The Short Arc – Short Runs, Big Stories

As much as I enjoy the skill and precision required to make a “one and done” — a story that has its beginning, middle and end all happen with a single issue — I tend to find slightly longer arcs more interesting. The really long arcs — 8 or 9 issues — can be kind of clumsy, especially if there are print delays, case in point,  Legion of Three Worlds, which just ended — I always found myself completely lost when I opened the book, and the story itself, with time travel, three different Legions, two, no, three Superboys was not helped by the months that passed between issues. Still, it had a fun, very meta ending, and I think would make a terrific trade–I will have to discuss it when I do a “long arc” column.

I thought it might be fun to talk a bit about three titles that recently finished their two and three-issue arcs and see why they worked — or did not work, as the case may be.  

Northlanders #18-19 – The Shield Maidens

I have talked about Northlanders before, and I maintain that this book has consistently featured fast, action packed stories with memorable, engaging characters, in a time that many of probably don’t know too much about. Brian Wood obviously loves this book, there’s a great attention to detail and he tells a very…balanced story, where the pacing is quick but never feels rushed, with characterization that comes out in action, narration and dialogue.  

This particular arc tells the story of three Viking women who fend off attacking Saxons by using an ancient Roman outpost, the cycle of the tides, and a few well placed spears.  It’s a very simple story, and told much like a fairy tale, with a stirring image opening and closing the piece.  The art by Daniel Zezelj reminds me of wood block art, with thick lines doing much of the work.  The color, by Dave McCaig, is earthy and haunting–when the women taunt the men by the moonlight, it feels like moonlight.  One of the women, Thyra, serves as a narrator, and gives us some insight into their relationships, not just with each other, but with their lost husbands and long dead children.  Thyra is strong, bold and cunning, and I think could be the topic of her own book, truth be told. Her adjustment from weaving all day to learning how to kill a man (which she admits takes much longer than she thought) is very compelling–Wood makes it difficult for the characters, but describes a situation where it is clear: either you learn how to kill, or you are dead.  

The art is compelling throughout. There’s a balance between the detail in the faces and the backgrounds and I find it incredible that such thick, chunky lines can be used to convey fast moving action and chaos.  The book is both a compelling sequence and a memory, with the more engaging panels featuring more detail, just like we remember more intense moments from our lives. We can see some things in our past with disturbing detail, but the other memories are often indistinct and inconstant.  

A story like this happens quickly–over a few nights — so it makes sense to tell it over two issues. Yes, it could have been done in a single issue, but it would have felt rushed, and some of the most interesting moments, the time between battle, where the women reflect and plan realize the situation they are in, would have been lost.  Without those moments, the story would have felt empty, just a lark, a filler, until a longer arc.  The second issue ratchets up the stakes a bit and goes on to finish the actual situation, but, again, the extra length gives us a wonderful afterward where we get closure.  I assume Wood is going to do another 5-6 issue arc after this, but I am glad that he continues to even out the longer arcs with these shorter stories. If you are not reading Northlanders, give these two issues a whirl if the story sounds interesting to you. These issues give you a good idea of what Brian Wood is doing with this title.

Oh, a special shout out to Massimo Carnevale, who has consistently delivered heart wrenching, poetic covers to these issues–and pretty much all of the other Northlander books.  I hope his covers get collected someday.

Battlefields – The Tankies (1-3)

We’ve talked about Battlefields a lot on the site and in the Pick of the Week Podcast, so I assume most of you are familiar with Garth Ennis’ series of very compelling World War II books.  He has told stories featuring characters and situations that many of us had no knowledge of, and I think has really energized the whole War Comics genre.  Happily, as he explains in his notes, there will be a second series of Battlefields books, and all of the first series of books will be compiled in both hardcover and softcover trades, which will make for very easy gift giving for the holidays.  

