Lady Sabre and the Ineffable Aether

Posted: September 9, 2011 in Braak, comic books, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , ,

You may remember this comic, from when it inspired me to write nearly ten thousand words on the subject of fictional swordplay.  I am very much in favor of it, generally, and I very much want to like it, but I can’t.  And the reason that I can’t is this:

The pacing is all wrong.

I know it seems weird for me to tell veterans of the comic book industry how to pace their comics — because who am I?  Nobody, obviously — and I want to make it clear that I only say this with the best of intentions and absolutely as a constructive criticism, but you can NOT pace a two-page-a-week comic like this.

The essential issue with spaced-out-pages is that you can’t decompress them the way that you do in denser graphic novels.  Watchmen, the sort of gold standard for the use of decompression, honestly works far better as a novel than it does as single issues — because even though each issue was full of ideas, the actual narrative arc was spread out so far that there’s something traumatic about it grinding to a halt every thirty pages.

With Lady Sabre, we’ve got something even worse:  one page is just Lady Sabre leaping off of a space zeppelin.  The next page is her falling into space.  The next page is her landing in a net on her ship.  The page after that is her standing on the ship with all of her friends.  The LAST page is the ship flying away from the zeppelin.

That is THREE WEEKS of comics.  In the course of three weeks, Lady Sabre has jumped off a zeppelin, landed on a ship, and flown away.


Let me suggest a general rule for page-a-day (or page-a-couple-of-days) comics:  every page has to have its own story arc, in which it enjoys a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The beginning reminds us what we saw last time, the middle resolves it or complicates it, and the end leaves us with a question about what will happen next.  Historically, things like newspaper comic strips did this with three panels or, in the case of (PHENOMENALLY SUCCESSFUL) stories like Prince Valiant, did the beginning and end parts with narration, leaving just one image to illustrate the event.

Look at page 16 and 17.  Ostensibly, you could say that page 16 fulfills the requirements I suggest:  Lady Sabre running is the continuation from the last page, her running some more is the middle idea, and her jumping off the edge is what leaves us with a question:  “What will happen next!?!?”

I mean, kind of.  Except that page FIFTEEN makes it pretty obvious that she’s going to jump off the zeppelin (because we already know there’s no where to go), that “continuing to run” in no way resolves or complicates the action of “beginning to run”, and that it’s abundantly clear from this page that she means to land on something.  We don’t know what, but it doesn’t matter — there’s a tension in the question “what is she going to do?”, but that question is answered the second she begins her swan dive.  There is no tension in, “What is she going to land on?”  Just like there is absolutely no tension on page 17, which leaves us with the question, “IS SHE GOING TO LAND IN THAT NET THAT IS OBVIOUSLY THERE EXPLICITLY FOR HER TO LAND IN?”  That is not a dramatic question, I did not want to read a comic for six weeks to ask that question.

On page 19, we are reminded what happened last time — there was a duel and a flying ship.  But “the ship is flying” and “Hans puts away his sabre” neither resolve nor complicate the action of “fighting a duel, and jumping onto a flying ship”.  Furthermore, the page leaves us with nothing except the realization that Hans is flabbergasted, which has the two problems of: 1) not being a particularly interesting question for next time, and 2) making Hans seem kind of stupid.  He just watched his ex-girlfriend who is the captain of a flying ship and who had been in disguise to steal some important thing in what is part of an obviously complex plan take a running swan dive off the edge of the space zeppelin.  Are we actually meant to believe that Hans thought…what, that she was committing suicide?  Despite her not looking trapped or desperate or anything?  Despite the fact that he knows that SHE HAS A FLYING SHIP?

I guarantee that, hyperbolic comments on 16 notwithstanding, no single person saw her jump off the edge of the zeppelin without thinking that there was going to be something underneath her.

What is the point of all this?  The point is there are five or so pages here that could, and should, be condensed into one:  duel ends, lady Sabre leaps, she lands on the ship.  That’s one page.  Lady Sabre leaping off the side of the space zeppelin?  That’s one panel.  That is not two pages.

Hans looking flabbergasted as the ship clips his ear?  That is one panel, that is not two pages.

This is really just a point, I think, about decompression in comics.  I am a great advocate for webcomics, for digital delivery, for every thing that the internet is letting people do with the genre; but I think that it’s equally important that the art that you make on the internet is designed to fit your distribution system.  If you are releasing two pages a week, the pages need to be self-contained and dramatic.  Something has to happen on every page — there has to be a joke, a fight, a reveal.  And something has to be unresolved on every page; each one has to end with a legitimate question about what’s going to happen next.

I realize it’s been a while since any major comic writers have had to write this way — considering we’ve had 24-page comic books for decades, I’d actually bet most professional writers have never had to write that way — but if you’re going to switch to a…well, let’s call it a smaller “packet” (that is:  several small packets per month, compared to one large one), that packet has to have a lot more information in it.

  1. lowkey says:

    It’s for posts like this that I love Threat Quality so much. Granted, I’m pretty certain I could say that about every single post of TQ ever, but let’s not let that fact cheapen this moment.

    I’ve been thinking about what you wrote, and as best I can figure, in my experience, Doctor McNinja provides the best fusion of the older-style comicbook form with the internet. There are, every now and again, a page or two that has to temporarily tread water, but by-far-and-away, Christopher Hastings has a very good feel for the tension between “each page tells a story, and be enjoyable for itself until the next update” and “each page needs to be part of a story, and thereby be unresolved.”

  2. braak says:

    I agree completely. And I think that, because Dr. McNInja is generally so on-point about making each page both individually interesting and generally interesting, it’s much easier to accept the times when he sometimes treads water.

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