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Decompression in comics: a valid storytelling technique…?

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In comics (or sequential art), ‘decompression’ is the technique of slowing down the pace of the story in order to reveal subtle details about the characters, mood or plot.

How can you spot a comic that uses decompression? Well, it might include sparse panels low on information. The panels may focus on one moment in time, or they may show one interaction or event from a number of perspectives. Decompressed comics are sometimes criticised for giving readers less story – though this only applies if you believe that the ‘story’ is merely a series of events or plot-points.

A waste of space?

Critics of decompression in comics complain that the technique delivers too little substance, stripping valuable action from their $3 comic. Some readers want action and events instead of the comparatively worthless reflection, introspection and consideration that decompression can provide.

Personally, I feel that if a comic doesn’t take the time to build an emotional connection, then I can’t give two shits about whether a hero wins or loses their next Epic Battle. Unless you slow a story down, you can’t speed it up. And unless you cause your readers to care about your characters, they can’t feel their pain, or fear their demise.

It seems that critics of decompression want their comics to be a moronic succession of significant plot-points, with little or no time spent establishing the characters, their moods or their motivations.

Here’s a page from Warren Ellis’  The Authority (claimed to be a popular example of decompression in American comics by Wikipedia):

authority#42

Compressing a decompressed comic

A blogger who doesn’t appreciate decompression (he interestingly equates his enjoyment of a comic with the time it takes him to read it, with a longer read being desirable) edited Justice League 1 to compress the story. This is a fascinating experiment and I applaud him for his efforts to compress a comic which I thought was quite densely packed to begin with. Unsurprisingly, his compressed pages of Justice League 1 lose their weight, their emotional power and their cinematic qualities.

Take a look:

Is decompression necessary? Justice League re-edited


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2 comments

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  1. I’m glad you liked my recompression of Justice League, thanks for linking to it! It was a labor of love, and done mostly as an experiment. More than anything, I wanted to see if it could be done.

    Warren Ellis’s Authority stories are great examples of decompressed storytelling done right. He does a great job of mixing big cinematic action with slower, and very subtle character moments. As a reader, I find that the more I engage this type of storytelling, the more I get from it. The 12 issues of Authority that Warren Ellis wrote are some of my favorite comics.

    Actually, however, I don’t equate my enjoyment of a comic to the time it takes me to read it. I do, however, partially equate my enjoyment of a comic with the amount of story contained in the issue. I have noticed a correlation between comics that don’t contain much story and the short amount of time it takes to read them. The short reading time is a side effect of the problem, however, not the problem itself.

    I know that some of the power in the visual storytelling would be lost in my re-edit of Justice League #1, there was no way around that. The panels were drawn for a certain script and presentation, and I had to hack them up to move them around. A lot of the design sensibility and cinematic feel will always be lost in that sort of exercise. I imagine, though, that Jim Lee is talented enough that he could have captured that cinematic feel, even with a more condensed script.

    It is specious to say that critics of decompression seem to want comics that are a “moronic succession of significant plot-points, with little or no time spent establishing the characters, their moods or motivations.” I’ve never heard a critic of decompression say this, and I certainly don’t feel this way.

    Characters make or break comics for me, if I don’t like a character, I probably won’t like the comic, and I agree that establishing characters traits, moods, and motivations is mandatory for telling good stories about characters. It is certainly incorrect to imply that character can only be established by using a decompressed storytelling style.

    What I don’t find necessary is two panels where one will do. I don’t need three panels to communicate that Batman jumped, is now in the air, and is now landing. One panel can communicate that just as well, when in the hands of quality visual storytellers. I don’t find it necessary to show two panels of characters talking, when one panel would have communicated the same thing. I don’t find it necessary to fill a third of a page with a panel of helicopters attacking Green Lantern and Batman, when the next two-thirds of the page shows the same helicopters attacking Green Lantern and Batman. I don’t find it adds to the story to fill a fifth of the page with a panel of Green Lantern and Batman walking in a sewer and saying three words, in between a panel of Green Lantern and Batman climbing into a sewer, and a panel of Green Lantern and Batman walking through a sewer.

    If anything, I prefer that comics don’t spend valuable page space by needlessly lengthening the “valuable action”. I would like more time spent on the “comparatively worthless” reflection, introspection, and character development. I definitely want action in my comics, don’t misunderstand me, but I often feel that the action in comics is drawn out unnecessarily, or certain dialogue sequences are drawn out, when a little compression would serve the same effect, and allow for more story to fit in the same 22 pages.

    Last of all, and I mean this in a friendly, good natured spirit, it’s rather ironic that in an article promoting storytelling in comics that allows for nuance and subtlety, you missed a lot of the nuance and subtlety in the criticism of decompression. I guess there is room for irony in both compressed and decompressed storytelling.

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    • Leif Kendall

      Hi Sean – thanks so much for your thorough comment. I think I understand your point of view, but I like having a little space in comics, a little time for a story to breathe, a moment of calm to appreciate the artist’s skills and a chance for the characters to shine. You might not like three panels devoted to Batman jumping and landing, but I have no objections to such things. I might feel cheated if I felt creators were deliberately padding out a comic because they’d run out of story, but otherwise I trust a creator’s judgement, and am happy for them to tell the story however they see fit.

      Thanks again for your input. It’s an interesting debate! :)

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