The Balance of Action

 Where are my legs?
Recently, I had been hit with a writing bug and my article had the honor of being posted on such fine sites as ComicVine and AnimeVice. I had even heard that it was posted across many other manga/anime blogs. The gratitude I have toward the ComicVine staff, that encouraged me to write the first featured article, is quite incalculable. The same goes to the staff on AnimeVice who also carried the story.

One thing about the largest selling point to US comics is the action. It’s what we all love, and pretty much been the hallmark of some of our greatest comics and events. Who wasn’t effected by the fight of Superman and Doomsday? We have the promise of amazing action that is to fill the pages and get are blood flowing. Though it’s not always delivered as promised. As I was watching G-Man’s review of the Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus book something struck me. The Utopia story had so much potential that fell short.  For months we had a slow and steady build up to what was climaxed in the Exodus book. Though this book felt like a promise unrealized. In the beginning it had a long climb up, similar to the start of a roller coaster. You sit, strapped in, waiting for that first great fall that will give you the momentum needed to hit all the twists and turns to come. Utopia felt more like a long, five minute climb to ten foot drop, and it was all over. Exciting for a whole three seconds, but left me vastly unfulfilled. Not to say that the fights were bad. It all just felt as if so much was missed. I don’t even hold the writers or the artists accountable for this. Their job was done and done well in each book. For I blame what none of us can escape, even as it constantly moves: Time. Well, Time and the Marvel editorial staff that dictates that these events have to settle within a certain time frame.

It seriously feels that in many comics we have to choose between either story or action. If we desire more of one. We then must sacrifice a part of the other. This was also shown in Babs’ review of Dark Reign-The List: X-Men. It’s not as if our writers or artists in the US series aren’t capable of doing both. Wolverine's story during Civil War was a great read with great action. Why does this even have to be a choice? 

Thinking of how this story moved it reminded me of an arc that was used in the manga series, One Piece. It’s a story that was published several years back about the CP-9/Enis Lobby arc. In many ways it shares a couple of similarities with the Utopia/Exodus story. Both had a long build up,friends turning on each other, twists in loyalties, possible betrayal from an enigmatic member of the heroes, clashing with a dark, corrupt government organization filled with killers; and ended in battles that changed the status quo forever. To date, it’s one of my favorite arcs, because of the emotions it evoked, with Nico Robin’s past; and the scale of the battles at the end.

The story for this stage in One Piece pretty much began with chapter 343(Oct. 24, 2004) and the appearance of the Cipher Pol-9 (CP-9). Following the tradition of weekly chapter releases, the build up lasted past the following year, and the opening salvo was in chapter 398(Jan. 29, 2006). The Utopia story first began in Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia #1 (Jun. 24, 2009), but the roots of the story date further back. As with all tales in the current Marvel continuum. All roads lead back to Civil War, which to me played out like a political allegory; similar to Animal Farm, but without the talking pigs. (Well, unless you wish to count Stark, but that’s getting off the topic.) Civil War ultimately is what lead to the Dark Reign. Norman Osborn stole Wolverine’s kill shot in Secret Invasion; and the murderer of Gwen Stacy quickly became America’s hero. He had created the Cabal in Secret Invasion: Dark Reign #1 (Dec. 3, 2008) and the X-Men had been mostly uninvolved. Despite Emma Frost’s agreement to join at the end of Uncanny X-Men #505 (Dec. 17, 2008). It all came to a head when the mutant riots broke out and Dark Reign finally fell on the mutant population in DA/UXM: Utopia.

In the Enis Lobby story the Strawhat Crew pretty much separated and paired off with an opponent at chapter 400 (Feb. 12, 2009), though these matches would mix up as the story moved on. Much in the same way Cyclops had his X-Men paired off with certain enemies, but had certain twists as the action progressed. Just to give you a feeling for just how these battles lasted in the One Piece series. This was the make up and the duration of each fight seen, from first meeting to final blow.

ChaptersTime duration
Zoro vs. KakuCH.400-41820 weeks
Nami vs. KalifaCH.403-41211 weeks
Sanji vs. JabraCH.413-4153 weeks
Chopper vs. KumadoriCH.403-4087 weeks
Franky vs. FukurouCH.402-4066 weeks
Luffy vs. Rob LucciCH.408/418-42722 weeks
You may notice that some of these chapters over lap. That’s because even while fights were going on around. The story was still being told, and more then one battle was happening at a time. This wasn’t like the Dragonball Z fights, that were just blind fighting. In the Enis Lobby arc the battles just felt as epic as the story that had been built up. There was a balance. So much detail was given to each fight. It could be used as a story board for the animated version, and most likely was. The climax was with the leaders’ fight of Luffy and Rob Lucci is the kind of thing you cheer at.
Luffy had been beaten down over and over. Only to rise again and pull off an amazing last-ditch attack. So traumatized did this leave the hero, that he couldn’t move afterward and was unconscious for three days after the fight had been over.

