Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Decompression in Action

Amazing Spider-Man #13 page 7

Amazing Spider-Man #13, page 7: 238 words.

Ultimate Spider-Man #13 page 7

Ultimate Spider-Man #13, page 7: 2 words.

Shall we turn the page?

Amazing Spider-Man #13 page 8

Amazing Spider-Man #13, page 8: 221 words.

Ultimate Spider-Man #13 page 8

Ultimate Spider-Man #13, page 8: 47 words.

Cost of Amazing Spider-Man #13: 12¢. Adjusted for inflation since 1964: 76¢.
Cost of Ultimate Spider-Man #13: $2.25. Adjusted for inflation since 2001: $2.55.

And then there's...

Amazing Spider-Man #45 page 5

Amazing Spider-Man #45 page 5: 452 words.

I don't have a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man #45 handy, but I'm betting it doesn't have 452 words on page 5.

Think about it...won't you?


LurkerWithout said...

What you're saying a single issue should take more than 5 minutes to read and tell a complete story?

What are you some kind of Commie? Real Americans want their comics to drag out every story over 7 issues with 23 different titles doing tie-ins told over a period of 16 years while we wait for the artist to finish detailing some guy's arm hair...

Anonymous said...

There are 41 words on page five of USM #45.

Sleestak said...

Spider-Meme!Spider-Meme!Friendly neighborhood Spider-Meme!

Sleestak said...

The comic art note cliche!

Anonymous said...

I don't get it!

Brian Doan said...

I love your blog-- no, to paraphrase Annie Hall, I lurrve it-- and you're such a sweet, cute little bull that I hate to be rude but:

I've thought about it. And I don't get it.

Or rather-- I get the joke (or that it is a joke), but not the more serious point I suspect lies behind it. Is the value of a comic quantitative? Is it really, like a freshman worried about his paper length, all about the word count? Isn't the point to, you know, tell good stories? And can't that be done in a lot of different ways-- visual, linguistic, etc? I actually love the passage from USM you chose, because Bagley's faces are so wonderfully expressive, and do so much to capture that WTF of adolescent surprise and confusion and delight that Spider-Man's always been about (ok, not the crappy J. Michael Stra-Stinky Spider-Man, but I prefer to believe, as with "Teen Tony," that such a thing never really happened), that words are superfluous-- I'd say that the inadequacy of words to express an emotion is the whole point of said page, actually. And if said story only takes place across a few minutes, that's ok, too, as long as it's interesting: this still grabs me more than the latest issue of Sinestro Corps, or whatever comic-of-the-moment we're all supposed to go Comic Book Guy over.

Like I said, I understand this was tongue-in-cheek, and I laughed, and it's great to see those dikto-lee pages again. I get it, I get it-- and I lurrve your blog. But I guess my perhaps overly serious response is more an inquiry about the issue you raise, since I see it raised on other blogs, too, so let me just toss out the question: what's so wrong about decompression?

SallyP said...

I too am getting a little tired of one or two issue stories being dragged out to five or six issues, just so that they can be comfortably re-issued in a trade paperback.

Silver Age stuff may not to be everyone's taste, but you can't deny that things HAPPENED!

A lot.

Bully said...

Nothin's wrong with decompression, which is why the post was titled "Decompression in Action" and not "Decompression: Go Take a Flying Leap off a Flame-Filled Chasm Cliff Wall."

This was inspired by sitting down and reading my big-ass Absolute-sized Barnes and Noble exclusive hardcover omnibus of the first three or so years of Ultimate Spider-Man, which I loves to pieces. I am (or was) a big fan of the Ultimate books for their "back to the basics but not simply copies" approach, and I enjoy Brian Michael Bendis's plotting and yes, even dialogue, and especially Mark Bagley's expressive and energetically joyful work.

However, I'm reading it in a big omnibus of many many issues at once that cost me, I think, about forty clams. Read like that, all in a row, the stories move fast, but you get a full story or at least the impression of good value for money.

Read the books on their own, month by month, paying $2.25 (or whatever they are now), and it's clear: you get very little story for you money. I can't quantify value as you say, because your joy over a decompressed story may vary from person to person, but I lament that you can now spend three bucks and read a comic book in less than five minutes. That is poor entertainment value for the money and only exists because of the crack-like addiction we (I'm including myself here) have to these characters.

My point, and I do have one, is that in many ways--not all across the board but in so many instances for so many titles--"comics are your worst entertainment value." Spending three bucks on five minutes of enjoyment and not getting the feeling of a full story is a trend that does not help gain new readers. We lament that it's hard to turn new readers, especially kids, onto superhero comic books. Is it any wonder, when you get a fraction of a story that reads like the wind. I'm not calling for a return to wordy stories that are "done in one" across the board, but the trend of decompression devalues the worth of the comic as a piece of entertainment.

