Letting Go of the 6 Issue Arc

The modern era of comics have seen a strong shift towards the 6 issue story arc.  This change addressed a lot of the problems comics were facing at the time, and lots of stories have been told very well in this format.  But it’s become a pandemic.  It has been applied to every story senselessly, and it’s started to cause as many problems as it initially solved.

So we’re all on the same page, I want to describe the 6 Issue Standard Story Arc as I see it.  It’s characterized by a single story, with a discreet begining, middle, and end, spread across 6 issues.  The setup is in issue 1, the resolution in issue 6. And yes, sometimes there are only 5 issues, but I’m going to keep saying 6.

Not all 6 issue arcs fall into this category.  Robert Kirkman’s Invincible is a good example of 6 issue stories that aren’t the Standard Story Arc.  In Invincible, story arcs are very much 6 issues, but that larger 6 issue movement is broken up into smaller pieces that resolve every issue or two.  The Standard Story Arc is specific to those comics where the B/M/E is spread across all 6 issues.

I was working in a comic shop when the Standard Story Arc first gained prominence.  It was sold to us as a way to open up comics to new readers, so they could jump on at the first issue of any arc and get a discreet story, enjoyable without knowledge of endless years of backstory.  I’ve always felt that attracting new readers should be a priory, and it was refreshing to see that attitude in practice.

Unfortunately, I rarely found that to be the case.  The logic was flawed in two main ways. The first is that 6 issue stories in a monthly comic book take 6 months to tell. That’s two stories per year, assuming everything stays on schedule.  It’s really hard to keep up momentum over half of a year, and we saw a lot of readers jump ship to trades.  The trades were great, sure, but the monthly comics were just a way to bankroll them.  Not fair to monthly readers.

The second problem was that the move actually turned off a lot of new readers.  I can’t express how many times a new reader would come in to buy a book, only to pick something up in the middle of an arc (despite recommendations from their helpful comic shop staff). There was a 5 in 6 chance of this happening.  We rarely saw these readers coming back.

So why do writers keep using it?  Sometimes it’s because it is the right format to tell a story.  But too often, it’s because it’s easy.  To paraphrase a creator (whom at one point I respected a lot): “why get paid once for an idea when they’ll pay you six times?” They’ll stop doing it when we stop buying it.

So is it time to demand a moratorium on the 6 Issue Standard Story Arc?  I don’t think so; it is a very valid form of storytelling – when the story requires it.  But it’s not for every story. Readers should expect creators to choose the format that best suits their story, not just the one that looks best on your bookshelf.

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