You’re Traveling Through Another Dimension. And Doing it Verrrrrry Slowly

Before there was Joss Whedon there was J. Michael Straczynski. He was the wunderkind behind Babylon 5 who wowed fans with the notion of supposedly having a story planned out before telling it, something which future TV series would later claim to do and then clumsily reveal that this was not the case. JMS followed up his small screen success by moving to the world of comics, a smaller pond where he had the chance of being an enormous fish. He mostly wrote for Marvel and DC, so I can’t tell you much about his work in comics (I did read the first trade of Rising Stars, which was not good.) but I know that folks whose opinions I respect don’t think much of his work there. I know that he wrote a Superman story in which Superman doesn’t fly and one where Superman hands machine guns out to people and watches them murder folks. The Superman not flying one was going to take him a year to tell.

Normally I wouldn’t even be thinking about this guy, but someone linked me to an interview with him. He’s slated to do some Twilight Zone comic, and was chatting about it. Check this out:

Some folks online have said that the issues should be stand-alone stories, but that misses a very key point: if you extract the amount of script from the average comic book, it’s equal to maybe ten or twelve TV script pages. So if you put 3-4 issues together, you have the equivalent of one half-hour TV episode. You can’t do a Twilight Zone story in ten pages, or one twenty-two page comic book; you need to be able to establish and develop the character, and that takes time. You could never do a single comic book with the depth of storytelling you’d get in, say, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, or “The Obsolete Man”. So by doing our stories in 4 issue arcs we’re doing just what would’ve been done in one episode.

Now, JMS has written more comics and TV shows than I ever have or will, but I still think that paragraph simultaneously fails to comprehend The Twilight Zone, comics, and writing. To wit:

1) Gold Key and EC Comics would be very interested in hearing that you just can’t do a Twilight Zone type story in a single comic book, as both did just that. Gold Key did it for 92 issues and it was EC’s stock-in-trade. Not only did they somehow manage to tell suspenseful supernatural tales within the confines of a single comic book issue, they often told several different ones in the same issue. They weren’t alone, either; anthology books of this type were everywhere.


Fig 1: One of 92 issues of a comic it’s impossible to do

2) A modern comic only fills about 12 pages of TV script because modern comics (from the companies for which JMS writes) are bloated messes designed to stretch a storyline out in order to create a trade paperback. It’s called “decompressed storytelling” and it’s the reason why too many comics issues can be read in just a few minutes. It’s not any kind of fundamental law of comics storytelling that can’t be altered, and it’s not a superior method to any other. You don’t have to shrug and say, “that’s just the way it is!” because here’s the thing: you’re the writer. You have control over how much is packed into an issue. It’s what you’re being paid to do.

3) I love The Twilight Zone. I’m not an uberfan, and I haven’t seen every episode, but I watched a bunch of it when I was a kid. I have seen “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and yes, it’s one of the best episodes. But if you couldn’t tell that story in 22 pages of comics then you have no business writing them. It’s not a complicated story. It doesn’t require a lot of set-up. It’s a great episode but when people talk about it, nobody says, “the best part was the depth of the characters!” JMS, saying you couldn’t do that story in 22 pages condemns you as a writer more than any snark I could say.

4) Finally, if you are ballooning Twilight Zone stories out to four issues, you don’t understand The Twilight Zone and the stories it’s telling. As Dave T. pointed out to me, even fans of the television series tend to regard season four, when the show expanded to an hour-long format, to be its weakest one. This was mandated by the network, and the show’s creators knew it wasn’t a good idea. These types of stories need to be short. They rely on a moment, something akin to a punchline in a joke, and lose their effectiveness if one takes one’s time getting there. “I have a great zinger of a story!” is something you never say and then take four months to tell that story. JMS has been assigned to write stories he doesn’t understand.

The obvious conclusion is not that JMS doesn’t get The Twilight Zone. He has some credits on one of its substandard remakes. What’s more likely here is that JMS is writing some book he wants to write that can be pumped full of air and be given the “depth” that four-issue story arcs allow and they’re just slapping a “Twilight Zone” title on it because at this point, “The Twilight Zone” may be more likely to grab readers’ attention than “J. Michael Straczynski”.

Alls I know is, now I want to read a big stack of those Gold Key comics, the ones that JMS says can’t be done.

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