A Case For Single Issues: Bones
Single comic issues are the oldest part of comic books as we know them, the format originally being collected reprints of newspaper strips (Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Fun in 1933). As the format grew in popularity, original content was created for the young lovechild of magazines and newspapers. Exploding in newsstand sales, they’ve continued their serialized storytelling ever since in some form or another, shifting from corner newsstands and convenience stores to direct market specialty shops.
However about 15 years ago a slight shift happened. Publishers started to collect single issues into trade paper backs, moving the market (again) to book stores. The graphic novel section has been a growing part of books stores since, with classic and current story lines side by side. While I love the expansion of audience and availability, I personally still prefer the nearly 90 year old format of single issues.
Let’s cover some background of single issues to start us off. Serialization of stories is even older than comics, and has come in many different forms. The periodical magazines of the 19th century brought us most of what we think of as classic novels today. Ever wonder why War and Peace is so long? It’s because Tolstoy released sections over two years. He didn’t release that mammoth of a work in one go, he kept readers interested with chapters at a time. Fast forward to 20th century with movie theaters a growing business and you get the movie serial, 20 minute episodes once a week released to theaters before the feature picture. Literal cliff hangers abounded. TV shows would follow suite soon after when it first gained popularity.
Comics were around at this point, but are fearful of driving away readers by having a multi part adventure. There would be recurring popular villains, but not really any hook for the next issue besides the promise of adventure. This begins to change in the 60s with 2 parters being published as “special issues”. It quickly became standard to have a low level continuity in a comic series, with each issue being self-contained story but sometimes having references to past events or characters, or resolving a tease at the end of the previous issue.
If paced correctly the monthly issue format can keep interest in the series going. Serialization has been proven to keep the audience’s attention while allowing for some breathing room for planning of longer arcs and teases of what’s right around the corner. You don’t have to wait 2 years for a payoff with nothing in-between like a movie. Even if you were able to release a graphic novel every six months, it would cause the story to fall from readers’ minds.
Think about all the advertising spent on sequel movie advertising, all the trailers, teaser images, creator interviews to keep up the hype for two years. It can sometimes cost as much as the movie. Monthly comics do release summaries of new issues along with the first couple pages and the cover image, but no multiple cuts of trailers, cross over promotions with fruit and snack cake companies, posters plastered on buses. They advertise jumping on points, but don’t need the mass promotion to restart the hype machine, keeping costs down.
It also allows for much bigger storytelling. There are so many legendary comic runs where a team is allowed years to unfold the lives of the cast of characters in a book. The most famous recent example would be Ultimate Spider-Man, which for a decade kept a monthly release schedule and a continuing story. It’s an epic with twists and turns, deaths and rebirths, all culminating in Death of Spider-Man (at least for Peter anyway). I can’t imagine, despite how great of a series it is, that the same amount of success would’ve come in strictly collected format.
Now a monthly production schedule is a grueling taskmaster, I’ll admit. But that’s where the one off issues come in. A one off issue can allow for a breath of fresh air for the regular creative team to gather themselves so their continuing story won’t suffer. It also allows for new angles to the story and characters. These little one offs can also allow for new light on the main character as well, showing how others see them or the effect they have on the world.
Some of the best Ultimate Spider-Man moments come from breather issues and J. Jonah Jameson. You see little insights into his complicated feelings towards Spider-Man and why ol’ JJ is on his crusade. Character moments like these enrich the story, giving gold material to longtime fans and drawing new readers in with promise of complexity. These tiny moments are much harder to have in a novel format, with time being much more of a factor.
Having said all this, I know that the floppy single issue is a fragile expensive thing. You have to triage what stories you’re going to invest all that time and money in. I’d argue that this fragility and fracturing make them all the more worthwhile. There’s nothing like getting that next piece of a new story, or finding that old dusty gym in a back issue bin. You can’t get those small moments of satisfaction with collections, or the community of a local shop. In the end, those small moments make it worth it. At least for me.