Comics Storytelling 101: Scott Snyder

Another writer whose storytelling ability has really impressed me this year is Scott Snyder, a relative newcomer whose first major comics work was Vertigo’s American Vampire, the success of which has landed Snyder the high-profile gig of writing for Detective Comics.

American Vampire is really impressive in its efficiency. No issue feels like it is treading water. It feels like every issue provides a new piece of information about a character or about the mythology of Snyder’s world. To add more to Steve Forbes’s “beginning, middle and end” point in his introductory “Bolts & Nuts” column, with American Vampire Snyder often uses his beginning to connect the current issue to what has come before and reward returning readers, the middle to work in content that makes each issue a worthwhile reading experience in its own right, and the end to leave a hook to bring readers back for the next issue. For example, let’s look at the latest issue, American Vampire #10, and how its 22 story pages are broken down:

Hattie – a character from an earlier arc, thought dead -is revealed as still alive, but also given a piece of introductory narration to establish who she is and the role she will play for anyone picking up the series for the first time. (4 pages)

The main body of the story, with two narrative threads. One concerns Hattie’s escape from captivity. The other concerns vampire/human couple Pearl and Henry, as we see them living their lives together in contented isolation, with dual narration showing the (often parallel) secret concerns and worries they are each harboring. Again, we are given (re)introductions to who these people are for those who do not know. What I think is important – and Snyder has done this in every issue – is that this main body of story would make a satisfying reading experience for someone only buying this issue of the series and none other. Of course, it’s made richer by knowing the wider mythology, but we’re given enough information to not NEED to be buying every issue. A lot of writers write in a way that caters to trade-waiters, so its nice to see someone who writes in a way that respects the serialised experience and the value of a single comic. (10 pages)

We learn that Hattie is going to hunt down Pearl in hopes of violent revenge. Henry is placed in a position of mortal danger. Both threads are left unresolved, encouraging readers old and new to come back next month. (6 pages)

So here we have a balancing act of rewarding and encouraging the returning reader by always bringing something new to the table, advancing the mythology and recalling what has come before, while simultaneously welcoming new readers with a story that is accessible.

Also notable is how Snyder used the considerable asset of a back-up story by Stephen King in the first 5 issues of the series. He could simply have had his story, then Stephen King’s back-up as a special attraction, but instead he ensured that – though his main story told a 5-part narrative and King’s backup told a seperate 5-part narrative – EACH ISSUE the Snyder story complimented and the developments of the King story, so that King’s story didn’t just feel like a special attraction to sell books, but rather an organic ingredient all but inseperable from Snyder’s central narrative.

The twin adherence to history and accessibility has also come into play in Snyder’s run on Detective Comics. In the first issue, he spends the first 5 pages doing something that many writers have overlooked or taken for granted was unnecessary: he introduces Dick Grayson, and tells us who he is, including what makes him distinct as Batman. But at the same time, the story is littered with nods and references to continuity – from references to the earthquake of “No Man’s Land”, to Gordon being surprised when he turns around and Batman is still standing there for once, to the return of a forgotten character from Batman: Year One – meaning that those well versed in Batman lore will find the story rewarding on a deeper level.

Also good is how, again, the main Batman story and the Gordon back-up feature interact, the events in one referenced in the other, so that the back-up doesn’t just feel supplementary and tacked on, but rather a worthwhile addition to the single issue package.

As with Kirkman, Snyder demonstrates throughout his work an understanding of serialised storytelling, skillfully building a mythology that helps regular readers feel like they are a part of something, while simultaneously recognising that every comic could be somebody’s first.  This was Snyder’s breakout year in comics, and as long as his storytelling foundations remain as strong, he surely has a bright future in the medium.


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