Monday, July 02, 2007

Decompression... what does it mean?


Decompression. It’s one of those new terms that strikes up a conversation with comic book fans that’ll likely result in a rather heated debate.

First off what the hell does it mean? Wikipedia defines it as this: “Decompression is a stylistic choice in comic book storytelling, characterized by a strong emphasis on visuals or character interaction and usually resulting in slow-moving plots.” It even gives a page as an example, this one being from an issue of Astonishing X-Men #14 by Joss Whedon and John Cassiday. The Wiki entry goes on to mention that it originated in Japanese Manga and recently became popular in the mid to late 90’s through writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Warren Ellis.



I’ve read quite a few articles on the subject and it’s a topic that you can rarely find a straight answer. You often hear that it means stretching out the plot. But how and why is the writer stretching out the plot? Isn’t stretching out the plot really the same as “padding the story”?

I’ve been on message boards discussing the topic where Big Name creators have joined the conversation and said that a page long fight sequence is padding the story. That really struck me as surprising. Check out the aforementioned X-Men page. Can using 5 panels to show Wolverine say “Good morning” to his fellow X-Men not be padding while at the same time a 5-panel fight sequence is padding?

I just don’t get it. This is where I get hung up. And when I try to boil down why I disagree with this it comes back to what I want out of a comic book. A mixture of action and story.

Sure decompression is a stylistic choice, but it’s a choice that I wish wasn’t as popular as it’s become. At times a decompressed story can be a fun read but when it’s not working, decompression is just flat-out unreadable. So much so that it makes me feel like I just wasted my money.

Going back to where decompression started there is something that basically goes hand in hand with it. Widescreen panels. The cinematic approach to comic book storytelling. Our handy X-Men page above shows this technique as clear as day. A handful of other artists who are going this route are Bryan Hitch (Ultimates, The Authority) and Alex Maleev (Daredevil). Both of which are partners of Warren Ellis and Brian Bendis. Taking this cinematic approach obviously makes the artist and writer think in terms of cinema. 24 frames per second. The “time between the notes on a piece of music” is how an uber-popular writer explained decompression to me. An interesting concept but is this why people buy comics? For the time between the notes? Don’t people want the crescendo and not the silence between?

Hulk smashing a car on top of Ben Grimm’s head is a big note I don’t want to miss. I’m not really interested in the notes between the cars smashing into Grimm’s rocky dome.

Once again, if we use that X-Men page as an example you’ve got 2 silent panels capturing those “moments between the notes”. All right, sure. But are people really interested in an entire page of Wolverine sitting in a breakfast nook? There must be as Astonishing X-Men is one of the most popular books on the stands, but that isn’t for me.
Now all that smashing and action isn’t always great for story development but there is room for both. It’s the juggling of those 2 essential elements that make me love comics. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko packed Spider-Man’s origin into a space smaller than today’s standard comic book format of 22 pages. I believe it’s something like 15 pages? (if anyone out there has that info handy, let me know). Take today’s retelling of Spidey’s origin in Ultimate Spider-Man (by Bendis) and we got that story spread out through 5 issues. I enjoyed the story, but I do remember thinking that I can’t believe they stretched this out to 5 issues. And that was way before I’d heard of decompressed storytelling.

What will this latest storytelling trend lead to in the future? Is decompressed storytelling to today’s comic culture what the dark, gritty realism of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns was to the 1980’s comic culture? We got some real crappy comics out of that movement but we also got some great one’s like “Kraven’s Last Hunt” by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck. The problem is, can we really compare today’s comics like Ultimate Spider-Man and The Authority to Watchmen and Dark Knight?

Hmm. I don’t think so.

But we can sit back and watch the ride. Or seek out some comics with Batman knocking some thugs teeth out. Or go with the Fantastic Four eating dinner at a diner for 16 pages. The choice is yours. The shelves are full of comics these days.

Thanks for reading.
--Randy

4 comments:

Jared said...

