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The Reason We Read Periodical Comics

Brian Hibbs

There are two kinds of special thrills that periodical comics can bring.

The first is tied to world-building, in which you get a piece of a story here, and another piece there, and eventually it adds up, building into something much larger than it’s parts — this is much of the thrill of the Marvel or DC universes, and one of the reasons that every other attempt to make a “universe” usually comes crashing down: it is nearly impossible to coordinate in that particular way, and it takes a multi-year dedication to build, with titles come out in a specific way. When you try to “erect” that kind of thing, the scaffolding is usually pretty apparent, and like a magic trick, you don’t want to see how it is done.

(Because, of course, DC and Marvel both stumbled into their “universes” nearly by accident — and they grew organically from there)

Even Marvel and DC have become pretty bad a really mining this special thrill. Look at the way sales figures have flattened as they’ve tried to geometrically expand the search for that thrill!

But this is something that really only main-veins as a periodical experience — because that kind of manic soap opera thrill depends AT LEAST as much on sequence and spatial-relationship-in-time as it does about content. That is to say, to create a really lousy example that doesn’t actually exist, anyone can team up Spider-Man and Daredevil to fight, but only comics can have Spidey start a swing-punch in SPIDER-MAN #123, and have him finish that arc in DAREDEVIL #213. When the inter-relationships-of-titles get reprinted in book form, you’re generally only getting one strand of it, so you miss out on this whole kind of meta-thingy.

I could totally explain this better, I think, but THAT thrill isn’t the one I actually want to really talk about today, it’s the OTHER one: the cliffhanger.

I remember vividly the first cliffhanger that REALLY stuck with me — at the end of the first issue of the O’Neill/Cowan QUESTION #1, Vic Sage gets shot in the head at point blank range, and falls into the river, apparently dead.


That was a very long month, I tell you.

In #2 it turned out that because of the caliber of bullet, the angle of the shot and the shockingly cold temperature of the river, the bullet just bounced off Vic’s skull, and he was able to survive. O’Neill even told a story in the letter’s page of a similar real-life incident that he took as inspiration.

But when you read this in the paperback collection, where one page he plunges down, and the next he is rescued most of the cliffhanger’s power is completely abrogated. It’s actually a pretty flat sequence.

It’s a bit like, say, watching LOST on DVD box set, and just CHEWING through the episodes — that can be satisfying in it’s own way, but losing out on the week-between-airings and the time-to-think that stems from that is missing most of the cultural weight that LOST had on the Broadcast audience.

In fact, in really terrific network-style TV, you can get some awesome impacts of this kind of thing just from commercial breaks, which, again, get often minimized on DVD. The thing TV-on-DVD has going for it (as it were) are the musical cues which can help build suspense or otherwise manipulate your emotional reaction.

Comics don’t have THAT particular trick (though they have a few native ones), so it is my firm belief that the cadence of periodical versus book-format is very very different.

Once one has been doing comics enough, it’s very possible to make the periodical seams vanish when something gets collceted — what we usually refer to as “decompressed storytelling”, but unless you’re very careful or very very good, it’s pretty easy to short change the periodical.

I’d say that, consistently, really the only cartoonist who master the comic/book split right has been Dave Sim. Especially from, say, CHURCH & STATE through to MELMOTH or so, there are little jolty cliffhangers every 20 pages in CEREBUS, so that reading the monthly was generally satisfying (and often thrilling), but when you join those together in a book, almost every one of those cliffhangers is nearly invisible within the book as a whole. Things rise and fall differently in a book.

The other guys who have started to really figure out the trick are Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard in WALKING DEAD.

Which brings us to this week’s issue of WALKING DEAD #86.

There’s a potenitally massive massive game changer here, just one of those moments where your jaw drops and you’re all “please god say you didn’t!” and “I wantwantwantwant the next issue NOW!!!!”, and now you’ve got to live what what you saw for the next entire month.

I’m not going to spoil it, but I KNOW it is going to read differently in the paperback than it does here. Why? Because similar things in previous issues have as well — it read one way in serialization, and in a more subdued way in the collection.

And if you’re one of the (many!) “I read it in trade” people, well you’re missing out on one of the best thrills of WALKING DEAD — the wait between events, and the suspense that engenders.

(Plus, the Big Thing isn’t the ONLY thing that happens this issue — there’s at least one more Pretty Big Thing [and maybe 2] that gets undersold because of the Big Thing)

Anyway, this is really WHY I read comics — for the suspense BETWEEN issues, and this was a truly EXCELLENT example of that.