This specific arc tells a few stories, but is primarily about an English tank unit over a few days during World War II.  The story reminds me of the Northlanders arc–a group of different people forced to work together under hellish circumstances-but, honestly, I don’t think it is as successful as the other Battlefields books. The leader of the tank is a right fun character, with an almost impenetrable accent that I think only Josh can fully articulate, but there are two other stories that are somehow linked but never really work with the main storyline.  I was confused throughout the book, like, I had no idea where the characters were in relation with each other, and thought the secondary story lines did not really do much for the book.  In fact, I think this three issue arc could have been told in two issues, with more success.

Make no mistake, though–this is a quality book. The art by Carlos and Hector Ezquerra, reminds me of Steve Dillon, and that’s a very good thing. The acting–the facial expressions and reactions–is spot-on; you get a sense of what these characters are like without them needing to say anything. There are some (literally) explosive action sequences, with great attention to detail that makes it very clear that being in a tank battle would basically be hell in a small metal box.  The tanks, and there are a few, are pretty major characters in the book, and they have as much to do with the action and story as any of the humans. You really get a sense of how technology and engineering were constantly evolving during the War, with different models being used for different purposes, and I have yet to read a comic that has better tank battles.  I didn’t even know I liked tank battles before I read this book!  I do, now, very much.

The pacing is good, though I can’t help but feel there was some padding to make the book fill up three comics, and while I appreciate how Ennis writes dialogue the way people talk, in this case it was pretty fookin’ confusing at times.  It reminded me of reading Trainspotting–you basically had to read some of these lines out loud to get a fighting chance of what the characters was actually saying.  Still, that’s kind of a cheap complaint–oh, poor me, I had to read a line more than once–but I can see some people less patient having a problem with it.

The third issue ends the story, I guess, but with an ellipsis instead of a period (or, I guess, full stop).  Makes sense, the War continues and these guys have more work to do, but even now, as I think about the story, I really don’t know what the point of the story was–the status quo, as far as I could tell, did not change, really, in terms of character, and even the battle that was won was just another in a series of battles. If anything, this just makes me hope that Ennis will bring these characters back in the next round of Battlefields books, which, after reading his afterward, is pretty much what he is planning to do. In that case, this was a worthy introduction to our merry tank crew, and I can’t wait for him to bring them back.

Blackest Night – Tales of the Corps (1-3)

Speaking of introductions, that is one of the really good uses of the 1-3 issue arc, to set the stage for a much larger story.  In fact, that’s all Blackest Night – Tales of the Corps does, is set up and explore the histories of key characters in the Blackest Night storyline, and I think these issues do a fantastic job of it.  I love that the issues came out over three weeks–and the covers even fit together to make a fantastic battle sequence (desktop image here).  DC is really doing Blackest Night right, and while there is a risk of this kind of thing just deemed to be filler, I think it succeeds in giving us some insight into characters like Kilowog, St. Walker and Arisia, all of whom I personally did not know much about.

Each of the issue has a few main stories that dive deep into a specific character from one of the different Corps, and features art from a variety of artists.  Inbetween each issue is a gorgeous Doug Mahnke page showing the key members of each of the Corps, and an overview of the Corps’ powers and weaknesses.  We also get some nice backmatter, including a very cool essay by Ethan Van Scriver, discussing how he came up with the different symbols for each of the spectrums.  I love this kind of thing, I really do; we don’t get enough discussion of how these artists come up with the ideas for uniforms and symbols and the like. Given how important symbols are to the identity of these characters, especially in the Green Lantern mythos, this kind of insight is not only wonderfully compelling, but almost necessary.  The third issue features a gorgeous reproduction of Blackest Night #0, all in pencils, with commentary by Geoff Johns, Scriver, Adam Schlagman and Eddie Borganza. The short insights they provide not only give some background for the creative choices that were made, but also help the reader understand how the editors work with the creators to tell the best story possible.  Sure, it may be more detail than people might want, but, hey, it comes at the end and does not take away from the main story.  I love that DC is sharing this kind of “making of” content in the regular issues and not waiting until they get collected in trade; it makes collecting the single issues even more compelling.  