Balance that to the Utopia/Exodus story. While it started in late June. It came to a conclusion in early September of the same year. I have been quite the critic of Fraction’s handling of the X-Men’s story, but I can’t hold it against him with the balance of action to story. I felt the build up was looking promising. Here, he’s working with the time he had. The entire battle was told within a single book while the story that began this was through Dark X-Men: Beginning #1-3, DA/UXM: Utopia, Dark Avengers #7-8, Uncanny X-Men #513-514, and X-Men Legacy #226-227. This was a ten to one ratio of story to action. There was some action in between, but none on the level that was expected of having two powerful forces come to a head. Normally, when there are crossovers of major teams. It’s between heroes that get caught up in some sort of misunderstanding. No side wants to be painted poorly. This was a team of villains. A massive battle was deserved. This was the line up we had for Exodus:

X-MenDark Avengers/X-Men
WolverineWeapon Omega
X-23/Pixie/Armor Daken
New MutantsAres
X-Club Dark Beast
Iceman/New X-MenMimic
Various mutantsMoonstone

For the length of the battle. The art was often times breath taking. From pencil to color. I can’t remember when I’ve seen Archangel look so cool.
You could almost feel the level of doom coming Bullseye’s way. Past introductions we didn’t really see much of ‘anything‘ in the majority of these fights. The battle that got the most attention was between Cyclops and Osborn, in his Iron Patriot armor. That consisted mostly of Scott being beaten around while mocking Norman. Though I did enjoy watching Norman break down like a tantruming two year old screaming, “No No, No, No!!”. It appeared that the battles of Namor/ Sentry and Wolverine/ Weapon Omega were both of epic detail. What happened between Namor throwing that truck to being pounded into the pavement by Sentry? How was Weapon Omega standing after being stabbed in the back? It’s just sad so little was ever even seen. It could also of been quite entertaining to see Daken have his regenerating rear handed to him by three teenage girls, considering how poorly he tends to treat women. I don’t know if that was intentional, but my hat’s off to Matt Fraction on that touch. Moonstone's involvement was so short it was almost laughable. Dani Moonstar’s power revival and fight with the war god Ares, while incredibly well drawn, felt slighted by the time it was given. A battle that by all rights should of lasted hours, felt closer to thirty minutes. It was more like watching a highlight reel of a soccer match or baseball game. Rather then the sensation of actually being there watching.  If there was ever a fight that I would of loved to of seen get some manga-like attention. It would have been these.

Out of everything, it was the aftermath that felt silly. All this massive fighting and no one was shown even bed ridden once the dust settled. 
Scott, who had done little else but get pounded upon, by a psychopath in a suit of armor, only seemed to suffer some cuts, torn clothes, and had a little bandage on his head. All over the X-Men seemed relatively unharmed. Osborn’s Dark X-Men and Avengers were even more bizarre for a team that lost. Moonstone had her arm in a sling for some reason. Somehow despite multiple goring by Wolverine, Weapon Omega only seemed to have his hood damaged. Wolverine has never struck me as the kind of man who lets someone get away without losing a toe at the least. Especially, when there is a personal aspect to a fight. Dark Beast, though well outnumbered, didn’t even seem to suffer so much as a scuffed shirt. Though what was the
oddest touch I noticed, of all the people to still show fresh injuries. Daken clearly was showing cuts. If anyone should have been healed completely by the time of a press conference, it’s him. There is some irony that the only member of the X-Men or Dark Avengers that seems to suffer any long term effect from this battle is Emma Frost, the one who wasn’t even involved in the physical fighting.

