Don’t like “filler”? Then you probably don’t like comics


“It was a bit of a filler issue but it was still good.”

“Seven and Eight might be fantastic but that doesn’t clear this series from the fact that it was almost all fluff and filler.”

“Truth be told, there’s been some filler here and there, but those huge panels of the fight scenes were beautifully drawn, and the story’s kept me hooked.”

“For a big issue it just seemed like filler then anything else.”

“It’s a little early for a filler at only issue 9.”

“Sorry, but all of the history presented thus far seems more like filler than actually necessary to the story.”

“I agree, this may not be the deepest story line ever (hell, let’s be honest, it’s filler) but it certainly is one of the most fun story lines to come around for X-Men in a while.”

“If you skipped this one because you thought it was a filler, fear not, for it was actually pretty good and just goes to show that even with a filler, Johns can create some magic.”

“This issue might be a “filler” or a “breather” issue in between big stories, but it’s done in a very nice way.”

“The original plan was for the second arc to jump to the post-SI marvel U, but he said that scheduling may necessitate a “mini-arc” (also known as filler issues).”

 



Somewhere along the way comic book readers lost their minds.

The above quotes are all pulled from this very website and do a good job of summarizing a trend that I have noticed more and more these last few years, a trend that I find truly baffling. Somewhere along the way it became popular opinion that any chapter of a story that doesn’t propel the grand plot forward is looked upon with derision and referred to as “filler.”

When did this happen? Is it the result of living in an event culture where every story is connected and every ending is supposedly universe-shatteringly important? Is it a wider cultural problem that has yielded short attention spans that find slowly unfolding stories to be too boring? Is it the instant gratification culture that says everything must happen now and happen fast?

Are we at the point now that if there isn’t a major reveal, plot twist, or shocking cliff-hanger in every issue it is a failure? Look at a few of the quotes at the top of the article, even when the so-called “filler” issue is good, it’s regarded as such with qualifications.

Why do I find this so outrageous? Well, it’s because there is another word for “filler” and it is “story.” Those filler issues and quiet moments? That’s where the story is. Why do comic book readers tend to get so attached to these comics and form bonds that last for decades? It’s because of the characters. It’s all about the characters. And the characters are built in the stories. If we weren’t fond of Matt Murdock we wouldn’t have been so upset when Karen Page died. If we didn’t feel a kinship with Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon we wouldn’t have nearly thrown-up from excitement when they finally got together (shut up, it was a beautiful moment). And if it hadn’t been for the years and years of little moments between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, half the comics community wouldn’t have freaked out over One More Day.

And why do we feel such a strong connection with these characters? It’s not because every month they find new and interesting ways to pummel each other, it’s the little moments of character that enrich these people and breathe live into these four color creations. It’s the X-Men playing softball. It’s the Justice League of America having Thanksgiving dinner with the Justice Society of America. It’s Superman spending Christmas with Ma and Pa Kent. That’s the stuff that builds the bonds between character and reader, that’s the stuff that makes these characters come alive in our minds and most especially in our hearts.

Another way to refer to “filler” is to call it character development. And character development is what this thing of ours is all about. We feel like we know these characters as people and that’s because of character development. That’s because of “filler.”

This problem is not just limited to comic books. It’s something I see in television discussion as well. If an episode of Lost doesn’t reveal some major secret about the island or something, then people complain all over the internet about it being “filler.” It’s enough to make me want to stop shaving my head so I could have hair to pull out.

Have people really lost sight of character in the midst of all the hype over big reveals and plot twists?

When I think back on my time reading comics and I ponder my favorite stories or scenes, they very rarely involve punches or explosions. Those scenes are a dime a dozen. I think about the Avengers issues where they would spend the entire comic hanging out at the mansion picking the new team. I think about the moment that Bruce Wayne finally acknowledged that Dick was his son and asked if he would be okay with Bruce adopting him. I think about Keith Giffen and J.M. Matteis’ Justice League, a book that existed almost entirely between fight scenes, showing the heroes in their downtime as much as doing anything else.

It’s important to note that I am not discounting action or plot development or cliff-hangers or any of that good stuff. It’s all a part of the story-telling process and it’s all important. But all that stuff is just a part, and not the whole. But at the end of the day, character is the connective tissue of serialized media. It’s the most important part. I think you can get away with a lot less character in films and in one time stories, but not in comics and not in television. There’s a reason why we come back week after week or month after month. And it’s usually because we want to know what happens next with these people that we’ve come to know.

The next time you read a comic or watch a TV show and you dismiss it as “filler” because “nothing happened” I want you think about it for a moment. Really think about it. Did nothing actually happen? Or did you learn more about a character and their feelings and motivations. Or maybe a relationship between two characters was fleshed out and explored. Or maybe you found just a little bit more to relate to in a character, something more to sympathize with. Or maybe someone you thought was pure evil isn’t as bad as you thought. Or maybe someone you thought was a hero is a little more complicated than you realized.