Look at the kid and teen affection for manga. I'm not a fan of it myself, but I can see the appeal, not only in the plots and artwork but in the value: if you can get 200 pages of comics for twelve bucks, that's a much better entertainment value than twenty pages for three bucks. Videogames and DVDs provide a better ratio of entertainment hour per buck as well. Even movies give you two hours of fun for ten bucks. And here's where I think Marvel dropped the ball with Ultimate Spider-Man. Rather than just marketing it to the same old Spidey-fans, they had a chance to promote it heavily in the grade school and high school markets: a Spider-Man who was their age, a Spidey for the next generation, characters, plots and dialogue attractive and familiar (well, aside from the supervillains) to kids and young adults.

It would have been a wacky and outrageous way to do it, yes, but in order to capture that market, Marvel should have ripped down the monthly floppy format from the foundation of Ultimate Spider-Man and issue it in quarterly or bi-monthly trades. Promote them in teen magazines and shows. Sell ‘em through Scholastic Book Clubs. Try to grow the market. Instead, Marvel did what they usually do: publish books into a market they are comfortable with and where their publications do well. I can’t fault them for that—they’re a business. But I weep at the lost opportunities to expand the interest in Spidey, especially post-movie. (To their credit, Marvel did temporarily publish magazines that reprinted the Ultimate storylines a few months after the floppies, which was a positive idea to get the books out of comic book stores and into the vision of the general public, but with no promotion and lost among the MAD clones in that section of the newsstand, they were quickly cancelled.)

I’m not saying decompression is all that is available, of course. There are plenty of superhero comics these days which are fast-paced but at the same time dense and layered, and even if the story's not a "done in one" and is to be continued, I still feel you're getting your money's worth. (Examples: Morrison's Batman, 52, Agents of Atlas, Iron Fist, and many more.)

No, comics cannot be reduced to word per page count, and I did so only to be tongue-in-cheek because these two comparisons are so at opposite extremes. (I purposefully weighted the pot for humorous intent: two or three pages in either direction on these spreads woulda made the ratio a little more equal.)

But I dislike the trend of feeling like I'm not getting my money's worth. It's a catch-22 because it doesn't look like the floppy is going away, and yet the trend is to write for a trade paperback (which it often a better buy, especially through Amazon.)

It’s all tilting at windmills anyway. Short of a major shake-up in thinking at the superhero comic book companies, we will not move from monthly floppies to quarterly trades. But as I like to say, "If you're writing for the trade, you should be writing a trade."

Anonymous said...

Excellent observation. It reminds me that the biggest draw Marvel had when I first discovered DC's competition was the wordiness of the comics. I was enthralled by it especially because it gave me the impression I was getting more story. The dialog may be more stilted than today's "quiter" comics, but it was great fun to read and helped with reader attachment to characters.

NathanS said...

My dear bull, or should I say my dear man masquerading as youth with the aid of a child’s toy Hmm? On one hand you wish for comics for youngsters and try to promote those do you not? And yet your tastes are derived your childhood comics, not what the young of today are actual reading.

Manga has brought quite a bit of changes to how modern youth read comics. Who do you think invented Decompression hmmm? Loading comics in words is most likliy the last thing you want to do to attract childern to homegrown comics.

Manga prioritizes reading images over the words, to paraphrase the Brad “The picture’s the thing.” For instance on page (randomly selected) 100 of “The Amazing Spider-Man” Essential 1, issue 4 page 5 there are 9 panels and 273 words on page 100 of Fullmetal Alchemist 14 there are 6 panels and 82 words and that’s a conversation/ recap scene!

Now, now, now Fullmetal Alchemist 14 has 171 pages of story and humorous extras for $9.99 which works out to about .06 cents per a page of entertainment well of “The Amazing Spider-Man” Essential 1 has 525 pages of entertainment for $16.99 which is .03 cent per a page.

So this means “The Amazing Spider-Man” Essential 1 costs less per a page has more panels per a page and tends to have around double the words per a page, and yet… Fullmetal Alchemist 14 hit 148 on USA Today’s 150 top selling books chart on the week of August the 12 2007 And well “The Amazing Spider-Man” Essentials have done well I doubt they’ve ever done anywhere near that good, just some food for thought. Hmmm?

Bully said...

Agreed. I'm not arguing (reprint) trades versus (original) manga, I'm arguing (original) floppies versus (original) manga. But I take your point.

And as I say so, I do realize it's still comparing apples and oranges all the way down.

Still! Lookit all those words on that Spidey page! That's sumthin', ain't it?

Phillip said...


I know it's a typo, but I think I'm gonna start working the phrase, "paraphrase the Brad" into my everyday conversation. It would be even better if I knew someone named Brad...

Brian Doan said...