This being said. One Piece is pretty infamous for people surviving ridiculous amounts of bodily damage. Don’t think I’m just picking on US comics alone for breaking the laws of continuity. The One Piece character Pell, from the Alabasta arc, flies a bomb, intended to level an entire city, into the sky. He is point blank when it finally goes off and easily presumed dead. It was a moving moment where he seemingly sacrifices himself to save thousands and the princess, Vivi, he has watched grow up from childhood. (I highly recommend you at least look up the scene on you tube if you ever get the chance.) At the end of the arc he is shown to of somehow survived. Also at times, Zoro (who I often see as the Wolverine of One Piece) suffers such damage in a fight it effects his performance considerably for many arcs past. So far, any character deaths that have happened in One Piece have been in flash backs. The creator, Eiichiro Oda, has said that he feels it is more important for the villains’ wicked dreams to die, rather then having the heroes actually take a life. Which is fitting when you consider the over riding theme of One Piece is about dreams.
Each character has their own dream. Luffy to be King of the Pirates, and Nami to draw a map of the world.

When it comes right down to it. There is a question I want to ask you. Mind you ahead of time. No one has ever even seriously considered this. It's not a rumor I heard. It’s just an idea I had running through my head. If it meant that you could have your comics in full color, not to mention having equal parts action and story; do you think you could have the patience to see US comics be published like weekly Japanese manga? Mangas have a distinct advantage being published weekly. If a reader doesn’t like a particular section. They normally only have to wait for the following week to see what happened next, rather then the monthly time line we have. I think that US comic creators have the skill to do it. They just lack the time needed.

A single issue of the manga magazine, Shonen Jump, has several different manga series between the covers; from Bleach, One Piece, Naruto, and many more. Imagine all the X-Men titles being published in a single weekly magazine, with sixteen to eighteen pages of story dedicated to each series; New Mutants, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, etc. When you consider how many pages that are in a month’s issue of your average comic. You could easily have about two normal sized comics (25-30 pages) within a single month. It may feel slow going at times, but the action we all enjoy out of these comics would increase ten fold in both length and detail. You would get to see the high and lows of a fight. Watch our heroes struggle against a powerful villain and turn the tide with one last attack. It could also seem faster if we had new issues each week, missing only during national holidays. There would be little concern about missing an issue during crossovers. Say you don’t want to read the other books. You would only have to wait two to three months and get the volume collection that would contain twelve weeks of the chapters per volume.

Overall, I feel the format given to US artists can be too constraining. Major story events are created one after the next and each writer is pretty well forced to fit their story within a small handful of months. Rather then writing an organic story that progresses naturally and has a satisfying climax (no puns, please). We more often get what I talked about earlier. More action with less story development, or long drawn out story with a flat or rushed conclusion.

These are my thoughts on the issue. Do you think you have the patience to read a story arc that could last two years if all it meant was having slightly shortened chapters, but you also get more dramatic action and fighting with your story? Do you think the larger audience could handle this as well?

Thank you for reading.
Posted by Truex

Great article but I disagree about the ultimatum between more action with less story development, or long drawn out story with a flat or rushed conclusion. It all depends on the writer, Matt Fraction is one of the all time worst X-Men writers and I don't think that something he writes should be used in comparison to a well written manga. Peter David writes character driven stories with very little action but it is still, in my opinion, the best monthly comic, but on the other hand X-Force is really violent and still writeen really well. About your other point of publishing multiple books in a weekly comic is a great idea on a small scale of maybe two or three comics per book. But a drawback to that is writers and artists who work on multiple titles would be forced to cut back and the quality of both would probably suffer.

Posted by LifePulse

This was an interesting read. It could have been the fact I love One Piece that I appreciated this article so much, but hopefully that doesn't make me too biased. In general though, I have to agree; some of the best stories I've read have managed to integrate both action and story into one perfect mixture, which has an incredible build up and an even more incredible climax. I may be just guessing, but I think the trick is to stop treating action and story like they are completely separate from one another. Each one can complement the other perfectly if used correctly, and it just makes the story, and especially the climax, that much better.
Bah, there I go getting all preachy again. Again, good article man.