The stories are pretty much all good. The backstory of Bleez, a particularly angry Red Lantern, is as tragic as it is violent, which fits perfectly with the rage that compels the Red Lanterns.  I love that they are apparently so angry that they rarely speak and think clearly! I don’t know much about Carol Ferris’ previous experiences with the Star Sapphires, but it looks like she is going to play a major part with their Corps, which should be fun.  I was really taken with the story of the Indigo Tribe, who embody compassion–we don’t know much about them–we don’t even know what they are even saying, but the set up certainly makes me want to see more of them.

As I page through these books, I have to marvel at how well constructed each issue is. We’ve seen this kind of thing before–several short stories in a single comic–but oftentimes they are just basically ads to make you buy other titles. Each of these stories were truly character pieces, adding a sense of history and a shared emotional past that will come into play as the Blackest Night storyline unfolds, done in a way that does not make you feel like they are just long form advertisements for another book.  If anything, it just makes me more excited about the overall story, and I definitely will keep these issues around to re-read the backstories when the characters come into play in the other titles.  

So, again, we see how a shorter arc can do something differently than a single issue story. Blackest Night – Tale of the Corps could have been a disaster if the books were not released weekly–the release schedule is very much part of the experience of the book.  Though one could argue that it’s just $12 of footnotes, I would counter that it is much more–the art is amazing, the backmatter engaging, and the stories truly affecting–and I think DC did a great job with them.  This kind of thing is truly specific to a larger event, and I am not sure that this kind of format would work for other stories–with so many different Corps to talk about and so many characters within each Corps, these books are almost necessary.  If you are enjoying Blackest Night and have not picked up these books, flip through them at your store and see what you think. Lots of good stories, lots of great art, and some wonderful (and informative) Doug Mahnke pinups to boot…I think you’ll like ’em.

So there you go, just a few thoughts on some recent 2- and 3-issue arcs that I have picked up over the past few months, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each of them doing something that single issues and longer arcs cannot do. What do you think about these kinds of arcs? Do you prefer longer ones?  I like these because I can pick up the first issue, wait a few months, and then read them all at once–I am actually doing the same thing with I Am Legion by Fabien Nury and John Cassaday, which makes me wonder why I am not just waiting for the trade of that six issue series, but that’s another article entirely.

Have a good week!

Mike Romo would hope that if they ever did do a comic book version of his life, it would be longer than one issue. He can be reached via email, friended on the book of faces, and followed on the ‘weeter.


  1. I know most of the people on this site don’t read Star Wars: Legacy and never will, but there was a two part story arc in issues 20 and 21 that I found quite enjoyable.  It tells the tell of an Admiral driven into hiding by a much larger force.  He uses guerilla tactics and his own intellect to weaken his foe and even the numbers a bit.  It was a story that could have been told just as well outside the Star Wars universe. I enjoyed it a great deal.

    I plan on picking up Tankies when it is collected (sorry Josh). 

  2. i loved the tankies series and the battlefields series. i also loved the Tales of the Corps. its a good way to start off and introduce stuff

  3. I feel that Tales of the Corps would only be enjoyed by those that are already Green Lantern fans. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I’m not sure if those who don’t know anything about the characters will really care about the character’s origins. This is true about any story with an expansive universe of characters, the backstories will only interest the core fanbase. Like how Star Wars fans would go nuts for the origin story of Boba Fett, and most likely it won’t interest anyone else outside that fanbase.


    As a Green Lantern fan, though, I loved Tales of the Corps. I had my fingers crossed for a backstory of Dex–Starr, the Red Lantern cat, though 🙁

  4. Definitely agree your point here. I’ve been reading some old Morrison JLA stuff recently, and the 2-3 issue story arcs or one-shot stories have been much more fun than the longer arcs, which were, as you’d expect from Morrison, quite dense.

