Sunday, December 14, 2008

Compression Decompression Depression...

How hard is it to pace the stories in Fables so they work well both in the individual comic books and in the collections? Well, it's both hard and easy. It's easier than one might initially think because I have a lot of leeway in the size of the eventual collection. The smallest size for a Fables collection (so far) has been about the equivalent of five regular issues. The largest size has been in the neighborhood of twelve regular issues. Between those two extremes there's a lot of wiggle room, especially in light of the fact that we often have more than one overarching story per collection. The reason I mention all of this is, because of this leeway, in Fables I don't need to worry about the eventual collections when I'm plotting and pacing the original issues. As much as possible I pay no attention to how any pacing decision will fit into the inevitable collection. I count on the collection people to do all the worrying on how to make it work and fit and so on. And they are, headed up by Scott Nybakken (Hi, Scott), very good at making things work.
Because of this freedom to basically ignore the collections in my planning, I'm able to make each Fables story pretty much run for as long or as short as the story demands. And in Fables we have done complete stories of less than one full comics length -- even as short as one page -- up to stories as long as The Good Prince, which was I think eleven issues long, with another interlude issue shoved into the middle of it.
So, what's my point? Simply this: the only thing influencing the length of a Fables story is: How long or short do I think any given story needs to be to best serve that story? Period. So, except to try to end any given single issue on a bit of a dramatic point -- something to make the reader want to be sure to pick up the next issue and see what happens next -- I don't ever have to stretch a scene (decompression) or shrink a scene (compression) to make things fit.
Truth be told, the entire pointy-headed academics concepts of compression and decompression, as applied to funnybook stories, came along without my noticing them, until everyone seemed to be talking about them and I had to play catch-up to find out what the conversation was about. Back in my day we used to call it padding and cutting -- two concepts that more describe the rude mechanics of story construction, rather than any planned, intended process, as the compression/decompression terms seem to imply.
I don't do compression. I don't do decompression. I simply do, to the best of my reasoning, whatever I think will make the best story for that particular story.
That said, pacing a story is the absolute hardest part of comics (and prose for that matter) writing for me. Don't get me wrong. No part of writing comes easy, but compared to pacing and plot structure, things like dialogue and characterization and such seem like they're easy. Plot and pacing (which I think are inseparable) have always been a giant bitch for me, and I don't think that bitch will ever be tamed. (My apologies for the earthy metaphor.) I work and work at structure and am never totally satisfied with the results. But according to the funnybook freelancer's credo, you do the best you can with any given issue, let it go, and try to do better the next time.
One final thought. I don't think compression and decompression in comic books actually exists, in the sense that there wasn't an original comic story that was too long and so had pages and panels removed to properly compress it. Was there a shorter version of a given story that had pages and panels added to decompress it? Nope. Not at all. What there was, was a writer, or artist, or both, making decisions as they go to do the story at whatever original pace they were doing the story in. Nothing was being compressed. Nothing was being decompressed. The story was simply being told at whatever pace it was being told, and others came along later and affixed those fancy labels to it, entirely after the fact. Now the argument could be made (and often is) that so-and-so is taking too long with a given story, or going too fast, not letting said story have room to "breathe" and such. But that's not the same as ascribing a certain policy or process to the comics making.
Orson Scott Card, in one of his notes of advice to a student fiction writer, once said (and I'm heavily paraphrasing here, so blame me and not him if this makes no sense, or if the tone of the quote seems rude), "Quit worrying about the theme of your story. That's not up to you to decide. You only need to worry about plot and structure and character and such and let others come along later and decide what the theme was. That's what the pointy headed nabobs of academia do. They neither sew, nor do they reap (nor do they know how to do either). They just come along after the fact and tell everyone what the author was really thinking, and what the theme of his work was, and all sorts of other nonsense that has nothing to do with your actual story. Those types will always be around, clucking and tsk-tsking from the sidelines of life, never contributing, but often taking credit and acting as if they were an essential part of the process. Don't worry about them. Just do your work the best you know how."
I'm not certain, but I think conversations about compression and decompression fit into the same category as Card's warning about theme and its essential meaninglessness.
So, somewhere in all of this mess above, did I answer your question, Bill? Any of you other gentlemen of the Tick and the Tock care to wade in on this subject?


  1. My Sri Lankan friend Johann Balasuriya got my wife and I into FABLES; enjoying his present, 1001 Nights of Snowfall, is on the agenda for the weekend. Thank you for making something she'll read with me, like we did in school! Sure, what fan doesn't fancy themselves a creator? This article fit in with my thoughts of pacing my own WESTERN SURPRISE, carried locally, so thanks. Hopefully I'll be assistant to Joe Phillips here in San Diego after tomorrow.
    So I wonder what influences improved you most as a writer. Of course, writing most everyday is the chief culprit. I loved the American and Brit lit canon in college, as well as Pirandello, Dante and Cervantes.

  2. Oh,and then there' s the threads of real life! That's why I've got to finish a short story based on what's in the heads of various voters , including a look into an absentee ballot's voter, around the polling place on election day. Wonder who would publish that? I'm sorry, go on.