What did YOU think? (though, if you comment, any spoilery ones will be deleted by me)


33 Responses to “ The Reason We Read Periodical Comics ”

  1. Great post. I still remember the nearly 30-year-old Marvel Comics Star Wars #62, which had this HUGE surprise Darth Vader appearance cliffhanger at the end — I wept blood for 30 days waiting for the next act on that, even if in the end it was a bit of a cheat (a bloody hologram??). But yeah, you can’t replicate that kind of a kick in a paperback, can you?

  2. This is exactly why I love periodicals over collections. When you’re reading something monthly it adds so much to it that’s lost when it’s in a book. Especially with Marvel and DC. I love shared universes and in book format it’s so hard to capture that feeling, sure it can mention a storyline in another series, but when you’re seeing that other story unfold at the same time it makes everything feel real, like there really is another whole universe out there where this is happening (though it only works if the editors stay on top everything). And cliffhangers really do only work in periodicals, unless you stop reading after every one, but I can’t imagine anyone doing that.

    So yeah, I agree.

  3. But then again, does anyone remember how long it was between Watchmen #11 and #12? It seems like it was nearly a year for that to be resolved and it might have been then that the collected trade seemed like such a better idea, to me at least. I do agree with the Cerebus assessment having read the series both ways. I never could have put it as eloquently as you did, but reading those stories in the trades, you really couldn’t tell it was a collected periodical. Great call!!

  4. “But then again, does anyone remember how long it was between Watchmen #11 and #12? It seems like it was nearly a year for that to be resolved and it might have been then that the collected trade seemed like such a better idea, to me at least”

    The wait between WATCHMEN #11 & 12 was about five (5) weeks.

    WATCHMEN shipped 12 issues in 13 months.



  5. I’m not trying to be a contrarian, and it’s possible I feel this way because I don’t care for superheroes, but I don’t like cliffhangers. I don’t like them because I usually find something else to think about and then forget to watch the next episode or read the next issue or whatever, or I just flat out forget what happened previously, so I always end up really confused without any satisfaction of closure.

    Like, The Wire is a great example. I started watching the first season as it was originally broadcast and didn’t remember anything that happened from episode to episode and though the show was boring. When I watched it all as one season, I thought it was one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced.

    The only cliffhanger thing I like is when a novel is part of a larger story, like Acme Novelty Library. I like checking in once a year with the characters from Rusty Brown and seeing what they’re up to. And I like reading a book like Fables all at one go and choosing to stop between chapters or forge on. Cliffhangers kinda bore me, though, because I know I’ll have other stuff to think about that will push it out of my mind. So, for me, I’m not robbing myself out of anything with getting a trade, but I can see how someone who enjoys having a story to chew over in their mind would.

  6. I said a bad word out loud in the store when I read it.

    Just wanted to say that its #83, not #86.

  7. Can’t the same effect be achieved between volumes in a collected edition or OGN? End volume one with a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until volume two a year later? Movies do this all the time with sequels.

    I would say that Paul Grist’s “Kane” collections work that way. Also “Mice Templar” (which is one of the best comix being published). The wait between Volumes 1 and 2.1 on that one was pretty intense. “The Silent Invasion,” too.

    I read all three of those series in multi-volume collected editions and got the same cliffhanger effect (but with more content, without the ads, and in a sturdier format that is easier to store, display, and lend out).

    Different strokes for different folks, but we “wait for the trade” guys aren’t being denied what you’re describing.

  8. Eh. Kirkman proved long ago that he’s willing to do anything to any of his characters so nothing that happens in TWD is a genuine surprise to me. Even this.

    Actually, the last time I can remember having a true “Holy Shit!” moment with a comic was finding out that Cerebus (speak of the devil) was (SPOILER ALERT) a hermaphrodite.

    As far as cliffhangers in general go, I find most of them a cheat–they often seem pulled out of the air just to generate a sense of excitement or momentum (Dexter has a problem with that). The only work of serial entertainment from this past decade that had organic cliffhangers (the only one I can think of, at least) was The Shield.

    And I think Jeff Smith worked the serial/book split rather well with Bone. Also the Hernandez Brothers and Gaiman with Sandman. But I agree that Sim probably did it best.

  9. It’s probably just because it’s fresh in my mind but the Jimmy Olsen special from this week practically starts and ends each 8 page story with something of a cliffhanger. I think they work so well in this format because they’re something we rarely get to experience anymore in real life. When most of us were kids the most amazing cliffy in the universe was writing a pen pal and waiting for some kind of response. Now the whole world not to mention the comics medium is just in one continuous cycle of ramp up and execute. Everybody in the biz takes five minutes to slap themselves on the back on Wed. and then it’s back to the salt mines.

    gotterdammerung, i tells ya. Uh that said really good week of comics. 25 bucks spent on new stuff and nary a cross word from me.

