Settle in for the long haul as books, movies, TV shows and comic books draw their stories out to epic proportions
Attention spans run short. Sound bytes dictate our discourse. Stories should last no longer than music videos. Sustained thought takes too much time. So says the conventional wisdom.
Supposedly the public has powers of concentration equivalent to mayflies and mynah birds, proving easily bored and distracted by shiny objects. Though there's some truth to this conception, it doesn't take in the whole picture.
Various media forms, including novels, movies, comic books and television shows, are tentatively embracing length, not brevity, as the soul of wit. They'll spin stories that take months — and in some cases, decades — to completely play out, and are better measured by calendars instead of clocks or page counts. A long-form story may not turn popular arts into high literature, but a drawn-out narrative provides an enriched experience to audiences who settle in for the long haul.
Technology has played a role in the popularity of elongated art forms. Record albums were typically limited to just a handful of songs compared to the number of tunes that can fit on a CD. And thanks to DVDs, movies can have longer running times because, between releases at multi-screen cineplexes and subsequent sales and rentals, there is less pressure by studios to have as many screenings per day to meet profit margins. Continuity- driven TV shows can be shown on more venues more often, thanks to cable, video and syndication. Role-playing games like "Myst" can take days to complete, in part due to the Internet, where official and fan-written guides, supplements and spin-offs tend to spring up.
While low-tech live theater isn't as conducive to serialization, there are exceptions such as Shakespeare's history cycles and event plays like Angels in America, Back to Methuselah and Peer Gynt, the latter two having been recently staged by Atlanta theater groups.
Improvised theater, though, has demonstrated its adaptability to extended story lines. For five years, Dad's Garage has presented the weekly improvised soap opera spoof Scandal set in different locales each "season" (including a space station and the old West). The term "long-form improvisation" generally refers, however, to unscripted theater of an entire evening drawn from a single idea, as opposed to sketch-based improv games. Chris Pierce and Jim Karwisch are launching such a venture called JaCKPie at Atlanta's Red Chair every Saturday through December.
To be continued
Serialization is arguably as old as narrative itself. Fans of early epic poems of the oral tradition didn't listen to The Odyssey or Beowulf in a single sitting. Charles Dickens wrote hugely popular serial novels, which saw a recent equivalent in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, initially running as installments in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In a total of six books, Maupin took his cast of diverse San Franciscans from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, and along the way they grew older, fell in and out of love, switched careers (and sexual orientations), in some cases had children, in other cases died. One of the appeals of serials like Maupin's is that the characters age and change along with the reader and, as in real life, actions have consequences and endings are final.
Series television and comic books have been increasingly experimenting with this kind of characterization and the passage of time. For decades, both media succumbed to pressures to stay as self-contained as possible, so as not to alienate the casual viewer or reader. No character could develop out of the established formula, and any plot that threatened to change the dynamic had to be resolved by the end. The reset button was always hit.
See you in the funny papers
Comic strips were another exception, and in serialized titles like "Dick Tracy," the eponymous flatfoot could spend months tracking down the likes of Pruneface or Flattop. Serialized comic strips aren't as prevalent as they used to be, but they've found a new and expanded life in comic books.
Neil Gaiman's Sandman centered around the master of dreams to provide nearly a compendium of global storytelling styles, and ended with the death of the title character at issue 75. Jeff Smith's Bone, a humorous epic inspired by J.R.R. Tolkein, Pogo and Donald Duck, will culminate after nine "chapters" of at least six issues a piece. (Even though the protracted stories conclude decisively, they usually leave a door open to a spin-off.)
The longest comic book "novel" of all is Cerebus, which began in May 1977 as a funny-animal spoof of Conan the Barbarian, starring a talking aardvark. Within a few years though, writer-illustrator Dave Sim set up its structure as a 300-issue "novel" of thousands of pages, to culminate with Cerebus' death in issue No. 300. Best labeled as satire (though it defies categorization), Cerebus has seen the title character as prime minister, pope and bartender in a fictional continent. It remains on track for completion in Spring 2004.
Not all long-form comic books fit in superhero or funny-animal genres. Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison could be likened to a heterosexual Tales of the City about adventures of several twentysomething New Yorkers in love, careers and comic books. Collected by Marietta's Top Shelf Comics, Box Office Poison is comprised of more than 600 pages crammed between two covers.
Comics that aspire to the length and heft of novels are best enjoyed (and more cost effective) in collections; the longest, most inclusive ones like Cerebus and Box Office are nicknamed "phone books." Japanese comic books, or "manga," tend to be published entirely this way. The format can offer a fascinating perspective in development of an artist: Gaiman's writing and Robinson's draftsmanship improve remarkably over the course of their respective books.
Tune in tomorrow
In television, time often stood still: The Korean War lasted for nine seasons on "M*A*S*H." But gradually, some shows demonstrated that a single television episode could be treated like one chapter in a continuing story. Dramas in the 1980s like "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" broke ground in this territory, while the series "Wiseguy" popularized the term "story arc." Over the course of many episodes, the central undercover cop would investigate different guest criminals, offering the TV equivalent to "Dick Tracy's" serialized stories.
Currently television's most audacious arc-based series is Fox's "24," in which each episode of the season depicts an hour, in real time (more or less), of a single day. Often showing separate events on screen at once, the plot follows Kiefer Sutherland as a counter-terrorist agent trying to unravel a conspiracy that involves his daughter's kidnapping, a mole in his agency and a planned assassination against an African-American presidential candidate.
One imagines "24's" writers literally needing some kind of spreadsheet software to keep track of who's doing what, and so far the show represents a striking achievement in logistics more than anything else. At the end of the day, "24" probably suggests a rather brutal, 24-hour installment of "Mission: Impossible" rather than a series as rich with drama as, say, "The Sopranos" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
These series develop storylines and subplots over full seasons, having some kind of unifying villain or conflict (like Richie Aprile on "The Sopranos" or the evil Glory on "Buffy") while allowing the regulars to age consistently with the show's rules. On "Buffy," the progress of Alyson Hannigan's Willow may sound like a supernatural soap opera — she's gone from high school wallflower to sexually active computer hacker to lesbian witch to most recently a "junkie" for magic spells — but it's stayed true to both the role and the show's metaphorical perspective on the lives of young people.
The neverending stories?
The most unavoidable example of the popularity of extended narrative is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which you probably know as the movie based on the book about an English boy's education at a witchcraft school. Sorcerer's Stone, however, is simply the opening shot in J.K. Rowling's series, in which each book represents an academic year.
So far the film adaptations give every indication that they'll follow suit. Readers and viewers can anticipate a film series of seven parts at least: Sorcerer's Stone is 309 pages and made a two-and-a-half-hour movie, while the fourth and most recent book, Goblet of Fire, at more than 700 pages, could make two comparable films.
The Harry Potter series isn't alone. You can watch the James Bond films in any sequence you like and it doesn't matter, but that's not the case with upcoming releases such as the second Star Wars trio, the two follow-ups to The Matrix being filmed back-to-back and three films based on a certain trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein.
Continuity-driven work is best appreciated by those who get in on the ground floor, as starting one in progress is like reading a book by opening it in the middle.
Long-form narratives have barely begun to plumb the depths of their potential. Imagine the dramatization of real history as Byzantine and detail-oriented as Cerebus, or biographical approaches to real people that permit the character growth of "Buffy" or Box Office Poison. As a storytelling approach, protracted narratives continue to evolve, but they often reward an investment of time with dividends of more realistic characters and more fully imagined fictional settings. The biggest payoff goes to audiences in it for the duration.