Points taken, and I agree-- Bendis works much better in a collected trade, or a graphic novel like Torso, than in the "floppies" (a wonderful term, by the way), although I still find myself getting caught up and lingering with Bagley's artwork (maybe it's because I teach film, so I just like to scan the image a lot). And you can't go wrong with the Essential Spider-Mans, particularly up through issue 125 or so (I think that's volume five, maybe four), although that mid-seventies "spider-mobile" period is pretty sketchy. (: My shelves currently groan with the spidey, fantastic four, captan america and iron man essentials, so I hear you on the love o' the silver age material...Interesting to think how text becomesan image in lee-ditko, too: the word/thought balloons in the pages you scanned are so omnipresent that peter's thoughts are literally weighing on him, a lovely bit of subtext.

This is more a question than a statement, as I'm not sure, and trust there are people on the blog who know more than I: is the whole word-to-image-to-page ratio in the bendis stuff also perhaps an influence from the b&w american "indie" stuff of the 80s and 90s, like Adrian Tomine or los bros hernandez, where the image-text ratio is also "smaller" (or however you want to put it) than in the 60s marvels? That's Bendis's intial background, right? Interesting to see spider-man absorb that rhetoric.

Also, Bully-- wanted to thank you for the continuing wodehouse a week series. I've only seen the laurie-fry Jeeves and Wooster adaptations, but you really make me want to pick up the books!

Dave Carter said...

"comics are your worst entertainment value."

I'd have to say that Slot Machines and Lottery Tickets are your worst entertainment values. But comics may be a close third ;)

Milo George said...

Slot Machines and Lottery Tickets have a chance of being something more than a waste of time and money. With the paper they use these days, you can't even wipe your ass with a comic book anymore.

Paul McCall said...

Very interesting exposition Bully, and one of the main reasons I wait for the trades of any comic story arc I'm interested in reading. (I also want to avoid the ads in the floppies!) Getting the writers to insert more dialogue and story into each issue probably wouldn't help get the young crowd addicted to comics. I heard a report on National Publilc Radio about youth literacy in relation to summer reading programs that contained a line from some young boy stating that he'd rather cut his throat than read anything! With all the video/gaming distractions around I'm afraid we are heading toward an illiterate future.

Rachel Thorn said...

Just a perspective from over here in Japan, where decompression may not have been invented (that probably happened in American funny pages), but certainly took hold in a big way and helped turn comics from one of many forms of kids' entertainment into the single biggest form of print entertainment in the country. (Around the same time Stan and Steve were pumping out all that verbiage, Tezuka and Ishimori were decompressing big time.)

I think Ultimate Spider-Man does a great job of drawing on Japanese decompression and page layout, without lamely imitating the so-called manga style, as so many "Amerimanga" (ewww) do. And when I introduce my Japanese manga students to American superhero comics (I have them read the first episode of Ditko/Lee's Spider-Man as well as the whole Death of Gwen Stacy sequence), they find the volume of words pure agony to read. (They'd organize a strike if I tried to make them read Amazing Spider-Man #45!)

It's true that full-color superhero comics "are your worst entertainment value," but to be fair to the publishers, the price per page is to a large extent dictated by the high production values and low number of units sold. You think translated manga are cheap? Here in Japan, a 200 page TPB (about 17 x 11 cm) costs 410 yen with tax. That's $3.52 at today's exchange rate. They're not that cheap because the publishers aren't greedy, but because the number of units sold is so absurdly high that the publishers can still rake in massive profits at that unit price. (In fact, since translated manga sell so much better today than they did just seven years ago, the unit price should be even cheaper than it is!)

Still, I absolutely agree that Marvel seriously dropped the ball with the Ultimate line. They should have done whatever it took to get the price per volume down to something a teenager would fork over without much hesitation. There's no reason fans of manga wouldn't also enjoy Ultimate Spider-Man.

Having said that, I think there's decompression that serves the work as a whole, and there's decompression that is basically fluff and filler. And there's the fatal flaw of the whole technicolor longjohns genre: there is no overarching, beginning-middle-end story. Titles (and those damned, ridiculous "universes") meander on aimlessly for decades, with no end in sight, until sales drop to the point where they are simply axed. In television, they finally figured out that endless dramas were dead-end enterprises. (Remember M.A.S.H.? Lasted longer than the Korean War, and by the end was as painful to watch?)

When will Marvel and D.C. wake up and smell the coffee here? How about trying creator-driven projects that have a planned beginning, middle and end, and aren't tied to some cursed "universe"?

Oops. Got way off topic there. Sorry.

joncormier said...

What a fantastic post.

On the one hand, I like done in one complete floppies, on the other I feel my IQ lowering if I read too many comics from the era that was most prevalent.

I'm wondering what the hybrid is? Jonah Hex? That was good but also got repetitive. I guess I'll just keep on keeping on then.

Mike Haseloff said...

I think I'm always happy to see someone pointing out the otherwise obvious failings of the much-talked-about Ultimate Spider-man.