  10. I saw that TNG episode “The Best of Both Worlds” for the first time as a rerun on late night tv. They played both parts together like they were a single episode, so that Riker moment (“Mr. Worf… fire.”) lost all of its power because literally two seconds after the screen went blank, the teaser to the second part started (“Our weapon’s not working Commander!”) and I wished for the first (possibly only) time that there had been a big block of summer hiatus between episodes.

    So, yeah, I know what you mean. It happens. But re: Walking Dead, I’ll stick to the trades.

  11. Whenever I start reading a collected edition, I try to start with reading just the equivalent of the first issue, then sticking a bookmark in there and putting it away for at least a day before reading the second chapter. I find what happens is that if I really like it, by about the third or fourth chapter I lack the willpower to stop and will just plow right through to the end in one or two sittings. And if I don’t like it, I just keep putting it off, and if it’s a library book, I’ll return it unfinished, or if it’s something I bought I eventually just sit down and read it just to I can move it from where it’s mocking me on my currently reading stack to the bookshelf. So it’s only the stuff I mildly like that I’m able to finish in the “chapter every few days” format. I do think I end up liking those books a little bit better than I would if I read them straight through, since by the end I’ve lived with them in my head for a week or three instead of just a few hours.

    Something I keep meaning to start whenever I look at the vast accumulation of comic books I have, which I really should re-read to justify keeping, is setting up a monthly reading schedule for them to simulate the original release. Like on the first of every month, I read one (and only one) issue of the Wolfman/Perez Titans. On the second I read one issue of Usagi Yojimbo. On the third one issue of Sandman, etc. Then the second month repeat with the next issue of each in sequence (switching in new books as I finish a run). And in about 30 years I’ll have re-read all my comics, just in time to die (or start all over again)… Don’t know if I’d have the willpower to do that, though, not read the next issue of a really good story when it’s sitting right there.

  12. Sonuva–Nik stole my example! The old Marvel Star Wars had a few cliffhangers, back in the days before we were all completely jaded as to what could or couldn’t happen in comics.

    I remember the second arc of Punisher War Zone–John Romita Jr. art on a pretty standard team of hitters called in to kill Frank story–reading great with kind of a long break between issues. (I think it was a 1 in 6 week book for a while there.) It’s not so great read all at once.

  13. Some of the people at my comic store are majorly pissed at the latest WD developments, but I’m with Hibbs. This is the first time in a looooooong time that I cannot wait to read what happens next month.


  14. “WATCHMEN shipped 12 issues in 13 months.”

    My mistake. Perhaps I was thinking about the final issue of Camelot 3000, which I sometimes confuse with the wait for Watchmen, because it was those two titles and The Dark Knight that got me back into taking an interest in comics. I know one of those limited series had an extremely long wait from the penultimate issue to the final one…..or maybe I was more of a fanboy then and the wait just seemed more annoying.

  15. Yeah, CAMELOT was ungodly late — I want to say it was 13-16 months between #11 and #12, but I don’t have an easy post to reference on that one!

    “WATCHMEN was late” is one of my major bugaboos, sorry for jumping on you :)


  16. I am kind of confused. My store in NYC says that Walking Dead 86 did not come out this week.

  17. I’ll bite on the crossover bit and then get onto the topic at hand if you’ll just give me a paragraph…

    Publishers and their staff moving to a trade mentality has definitely played with the crossover formula and generated a completely different beast. Crossovers don’t crossover any more, there are stories and tie-ins. So when the story World War Hulk’s only impact on the X-Men line in the tie in comic “World War Hulk: X-Men,” then there is no impact on the X-Men line. People reading sequential X-Men trades now or in five years won’t even know there was a WWH unless they notice the stack of discounted trades all titled “WWH:…” This is fine for people who read the X-Men and makes no impact on people who read The Hulk, so at some point it should cause Publishers to rethink the necessity of tie-ins. But I write this as Flashpoint and everything it entails is currently barreling towards us, we haven’t hit that point.

    Now I digress to the topic of cliffhangers and collections…

    I always think about issues 8 and 9 of Y: The Last Man when cliffhangers come up. 8 ended with Person A pointing a gun at Person B and 9 ended with Person B pointing a gun at Person A. Issue 9 did a great job of keeping the tension up and so it didn’t feel like an artificial problem forced in and out of the book. I remember it still keeping the tension as I reread them in a stack.

    Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X is another great example of a book reading seamlessly when collected. I never read the story in issues but I had to force myself to find where the 8 page intervals were. Granted the book didn’t have cliffhangers so much as transitions, but reading it collected would make you imagine it was originally presented that way.

    What’s important in both these examples is they highlighted characters and made you interested in their decisions, not their safety. As comics wind up stretching their stories beyond single issues the shocks will probably start coming in before the final page so we have to wonder “what will X do now?” or “how will X cope with this?” rather than “how is X going to get himself out of this mess?” I think this issue of Walking Dead is an perfect example.

  18. Comics.org seem to back up my memory that it was 9 months between Camelot 3000 11 and 12.

  19. I’m calling the walking dead thing as a Brian hibbs April fools day joke

  20. Seems like cliffhangers are a vital aspect of the serial format in general. Definitely one reason I continue to buy monthly comics.

    Also, and this is a bit off topic, I buy monthly comics due to some naive notion that if the single issues of my favorite series don’t sell well, there won’t be trade collections for me or anyone else to buy. You’re welcome, trade-waiters.

  21. @George – The Northeast stores serviced out of the Plattsburgh NY warehouse only received half of their Walking Deads this week. I only had enough for subscribers. The rest should be out next week.

  22. nope monthly sucks.

    i cant even recall most of the plot from a 30 minute comic after one month.

  23. Adam Farrar,

    I remember the Weapon X chapters sometimes stopped rather than ended. The cliffhanger factor was low. That said, I couldn’t wait to read each segment because the art was so beautiful.

    Now that I don’t buy monthly comics, I find I don’t miss cliffhangers. In fact, I get annoyed when trades end on a cliffhanger; unless the series of trades is advertised as such, I feel each story in a series should have some sort of ending. The biggest problem I have with following The Walking Dead in trades is how some trades end in cliffhangers. I don’t know why Kirkman & Co. aren’t more flexible with trade lengths to put longer stories into one volume.

  24. You raise a point that I have been mulling over for some time. Collections or periodicals. Walking Dead is what was the start of the debate, got into the book late in the game and did not want to pay the premium of the earlier issues, so got the collected versions. Now want to read it by issue, but hate the mess of having all the collected books and then switching to issues. Stuck with reading it in the collected editions. The outcome of all of this is I no longer purchase collected issues, instead hunt down the run of what ever i am looking for in the original periodical format. It is a pain, but enjoy the hunt and get to see a lot of different comic shops

  25. Given that both comic sales and TV viewership are going steadily down, I think we need to reevaluate how much tolerance people have for the cliffhanger anymore, especially in an era in which they take it for granted that everything they could want will be available instantly (there is no such thing as “appointment TV” in the post-TiVo period). Indeed, more and more, I hear casual TV viewers expressing the same disdain for cliffhangers as Chris Hero expresses in this thread, precisely because, in those viewers’ opinions, the resolutions to such cliffhangers have almost always been unsatisfying. However much we nerds might try to defend them, the general consensus is increasingly that, the longer you have to wait for a payoff, the more it’s going to suck (see also: the widespread contempt for the conclusions of Lost, BSG, The Sopranos, et al., not to mention the Star Wars prequels, all of which people had time to anticipate), and indeed, when a friend whom I’d been getting into TNG watched “Best of Both Worlds” on DVD, the first thing he said to me was, “Wow, you must have been so disappointed by part two.”

    People have more different things competing for their time and attention, even just within disposable entertainment, now than ever before, so the more that you stray from episodic done-in-one storytelling, the more of your audience you’re going to lose, because past a certain point, keeping up with the cliffhangers and subplots and everything else feels way too much like WORK to a lot of folks.

  26. “Given that both comic sales and TV viewership are going steadily down, I think we need to reevaluate how much tolerance people have for the cliffhanger anymore”

    Considering how few comics or TV shows actually use legitimate cliffhangers anymore, I’m not sure I see the connection.


  27. K-Box,

    You raise an interesting point. I wasn’t even thinking about how disappointing cliffhanger resolutions are, but you’re right. I refused to even start watching Battlestar Galactica and Lost because I felt like whatever the conclusion was, it wasn’t going to be very good.

    For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, it’s more I don’t remember there even was a cliffhanger by the time the resolution comes around and then I have to go back and refresh my memory on what happened. Although, I think if I did read Walking Dead or Y in single issues, I would have quit early on due to unfulfilling resolutions.

  28. I’m with you, Brian. If the comic is being written as a monthly that takes full advantage of that form, something gets lost in translation. There were several such moments in Preacher when it was coming out, and one that got reversed in the next issue had me on edge for a month waiting to see what happened next.

