Pacing Trade.A column article by: Regie Rigby
Next week - that is to say “on Wednesday”, since this posting is rather late, even by modern standards - I intend to take a good long look at the world of The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic – the incomparable 2000AD. Not the comic itself, but a whole bunch of things that surround it. Why am I telling you about this now? Because I’m stuck for a suitable punning title! I’ve used most of the variations of the comic’s nickname (we Squaxx Dec Thargo* refer to the comic affectionately as “’Tooth”) like “Toothsome” I can think of. Eight years ago** at the back end of the year 2000 I even sank to calling a column “Why 2K?”. Now I’m stuck. Suggestions would be welcome at the message board! There may well be a small 2000AD related prize for the one I like the most, even if I don’t use it. To be eligible your suggestion must reach me before 12 noon GMT on Wednesday 6th August 2008. Please hurry, or I may have to think of something myself… In the meantime, I’ve been thinking of other, but somehow related things. One of the reasons I’ll be writing about ‘Tooth next week is that last week three rather lovely trade paperbacks which reprint some of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic’s very finest work landed on my doormat for review purposes. Obviously there’ll be more about them next week, but they got me thinking. Obviously, all three trade paperbacks featured stories that had originally been published in instalments in the pages of ‘Tooth (well, in one case I think it was originally published in ‘Tooth’s sister publication Judge Dredd Megazine, but you know what I mean) which means that originally they were delivered in short bursts of maybe six or eight pages at a time. What is more, each of those instalments appeared a week apart, and each must have ended with some kind of cliff-hanger to entice the reader back the following week. That puts a bit of a strain on the structure and pacing of your story, and when you think about it, it ought to make reading the whole thing in one go a slightly awkward read, as nail-biting perils that were designed to be mulled over for seven long days are in fact resolved by a simple turn of the page. This is, after all, a criticism I’ve often levelled at Trade collections of story arcs from monthly books. In all three of these collections however, the joins were seamless. As it happens, I had read and enjoyed all three stories when they were originally published but if I hadn’t I could easily have believed that they had always been intended to be read in one go. True, the Dante book was divided up into chapters, but the chapter breaks corresponded with the end of multi issue arcs, not single issue instalments, so the point holds good. As my train of thought trundled on, I got to wondering why these collections of stories from a British weekly anthology should fit together so much more neatly than collections of stories published monthly in American comics. I mean, if I were given to thoughtless jingoism, I might well just wave a Union Flag above my head and declare that the British are simply better at writing comics***. But the British are not generally given to flag waving****, and in any case, that can’t be it. Apart from anything else, many of those monthly American comics are in fact written by Brits, so the stoker on my thought train was forced to bung some more coal into the boiler and speed on down the track in search of knowledge station*****. So. It isn’t straightforward talent that makes trade collections of monthly books more stilted – and it can’t be the subject matter either because both kinds of collection feature all kinds of story types and genre. There must be something else. And of course there is. A long time ago****** I interviewed Bryan Talbot, who in the course of things commented that his (then) latest work The Heart of Empire ” had to be serialised with varying chapter lengths - between 25 to 41 pages” because then The overall structure can be designed in a way not limited to an episodic format. My graphic novels are structured as novels, not as ongoing soap operas…” It’s an observation that has remained with me ever since. It’s a question of pacing. Monthly, single story comics feature twenty two pages of story, and end with a cliffhanger. Weekly, anthology comics feature several stories of around eight pages, with a cliffhanger at the end of each instalment. Now, superficially this would suggest that trade collections of the weekly anthology strips would be more disjointed than their monthly cousins, but in fact it seems to me that it’s the brevity of the episodes that is the real strength here. If you’re reading a trade paperback, and you get a cliffhanger every twenty two pages or so, particularly when they’re not arranged in neat chapters, you get a kind of stilted rhythm – and because there was a month between that cliffhanger and the next page, there’s an element of repetition and recap involved which just emphasises the block in the narrative flow. What you get, therefore, is a slow build-up of tension followed by an immediate drop in that tension and a slow build back up. It’s like reaching the clifftop of excitement only to fall off the edge. That really works in a monthly book, but it flows far less well when you read the whole thing in one go. The six to eight page episodes create a similar effect, but the cycle doesn’t take as long, so the reader’s excitement levels don’t fall as far – they don’t have time. And then because there is only a week between instalments readers don’t need so much reminding about what happened previously, so there is less recapping to stem the progression of the narrative. At least I think that’s what’s going on. This is only a train of thought, and I might’ve changed my mind by the time you read this. What do you think? *If you don’t know, google it… **Yes, I really have been doing this that long… ***Not that that isn’t a claim I’d make, at least in general terms, but I don’t think that it’s a relevant claim in this case. ****Except at sporting events. We don’t even wave them at the Queen anymore, although I seem to remember waving one as she drove past the end of my street in 1977. I was only five at the time though, so my memory could well be a little cloudy… *****Sorry. You really can push a metaphor too far, can’t you? ******June 2000, to be precise. I was still in my twenties for goodness sake!