Decompression – Making More out of Less

While it’s pretty rare to hear a critical discussion of the medium at your local comic shop, one critique that gets thrown around a lot is “decompression”.  Whenever we feel ripped off, jipped, jilted, or cheated by the contents of a comic, well, that asshole was decompressing.

It’s a much more valid critique than “That writer just doesn’t understand what The Punisher is about” (He does understand, but shame on him for trying something new).  But there’s a lot to say about decompression that doesn’t get said, and I would argue that decompression is costing readers a lot more than any cover price increases.

The basic practice that decompression refers to taking a story and artificially spreading it out.  That means less story per issue.  So one comic might read in 5 minutes, another in 20. This is a situation relatively unique to comics, because most other mediums are not priced by the page.  When you go to the movies, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get roughly 120 minutes of content.

But what doesn’t get mentioned is the actual mechanics of decompression.  While numerous writers have proved how easy it is to decompress, no one has talked critically about the processes at work.  If that’s because it’s immensely boring, I apologize, and you can stop reading here.  If you’ve got your critical thinking cap on, come and join me.

Classic Decompression

Believe it or don’t, but originally, decompression was pretty awesome.  It was a good thing! It was when creators realized that instead of just showing Spider-Man landing on top of a building with a caption like:  “The spontiforous wall crawler swung across midtown to his destination!” You could take 4 panels and actually SHOW Spidey doing just that.

Stan Lee would have written this in one panel or less.

American comic creators invented this technique by stealing it from other cultures (mostly the Japanese, but you see it pretty early on in Belgian comics as well).  Can this technique be overused?  Totally.  So can beer.  But when applied artfully, both can improve your enjoyment of a comic.

And really, it’s a great way to think about comic form: how many panels is best to show an action?  When is it better to use a single panel to condense an action, and when do you want to spread that action over 2, 3, 10 panels, etc.  This whole point leads into a HUGE discussion, so we can table it for now.

Expansion

The second kind of decompression is a bit harder to defend.  I call it “Expansion Decompression,” because all you do is take what you’ve already got and expand.  Instead of putting 7 panels on a page, you spread them over 2 pages.  Same actions, same dialouge, more pages.  And comic writers are paid by the page.

3 static closeups are not worth an entire page.

We can trace this practice back to two things that happened in the 90s: awesome artists and “writing for the trade”.  When you’re writing a book for a superstar artist (or you are a superstar artist), fewer panels per page can really let the art shine (but frequenlty robs the artist of a chance to flex his storytelling muscles).

In terms of writing for the trade – well it’s easier to turn one story into six issues when you only put 4 panels on each page.  Not naming names.

And remember, this isn’t categorically bad!  Fewer panels per page can be awesome for pacing, story, content, and a million other reasons. But to read with a critical eye, you have to realize when it’s done creatively and when it’s done lazily.

Inefficiency

Inefficiency Decompression goes by another name: bad writing.  This is an issue hardly specific to the comic medium – look at any creative medium and you can find a plethora of examples of this.

The bad writer will use multiple scenes to get across a single point: say you want to characterize Jimmy as a “bad dude.”  Scene one, he walks down the street and kicks a dog.  Scene two, Jimmy is in a bar getting into a fight.  The good writer picks the one that suits the character with it and commits to it, and loses the other.

The even better writer will find a way to make that scene do double-duty: Jimmy is saved from the fight by the kindly barkeep, thus introducing his romantic interest.

I would argue that this is actually the most common type of decompression in comics.  It’s by far the easiest, and a natural instinct on any first draft.  But a bunch of single-function, redundant scenes cripple the momentum of any book.

But but but, like all these, there’s a caveat – having a scene serve a single purpose can be really good!  For instance, most horror comics won’t benefit from a killer who babbles about his motivations while killing someone.  It’s all about identifying who is being creative and who is finding creative ways to slack off.

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3 thoughts on “Decompression – Making More out of Less

  1. Here’s a comment from piperson on Reddit. He’s also talking about Brubaker’s Cap, which I think is a really intersting discussion in terms of decompression, because Brubaker is typically a compressed writer, but his Cap definitely has a lot of breathing room. I’d be interested in more thoughts on this run, and how the decompression worked for everyone.

    Piperson writes:
    I really liked this article because it’s something that I’ve seen, specifically in Brubaker’s Captain America, and actually I had the same reaction you mentioned, feeling of being ripped off! When I first started reading it, around issue 7, I loved it, the art was great and the writing was taking a mature, modern look at Cap, But as time went on (Cap in the #20’s) it seemed that nothing ever happened issue after issue, you would be lucky if they had just one big reveal, like Sharon’s pregnancy. Well I need some content in order to keep me coming back month after month! I think originally, in the 80’s, decompression was really refreshing! It was fun to watch a writer slow the pace down and put some space between events. I loved all the atmosphere! I think Miller did this alot (correct me if I’m wrong). I remember one Daredevil scene particularly where DD was jogging and it was slowly revealed that he was jogging UP a bridge. But Miller knew how to use these atmospheric scenes to create surprise, he got the most out of them.

  2. I was doing a search on decompressed storytelling and came across your article. I really enjoyed it and I think you did a good job of parsing out the different types of compressed storytelling.

    For me, decompressed storytelling is a bit like the whammy bar on a guitar. A master, take Hendrix for example, could use it to elegance while other guitarist would just ride the whammy bar to death. It is a master’s tool used by infants typically.

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