Decompression is supposed to be about stripping away everything but the basic plot and character motivations. All the Spidey self examination, explanatory pages, foreshadowing, thought balloons, and breaks in the plot are gone. If you look at earlier Warren Ellis work such as Stormwatch or The Authority (I like Stormwatch better) this is how things are. No wasted motion. That's the ideal.
The problem is that in the hands of lesser talents (just about everybody) if you strip away all of those things that are in a writers bag of tricks and get down to just the plot you find out many writers doesn't have many good plots. That's why nothing happens. They have nothing. Super hero comics are all about the plot and Ellis' decompression didn't change that. It's just that bad plots are easier to spot now because all the other decorations on the tree are gone. If you didn't like the plot of an old school super hero comic you could at least like the art, the fight scenes, or some of the dialogue.
Nowadays if a writer wants to give us a lot of super hero "characterization" with no real action (because the plot is so thin) then they enter the world of stories about actual people. Super hero stories can't compete in that world. Box Office Poison, Love and Rockets, Palookaville, Peep Show, and lots of other indie stuff do stuff about real people full time. It's the passion of the creators and they are talented at it. A half-assed compromised version of "real people" as super heroes can't compete. Who cares what insights into life Wolverine has?
I think there is nothing wrong with "decompression". Except it reveals the flaws of a writer's story in a very glaring way.
In the page you show the problem isn't that that we get a page of the X-Men doing nothing to pad the story. The problem is that the page of the X-Men doing nothing IS the story. That's what makes is so boring. It's a bad boring page. The layout is boring, the drawing is boring, the script is boring, the storytelling is boring, and the plot is boring. Even people as talented as the Astonishing X-Men Team can make boring comics. That's the problem I have with the Astonishing X-Men. Some of it is good and some of it is dull, dull, dull.
Don't get me started on how boring origin stories are. There's a reason that they used to be done in eight pages. I think telling origin stories over six issues has nothing to do with decompression though. Just writers who are also fans trying to add their stamp to the "legend". A desire to be a part of it all.

RandyG said...

Preach on, Dawg.

See, this is why I love the decompression discussion. There are always points brought up that I'd never thought of.

Your plot does have to be rock solid for it to work because it's going to be so drawn out that the reader is going to have tons of time to examine it.

I've honestly never like anything by Whedon. I couldn't get into Buffy, I watched Serenity and was just blown away by its mediocrity. And add Cassiday, an artist who draws a pretty picture but it just seems stagnant and lifeless to me and I'm not even touching an issue of Astonishing.

I don't know why decompression has spread to other writers or why editors don't try to reign these guys in when they're boring the hell out of people, but hopefully it'll all die out soon. But doesn't look like it will anytime soon.

Thanks, for the post, man.

RandyG said...

Preach on, Dawg.

See, this is why I love the decompression discussion. There are always points brought up that I'd never thought of.

Your plot does have to be rock solid for it to work because it's going to be so drawn out that the reader is going to have tons of time to examine it.

I've honestly never like anything by Whedon. I couldn't get into Buffy, I watched Serenity and was just blown away by its mediocrity. And add Cassiday, an artist who draws a pretty picture but it just seems stagnant and lifeless to me and I'm not even touching an issue of Astonishing.

I don't know why decompression has spread to other writers or why editors don't try to reign these guys in when they're boring the hell out of people, but hopefully it'll all die out soon. But doesn't look like it will anytime soon.

Thanks, for the post, man.

RandyG said...

Preach on, Dawg.

See, this is why I love the decompression discussion. There are always points brought up that I'd never thought of.

Your plot does have to be rock solid for it to work because it's going to be so drawn out that the reader is going to have tons of time to examine it.

I've honestly never like anything by Whedon. I couldn't get into Buffy, I watched Serenity and was just blown away by its mediocrity. And add Cassiday, an artist who draws a pretty picture but it just seems stagnant and lifeless to me and I'm not even touching an issue of Astonishing.

I don't know why decompression has spread to other writers or why editors don't try to reign these guys in when they're boring the hell out of people, but hopefully it'll all die out soon. But doesn't look like it will anytime soon.

Thanks, for the post, man.