Serialization in Comics

by Joe Zabel

If youíve ever seen any of the EC comics reprints, or Will Eisnerís classic THE SPIRIT, you know itís possible to tell a compelling comic book story in 8 pages or less, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

But modern comics arenít usually structured that way. You might have a beginning of sorts in issue 1, but the rest of the series is a proliferation of plots and subplots with no definitive ending in sight, like a soap opera.

Newspaper comics have a long tradition of serialization, but in comic books this was rare before the rise of the direct sales market. When Lee and Kirby introduced Galactus and the Silver Surfer over a 3-issue story arc, it seemed daringóat least to the kids in my sixth grade class.

But nowadays a casual reader browsing the comics wonít find one in a hundred that has a stand-alone story. For the rest, first issues are a hot commodity as a key to understanding the series.

What impact does serialization have on the storytelling value of comics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

On the plus side, itís much easier to sell somebody the same comic book over and over than it is to sell them a different one every time; thus the dominance of series over one-shots. With a continuing story, the reader is naturally curious about what happens next, so they become Ďaddictedí to the series. Another advantage of serialization, especially in the rigid commercial sector of comics, is that it allows the writer much greater length to tell the story, without obliging the publisher to deviate from the standard 24-page format.

A real storytelling advantage of serialization is that it encourages audience participation. In the gaps between issues, the reader has a chance to invent their own plot twists and surprises.

When handled properly, the serialized story can be more analogous to real life, being open-ended and with an uncertain future. As in real life, the characters experience changes over physical time. So a characterís sense of disillusionment, for example, can be show building for months or years before it comes to a head in the story. Conversely, if a character spends three issues with a psychopath holding a gun to his head (as happened in a recent series), the tension of the situation will dissipate.

Finally, serialization is a life-style. The reader has his regular doses of Monthly Man to look forward to, and the cartoonist can settle comfortably into drawing a new page of Daily Man every afternoon. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on how you feel about monotonous routine!

As to disadvantages, the most obvious is the confusion that develops in the plot of a continuing story; the reader may not have last issue, or they may have forgotten who a character is from four months ago. And a synopsis in the front is rarely any help.

Serialization disrupts the flow of the story. The tension between scenes and the momentum they develop is inevitably cut off by Ďto be continued.í A scene that should be permitted to continue may be cut short for space, or padded to fill out the issue. An artificial cliff-hanger may be imposed, which gets the reader to buy the next issue, but undermines the credibility of events.

Serialization maligns character development. If a protagonist is going to be involved in multiple storylines, he or she must be an all-purpose character, easily adaptable to different circumstances, and always having a convenient motive for getting involved.

All-purpose characters can be fairly endearing in simple, superficial stories. But in more complex tales they run into trouble. Itís not very credible for a superhero to suddenly develop a social conscience, or for his sidekick to suddenly reveal that heís addicted to crack. Itís always better when the character fits the story-- it would be ridiculous for Rick from CASABLANCA to trade places with George from ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE. In the best fiction, the character and the story are one.

A critical drawback to serialization is that it discards one of the most powerful tools in the storytellerís artóthe ending.

A proper ending doesnít just reflect back on the preceding events; it is a spear-like point by which the implications of those events are buried deep in the readerís heart.

The ending is where the author imposes moral judgment. It is the last chance for characters to redeem themselves. Only here can the reader evaluate the balance, without future scenes refuting what went before. But when there is no ending, judgment must be forever suspended, continually modified, until the moral stance of the story is reduced to a colorless paste.

The joyous relief of a properly resolved story (whether itís a Ďhappy endingí or not) is one of the most sublime of reading pleasures. In the golden glow of the concluding moments, connections and inspirations may occur that earlier would not have been possible. In the serial, by contrast, this never happens. It just keeps going and going, like the energizer bunny, until the battery runs down.


The comics industry is so committed to serialization that the practice is unlikely to decrease any time soon. But I wonder, twenty years from now, will we regard these distended sagas with the same affection as we have for EC comics and THE SPIRIT?