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Television and Comics Now Share Same Crappy Writing Tendencies

Since publishers found that the collecting of individual issues of comics into Graphic Novels has transformed them into a business with a long tail. (In the past, customers had to seek out issues in the back issue bins of comic stores to complete stories they may have discovered late. This was gravy for the stores, but nothing to publishers beyond the initial sale.) The industry has changed its attitude in the writing of monthlies. Now stories are “decompressed” to fit this new model. Where before, even if a story was continued, there was still lots of pulpy action to keep fans entertained during the installment. Now, months can go by with little more than character bits and self introspection.

During this time, mostly over the last decade or so, one began to see a cross-pollination of writers. Writers from television and sometimes films, began showing up in the printed pages. (Yes, here they were considered instant superstars.) While some comic writers showed up in the other dominant visual medias. During the writer’s strike a few years ago, comics became the default place for television and film scribes to land.

To see the effects of this, we need not look any further than this recently completed season of NBC’s Chuck. (Yes, you will see the correlation between the rise of the collected Graphic Novel and the season DVD box sets.) Chuck has something of a niche audience, but performs rather well in the season DVD box set section of your favorite retailers. With that in mind, this season had a long and torturous road to the conclusion of the original 13 episode order. Soap opera tropes a plenty and episodes went by where you didn’t feel any of the main characters were going anywhere except for a centrifuge. (Round and round with vaguely unhappy endings set to some maudlin pop song.) When the storyline finally came to an end, the ratings were down and all but the die hard fans were certain that it could’ve been wrapped up in half the time and more entertainingly.

By contrast, the last 6 episodes were much closer to how the first 13 should have went. (And by the finale it had a more emotional impact and a potential springboard for the series next season. Nice bit of catch-up ball really.)

Hopefully, when the series returns it will emulate the formula Matt Nix uses on Burn Notice. There a second story always tools along in the background, occasionally surfacing for a full episode before eventually coming to forefront and dominating the season finale. (This was used to especially good effect in Fox’s The Human Target as well.)

Some comic writers have found this out as well, and the better ones use it to keep the audience coming back on a monthly basis. The best have figured out that they really are writing episodic novels and make each issue an entertaining chapter of the whole. This way they don’t have to pad out three issues because out of the six used for the collection, they only really have material for half of that. (See Garth Ennis’ Punisher Max entires for a primer on how to pull this off like a pro.)

All too often comics settle for the problems that plagued the final season of 24: They have an idea of where they need to go and they know how long it has to take the characters to get there, so things move in fits and starts. (And frequently turn logic on its head as well as do strange, arbitrary things just to shock the audience in the hopes that will keep them coming back.)

There are things for writers to learn about in each media, but that doesn’t mean that what works in one will work in another. Stick to what works best.

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