Comics Storytelling 101: Robert Kirkman

Hey folks!

In the first step of what will hopefully be a blitz of updates, I’m going to repost some meandering rants on comic storytelling I’ve written in response to Steven Forbes’ excellent “Bolts & Nuts” columns over on ComixTribe.  Those columns can be found here:

This first piece of commentary deals with how comic writers should grasp the concept of comic books as serialised storytelling, available in a variety of formats, and how as such a comic book story needs to be structured in a way that appeals to several kinds of readers.

one writer who I feel has mastered the craft of serialised storytelling is Robert Kirkman. Anyone wanting to take notes on how to structure an ongoing comic series would do well to take notes from his approach to The Walking Dead. Let’s take a look at the various levels of “beginning, middle, end” that he works in.

First, each single issue manages to be a satisfying package in its own right. Each issue has a 22 page story that continues the monthly narrative, but at the same time is a self-contained episode in its own right. For example, the most recent issue, #79. While it serves as a prelude to the next multi-issue arc, “No Way Out”, and follows on from the developments of the previous issue, it is a satisfying read in of itself, built as it is around a narrative framing device of juxtaposing a conversation between two characters with an action scene where another group of characters are fighting to kill off a gathering of zombies. And we see how, as the issue goes on, the two seemingly disparate threads come together, with the conversation in one reflecting the action in the other, until we have a closing moment that casts both threads in a whole new light. And, with every issue, Kirkman ends with a bang – a cliffhanger or a shock reveal – to entice readers to pick up the next issue. Also included is a lengthy letters section at the back, to ensure that those who buy the comic monthly rather than trade-waiting are rewarded with exclusive content not found in any other edition of The Walking Dead.

Next up are the paperback graphic novels. These each cover 6 issues, and when you read them it becomes apparent that, as well as crafting a shock ending at the end of each single issue, Kirkman ensures that he places a particularly major cliffhanger at the end of every sixth issue. He’s writing in a way to keep in mind not only the single issue readers, but those who follow the series in graphic novel format. On a similar vein, while the single issues advance the larger story while being an enjoyable self-contained read in their own right, the same can be said for the paperback graphic novels, with each 6-issue chunk coming together to form a larger story with its own beginning, middle and end. Kirkman enhances the sense of this being a seamless individual story by not dividing up issues within the graphic novel, instead providing each graphic novel as a single 132 page story. Take, for example, Volume 11: Fear the Hunters. Yes, it works as an installment of the larger longform Walking Dead saga, but in its own right, it works as a Tales from the Crypt style sting-in-the-tail story about a group of nasty cannibals who get a lot more than they bargained for when messing with our survivors.

Kirkman pulls this off on a larger scale with the hardback graphic novels, which cover 12 issues. And his sense of structure becomes even more impressive, when we realise that while he saves the big cliffhangers for every 6th issue, the ones that come on every 12th issue are typically the more climactic and resounding. And while read as paperback graphic novels, Volume 9: Here We Remain can be read as a self-contained story about Rick and Carl’s struggle to cope with the death of Lori, and Volume 10: What We Become can be read as a self-contained story about how our survivors are gradually turning into monsters in this harsh world, when put together in the hardcover The Walking Dead, Book 5, they become a larger self-contained narrative with its own beginning, middle and end about the toll survival has taken on Rick, Carl and the rest of the remaining ensemble, all while simultaneously building on what came before and setting the stage for what comes after.

Look now at the oversized hardback Omnibus editions that cover 24 issues. And then look at how the big, defining moments of the series that have marked a dramatic change in the status quo of the book (“We are the walking dead!”, the tragic climax of the prison arc) have fallen on every 24th issue. The first 24 issues tell a complete, epic narrative with a beginning, middle and end about the survivors’ struggles to find a home and a sense of normalcy in this harsh new world, the next 24 issues cover the entirety of the Woodbury saga.

As powerful a moment as issue #24′s ending was, the biggest, most climactic moment of the entire series so far was the ending of issue #48. That felt like the end of an era, as if every one of the 47 issues that came before had been leading up it. And as such, the mammoth Walking Dead Compendium, covering 48 issues, feels like a massive, sweeping epic tale with a definite beginning, middle and end.

Here we see that Kirkman has structured The Walking Dead with total precision, in a way that the series can be read in 5 different formats – in 1 issue, 6 issue, 12 issue, 24 issue or 48 issue chunks – and no matter how you read it, you’re getting a complete, rewarding reading ecperience with a beginning, middle and end.

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