Shocking Comics and Binge Television

So, Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead was pretty shocking. I won’t spoil too much. I’ll just say some characters died in dramatic fashion. That episode got a lot of fans talking, in much the same way fans were all a twitter last year after Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding episode. The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards began with a similarly shocking turn of events.

Episodes like these really mark the divide between the new “binge television” and traditional serial dramas.

The objective with most traditional TV dramas is to get on the air and stay on the air as long as possible. The recipe for that seems to be finding a formulaic plot that can be run repetitively over and over again.

Every episode of NBC’s Law and Order or CBS’s CSI is essentially the same. There’s very little variation in the plot structure from week to week, and there’s almost no character development. The same goes for comedies like The Big Bang Theory: the jokes are essentially the same in every episode. In traditional TV, nothing significant changes from episode to episode, season to season. Change is the enemy. When a key actor leaves a series, or when characters get married or have babies, it often means the end is near.

One might say that a lot of the material coming out of the Big 2 comic publishers, DC and Marvel, works the same way. Batman is always pretty much Batman. Peter Parker dies, but then, a year later, he’ll come back to life. Does anyone really believe that Wolverine isn’t going to get his mutant healing power back? Sure, maybe it takes 12 months instead of 22 minutes, but as story arcs end and creative teams move on, the status quo is always reestablished.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC have been doing something very different recently. They aren’t trying to produce shows that casual viewers can pick up and drop and pick up again. They don’t care about making it easy for the uninitiated to jump on at any point and immediately pick up the plot.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC use a different model. They want to “hook” a committed audience of viewers who they expect to tune in every week, or binge watch a series in a weekend. They then try to grow that core audience through word of mouth. Hooking an audience, getting them addicted to a series depends in large part on shock and awe. There need to be unexpected twists. Viewers need to feel as if they can’t miss an episode because something significant could happen at any time.

My impression is that, more and more comics are applying this same storytelling model.

Disclaimer: the rest of this post contains SPOILERS for Sheltered, Jupiter’s Legacy and The Wake. To be clear, I’m only talking about things that have already happened in these series. I have no knowledge of what is going to happen in future issues. 

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The first issue of Ed Brisson’s Sheltered: A Pre-Apocalyptic Tale (which has recently been optioned for a movie) has a shocking finale. As the story begins, the end of the world is coming, and a band of survivalists are preparing for the worst. The first issue catches the reader off guard; just as we feel we’re getting to know the guys in charge of the compound, they’re all brutally executed… by their own kids! The series that looked like it was going to be about the beginning of the end of the world, turns out to be a re-imagining of Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Recent issues of this series have turned the tables again; we’ve gotten our first glimpse of the world outside of the compound and it’s possible the apocalypse is not as imminent as it seemed to the well-armed anti-government types we met in the series’ first arc. All those people stockpiling guns and living in trailers might not be survivalists, but rather paranoid conspiracy theorists. 

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Jupiter’s Legacy, an Image title written by Mark Millar and drawn beautifully by Frank Quietly, is another kick at The Watchmen can, insofar as it’s a superhero comic that really tries to grapple with the nature of superheroes. One could also say it’s a mix between Kingdom Come and The Fantastic Four. The series focuses on a tight-knit group of superheroes who received their powers after a trip to a mysterious island. Now though, they’re older and somewhat jaded after a lifetime of superheroing. Their children have inherited their parents’ powers. Through these kids, Millar is able to analyze the young Hollywood set, the Brody Jenner’s and Paris Hilton’s of the world, people who find themselves famous simply by nature of their existence.

The series takes a radical turn when, three issues in, super-offspring Brandon kill’s his Super-dad on the advice of his ambitious uncle, who has dreams of using his powers to turn the United States into a socialist utopia.

Issue 4 of this series was just released after a very, very long hiatus. It’s a high quality book, so fans are likely to stick with it, and maybe in the interim, Jupiter’s Legacy picked up some buzz. I know I didn’t start reading it until after the third issue was published. However, mixing cliff-hanger endings and unreliable publication schedules can be a dangerous game.

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Scott Snyder’s The Wake is among the most interesting comics being published today. Snyder and artist Sean Murphy have done some amazing things translating the conventions of the horror movie genre to the comic book medium. They’ve also chosen a highly imaginative and unfamiliar antagonist for their book: humanity’s underwater “cousin,” evolved over millennia into highly intelligent, predatory mer-people.

The Wake is a 10-issue mini-series, and five issues in, Snyder did something totally unexpected, killing all of the main characters, and destroying the earth as we know it. The sea monsters won! The second half of the series, unexpectedly, flashes forward a century into the future. The world is a completely different place and we’re introduced to a whole new cast of characters. It’s not at all clear where The Wake is going and that’s a good thing. It’s a thrill ride, totally original and filled with unexpected twists.

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that the three titles I’ve mentioned here are published by Image and Vertigo, two publishers that specialize in mature and off-the-wall stories. I think it’s fair to say that Image and Vertigo are the AMC and HBO of the comic industry. Image in particular has published a plethora of hot, “must-read” series in the past 12 months. That success might have big time consequences.

Four or five years ago, the big networks like NBC, ABC, and Fox weren’t really worried about boutique cable channels like AMC and HBO. Now, however, those networks, along with Netflix have started redefining the way people watch TV. The Walking Dead has become a ratings juggernaut. More and more AMC and Netflix seem like the future. Meanwhile NBC wonders why viewers aren’t interested in their new Matthew Perry sit-com? 

One wonders if the comic book industry will move in the same direction. Will Image’s more mature, less conventional series start to threaten the publishing paradigms that have governed the Big 2 for the past 30 years? Only time will tell.

Copper and Chrome

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One thought on “Shocking Comics and Binge Television

  1. Pingback: Caliban and The Field: First Issues and The Elevator Pitch | Copper and Chrome

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