I’ve been reading a swath of newly acquired back-issues of the mid-80’s Legion of Super-Heroes and I noticed something about the story structure of the series, which was true for most books of that time: it’s open-ended.
Plot lines are hinted at or introduced many issues in advance, sometimes taking years to come to full fruition. On a multi-character title like Legion, it’s the sheer volume of characters (a regular roster of two dozen Legionnaires) that does it, but even single-character books built stories around their supporting cast and villains that likewise would appear only in a few panels or full-page aside for months on end until finally boiling over to the forefront, and sometimes only for one or two issues. Like, how long did the whole Terra thing go on for in New Teen Titans? And what else went on while it did?
I can understand why 80’s titles aren’t being reprinted quite as often as books from the 90’s or double oh’s… they’re just not concise enough. If you read, say, the Legion’s Eye For An Eye trade, it tells a full story but also sets up a few others by the time it’s done, leaving you hanging, some of which don't wrap up until ten issues later. Other trades, like the Iron Man Armor Wars feel more like stepping into something, rather than starting something. Six issues of a 1980’s comic sometimes just isn’t enough. This is why the Showcase Presents and Marvel Essential lines are successful, because they give you 500 pages of the ongoing series, usually more than enough to get a sense of what else has gone on.
The comics market is growing on trade paperback collections, so I get why ongoing titles are broken down into concise story arcs. Readers picking up trades want the 3-act movie structure out of the squarebound books, they don’t want to spend $20 feeling like they’re missing out on something else. I admit, I like that too.
But it’s the ongoing series that was, for a long time, what comics did that was uniquely theirs. Television was still primarily episodic, so character development and ongoing storylines were rare. There certainly wasn’t a definitive arc to Sam and Diane on Cheers or David and Maddie on Moonlighting. These days television has fully taken over the long-form structure, thanks to HBO’s influence and the popularity of 24, Lost and Heroes. Episodic television is relegated to crime franchises and sitcoms. Comics are now trying to be movies (in some cases literally).
While it’s an obvious editorial edict to “write for trade”, the influx of “outside” talent from film, television and prose publishing world equally means that you’re only going to get a limited story arc out of them before they go back to their day job. There’s not really much opportunity for them to stay on a book for a five or six year run and really build characters and some memorable storylines. The memorable storyline is all they're really striving for. Back when, it was the slow emergence of a plot that impacts a character or team and then has a resonant effect on them for months or years following that truly made for a classic story.
The creators that come in through the self-published/indie ranks do so mainly through original graphic novels or popular mini-series. They don’t want to settle on one character or book, they want to move about. The type of runs that Wolfman, Claremont or Levitz did on the biggest titles of the 1980’s just don’t happen anymore. People like Ellis or Fraction want to dip their hand into something for a year or two, telling one story at a time, and then move on. Few people have long-term plans for their series (outside of Vertigo these days, it seems), and telling a story with an ending seems to be the preferable way to go all around. The publishers no longer want to invest in long-form storytelling, and will reboot a title a the drop of a hat (Runaways, hello), and few creators will leave a series open for other creators to pick up on, with plot threads dangling to be resolved or ignored as the new team sees fit.
Can a comic series today even operate outside of the limiting structure of collectable story arcs? Will an audience that’s come to embrace trade paperbacks be willing to invest in stories that aren’t particularly trade friendly (because I'm not sure if I would)? Are there any examples of open-ended, long-form storytelling remaining in comics today (I have to wonder if I trained myself to avoid them)?