Let’s talk about story, and character arcs, and monthly installments, and reviews.
Way back before I started writing comics — you know, eight months ago — I’d never thought about how odd it is that people review a single issue of an ongoing comic, by which I mean a comic that’s telling a story over many months. As a prose guy, I’m used to people reviewing the complete work — beginning, middle, and end — and evaluating how well the object works as a whole. A confusing middle chapter may be necessary for the ending. An unlikeable character may grow and develop.
Reviewing a single issue seems (at first glance– wait for the second glance below) akin to reviewing a single chapter of a novel, or the first quatrain of a sonnet. The only questions a reviewer can ask (again, at first glance) are (a) did I enjoy those 22 pages, and (b) did I want to read more? The reviewer can, optionally, speculate on where the plot is going, opine on whether that alleged destination is anywhere interesting, or reflect on how the new developments change the perception of previous issues.
As an exercise for the reader, please pause now and review this blog post so far.
Everyone back? Cool. Where was I? Oh, right. It seems that the ultimate evaluation of the story’s effectiveness — whether it was worth telling — has to be postponed until the story is done. (If the comic continues publishing… if the readers keep reading… if the creative team doesn’t change its mind and have its mind changed for them by the editors…)
Now don’t get me wrong. I evaluate issues as I read them. And writers know that each issue has to win the trust and commitment of the reader anew. The reader can stop at any time, or more weirdly, start at any time.
And that’s where the second glance comes in. Ongoing comics, it seems to me upon reflection, are a hybrid form, designed to tell a longer story, but by necessity forced to be objects that stand and sell on their own. In that way, they’re more like books in a trilogy. The reviewer is playing the role of play by play announcer or color commentator. They don’t know how the game is going to end, but they can describe what seems to be going well so far, and they can point out things you may not have noticed.
Just this week, Chris Sims of Comics Alliance did a brilliant analysis of Superman #707, Chris Roberson’s first issue at the helm, and he pointed out something on the first page that I completely glossed over when I read it. (Go read his review — you’ll know the moment when you see it.)
As for Dracula: Company of Monsters, it’s still very much in process. Issue #5 is on the stands now, the first trade paperback collecting issues 1-4 is coming out next week (you can order on Amazon), and I’m working on the script for #10. Compounding this, D:CoM is a “slow burn” comic. We start slow, with plot elements falling into place one by one, with an unconventional main character. Evan is not a hero. He’s an ordinary guy, whose main problem is that he’s not yet his own man — he’s constantly being manipulated by strong personalities around him.
A couple of reviews of Dracula #5 came in recently, and both hit on this aspect of the book, which I will call The Problem with Evan. Don McPherson on his Eye On Comics blog says this:
On the surface, this is about Dracula’s resurrection in the 21st century, but in reality, it’s about the human characters and the nasty things they’re willing to do in the name of ambition and self-preservation. Evan makes for an unlikely hero. He’s far from the most ethical man, but his shades of grey are swallowed whole by the blackness of those in his life, even his fiancee, who initially and deceptively comes off as the loyal partner.
Charles Webb over at MTV Geek has been following the book, and he just posted his review of #5, opening with this: “I’m curious how much longer writer Daryl Gregory is going to keep series lead Evan Barrington straddling the fence between between evil and not-so-evil.”
…These two [events in the story] underline the central problem of Evan’s character: he is, for all intents and purposes a jellyfish. Last issue, Dracula had him pegged, that the young executive with some talent but very little ambition and drive “wasn’t anything yet.” Unable to decide for himself, Evan allows others to decide for him; unable to make a moral decision on his own, he quickly finds himself having no clear sense of what the “right” thing to do is.
…Typically, an inactive lead would be a problem for a story, but I suspect that Gregory’s script (based on a story by Kurt Busiek) is pushing Evan towards a point where the young waffler will actually have to pull the trigger on his own.
The entry of the Romanians into the story proper, as well as the enigmatic moves made by Dracula promise to raise the tension of an already pretty tense plot. If only Gregory’s script could push Evan into the forefront of the action as an active participant a bit more… well, then this would shape up to be one of the better 2010-2011 books on the shelves right now.
Alas, my lips must remain sealed. I so want to talk about where the comic is going, but of course that has to wait for at least 7 more issues, when we finish the first main story arc. I will promise you this — the slow burn gets downright incendiary, and I can’t wait for people to see how it ends.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful that there are people out there reviewing ongoing comics, even if they can’t know everything — like what’s happening in issues that haven’t been written yet. So many times a blogger or podcaster has directed me to a good comic I’d overlooked, or taught me something about a book I was already reading.
Besides, what are reviewers supposed to do? Wait until the comic has died from lack of readers until the talk about it? That’s madness, I tell you — madness! So here’s to you , Captains of Reviewer Land — many thanks.