You don’t see them much anymore: Long plots that stretch for fifteen or twenty issues, starting out with just a page or two devoted to them in the course of a normal adventure, and slowly building to a story that climaxes a year and a half down the road. There’s too much creative turnover for most writers (Johns, Bendis and Morrison excepted) to even try that these days.
And even if the creative team is stable, trade paperbacks leave creators with less room to meander. In practice, “writing for the trade” means more than stretching a story out to six issues; it also means a rethinking of the slow-burn storylines. If a trade paperback collection includes a bunch of pages that go nowhere (because they’re meant to pay off two collections down the line), causal readers will feel frustrated, and worse—ripped off.
For example, a few years ago, Kurt Busiek was planting seeds for some long-range plans for the new Aquaman. But circumstances changed, and Busiek left that title to take over the writing chores on Superman (and for a little while, Action Comics). And there, as he told his “Camelot Falls” storyline, he was also laying the groundwork for a long future run. But after building that foundation (and telling some fine stories in the meantime) he left the Superman title for Trinity… which is picking up some plot threads from his run on JLA a while back. And with a 52-issue run planned from the outset, with Trinity, at least, Busiek (and co-writer Fabian Nicieza) are pretty much guaranteed to be able to finish what they start.
But for all its length and scope, Trinity is one story. Part of what’s interesting about the long runs of the seventies, eighties and nineties are the meanderings and the course corrections, as the creators sometimes worked out on the page just what stories they were telling… or backed away from something that they’d changed their minds about.
In this series, I’ll be taking a look through my collection and examining some long runs from the past: The post Zero-Hour Legion, stretches of the Wally West Flash, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Garth Ennis’s run on Hellblazer, to name a few. If you have any other suggestions, let me know. I’ll be looking at the direction these books move in, and the weird little side-trips they take on the way.
They’re long runs, but each one begins with a single step.