Transformaciones 012: On First Issues

“El número Uno obsesiona a muchos escritores por varias razones, tanto buenas como malas y necesarias… pasas más tiempo trabajando proporcionalmente en ellos y pensando en ellos.”

“Transformaciones” es el título que le he dado a un grupo numeroso de publicaciones que he recopilado a lo largo de mi vida siendo aficionado a los comics, y que iremos compartiendo paulatinamente dentro de este blog. Algunas de ellas datan de décadas atrás y en los albores del Internet como plataforma de expresión escrita, incluyendo artículos de opinión, entrevistas y contribuciones esenciales en los años mozos de la “blogósfera”, repleta de voces con gran poder y con algo que decir acerca de este hobby que tanto nos apasiona. Todas ellas diseccionan al mundo de los comics desde diferentes aristas y matices. Algunos de ellos representan un retrovisor bastante interesante, y necesario para entender a su evolución como manifestación de las artes y plataforma multi-género. Sin mayor preámbulo, continuamos…


Kieron Gillen incursionó en los comics tras el año 2000 y al poco tiempo de escribir reseñas dentro de la industria de los videojuegos. Con una carrera prolífica, se ha mantenido de manera consistente como un autor bestseller, y en cada año que lanza a un nuevo título bajo su pluma hemos sido testigos de mundos de ficción tanto emocionantes y con una estética narrativa muy singular. Siendo un entusiasta de compartir su obsesión con la forma, fondo, formatos y teoría del comic, cada una de sus contribuciones es un must-have. Ahora toca turno de compartir su visión acerca de los tomos “#1”, los cuales al día de hoy se han vuelto un bastión para la industria y cuyo dominio se ha convertido en todo un arte.

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On First Issues
Kieron Gillen
Publicado originalmente en Tumblr dot com el 5 de septiembre de 2018.

I wrote this for my last newsletter, and figure it likely should be added to the tumblr, just it can be added to the Writer Advice tag. Anyway! Sign up to the newsletter for more of this kind of stuff, of course.

Mags Vissago on twitter asked what people’s favourite issue ones were, which spiralled into a larger discussion of what makes a good issue 1. That I’m back in the world of Number Ones with the new projects kicking off meant I felt like throwing in my assorted spare change. Also, it was a good way to avoid work. The conversation spiralled a bit, and I thought it worth trying to pull some of this together in a chunk.

There will be a lot of obvious caveats in what follow. I would question anything and everything. What follows below is what I consider pretty solid advice, but pretty solid advice collapses into useless dogma is unexamined. This is just where my head is at presently. Now that I’ve put it down, I’ll likely set it on fire.

Firstly—most of what follows is about writing about a comic which tends to be a standard 20 page unit, released sequentially in a regular release schedule. It doesn’t apply to graphic novels. It doesn’t apply to comics released irregularly. It doesn’t apply to any other form that isn’t comics. This is stuff which is warped because of the economic construct. It is also leaning towards what I’d call a pop comic. These are almost entirely genre comics of one form or another.

Issue 1s obsess many writers for various reasons, both good, bad and necessary. Part of it is simply because anyone working in a serial comics in the Anglophone American pamphlet model have more experience in writing issue 1s than any other issue number (“Last issue” isn’t an issue number, pedants). So you spend more time proportionally working on them and thinking about them. Perhaps most tellingly, in the present Direct Market, your sales of the first issue are what establish the sales of the latter issues. If you can launch stronger, you have longer until the standard erosion of sales makes the book commercially unviable in singles (and so also gives longer to gain a trade readership which means that doesn’t matter). “How effective the first issue is” isn’t the only thing which effects sales, but it doesn’t for hurt.

Even for books which find an audience in trades, it’s worth noting that the number of books which are huge in trades are often books that also did well in singles. The single is many things, including an advertisement, and the more part of a conversation the single is, the more there is an awareness of the trade. The weirdest thing about WicDiv being a hit was how much easier it was to sell more copies of WicDiv. Its success kind of sold itself.

Anyway—in the conversation online, I argued that the best first issues tend to do two things, which I unhelpfully described as “First It” and “Second It.”

