Comics

The Year in Review: The Best Comics of 2010, Part II

Image from Firestar cover

Regardless of format, what seems unlikely to change is the use of comics for serial storytelling. In the future, this may take place on the web, or in e-editions, it may not follow a monthly publishing schedule, but like television, comics is both historically associated with serials and well-suited to making and delivering these kinds of stories.

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Various
Issues: 1-40
Contributors: Various
Comic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Wildstorm Productions
Writer: Various
Issues: 1-6
Contributors: Various
Comic: Fringe: Tales from the Fringe
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Contributors: Karl Moline (pencils)
Price: $3.50
Writer: Joss Whedon
Comic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow
Length: 40 pages
Issues: One-shot
Publication Date: 2009-12
Publisher: Marvel Worldwide, Inc.
Contributors: Emma Rios (pencils and inks), Matthew Wilson (colors)
Price: $3.99
Writer: Sean McKeever
Comic: Firestar
Length: 28 pages
Issues: One-shot
Publication Date: 2010-04
Publisher: Marvel Worldwide, Inc.
Contributors: Andrea Mutti (pencils and inks), Jose Villarubia (colors)
Price: $3.99
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Comic: Rescue
Length: 28 pages
Issues: One-shot
Publication Date: 2010-05
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Comic: Sugarshock
Contributors: Fabio Moon (pencils and inks)
Price: $3.50
Writer: Joss Whedon
Length: 40 pages
Issues: One-shot
Publication Date: 2009-10
Publisher: DC/Vertigo
Writer: Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon
Issues: 1-10
Comic: Daytripper
Publication Date: 2009

The year 2010 was a time for reassessing the monthly pamphlet or magazine format for comics in America. With more readers waiting for trade paperback collections and the multiplication of digital options, from web publishing to electronic editions, monthly printed comics are easy to see as a platform whose time is near.

Regardless of format, what seems unlikely to change is the use of comics for serial storytelling. In the future, this may take place on the web, or in e-editions, it may not follow a monthly publishing schedule, but, like television, the medium is both historically associated with serials and well-suited to making and delivering these kinds of stories.

Reading a title month-to-month is a different experience than reading collected volumes of previously published material. Take covers as an example. On an individual issue, covers raise questions about what will happen in the book, the direction of the story, or who will be appearing in an issue. As extras included in a trade paperback edition they become interesting works of art, but are no longer a part of the narrative in the same way as they were previously.

Differences such as these are why I have broken my review of the best of 2010 into two parts. Last month ("The Year in Review: The Best Comics of 2010, Part I", PopMatters, 14 December) I looked at trade paperback collections and long form works. This month I look at comics I read on a monthly basis. Even more than last month's selections, this month's are less about what I found to be generally enjoyable or interesting in 2010, and are more about the larger cultural themes I address in this column.

More particularly, the series, and single issues, I point to here are those that I found to be the best for starting a conversation about these questions: What are comics for? What do readers want and expect from the comics they read? How do publishers and creators address those wants and expectations? How are those wants and expectations met in different ways by comics in relation to other media?

Given that set of questions, it would be difficult to ignore Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, which ends its run this month with its 40th issue. The conclusion of this 'season' is an opportune time to assess the title and its relationship to the TV series.

As discussed in my June column, "Freeze Frame: How Best to Capture a Film in a Comic Book?" (PopMatters, 8 June 2010), comics based on television shows is hardly new. In fact, there have been characters, settings, and stories crossing from TV, film, and prose to comics from long before such movement was conceptualized as part of 'convergence culture' or 'transmedia'.

It isn't even new for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Prior to Season Eight, Dark Horse published an ongoing Buffy title from 1998 to 2002. Those comics were written parallel to the series, which is typically the case for licensed books. Buffy Season Eight, as the full title implies, is meant to be read as a continuation of the TV series. What happens in the comics is no different than if it happened on television.

As I allude in the introduction, both TV and comics are used for serial (as well as episodic) storytelling. In that way, adapting from one to the other has a similar feel and logic, both for readers/watchers and creators. On the other hand, despite this similarity, comics and television differ in how they are used to structure or frame stories.

Consider, for example, that Season Eight is comprised of nearly as many issues as two years of the TV series. On the other hand, those forty issues are spread out over, essentially, four years, while a season of the television show was typically aired over a period of nine months. Similarly, each issue of the comic is a smaller piece of the ongoing narrative than is one episode of TV. It is fairly easy to imagine taking any three or four linked issues of the comic, such as the most recent "Last Gleaming" arc, and seeing those as the basis for an episode of a television series.

The storytelling on TV is more compressed than it is in the comics. Moving from one to the other will always pose challenges for both creators and readers. And maybe not everyone makes the switch. Despite how the Season Eight comics are intended to be read, not all Buffy fans have been persuaded to read the books, or to see them as 'official' continuations of the TV series, choosing instead to treat the two as separate incarnations of a common storyworld. By being framed as canon, Buffy Season Eight cuts a new path between comics and television, and asks fans to work out their own relationship to a transmedia 'Buffyverse'.

