“Subplot” is not a four-letter word

WCAI recently bought a set of the first two years of West Coast Avengers. I’ve been reading the series when I’m not reading the new comics of the week or a new trade I got. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the storytelling, given Marvel in the early 80s wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of comics. The one thing that stood out the most to me in the first few issues was something that I realized is sorely lacking from most comic books on the shelves today: subplots.

In any of the first issues of West Coast Avengers, no less than five story arcs are built upon. Instead of ignoring one character’s development while another’s story is played out, they’re all given time. For one issue, Tigra’s story will take center stage, and then the next Hank Pym will shine, yet both characters’ stories evolve in the other’s issue. It really gives the sense of an epic story. When a story is finally paid off in full, you can look back six months or more and see the seeds that were planted. It really gives the feeling that you need to read the next issue, because you just don’t know when the next big thing is going to happen.

Fast forward 20 years, and most of what we have is 6-issue story arcs that are usually completely independent of each other. There’s almost no carry over from one arc to another now. In most titles, there’s a beginning, middle, and end to an arc. You know what issue a story will begin, what issue will be the turning point, and which issue will solve everything. At the end, you might get a small tease as to what’s coming in the next arc. But why can’t that happen in the beginning or the middle? Why don’t we see subplots set up years in advance anymore?

InvincibleMarvel would probably tell you that comic fans just don’t have that kind of patience anymore. They’d say it’s impossible to hook new readers in if the first issue they read requires reading an earlier issue to understand. Of course, DC’s pretty much proven that to be a load of bull with the build-up for Infinite Crisis, a story at least three years (arguably, twenty) in the making. Comic readers like epic. Comic readers, due to the very nature of the medium, have more patience than TV or movie watchers.

Certain books recently have been doing a great job with this, though. Robert Kirkman’s Invincible springs to mind as a great example. I can think of at least four plot lines that have been set up and advanced without paying them off immediately in the past 10 issues. New Thunderbolts has done a decent job with the mystery of who is the new Swordsman and the true motives of Baron Zemo.

But far too many comics, especially the top selling comics, require so little of the readers’ attention that it’s not surprising that people are being turned off of them.