  29. Mike,

    Actually, while shows that use cliffhangers are probably not a majority of what’s on TV, the shows that do use ongoing narratives (in which each episode builds on all the previous ones) have tended to see even sharper viewer drop-offs than the already declining rate of TV viewership in general. The cliffhanger is part and parcel of this; not only does it require the previous installments of the story to lend it weight, but it also necessarily assumes that your audience will invest enough time and effort into keeping track of a TV show or a comic book to care MORE about it in the spaces BETWEEN those story installments. This is kind of ludicrous when you think about how casual viewership and readership actually WORK — you care about something when it’s THERE, and you care LESS when it’s NOT.

    More importantly, even the casual audience has been made dangerously genre-savvy by DECADES of unsatisfying resolutions. People STILL remember asking themselves, “Who shot J.R.?” or “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, but if and when they remember the ANSWERS to those questions, their nostalgic enthusiasm tends to settle down to a muted, “Oh, yeah … that IS how that went, huh?” For as much fannish emotion as was invested in the big conspiracy that Mulder was investigating on The X-Files, did ANYONE still care by the end?

    As Chris Hero said:

    “I refused to even start watching Battlestar Galactica and Lost because I felt like whatever the conclusion was, it wasn’t going to be very good.”

    He’s not alone, and that’s a KILLER, not only for stories that rely upon cliffhangers, but also stories that are based on any sort of nuanced ongoing narratives, because as much as I don’t want to see all stories dumbed down to an episodic level, the people who instinctively dread ongoing narratives and cliffhangers have GOOD REASONS to mistrust those things, based on YEARS of experience.

  30. I feel like I’m coming from a different mindset than most people here. When I read a book or watch a boxed DVD set, I want something where I have something equivalent to a pageturner, where I’m rapidly flipping pages in an attempt to see what happens next. This is an added bonus of reading Manga, where you’ve got dozens of pages of build-up, and hundreds of pages of action. This is something I feel that American comics have misunderstood in how to make the long-form format work. For most six-issue series written by Bendis, they had five issues of build-up, and only ONE issue of action.

    In most cases of event comics, it often feels like the characters keep going through the motions with large memorable action scenes happening in the middle, when they should’ve been saved near the end for a rousing climax. Everybody remembers SuperGirl’s death and The Flash’s sacrifice in Crisis on Infinite Earth, but the ending is a real letdown after that. In many cases, it feels like an extended version of Critical Existence Failure where the final boss is constantly hammered by special moves, each one more devastating than the last, but with no apparent effect. Then, the heroes, completely out of options, decide to throw one more punch that’s no different than the last dozen they’ve thrown before – and the Big Bad goes out without warning.

    So far, the standard for epic concept / ending is STILL Lone Wolf & Cub.

  31. Why does it have to be we have to accept and love episodic TV or single issues or be morons who want things dumbed down? Why can’t some of us just prefer long form story telling or having the entire story available at once?

  32. I’ve found that the more comic books I read, the less satisfying the experience, regardless of how good a story/cliff hanger might be.
    Maybe that sounds weird, but…
    About ten years ago when I first got back into collecting, I basically only bought Grant Morrison’s JLA each month. I might pick up the occasional other new book or back issue here or there, but Morrison’s JLA was pretty much the only purchase I was committed to.
    And you know what? All these years later I still remember the sheer enjoyment of that series. I remember reading each issue at least twice – maybe even three or four times – before the next installment.
    Now I’m older, I have more disposable income. And while my monthly haul is still very modest – maybe three, four, or five books – I’ve really stocked up on back issues and on Essentials/Showcases. So I have a pretty big back log of stuff waiting to be read.
    So what I find is that I have a steady diet of comic books, and the weekly purchase just doesn’t carry the same thrill it did back in the day.
    I really chalk it up to the too much of a good thing syndrome.
    It’s like going out to a restaurant. There was a time my wife and I went out like every weekend or other weekend. Now we do it maybe once every couple of months, and it’s just much more memorable/enjoyable.

  33. I’m not so sure of the “thrill” of monthly cliffhangers, which usually read in paperback exactly as they read month to month:

    LAST PAGE OF PREVIOUS ISSUE: “Oh my god everything changed!”
    FIRST PAGE OF NEXT ISSUE: “Oops wait no it didn’t! Gotcha!”

    It’s that sort of cliffhanger that absolutely convinced me to turn to paperbacks instead of monthly comics. Not that TV isn’t guilty of this, too – which is why I don’t usually watch anything until the DVD comes out.

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