While more traditional in its significance to the parent form, Wildstorm's Tales from the Fringe mini-series is a good example of how licensed comics can be effective supplements to a TV series. Like the Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories (Dark Horse Books, 2010) selection in last month's "Worlds in Panels", this book uses comics to explore undeveloped corners of a TV/moving image universe. The series is focused on minor moments with major characters and major moments for minor characters, offering origin stories for Astrid Farnsworth and Nina Sharp, and even a spotlight for Gene the cow, as well as shorter slices of weird happenings within the broad outlines of the Fringe storyworld.

While there may not be any question of the stories contained in Tales from the Fringe being taken as canon, they are strong enough to heighten one's enjoyment of the TV series, especially in relationship to the highlighted characters. When it comes to comics of this kind, it is difficult to ask for more than that.

Unlike the show from which it is drawn, Tales from the Fringe is structured as a series of loosely connected episodes, rather than as part of an ongoing serial. In the context of a limited purpose, limited run series, this structure works. With most regular comics series, and TV shows, creators need to strike a balance between moving larger and longer form stories forward and making individual issues or episodes that are satisfying to read or watch.

One reason why regular readers of comics will choose to wait for trade collections of favorite titles is a sense that individual issues of many ongoing titles no longer matter, but are only significant in the context of more developed storylines. Equally, new readers seeking to drop into most Marvel or DC books, or a series like Buffy Season Eight, maybe intimidated by what seems like years of accumulated history that they need to know before being able to comprehend what they are reading.

Mindful of this, all three of the major publishers make a point of publishing occasional 'one-shots', or comics that have clearly resolved stories. In the latter part of 2009, Dark Horse issued a series of these issues, many derived from ongoing series such as Hellboy and The Goon, while Marvel's 2010 "Women of Marvel" event similarly included a number of one-shots dedicated to female characters from the publisher's archives.

I pulled a number of these last year and from the end of 2009, and three stood out in terms of providing strong stories and character development in the context of a single issue: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow by Joss Whedon (writer) and Karl Moline (pencils), Firestar by Sean McKeever (writer), Emma Rios (pencils and inks), and Matthew Wilson (colors), and Rescue by Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer), Andrea Mutti (pencils and inks) and Jose Villarubia (colors).

As effective as these are, they also draw attention to the difficulties of writing comics which are inviting to new readers, either in the context of an ongoing series, Willow, or an integrated narrative universe, Firestar and Rescue. For example, a Buffy fan who isn't following Season Eight could be charmed by the one-shot's story of Willow finding her way in the world of magic again, and the story is written in such a way that it could be understood in the context of the TV series alone, but someone picking the book up because of Jo Chen's or Karl Moline's, Andy Owens', and Michelle Madsen's cover art, would likely be lost.

In contrast is a one-shot like Joss Whedon's and Fábio Moon's Sugarshock, originally published as part of "MySpace Dark Horse Presents", this comic offers new characters, new settings, and a single story in one forty page comic. This is a title anyone could pick up and read and understand, especially if they have a love of music and space opera. The difficulty, of course, is that fully self-contained comics do not offer the opportunity to develop a readership, and what is gained in terms of access is lost in terms of the kind of character development and narrative complexity that can only be made over time.

Original mini-series are one way in which comics publishers and creators can invite in new readers, while providing experienced readers with the kinds of rewards earned from reading loner running titles. Between 2009 and 2010 DC/Vertigo released Daytripper, a ten issue series by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá.

What makes this series notable is how it uses the monthly format to good effect. Each issue tells a different story about its central character, Brás de Oliva Domingos, a writer, who, at different turns, needs to address his complicated family life and professional ambitions, successes, and failures. In each installment, a slightly different version of the character Brás is presented to readers, and in each issue, until the final episode, the he dies in a different way and at a different stage of life. Every chapter in the story is 'complete' while also being part of a recognizable whole.

While most of the selections I've made here have opened questions about what comics can do, and what readers want, in terms of narrative structure, Daytripper also raises the question of what comics is for in terms of content.

For the most part, monthly comics are a format for genre fiction. Longer form works, 'graphic novels', are more likely to be used for other kinds of stories, including biography and slice of life type stories. Fictional comics, especially those released periodically, rarely tell stories taken from daily life without making detours into fantasy or science fiction, or focusing on a particular kind of alienated, geek character or 'loser' within the cultural mainstream. However, Brás is just a guy with a job, family and friends, and he exists in a world that is very much like the world we all live in. Bá and Moon use comics to explore everyday life in a way that many potential readers would likely relate to, and not just those who are already drawn to the medium. Unfortunately, the opportunity to read the series in serial form has passed.

Waiting is part of the pleasure in reading or watching a story told in a series. From a reader's perspective it probably matters little if what you're waiting for is going to arrive in a package, at the store, or online, but the wait is part of experience. My selections here are notable for how they highlighted, for me, that aspect of reading comics, particularly in a transmedia world.

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