Bendis has his moments, but contrary to popular belief, USM has never been one of them.

Mike Haseloff said...

A similar, but reversed point, comparing work ten years ago to now.

Brett said...

I just keep thinking about the poor guy who lettered Spider-Man#45. Was it Artie Simek? He would have killed for a copy of Illustrator and those drones at Comicraft wo letter comic books. Or killed Stan Lee for writing so much dialog. Interestingly, the mid-60s Marvels are much wordier than the early 60s.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Bully! In the interests of full disclosure, just wanted to tell you I was so taken with your marvelous (pun alert!) post, and the interesting discussion here, that I ended up writing about it over at my new blog; I link to you, of course, but being new to this whole blogging thing, wasn't sure about the etiquette of the "blog riff" on another's post, so I wanted to let you know. Although I note disagreements here and there, I hope it comes across as intended: a sign of how incredibly stimulating this discussion (and your whole, fabulous blog) is, and how grateful I am for all the great work you do.

Bully said...

Cinephile, your blog etiquette is perfect. I am in awe and wonder at your thorough and thoughtful post over there.

I'm just merely surprised at how a post which I intended to make people go "hyuk hyuk" has garned so much attention! Really, I was just trying to entertain when I noticed how text-heavy some of those mid-sixties Spideys were.

And for the record, I bought seven floppies today and every single one of them was decent reading value for money, even those beginning new storylines, or continuing them, or ending them. (And one "done in one"!) No five minute reads this week, not even in the usually ultra-swift-paced Bart Simpson.

ChrisW said...

Talk about characterization. In the course of a single page, we know that Foswell is a reporter for the Daily Bugle newspaper, has a secret identity named "Patch", and nothing else is happening so he's going to go find out how Peter Parker gets so many pictures of Spider-Man.

We also learn that JJJ is the publisher of the Bugle, that he's a bit of an ogre even when his employees are on coffee breaks, and that the Lizard was seen recently.

We learn that Betty and Ned are two employees of the Bugle, and are planning to get married, discussing who to invite and so forth.

We learn that Peter Parker (who is secretly Spider-Man) has hurt his arm fighting the Lizard, and needs to hide this fact in order to protect his secret identity as he goes to college.

Harry Osbourne, a fellow student, is willing to razz Pete about his arm, but is also a basically decent guy, while Flash Thompson, another fellow student, is a loudmouth.

There's also something about a chick named Mary Jane who gets off on red motor-scooters. That's a lot of information to be given from one page.

Based on the last page from "Ultimate" given, there's a girl named Mary who's really scared of the boy, whose name is unknown, and something just happened that makes the boy's Aunt May suspicious of hanky-panky. In context, I'm sure there's more information provided, but the contrast with the page of "Amazing" is very clear.

Brian Doan said...

Cool! And thanks for the kind words, Bully!

Glenn Hauman said...

Brilliant comments, Bully. Can I quote you?

Leigh Walton said...

Golly. Those later issues of Cerebus that had thousands of words per page must be really entertaining.

Leigh Walton said...

I mean, I see your point, but trying to quantify this kind of thing is silly.
--Telling a story with pictures is more difficult than with words, if difficulty is important to you.
--It's also closer to "pure" comics, if purity is important to you.
--Is The Starry Night a superior painting to A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte because it takes up less space?
--Personally, that page of ASM #45 gives me a headache.
--My favorite things on ALL of these pages: the facial expressions. The Ditko faces especially. Look at Peter's smarmy grin in panel 4.
--etc. I don't think efficiency is a useful concept in aesthetics.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if people are still reading this but...

There so much more storytelling in those pages from Amazing Spider-Man #13 than in the Ultimate Spider-Man issue. We learn so much more about the characters and plot from those panels.

When I read a Lee/Ditko story, I feel as if I've read something substantive. While I like Ultimate Spider-Man, it often feels a little lightweight. "More" doesn't always translate into "better," but if the product is good to begin with (as the Lee/Ditko stuff is), more is always better!

Crestmere said...

Comics are a visual medium. Its nice that there are people who are finally realizing that. Just imagine what it would have been like if some of the old masters were working on books today. Those old comics were like a novel with a little stick figure in them. There was no authorship, structurally a lot of them were total messes and, honestly, they aren't very fun to read today. As someone with a film background, its nice to see that the comics are actually trying to communicate to me in a way that I understand (and this is as someone who isn't a huge comic veteran, mostly dabbling in reading them to research writing them, something I kind of fell in to after looking at film and while still trying to write movies).

Anonymous said...

I must admit to being an unabashed fan of the Silver Age, where a lot more concepts were introduced in a few issues than are done in a DECADE today. And yes, I imitate their wordiness, retro as that might be. (Of course, that MIGHT be because I'm a much better WRITER than I am an artist...)