Alasdair Watson confronts the ultimate horror - bad storytelling - and considers how the constraints of the serial format have forced comics to go in limited directions while leaving other avenues unexplored.
12 September 2003


Some nights, people hear screams in Charterhouse Square.

I was in Charterhouse Square last night, although I didn't hear any screams. This will mean nothing to most of you, because you don't live in London, and even if you do, it probably still means nothing to you. It's quite a pleasant little patch of green on the edge of the City (by which I mean the London district, not the whole of the capital), lit by a couple of old gas lamps.

One of the reasons that it's still green and pleasant is that building on it would be, well, risky. It's the site of one of the great plague pits of London. There are diseases down there. The number of dead bodies down there has been estimated at between 15 and 35 thousand people, not all of whom will have been dead when they were tipped in. I find this faintly staggering, and - if I think about what it must have been like for those unlucky few souls who were judged terminal cases and simply dumped in prematurely, rather than waiting for the formality of death - deeply horrifying.

I mention this because I learned that it was a plague pit for the first time last night, as part of a walking tour I went on, entitled "Ghosts of the Old City". The screams that are heard are supposed to be those of the unquiet dead - those that went too soon into the ground, and found themselves trapped in amongst the cold, dead flesh of the plague victims.

But more particularly, I mention this because I was told this by quite the worst storyteller I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. He finished telling us about the fact that there were anything up to 35 thousand corpses under our feet, not all of them dead when they were buried, by saying, "I think that rates an 'Ewww' don't you?" and giving a camp little shudder. I wanted to beat him to death with his dopey wee document wallet.

'The serialised format of most comics can get in the way of story.' To my mind, failure to tell a true story well is a high crime. These are people's lives - and often, their horrible deaths - we're talking about, and they should be treated with some respect. Sure, embellish the details if it makes a better story, but for god's sake, line your gut up behind it, and engage some honest emotion in the telling. Try and make your audience feel something.

This applies equally well to fiction, too, of course. You'll hear writers talk about "the heart", "the spine" or "the emotional core" of a story. If a story's not got some honest feeling in it, then there's no point in telling it. No-one wants to hear about a sequence of events. We want a story.

This is something that I've often felt the serialised format of most comics can get in the way of. The 22-page format imposes certain requirements on a story, some stricter than others, but in just about any serialised issue (particularly for on-going titles) you'll find a "big moment", or a cliffhanger ending, or similar device. You'll find a lot of comics shoehorning in some kind of re-cap too, although the trend does seem to have moved toward a brief "Previously..." text piece at the front, a device I heartily endorse.

The problem with this is that is skews the market to the sort of stories that support "big moments" or cliffhanger endings. Action pieces. Thrillers. Horror, to an extent. Stuff with spectacle. Which is all well and good, but it means that everything else gets squeezed to the edges, to sell less, or to come out in trades with low print runs, because no big publisher will push them, because they're not going to have the same rapid return on investment that an action book would have.

'Failure to tell a true story well is a high crime.' But I can't help wondering how different things would be if there were no single issues being published. At all. What the sorts of stories we'd see, if writers were freed from the artificial constraints imposed by serialisation. If they could just tell the stories the way that best suited.

Note how I'm carefully not talking about genre here. I'm not talking about my dream market; I'm simply positing a market where X-MEN is still the best selling title, but it's published in sporadic bookshelf editions, as and when the creative team has something ready, like normal books. Because I'd argue that a book that's a metaphor for either the alienated teen or the minority in society isn't necessarily best served by being constantly forced into high drama and action sequences. And I'm sure the same is true of a lot of other titles - their central metaphor isn't well served by crowbarring it into an artificial format.

I know that it's hardly a new or exciting idea, the notion that comics would be a very different medium if the serialised form were removed, but still, apart from the economics and the likely genre shifting, what else would it do the stuff that's currently published in serial form?


On a related topic:

Saw JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 today. Horror movie sequels fascinate me, because outside of stuff that begins in other media (comics, TV, novels) horror is the single most common movie genre to go to sequels on the big screen. It has its own form of serialisation. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13th, HALLOWEEN, SCREAM (OK, so that's lampooning the sequels, too, but still...), the list goes on.

What fascinates me most about them is the rules or conventions that any given sequel chooses to follow or flaunt. There's the twist, where new information is revealed about the "monster" from the first, that maybe they weren't quite what we thought. There's the generally increased screen time the monster gets - the big reveal already took place in the first one, so there's very little in the way of creepy points to be scored keeping it off screen in the second.

Which has also set me thinking: how different would horror films be if they knew they were going to have a sequel?

Which in turn set me to thinking - how different would comics be if they knew for sure that they weren't going to be cancelled, or that the writer was going to be changed? That it wasn't a concern, wasn't even possible for a set period of time (although if sales fell, they would end immediately that point was reached, so there's still a requirement to keep to some of the elements of the serialised form)? Would they simply become collected editions, being serialised slowly, like CEREBUS? Or would they be something else entirely?

I have no idea why this sort of thing is on my mind lately.

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