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Monday, September 8, 2014

Comic Book Runs from a Story Perspective

What exactly is a Comic book “run”? On the surface a run could be defined as a series of comic book issues from the same writer and artist.

But in actuality a “run” is a series of comic book stories from the same team of writers and artists and editors that form into one larger work about the main character.

Some would say each issue in a comic book is like a novel, a chapter in a larger volume. But that’s not exactly accurate.

A novel is a story broken into chapters. And each chapter usually features a scene detailing action that moves the story forward to the climax that concludes the overall story.

Comic books stories are usually broken into arcs of 2-6 issues, and each of these arcs makes up a single story with its own beginning middle and end. So there are multiple stories featuring their own climaxes and conclusions.

A better analogy would be to say a comic book run is like a tapestry or a mosaic. Like a tapestry or a mosaic, each story the writer and artist creates is a block or a thread in a larger picture that shows who the main character or characters are to the reader.

Each issue in a storyline a creative team produces in their run on a characters’ book builds a block or sews a larger thread in a larger picture. And If the run of stories are strong on a comic book series they can make the character stand out in a larger universe of characters.

Like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four. Chris Claremont/ Dave Cockrum and John Byrne’s run on X-Men. David Micheline John Romita Jr’s and Bob Layton’s run on Iron Man. John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four. Frank Miller’s Daredevil. Walt Simonson’s run Thor. Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Batman. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s run on the New Teen Titans. Ron Marz and Darryl Banks’ run on Green Lantern. Mark Waid’s run on Flash. Mark Gruenwald’s run on Captain America and Jim Shooter’s runs on Legion of Super-Heroes and Avengers.

Each of these creative runs by these creative teams came together to form a mosaic that created an image of the character or characters that defined them for a generation of readers.

The writer is the foundation of creating the stories in a comic book run. It’s their words that give the artist the ideas for their pictures. Sometimes the artist helps with the writing like in the case of creative teams like John Byrne and Chris Claremont in later issues of X-Men, and Bob Layton on Iron Man.

A comic book writer has to have a plan for laying out their mosaic before they write the first story. Oftentimes this plan requires them establishing a theme for their stories or a direction for where they want the main character go over the series of issues they’re working on.

Sometimes to create the foundation for their mosaic or tapestry of stories a writer will look to build on the work of previous writers. They’ll study previous runs of older comics to get ideas. Or in the case of Frank Miller on Daredevil, they’ll put finishing details on the previous picture of what the creative teams worked on previously and start fresh towards creating the building blocks towards creating a new picture of the character.

However, a writer has to be careful how they weave their threads or build their tiles. A series of poorly written stories can derail a character. In some cases making them harder for future writers to work with them. And instead of the next writer being able to build on the previous stories with a seamless transition, like Mark Waid did when he took over The Flash from Bill Messener-Loebs, they have to spend six months to a year fixing the damage of a bad run of stories.

The time that creator has to take fixing the damage of a bad thread or bad story blocks can cost a comic book series momentum. And it can keep a rock-solid team of creators form telling their stories and forming a connection with readers.

From a business perspective, transitions on a comic book series run are like a relay race, one creative team hands the baton off to the next. If they get tripped up by bad stories from previous creative runs, it can cost a series its momentum. And in that time a book can lose its readers in the race for sales.

This is why a writer has to be extremely careful what stories they tell. The goal of a good comic book writer is to leave the characters in a better place in the last issue of their run on the series than the first. A place where the new writer can pick up the needle or the tiles and start weaving story threads or building the blocks for their picture of the character.

Good writers make an effort to avoid overusing things like gimmicks and events in their runs. Sure a good gimmick or an event can get people’s attention short-term, but if there aren’t well-written stories after the event has concluded, then the reader has no incentive to continue reading the issues into the run. 

If a run of issues by a comic book creative team run is done correctly, it can lead to a series of comic books that come together into a volume filled with stories that defines the character. If done perfectly, those creative runs can lead to a seamless transition from one creative team to the next. And when these transitions are absolutely seamless, comic book readers focus on the adventures of the character, not the creative teams featured in the credits on the bottom of the splash page.

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  1. I believe it was the late 80s when a group of artists thought they were bigger than their characters. They set comics back at least ten years. I gave up around 1998. Every now and then I'd check out the shelves and see something good like Emporer Joker or House of M. Now I see gimmicky nonsense like undoing Peter Parker's marriage, Red Hulk holding Thor's hammer(wtf??), DC's reboot killing continuity, and more. There's a gulf that separates Jack Kirby from Jim Lee. I would've at least had a conversation before giving Lee editorial control. I would've fired anyone that had Thunderbolt Ross holding Thor's hammer.

    They have a way to go to get those sales back up. I remember you saying comics were for kids. The best stories I read are from the 70s and 80s. If that was for kids, I'm 100% behind going back to that kind of quality.


    1. Me too. I would prefer that.

  2. Vic, Kirby, Stan Lee Buscema were masters of their craft.Even the late great Dwayne McDuffie became a master because he took the time to learn the ropes. During the era of Jim Lee, Rob Lifeld and Todd McFarlane, artists were made into stars and their names were put above the characters. It derailed the industry and ruined comics

    From what I'm seeing with guys like Bill Walko, Josh Howard and Yale Stewart is a return to craft.

    Comics back in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid were definitely for kids. And the storytelling was rock solid. I'd love to see comics get back to that kind of quality because then parents would feel comfortable about sharing comics with kids and sharing the characters with their kids.