Posted by xerox_kitty

You know I agree with what you've said, because we've pretty much gone over this before :)  What amuses is me is that we expect a certain level of realism from US comics, while in manga we're willing to suspend our disbelief for manga.   
For example.  Civil War started with how the public would react mindlessly to heroes because of a tragic event.  It later had shocking moments where characters died, survivors mourned, and morals were questioned.  Therefore despite all the fantastic super powers, people enjoyed.   
Likewise, Messiah CompleX is a popular story arc as it balanced many different sub-plots, didn't dwell on the actions of just one or two characters (providing a focus across many different teams & characters), with a clear beginning & an endind that wrapped up all the various story thread.  There was also enough of an open ending to give room for the creation of two new series; Cable & X-Force.  It was neat & concise story telling. 
However, many people still seem unhappy about Utopia.   
There were no casualties, everyone who was hurt was magically cured moments later (regardless of the presence of characters like Elixir), and Beast who was losing his blue fur looks exactly the same as before.  With the exception of a few news crews, the public didn't seem to have a reaction to events that were happening around them.  Apparently the public's view is what Norman Osborn gave during press conferences.  The only morals questioned were whether it was okay to side with Norman Osborn.  'Proposition X' was quickly forgotten about, and living on a rock just off the coast of San Francisco wouldn't make them exempt from any new laws passed that effect American territory.  Just like you've established above, the pacing was an anti-climax with fight scenes barely lasting for minutes, let alone half-hours or hours.  And then there's the focus on characters; it was meant to be a two-team cross-over with the creation of a third team.  However, the majority of the focus was on Osborn, Cyclops & Frost.  Peripheral characters received such little time & attention that they were neglible, like some sort of crappy stocking filler that was bought on Christmas Eve because it was cheap and filled the empty spaces. 
Now I'm not saying that it was universally panned, because a lot of people did actually enjoy Utopia.  However, I'm not one of them and by comparing it to other stories like Civil War & Messiah CompleX it just isn't going to hold up as a classic cross-over.   
Yet people seem more forgiving if a manga spends more time & attention on one or two characters in particular.  For example, in Bleach you're guaranteed that the majority of the time the story will be about Ichigo, Rukia or Ishida.  Obviously Ichigo is the main hero, but he isn't a title character like Seiya from Saint Seiya.  He's one of a team of heroes, but the reader knows that the action will follow him because it's his name in the title.   
Morals also seem more clearly defined in manga, a bit like they used to be in US comics.  Now, with the need for more gritty realism, US comics have begun to explore the many shades of grey and moral imbiguity.  With most manga, you know who are villains and heroes and therefore you know who to cheer for during the fight scenes.  Not just with shonen manga, where the heroes battle the villains.  Even with most shoujo manga that explore relationships & every day life, you know who are the allies and foes to the central heroine.  For exmaple, Nana deals with the love lives and careers of two girls in a big city.  We know that their friends are among the allies, while rivals rock bands and other girls who destroy their relationships are clearly the foes.  It is a slice of life story, but it still has a clear moral compass.  Yet it is told in such a way that the fairy tales black & white morality doesn't interfere with the characterisation. 
And of course there's the timing.  Manga is faster paced because it released on a more frequent basis.  When you collect all those chapters together & read them back-to-back there is a lot of time dedicated to fight scenes.  Sometimes it can feel that you're stood by the heroes side in real time, like with Bleach or One Piece.  Or other times it can feel like there is nothing but fighting, like with Dragonball Z or Saint Seiya.  But even when that happens, readers are still more accepting of those flaws in balancing the action with the charactersation and drama. 
I think to some degree it is like comparing apples to oranges with manga & US comics.  The way that they are produced often dictates how a story can flow.  However, there is a lot to be said for the quality of writing, especially when dealing with a ridiculously large cast of characters.  When there are too many characters for the writer to handle, they end up trying to juggle subplots and drop them all in a messy heap.   
Monthly titles have fewer pages within which to tell a story, whereas weekly titles may have smaller chapters but they accumulate into more pages per month.  Therefore a weekly manga can cover more story than a monthly US comic... and I feel that it's that time constraint that really drags US comics down.
Posted by FoxxFireArt
The story with X-Force and Cable worked well, because the level of the action was mixed with the story. What Fraction had with Utopia was much more of a psychological/strategic story. It seemed to be designed to be much more of a drama. It was that the fights had to be pushed to the end, but the schedule set didn't allow for the time I felt it needed. As I say. It felt more like watching highlight reels.

Why would they have to cut back on the quality if they were producing less pages per issue? You could also hire more artists. It's not like with manga and there is only one art staff per series. Comics are already written, drawn. and colored months in advance of the issues publication date. 

Look at the anime situation in Japan. In the US we have months in between seasons of animated shows. There really is no break when it comes to the longer running series in Japan. Every week, throughout the year, there are new episodes of Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece, save for missing a week or so due to national holidays or special events. Animation is much more difficult to produce as well. Yet they produce enough to do that weekly and the quality is high.
Thank you. No reason on worrying about sounding preachy.
the idea of mixing the story with the action is good, but it would get dull if every story moved the same way. Utopia felt more to me like the kind of story that had a slow, almost calm before the storm, feel. It was something that deserved a powerful crescendo, but fell flat.