Compressed and decompressed storytelling

Compressed storytelling refers to the short, controlled way that comic books can tell a story. It was most popular during until the early 1980s when comic books typically ran 22 pages in length. The stories were self-contained and dialogue heavy, often focusing specifically on a predetermined story arc. The protagonist would find a problem, find a solution to the problem, and resolve the problem. At this time, most comic books had an “anthology nature” (Moore), so the comics could be shorter, but still contribute to a larger story the collection of comic books are telling. During this time, comic books were more disposable, meaning people would read them once, but the culture of saving the issues was not as popular as it is today. They were cheap, short stories that could be thrown away after reading. Now, many old copies of popular series are so v
aluable because very few people saved the books.

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The emphasis on dialogue and quick-paced storytelling demonstrates how this page from Fantastic Four #93 is an example of compressed storytelling. Image source: Lee, Stan. (1969). Fantastic Four #93. New York, New York: Marvel Comics

This page from Fantastic Four #93, writer Stan Lee uses compressed storytelling to convey a quick-paced scene that is moved forward by both dialogue and image. The antagonist proclaims, “now see what happens when they’re hit by our silent sonic ray!” to make sure the message that a sonic ray is being shot is effectively transmitted. The storytelling is fast and every panel contains a new piece of action. The entire comic book is similarly quick-paced for the sake of telling a story in as few pages as possible.

In the early 1980s, new comic book creators like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and J. Michael Straczynski began to create a new type of comic book storytelling called decompressed storytelling. It is characterized by “extended, realistically-paced dialogue scenes; long, cinematic action sequences; and slow buildups to establish a protagonists origins and motivations” (Moore). This type of storytelling relies less on dialogue and often will have pages without dialogue that focus more on the art style to tell a wordless story. In decompressed storytelling, “art goes along with the words, so there might not be any words, but the art is propelling the story along or telling [the readers something] about the character” (Cronin). These comic books can expand far beyond the 22-page average of compressed storytelling and tell expansive, drawn out stories.

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The lack of dialogue and emphasis on slow, deliberate pacing make Ronin #2 an example of decompressed storytelling. Image source: Miller, F. (1983). Ronin #2. Burbank, California: DC.

This page from Ronin # 2 by Frank Miller has no dialogue, but still communicates a message that emphasizes the character and emotion. There are four panels of men are watching each other put on fighting gloves, four panels of their flying fists, and four panels of spilled blood. This is an example of decompressed storytelling because it slows down the narrative enough to focus on the characters. If this were an example of compressed storytelling, the fight would occur in one or two panels while the characters narrate their emotion and motivation through dialogue. The decompressed style of narration allows those feelings to be shown instead of explicitly stated.

References:

Cronin, B. (2007). Compressed Storytelling versus decompressed storytelling: pros and cons. Comic Book Resources.

Moore, S. (2002). A Thousand Flowers: Compression, Decompression. Newsarama.