All of this is good. All of this is important. All of this enhances the overall narrative. Without character development, who the hell cares what happens to any of these people?

 

Comments

  1. Yes! Exactly! Some of my favorite issues are the little character moments! Dick and Tim trainsurfing in Nightwing 25! Dick and Babs and that kiss during NML! The Titans just hanging out and bonding! (One of the reasons why NTT was so wonderful.) Bruce finally adopting Dick!

    The reason that the first X-Men Manifest Destiny book was my pick of the week a few weeks ago – I love the character moments, I love watching my favorites interact, I love seeing them change. Without that, all you have is a bunch of guys in suits punching each other. It’s the characters that make the stories important.

    I adore this article. Great job.

  2. Ah, I love that Avengers cover.  If Rom had joined the Avengers, it would have been the greatest thing ever.

     I love the "chatty" moments in comics.  That’s why I love Bendis’s stuff so much and Daredevil.  One of my favorite comics of all time is USM #13, where it’s nothing but Peter and MJ talking.  Another great talky issue:  Watchmen #8.

  3. Great article, Conor. Couldn’t agree more. Action and twists are great, but you have to give a damn about who the action and twists are happening to.

    Take Checkmate… Rucka’s run was a great mix of informed characters which made the big moments so much bigger. Jones’ run has been nothing BUT big moments, but I barely have a clue who anyone is so I don’t care. And it’s been cancelled.

    The best example (that’s coming to mind) is stuff like Y: The Last Man. In the middle of that story there’s moments where nothing "big" happens for ages, just people talking. And it’s the most satisfying stuff in there.

    Oh, and anything Geoff Johns is writing.

  4. A good "talky" is Ex Machina.  I love me some good dialogue.

  5. What I wouldn’t have given for a filler issue of Mighty Avengers before Secret Invasion. The series under Bendis never reached its potential in large part due to this lack of story helping us care about the characters’ relationships.

  6. I agree, Jimski. I loved those characters and kept wanting desperately to love that book, too.

    As for all this anti-filler talk, do you think some of it might come from titles like Preacher or Y: The Last Man with a very clear start-to-finish plan? There was never much room for "filler" issues in those. Maybe that just shed a different light on the long-running superhero books.

  7. This is a good post Conor and it needed to be said.

  8. Absolutely brilliant column, Conor. If all we had were event issues, in which characters were fleeing from one crisis to the next, we’d never get to see their personalities develop. We’d never see the small moments that define the character. Not every issue or arc should be a game-changer; there needs to be exposition.

  9. Excellent article.  One of my all-time favorite comics is Spectacular Spider-Man v2 #21.  It’s what would sadly be called a ‘filler issue’.  **SPOILERS**

     

    It’s just a bunch of Marvel heroes having their annual poker game where all winnings go to the charity of the winner’s choice.  But who should crash the game?  None other than Wilson Fisk!  I won’t say anymore, but I laughed my ass off with this issue – literally.  And why did I laugh?  Because I knew and loved all the characters thanks to, wait for it, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. 

     I don’t understand why so many readers only find large fight scenes and action interesting.  For me it’s always been about character development and intriguing situations.  Beautiful post, Connor. 

  10. This post is just filler. Can we talk about the next skrull reveal instead??

  11. jk

  12. I think the shift to arc based, written to be trade-paperbacked, storylines has contributed much to what people think of as filler. Once upon a time a one issue story was just that: a one issue story in a series of variable length tales. Now days everything is 4 issue this and 6 issue that. And they’ve all got umbrella titles that cover the whole arc. Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into that framework tends to stand out like a sore thumb. Much of the readership has shifted habits. They want to pick up one (tradepaperback) book and read one story. Then move on to the next one. Things that don’t fit into that confuse them.

     

     

  13. Conor, aren’t you constantly complaining that SI is not going anywhere?  Not trying to be a jerk, just wondering if that had crossed your mind?

  14. @SteveM – I thought the same thing, but the problem with SI is that all the character development is taking place in the supplementary books (Avengers, Captain Britain, Black Panther) and not in SI itself.

  15. @SteveM – "Filler" does not equal "nothing happens."  There is no character development in SECRET INVASION either.

  16. Great article, however…just kidding. I love me some "filler" issues and I don’t see them necessary as that. They’re character-moments. But @MikeFarley is absolutely right with the trade thing. Some people apparently forgot that it’s not about the next big reveal, it’s about bonding with the character. It’s really the beauty of comics, that we can have those little one-off moments, since there is no sheduling or aging problem, like on a TV-show.

  17. @SteveM – Nor is "filler" an excuse for "bad story." It still has to be good.  All of which is getting away from my main point anyway.

  18. Hear hear!  I’ve probably been guilty of this kind of criticism at some time or other — as you point out, a lot of us here have — but you’re absolutely right.  To me, the only real ‘filler’ is the big fight scenes that don’t make room for individual characters.

