Arc, Story, Period: The Difference
Travis Hedge Coke
So, you've got a hold on title (the name of a series), run (a selection of almost-entirely-successive releases done by an author, including writer, artist, letterer, colorist, et al), and imprint (label identifying thematically or contractually linked releases). That’s almost basic level comics stuff, these days. Got to know your Miller Daredevil or your Nocenti, your Vertigo from your Weirdoverse or Marvel UK. It’s helpful to know that while the different collections have numbers and names, the title is, in common speaking, Preacher.
Now, on to the hard stuff. The things even the thoroughgoing fans sometimes muck up and say wrong. An arc. A story. A period.
Aren’t they all stories? Can’t a period refer to both the in-story era and place and to the time and place of production? Why isn’t an arc a story? Don’t stories have arcs?
Let’s slow down and take this in chunks.
A story, for our purposes, has a clear beginning and clear end. It's intended, by the authors, to be taken apiece, to be picked up without having to read something that came before and enjoyed on its own, beginning to end. You could put it down and be done after you’ve read the final pages.
Some stories are a single issue long. Some are five issues long. Some are three panels in length. Or, one.
Family Circus, for example, is almost always a single panel story. You can read several in a row, but there’s little narrative followthrough, virtually never going to be any lead-in to the next story, and they simply aren’t designed for it.
On a serial comic like Batman or Brave and the Bold, however, there may be lead-ins for the next story or followthrough from the last, in an issue that is, still, a story in its own right.
The existence of those tune in next time scenes, or callbacks from previous stories sometimes lead fans to feeling that it is necessary to also read the next issue or to start five to five hundred issues earlier, with the idea that it all ties together and the tying together is more important than that the stories are, largely, designed to be read on their own. This sometimes manifests as treating a run as one story, and only one story, even if it is eighty issues long. Or, people asking things, like “What is the story of Batman?” or “What is the theme of Daredevil?”
“What is the theme of the story?” is a school exercise to get a student on the ball about identifying themes. It is not a lesson in the inherence of a singular theme in either a story or a title (or a character). When we get caught up in this, the consequences are like peeing in the pool; other people might have wanted to swim in there, too, but now they ain’t gonna.
An arc is made up of stories.
Okeh, let’s back up. A story has an arc, because a story has progress and we track that progress by a kind of narrative/emotional arch or squiggly graph. But, when you have serial stories, as most comics are, you inevitably develop arcs of stories, when a character progresses in a clear, linear fashion over the course of several stories, or an author gets on a particular kick and explores a theme or motif from different angles over the course of several stories.
Dick Grayson, former Robin and current-Batman, has an arc in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin run, even though there are several distinct stories in that run. His arc, as a character/person, is not limited to one story, nor is it, itself, necessarily a satisfactory story. But, it is a satisfactory continuum.
In Preacher, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon have a Salvation arc, the way a television show may have a seasonal arc. You can enjoy, on their own, the individual stories, but there is a larger issue and larger progress made when those stories are taken as a whole, when the situation and setting in those stories is taken as a whole.
The Salvation arc has a period and is, in a sense, defined by that period. Period, in this sense, is not a matter solely of time, but of time and place. When we talk of the Victorian period or the Vietnam era, we are generally unconcerned with Mars or Atlantis in the years of the Vietnam War, or even Brazil or Germany during the Victorian years. These are regionally and culturally specific.
Maus or Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island, on the other hand, can and do have specific dates ascribed to their events and are period pieces in the most conventional sense, set in a relatively specific past era, complete with era-specific costumes, mores, and dialect.
But, there is a period of Batman-related stories and arcs that cannot be ascribed to a specific date, that sometimes gets treated as if it were a single story or there was a meaningfully traceable arc behind it all, commonly called No Man’s Land. NML is a setting for stories, a place and time. Similarly, Salvation, a town in Preacher, is a period, because we are experiencing it within a particular time frame, with what came before as the past, what may come later, the future.
However, Gotham City, in DC comics, is not a period. Manhattan in Fantastic Four or Chicago in all comics ever, are not periods. Too much time, too many different periods of time are encompassed in those ranges. A period, while geographically and culturally specific, is time sensitive above all else. While the earthquake and the degradation of society that follows, that we call NML cannot have a permanent date ascribed to it, it does exist within a distinct time frame, identifiably different from pre- and post-NML Batman stories.
This Is Important
If you start calling a period a story, you make someone feel they need the whole thing. Telling someone that NML is a story and needs to be read all together or not at all, is like telling someone they need to rent every movie set during the Vietnam War or they shouldn’t watch any of them. Treating the actual comics in which Carol Danvers appears as an arc taking her from Colonel to Ms Marvel to Captain Marvel is misleading. And it presents an arc as both a planned and choreographed event (which it is not) and as something with a beginning and an end with a clear entry point and exit, when it has neither. With a Captain Marvel movie on the horizon, misdirection like that can be almost cruel, and at the very least, it makes things very awkward for people who don’t want to buy a thousand comics just to enjoy one two hundred page trade paperback of a specific story.