My most eagerly-awaited comic of the year came out this week: Grant Morrison and JH Williams’ Seven Soldiers #1. The ‘awaited’ bit had come to carry a bit more stress than the ‘eager’: the comic had been delayed for several months, in rumour due to Morrison’s delivery of a script three times longer than the 36-page issue DC Comics had solicited. There was some excuse for this – despite the numbering, SS#1 is actually the finale of thirty interlocking episodes, bringing seven separately published other series together, and there was a lot of ground to cover. The result of the delay, and the consequent hyperdense storytelling. seemed to be that several readers left the comic absolutely baffled – minor and forgotten plot details turned out to be crucial, expected payoffs were in turn quickly sidelined. Luckily, I’d read the previous 29 bits relatively recently, and I loved every page of it.
I’m not writing this post to recommend a comic, though. One of the interesting things about Seven Soldiers is that, beyond its meticulously complex structure, it’s actually a fairly simple story. There’s allegory there if you look for it, but at heart it’s an adventure comic about a group of unlikely heroes saving the world from invasion – an old yarn, told in a novel way. This isn’t (thank heaven) a banner-waver for sophistication or ‘adult themes’ in superhero comics – it’s a romp.
Even so it’s impossible to imagine it being released even five years ago. Seven Soldiers is an example of a piece of popular fiction that is written in the full knowledge that it will attract a ‘group’ audience as much as individual readers: the intricacies and links of the plot seem designed to be ferreted out, and the most likely locus for the ferreting is online communities – there is at least one wiki detailing Seven Soldiers intra-connections online.
What I mean by ‘group audiences’ isn’t that people will be consuming a work together – more that the individual’s experience of the work can be backed up by reference to stuff other readers have spotted or deduced. This has always happened but the Internet makes it possible for group audience work to be public and continuous. So your own reading can be backed up by the ‘parallel processing’ of an enthusiastic audience who can spot the stuff you don’t. (For Morrison, this seems particularly apt – some of the first comics I read by him involved his enthusiastic take-up of the ‘morphic resonance’ theory, which says that animals learn new stuff by a kind of species telepathy, quite like the parallel processing I’m talking about.)
The question becomes – what new balance does a writer strike between catering to an individual and catering to this group audience: the more you write for the latter, the more complex and wide-ranging, and potentially rewarding (in payoff terms) your plotting can become. On the other hand, if you’re writing stuff which readers might want to use for beach reading, or watch-once-and-forget-about viewing, these complexities might seem incomprehensible, or just boring, to an individual reader with no knowledge or interest in the group-audience they can access. (Plus members of the group-audience are likely to be the most vocal fans, too, so it’s easy for an author to over-estimate their numbers).
I’m quite interested in this question at the moment, and in other examples of work – in comics, TV, books, whatever – that tries to get this balance right.