    One of my most fun moments at Baltimore Comic-Con was getting in a conversation with two other X-Men fans about the issue where Cyclops and Corsair went camping.  That’s an almost 10-year old story that’s not really part of any arc, and didn’t ‘advance’ anything, but all of us remembered tiny details about it, because it was a story that underlined, for us, how those characters are really *people*.  When we met Robert Kirkman, we didn’t talk about any of his ‘big’ books but about the Marvel Team-Up issue where Captain America and Wolverine have pie together.  That’s the stuff that sticks with you. 

  19. Indeed. This goes along with what you guys were saying about cross-over stories. Why can’t we have a nice big event, where nothing substantial happens? Some fun interactions, some bad guys, and then things go back to normal.

     

    That Superman Christmas sounds like a good time.

  20. Ah, Conor, you’ve been saving this one up for a little while, I see. Heh. Nice piece. I’ve noticed this trend for awhile. Honestly, plot is very important to genre comics (and shows and books), but somewhere along the way I believe it became too important. It became the "thing" that gave a story its value. With serialized content, like comic books and soap operas, the twist/reveal often becomes a quick, easy way to spike interest. Because we do feel the plot in our guts. There are a lot of comics vying for our attention, and sometimes that plot twist helps. The problem is that it becomes a shortcut. It becomes nothing but plot, plot, plot because it gets attention, and so, hey, why not stop?

    But I do believe this is also cyciical. We DO eventually recognize that the grand plot cannot stand without character development. I remember that after Claremont left the X-men, Jim Lee and company were on the books and it was all about plot and revelations, etc. And people started to notice. They started to miss the quiet X-moments that allowed for character interplay and development. And slowly, those books started to change again.

    I think most modern comics writers understand this better now.

    Also, on the flipside: I want to point out that you don’t NEED to have a "team plays softball" issue to develop character. If you’re doing your job, you’re ALWAYS writing character. The plot is nothing more than the intersection of character and circumstance. Plot should always be developing character, whether a "grand reveal" or a "talking heads" piece.

  21. I hate to say this, but my experience with comic fans is that a lot of them exhibit signs of being somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum (Aspergers, for example).  Due to the nature of that condition, these people are going to be more predisposed to like plot-point development more than subtle emotional development.

  22. Could be that the trend of people beefing about "filler" issues is due to the fact that the majority of the comic press is always using that term and  other ubiquitous terms like "Great jumping on point"?, and that a number of the readers will use those phrases in order to feel credibile in their reviews or commentaries?

  23. I tend to think of filler issues as the ones where nothing but fights happen.  Either that or the ones that publishers sometimes sneak in to cover for a late book (something I actually think is a good idea

  24. I think "filler" talk has alot to do with the Direct Market. Fans are already looking forward to what is going to happen 2 issues from now. It just becomes a fixation on moving from point A to B. It is the "Who’s Whoing" of fandom, everything is just a wikipedia entry.

  25. nice article!

  26. I would never complain about a "filler issue;" if anything, I’d complain about the opposite, the issues in which nothing gets to happen organically but the scenes seems shoehorned in to force the plot forward and hit a predetermined action beat.  "Filler issues" are indeed what make comic book characters become real and beloved.  My favorite issue of Proof so far was the "day off" issue.  And whether or not we ever see Butterball again, Initiative #13 will always be one of the best issues I’ve ever read of literally anything.  Great article!

  27. I love character moment issues.  I truly do.  I’m also the person wwho thinks the dinner-table-scenes in Firefly were the point of the show, without which no one would have given a care what happened to these slightly irritating people.

  28. I am guilty of this sometimes.  I do like good character development, but most books come out once a month and sometimes this fact clouds my better judgement and I just wanna know what happens next. I guess i’m just a product of the instant gratification age but i’d like to think that, through monthly (and sometimes delayed) comics, I’m learning patience.

  29. I can never really get into marvel books. and a while back I figured out why. I only ever read the big event stories, and while I could tell that some of them were very well written, I really didn’t care for the characters. where as my love of DC characters came from picking up random books or annuals which were one shot books that spoke to the core of the characters, and made me care about them.

  30. absolutely. awesome. needed to be said, and it was said well.

  31. None of those things you mentioned are what I would ever call "filler."

    In fact, generally, comics today have almost no filler by my standards. Filler issues have fights with no stakes, they don’t have character development or quiet moments. Very often, they are "flashback" issues that interrupt a story and don’t give us *anything* because they only exist because someone missed a deadline. I haven’t seen a filler issue since the 1980’s.

    You’re right. Those people you quoted above have completely lost their minds, ’cause they don’t know what filler really is!

     

     

     

  32. even watchmen had filler, character backstory issues, which were the highlight

  33. what an observation! The issues you speak of are just as important as the grand plots, no question.

    This article has probably the highest use of rhetorical questions I have ever seen haha!

    I loved the line about pulling you hairr out! Genius!