Brian Wood is one of my favourite writers in comics today. Besides authoring a beloved ongoing, DMZ, I’ve also had a chance to read some of his work on another series called DEMO.
DEMO, or at least the second volume, is a series of one-shot comics that feature storylines set both in supernatural environments and the (relatively) “real” world. The stories are extremely self-contained and bear no relation to one another: they are simply snapshots of different characters' lives. I enjoyed these stories because I could read them in a quick burst; Wood must have a great talent for one-shots, as his single-issue looks at the secondary characters of DMZ are some of my favourites.
This got me thinking: what exactly makes a good one-shot? Why do writers even bother with them at all? I mean, an ongoing series gives you loads of freedoms that a writer doesn’t have in one issue: you’re free to have more expository storyline without having to worry about rushing to the end (or the point) of a plot before you’ve laid all the groundwork. It allows for more intricacy and complication.
However, in the case of DEMO and DMZ, this complication leads to convolution. Part of the appeal of Wood’s DMZ one-shots is that the characters and setting have been established previously, which gives the writer more time to focus on crafting a good story.
It’s like my theory about Marvel Comics movie trilogies:
The first film in the series is an origin film. You need to spend a certain amount of time showing the viewer why the characters are likeable, the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis, and why the audience should invest in them emotionally. This results in a simple (or simplified) plot; you can’t throw too many details out at once. This leads the film to be very mediocre, but not horrible (X-Men, Spider-Man, etc.)
The second film in the series is the golden child. The setting and characters are established already, so there might only need to be a quick recap of the previous film’s events. Because the directors and writers have so much more space to work with, they can tell a good story. This film is usually the best of the series (X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2.)
Then they realize that the franchise is aging and throw in as many villains and characters in as possible (which helps with marketing.) This means they have little room to tell the story because there is so much fighting (Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand.)
With DEMO and DMZ’s one-shots, I don’t necessarily care that Wood doesn’t tell me the names of the character I’m reading about. I don’t care where they live, what their job is or who they’re fucking between issues. What I do care about is how a thoughtful admirer can make an OCD woman shed her mental sickness, how an aged graffiti artist can stay relevant and attached during a civil war, and what happens when a cannibal wants to give up human flesh for the woman he’s dating.
That is good one-shot writing: being able to make the reader not care about incidentals, and leaving them satisfied when they put the book down.
Matt Demers writes a weekly Wednesday column for Nerd Girl Pinups. You can follow him on Twitter.