  5. I feel Dan Slott’s opening 3 issue arc in Mighty Avengers worked overall.  Some art, pacing and storytelling issues, but quite enjoyable.  Overall, I would very much enjoy getting more arcs of that length.  They are certainly easier to jut pick up and read months down the road.

    Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye was a great 3 issue mini.  Then again, I’m partial to G-Mo 🙂

    Great article Mr. Romo!  Nice to see some love, and criticism, for the shorter stuff.

  6. Battlefields and Northlanders have both been utilizing short arcs to their advantage.  I’m not so sure Tales of the Corps is anything more than a collection of short stories and couldn’t be extended to any number of issues.  I think the one title that has been doing short arcs consistently well is Amazing Spider-Man.  The arcs have seemed to be getting longer since the Beginning of Brand New Day, but I still think this proves my point (the arc with Hammerhead and Mr. Negative come to mind).

  7. I’m happy the six issue arcs seem to be dying out. I have liked a lot of the recent two/three/four part stories I have read a lot than that similar stories that came out about three years ago. Often a story can’t be dragged out for six issues and work.

     Like ato220 said, Amazing Spider-man’s three issue and one shot approch has worked really well. They’ve been saving the five/six issue arcs for the big things, and it’s working for it.

     I love over reaching arcs, but I think four three parters with similar themes, styles and motifs, hinting at a bigger arc, work alot better than one 12 part story, that by the end makes no sense anyway/

  8. If there are more Tankies, I won’t be buying that arc in singles.  It just was not up to the amazing standards set by The Night Witches and Dear Billy.

  9. Interesting article. Thanks.

  10. @chlop and @drakedangerz — thanks for the feedback, glad you liked the article!

    I totally agree, Spider-Man has been using these shorter arcs really effectively, which makes reading it 3 times a month that much more enjoyable. Longer arcs that have been kind of clunky have been the Immortal Iron Fist and The Invincible Iron Man arcs, which as much as I liked them, they really just took sooo long. Same thing with Daredevil; I, for one, could use a few 1-2 issue arcs…and maybe a smile..



  11. Great article Mike. Never thought about something like this before; but you can certainly pick up a short run on a series even if there is a bigger picture in mind.

    Case in point: Transmetropolitan #5-6. I love it when the series will have a one shot type of issue going which has nothing to do with the overall story. Issue five deals with Spider sitting in a chair, watching TV. Hilarity ensues. Then issue six deals with him going to a religious convention. Even with four trades in my possession those two issues have still been my favorite issues of the series.

  12. Nice work. Shorter arcs appeal to me for the same reasons that miniseries do: Contained story. Longer arxhs also serve their purpose but are also more vulnerable. There are a variety of things that could harm the inegrity of long term archs. Creative team changed editorial mandates and the like.

    I look foward to longer arch from big names, because more often than not, a creator with brand recognition can stay on and finsh her or his story. 

    I also really enjoyed your art analysis, Mike. Well done.

  13. Thanks for the article Mike.  I read this before going to my LCS today, so I immediately decided to pick up those Northlanders issues.  Unfortunately, issue 18 was sold out, so the search continues.

    I personally love these short arcs, specifically in ongoing titles, because I can chime into books I haven’t been reading to get just a taste and not have to spend a lot more, which is the exact case with Northlanders.  I’ve heard great things about it and I love Brian Wood, so I’m glad to finally read a bit of the series.   On the topic of Battlefields, the three issue arc seemed to fit Night Witches and Dear Billy perfectly. 

  14. The Saint Walker story from Tales of the corps was better than Blackest Night #1. I got goosebumps from “All will be well”

  15. @comicBOOKchris: I was hoping for a Dex-Star story as well.  I probably would have preferred that over the BN # 0 pencils in Tales of the Corps #3.  However, I enjoyed the pencils as well.