Cerebus, Procedural Constraints

I’m going to start covering comics a little more on this blog. Another topic to add to the list, mostly by way of reviews, but even starting off with a comic I manage to find myself back on track.

In the new issue of Indy Magazine, Adam White reviews the complete run of Cerebus pointing out both high and low points in the series, and providing a good overview as a whole. I’ve been reading Cerebus for a long time as individual monthly issues and White made me want to go back and read them all in a row.

Cerebus provides a good example of a kind of procedural constraint. Somewhere in the first score or so of issues (way back in the late seventies) Dave Sim, the creator/writer/illustrator announced that he would end the comic with issue 300 and the death of the title character. Since that time, up until earlier this year, he produced (after a few years with the help of another illustrator, Gerhard) twenty pages of story per month. For over twenty years he kept up this schedule (the only exceptions being two (I think) times when he created “double issues” — putting two month’s of issues into one comic). Twenty pages of writing made to not only connect to the rest of the issues but also have at least some internal beginning and end, twenty pages of artwork, also fitting within the same size pages, in black and white ink. It’s a little different than most of the constraints I write about, but it is certainly one worth looking into.

Serialization of writing work is not so popular anymore, but the challenges of doing such can create new opportunities for experimentation. Sim could arguably be considered one of the most experimental comic creators on a number of levels (the least arguable level being his lettering – the man knows how to create great affect with lettering), and one wonders how much of that sprang from this self-imposed constraint (unlike comics produced by say Marvel, there was no one to make him stay on schedule and no one to fill-in if he couldn’t keep it going).

Dickens serialized his work, and while I am not a huge Dickens reader, I’ve read enough to see how such a constraint affects the writing, or rather the semantic aspect of the text. The serial creates a need for small closures while still leaving open enough aspects to keep the story going, keep the reader wanting to go on reading next time. And there’s no going back to edit.

Television is serialized, but most shows are not of the type to be much affected by this. Shows without overarching plots or that eschew character development (most of them, I imagine) don’t suffer from a difficulty with serialization. On the other hand, shows like (the beloved) Buffy the Vampire Slayer work within a more difficult type of serialization where characters are changing and large plotlines are unfolding forty-some minutes at a time, twenty-two times a year, over a course of years. And in television, unlike writing, for instance, there are numerous outside factors to affect the work (actors leaving, etc.).

The point of all this? I don’t know. That review got me thinking, and the new short story (novella?) I’m working is coming together in small chapters that I’m thinking I’ll serialize on this blog. And I’m rewatching a Buffy season where (it turns out) two actors left the show and forced a change in plot plans during the course of its unfolding. (Apologies if this is quite unfocused, I’m rather tired today.)