Friday, 10 July 2015

Deep Sequencing: Dead Trees

Or a look at the unusual story structure of Trees: Volume One
by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard; Image Comics.

with additional commentary on The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1 
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

There is a weird thing that happens when you follow enough comics people on twitter: you find yourself eavesdropping on conversations between creators where they talk shop. You feel like a total creep, but you are also exposed to some really cool and insightful ideas. One such idea, floated by Kieron Gillen, is that Trees by Ellis and Howard, has an unusual narrative structure that has more in common with prose novels than the majority of direct market comics. And when I eventually read Trees, I was struck by how profoundly right Kieron Gillen was about this and that this choice is pretty interesting. 

As part of my day job I teach Academic Science writing to Biochemistry students. A byproduct of this is that I tend to think about writing in the context of objectives, that every block of writing is designed to tell the audience something. In academic writing the goal is often to explain something very complex as quickly as possible using a combination of plain English for clarity and jargon for efficiency and specificity of meaning. (I am probably not the fun TA...) Science writing is extremely formalized though, and usually breaks into common sections in Academic Journals that each have a particular objective. An Introduction section is designed to declare what the main goal of the presented research is and to contextualize that goal so the audience knows just what the hell you are trying to figure out. A Results section presents data that Scientific Readers can study themselves and reach their own conclusions on (Quoth the Science Guy: "But don't take my word for it!"). A Methods section explains how the research was done so a reader could try these experiments themselves if they wanted to. And so on. My point here is that the overall goal of Science Writing is made of subsections that have smaller goals that when added together function together to make the larger piece of writing work.

(This previous paragraph was designed to introduce the idea of objectives in writing and portioning them off into sections. Conversely, it may have just been super boring and made you fuck off from reading the rest of this.)

In fiction the broad goal is something like to entertain an audience and make them feel feelings. This larger goal is conveyed by chunks of story, delivered in a variety of mediums, that each serve some broader objective to the larger story in an aesthetic way. But the way the individual packets of a larger work, the quanta of the story, actually assemble together to make the larger fiction work can be radically different. And as Kieron Gillen pointed out, Trees delivers its information in an unusual way.

(Seriously, how have you not fucked off already?)

Because Kieron Gillen infected me with this idea and because I think his work with Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles are excellent examples of a certain mode of comics storytelling I want to look at The Wicked + The Divine as an example of the usual approach to direct market comics. WicDiv has an overall objective of entertaining an audience and making them feel feelings. The series is first published as monthly magazine format comics in the direct market. If we look at these monthly format comics, the smallest published unit, each individual issue works like a semi-independent story. The objective of each unit is to tell a complete narrative arch that is a satisfying reading experience on its own: each issue introduces a premise, forwards the plot and character development, builds to a climactic event, and usually ends on a cliffhanger that builds interest for the next instalment. At the same time, each of these individual issues are also designed to work as components of a larger story, a chapter-like arch of collected issues, as well as a discrete whole. Essentially, in this model every issue of comics is an episode witch each collected chapter functioning as a season with discrete, equivalent chunks. Or put another way, WicDiv and similar comics work, broadly speaking, like TV.


Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, is a whole other kind of beast. While the overall story is meant to be entertaining and make the audience feel feelings, it doesn't break down clearly into discrete episodes. In fact, reading Trees Vol. 1 as a trade paperback, I found it difficult to find the seams of the direct market issues that made the larger whole. Instead of discrete, complete episodes, Trees works in shorter narrative blocks that focus intensely on the subplots that comprise the larger story. These smallest story units also have a similar focus on objective: they deliver these intense bursts of plot advancement or character development or information. They are also mostly pretty short, and quickly switch between subplots. This makes Trees Vol. 1 read like a single chapter in a prose novel, split into short "***" divided sections that move between viewpoints. The entire collected "chapter" tells a cohesive chunk of story, but it's constituent components do not. Which, I imagine, must make monthly issues of Trees read like opening a story mid-chapter, reading a few pages, and then bailing out before finishing the chapter. 

When comparing WicDiv Vol. 1 (Above) with Trees Vol. 1 (Below) you can see just how different the two story structures are. These sketches are not to scale or anything, but just general sketch out the shape/structure of the plot.

The collection of WicDiv takes advantage of having a more focused narrative where the creators use events and layout to throttle the tension as the story continues. WicDiv also takes advantage of having discrete chapter breaks to pace the reading experience and give convenient points for readers to put the comic down. The plot structure works very well, and really, WicDiv is a great example of a focused single plotline comic done well.

Trees, conversely, has multiple story streams that all sort of build smoothly, since the comic seldom focuses on individual narratives to throttle the narrative. Instead story tension is buil t initially by a gradual progression of events, and later, by very quick, short clipping between eventful sections of subplots. It's tension from editing. Which I found very effective when combined with the lack of obvious breaks: Trees was consistently a very hard comic to put down because there was always another moment of discovery coming. I am not sure how well this approach worked in individual issues but the tradepaperback was a very engaging and cohesive reading experience.

Which, I guess, goes to show that there are legion ways to make good comics, because despite radically different story structures, Trees and WicDiv Volumes 1 are excellent comics.

So I Read Trees Vol. 1
So I Read The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1

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