For those of you who know me, you know that I'm an avid fan of comic books. And I think about them a lot. And, as I sit here at my computer instead of in bed next to my lovely wife, it is because I have just perceived what I see to be a flawed understanding of the entire comic book medium. This has nothing particular to do with the source material per-say, but is rather a realization of a misunderstanding as to the closest analogy comic books have with other media.
Most people assume that comic books are just like books, but with more pictures. For some forms of comic books, such as graphic novels*, this would certainly be true, but for monthly based issues of comic books, it seems less clear. Others would say that comic books are like movies that don't move. This might also be true, but it falls under the same difficulty as the argument for books.
Movies and books, although commonly having sequels, are, for the most part, stand-alone works. When one watches a movie or reads a book, one is presented with a story that has a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Even books or movies that have sequels usually have some sort of story progression in mind. Comic books do not function this way.
When writers of a comic book begin the project, they have no idea how long it is going to last. A new comic book could last for 70 years, or it could last for 70 days. Often times comic books continue far beyond the plot; that is to say, that they continue even after they've run out of ideas. Sometimes comic books are cancelled even with a loyal burgeoning fan base and promising story-telling. What other medium does this sound like?
Oh, that's right. Television. Much like television, comic books are subject to the whims of periodic survival. If someone is in the middle of a movie with a confusing plot, they are more likely to give the movie time to develop and elucidate, since it will only be a few hours and they have already invested time and money into beginning to watch. Comic books and television, however, are judged not as a whole endeavor but by the bits and pieces we see on a regular basis. Until the recent advent of seasons on DVD, it wasn't even possible to watch a whole TV series beginning to end in one, fluid perception.
Much the same with comic books. Most either suffer from not explaining enough what's been happening or instead waste half of the issue catching the reader up on the story. And, much like TV, comics are not given as much time to develop story without readers losing interest. We are often left, then, with two equally bad kinds of story telling: what I will call "Gilligan's Island" comic books and "Lost" comic books.
With "Gilligan's Island" comic books, there is little opportunity to lose sense of the story. Although there are overarching themes (such as being stranded on an island, or Batman fights crime), issues have little interconnection of story-telling. Instead, they tend to function as isolated units that are hampered by all the constraints of single-issue storytelling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, "Lost" comic books certainly have a central plot. The only problem is, by the time the story ends things have become so convoluted that you're not always sure what exactly it is you're reading about anymore. When little changes in the plot between issues 1-19, and then the reader is suddenly expected to remember (without help from the writer) a minor detail of issue 4 that is suddenly vitally important, this can often become frustrating.
So next time you watch Adam West dance the batusi, remember how hard comic book (and television) writers have it.
*I use the term "comic book" generally to apply to pictures with words interpreting them. I know some do not consider graphic novels to be comic books, but for the sake of argument, just go with me.
"The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness."