to run about 30 issues. It’s totally unreasonable to expect everything to be understood after the first issue, or even the first story arc. After eight issues, though, some fans say they’re beginning to feel like nothing is being explained, and that’s not a good thing.

    I love long-form stories. I think that, if a reader is willing to show patience and faith in his storyteller, they can be among the most satisfying forms of storytelling. Nothing else can approach them in terms of depth, character advancement, and true epic adventure. (Granted, shorter stories can do all of these things, but the shorter a story is, the less the chances it can do allof them at the same time.) But to make it work, both the reader and writer have to contribute something. So I propose the following agreement.

    READERS: You have to be willing to give the writer time to tell his story. If you are in the hands of a great storyteller, have faith that they know where they’re going and enjoy the ride on the way there. No, you don’t get to have it all at once, but in the long run the story can be far richer for the experience.

    WRITERS: I just told the readers to give you their faith. Now it’s up to you to justify that faith, and you can’t do that by holding all of your cards until the last hand. You have to give us pieces of the mystery as we go along – not all of them, not enough for us to see the entire picture, but enough for us to believe there is a picture and you’re not just throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks. (This is what is known, in storytelling circles, as the Twin Peaks method. Hottest show on the air in season one, died in season two because it became obvious David Lynch didn’t have the slightest clue where he was going.) And although it is okay if answering a question makes you answer more questions, you can’t answer a question with a question. (This is what is known, in storytelling circles, as “Pop Psychology Garbage.”)

    EVERYBODY: Trust each other’s intelligence. Take the time to do it right but don’t take more time than you need to do it right. And in the end, you can have some of the greatest stories ever told.

    Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Terry Verticchio's Avatar
      Terry Verticchio -
      I don't expect instant gratification, Blake, I simply find the story to be dragging on. There is little progression on why this has happened to Wonder Woman, the new incanation herself has done nothing to warrant me carring about her. She's a flake.

      Moreover, the style of the dialogue and narration lacks a panache that Gail and Greg had. They characters speak their lines, they move the plot, but its boring and trite.

      The art is servicible, but that's all.

      Ten issues to get to this point, when six would have done the job and better and we're not even close to the end. Less is more, IMO. DC is dragging this out to make a deluxe Trade.

      I have been keeping up with the book for a while now, but this new direction is neither new nor moving in a forward direction. More like spinning its wheels.
    1. Blake Petit's Avatar
      Blake Petit -
      I'm not disagreeing with you there, Terry. By issue ten, you should have a feel for it.

      My ire is reserved for those who refused to give it even an issue before they started whining.
    1. Dirge's Avatar
      Dirge -
      I do not have a problem with not getting answers as long as the questions are still compelling. That is why I got frustrated with the Lost fans who were giving up in season 4. Sure the answers were still a long time coming, but they were coming, and each episode was pretty great.

      I feel the same way about Morning Glories. I really do not expect answers when the story has barely begun asking the questions about the characters.

      I often preach, when I get on my soapbox, that we are becoming a no-attention-span society. And for the record, the Nikki and Paulo episode was great.
    1. Blake Petit's Avatar
      Blake Petit -
      The last Nikki and Paulo episode, indeed, was great. I'm with you for the most part there, Dirge.