The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 216 | One and Done: In praise of the “standalone issue”

Leaving Proof 216 | One and Done: In praise of the “standalone issue”
Published on Thursday, March 13, 2014 by
Contemporary comics creators such as David Lapham, Antony Johnston, and Becky Cloonan keep the conceit of the “standalone issue” relevant in an era of “trade-waiting” and “writing for the trade.”

Stan Lee is credited with popularizing the maxim that “every comic is somebody’s first,” although it’s probably been expressed before by other, earlier comics pioneers. This commonly-held rule of thumb carries with it the implication that every comic should be accessible to a reader who is coming into the series cold, and that every issue, whether it is part of a longer ongoing narrative arc or a “standalone story,” should contain the basic elements of classical, linear narrative structure—a beginning devoted to exposition and the introduction of the setting and characters, followed by rising action and a climax, and finally, some sort of resolution or revelation at the issue’s end.

Even as today’s serial comics are increasingly geared towards being easily compiled into trades or hardcovers and the idea of the self-contained, standalone issue has given way to the “standalone story arc,” the lessons of “every comic is somebody’s first” have been shown to be quite scalable: The qualities that make for a good standalone single-issue story—accessibility to new readers, a three-part (or five-part) dramatic structure, storytelling clarity—also make for a good standalone story arc spread over three, four, five, or six issues.

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Even acclaimed veteran writers will sometimes succumb to the temptation of writing “As you know, Bob” or “idiot lecture” dialogue. (Pictured: Panel detail from Avengers: Endless Wartime, story by Warren Ellis, illustrations by Mike McKone.)

The implied practical guidelines in “every comic (or trade or graphic novel) is somebody’s first” shouldn’t be followed blindly and indiscriminately in every situation, of course. Their ham-fisted application can lead to comics that spend way too many pages on establishing context or recaps of prior events, characters speaking in a stilted expository manner (otherwise known as “as you know, Bob” or “idiot lecture” dialogue), predictable and formulaic plots, and a rushed storytelling pace. In addition, many comics creators have subverted the rule’s conventions to great creative effect, whether it’s just a matter of launching a story in medias res or something more dramatic and unconventional.

Still, I will find myself occasionally wistful for the time when I could sit down with a random issue from some random series, reasonably confident that I would get a more-or-less complete story—more bang for my buck (or ₱20.00, as the prevailing exchange rate was back in the day), if you will.

[An aside: I want to make clear that I’m not some nostalgist who thinks comics were better across the board when I was in grade school (or when I was a teen, or when I was a younger man). For all the complaints about contemporary comics I’ve occasionally given vent to in this space, I think the overall state of the collective comics art form has improved from where it was, say, a quarter of a century ago, as today’s best creators learn from and build on the work of those who came before them and techniques evolve and theories are refined—although it has to be said that the worst of today’s comics have also explored new lows in poor execution. We also no longer have to deal with the quasi-censorship of the Comics Code Authority (although challenges to free expression in comics remain topics of concern to this day), changes in industry demographics have allowed for the use of more diverse themes, stories, and characters, and the Internet has made it easier than ever before for readers and creators to find comics and even educate themselves about the art form and medium.]

wastelandvol5_cover

The first four standalone “one-shot”-style issues of Wasteland (issues #7, 14, 20, and 25) have been collected in a separate trade paperback.

All that said, the standalone issue hasn’t fallen completely out of favor in these days when “trade-waiting” makes more economic sense for many readers and “writing for the trade” is the industry norm. The Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards continue to recognize the value of the standalone issue with honors specifically for “Best Single Issue or One-Shot”—last year’s Eisner winner was Becky Cloonan’s excellent The Mire (Ink and Thunder) while Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga #1 (Image Comics)  bagged the plum’s Harvey counterpart. Many recent and current ongoing series, such as Antony Johnston’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic comic Wasteland (Oni Press), are periodically interspersed with standalone issues depicting events that can be enjoyed apart from the primary continuity of the series. Wasteland goes one further than your typical series by separately collecting these standalone “one-shot”-style issues in a handy trade paperback.

There is, however, perhaps no better modern embodiment of the “every comic is somebody’s first” philosophy than David Lapham’s multiple Eisner Award-winning series Stray Bullets, which is coming back this week under the Image Comics banner after an almost nine-year hiatus with Stray Bullets #41—drawing the original Stray Bullets run to a close—and Stray Bullets: Killers #1, the first issue of a new “season” for the acclaimed crime comic.

straybullets01_coverHere’s the concept of Stray Bullets‘ format in a nutshell: It’s an ongoing crime comic, designed to be the ultimate new reader-friendly title. Each 32-page issue is a standalone story with a discrete beginning, climax, and conclusion, but it’s also designed to fit in as part of a larger narrative that stretches from the 1970s all the way to the 1990s. On top of that, the stories aren’t told sequentially—the events portrayed in issue #1 occurred some twenty years after the events portrayed in issue #2, for example—although Lapham starts each issue with the date indicating when the particular issue’s events happened. A reader so inclined can read all the stories in the linear chronological order based on those dates. The genius of how Lapham has constructed the series is that a new reader can jump into Stray Bullets with a random issue and he or she won’t need to be familiar with any prior issues to extract enjoyment from it as a standalone story. Another consequence of this approach is that the drawbacks of having gaps in any Stray Bullets collection are minimized, since the stories are intended to be self-contained and coherent even when the individual issues are read out of order based on the issue numbering. As the writer-artist explained in a 2013 interview:

I’ve designed “Stray Bullets” for the kind of reader that I am. I don’t go into comic book shops regularly, so when I go in, I don’t want to pick up stuff that I’m going to be confused by when I’m reading. If I get stuck with my life and come back to something three months later, I want to come back to a series and just pick up the story.

straybullets02_coverIt’s not a perfect arrangement per my experience—many issues definitely “read better” when considered within the context provided by events portrayed in certain other issues and an underlying sense of linear sequencing does emerge after reading several issues based on their release order—but the execution of the approach is successful overall. I especially appreciate the interactive transtextuality of the whole thing. Just as the “gutters” between panels encourage an interactive reading of a comic page where the reader actively “fills in” what happens between panels, so does the chronologically disjoint sequencing of the stories in Stray Bullets encourage a similar interactivity, with readers either actively drawing from memory events depicted in previously read issues or imagining as-yet undepicted events from whole cloth, to fill in the gaps in time between issues.

For those of you interested in seeing firsthand how Lapham’s unique combination of non-sequential serialization and standalone issues works, the first four issues of Stray Bullets are available for free on the Image Comics website as DRM-free downloads (PDF, ePUB, CBZ, and CBR formats) and also on comiXology, if you prefer going that route.

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