The First It is includes everything which I would describe as good writing (good writing, for comics, includes everything, not just the words—it’s also art, design, etc.). You introduce everything the reader needs to know about your book to have a fair understanding of it. The “Needs” is key. It’s not the whole book, but certainly enough to give a reader a fair understanding. You show the sort of thing you do, and how you choose to do it. Obviously not everyone who ends up liking the book will like it (or vice versa), but generally speaking, you lay out who you are, as honestly as you can.

(Worth noting this also includes possibly alienating some readers. If they’re going to burn out of a book, I’d argue its rude to string them along. I’ve never done this as aggressively as I did with my first comic, Phonogram, whose opening caption was so noxious to basically show the door to anyone who wasn’t in for this level of nonsense. Why wasn’t anyone’s time, eh?)

A competent first issue working inside First It principles will introduce initial key characters, delineate them, their desires and the world they operate inside. In the style you do so, the readers will get an understanding of the book. Frankly, anything which you reveal when hyping the book is almost certainly inside the First It.

In short: most of First It is actually The Pitch—or rather, showing you can competently execute The Pitch.

(A common form of incompetence in Pop Comics writing is failing to do that, and you end the issue with less information delineated than you got from the solicits. I read a first issue in the last year, and found they’d printed the pithy series blurb on the back cover, none of which was explained to any degree in the comic I had just read.)

The Second It is where it gets tricky. This is more rarely pulled off, and also much more subjective, but it’s also something that the vast majority of hit books have managed to do, which makes me suspect there’s something powerful to at least consider.

The Second It is giving the reader something that wasn’t in the pitch. This normally speaks to the actual truth of what the book actually is, or at least gives a sense of the book’s direction. It can be a big huge genre twist, but it doesn’t have to be that large. But it does have to be something.

(Or at least, it has to be something unless your core pitch is so unique, so magical, so entirely without precedent that you don’t have to worry about any of this tawdry nonsense.)

There’s a TV first episode which is often mentioned by other writers when talking about this. It’s The SHIELD. Spoilers, obv. The show is about corrupt cops. We know this going in. Hell, you know that throughout the first episode, as it’s delineated carefully (This is all First It stuff). However, in the final scene, the lead shoots another cop who’s on his team. That’s the Second It. It lets us know exactly how corrupt these cops are, and also immediately lets us know the direction of the series. For the genre it’s working in, that’s a strong opening.

A book that is competent with First It regularly fails to hit Second It in various ways, but there’s two which I see a lot.

Firstly, the last page reveal is actually just the book’s high concept. As in, what the reader already knew by how the book was described to them, or included in solicits. If it was Harry Potter, it’d be “You’re a Wizard, Harry.” This means that a reader has paid $3-5 dollars to learn what they already knew. No matter how well executed, this tends to be a turn off. It’s also a turn off which is 100% great writing if you were writing (say) a Novel. But there you aren’t selling sequential units.

Secondly, the last page reveal is a big event which the reader simply doesn’t care about. This is a failure born of the rest of the book, and shows well how First It and Second It aren’t separate units. If you know the Second It is reliant on some emotional underpining, you need to make sure that is established. A classic example would be (say) a long absent relative turns up. If the issue has not spent sufficient time making the absence of the relative to your cast of absolute interest, that isn’t going to land.

In Doctor Aphra #1, her Dad turns up into the end, and that’s not set up at all in the issue. However, my hook was “her dad has turned up… and he’s just fucked over Aphra.” The latter is the reveal of character about the former, and is the directional thrust. It’s not about the existence of her father, but rather her father’s character and what that means for Aphra.

Yes, you should be raising an eye on “Last page Reveal.” The commonality of “Last Page Reveal” in these books is another question, and a hint towards how this kind of writing has been codified. There’s been a lot of people reverse engineering BKV, shall we say. “Reveal in final scene” may be a better way of thinking of it, and even that is too small for my liking.

To talk about WicDiv for a second, it’s a complicated mess of a book, but our First It is establishing a bunch of the key mythology, vibe, style and two lead characters. The Two Lead Characters feed into the Second It—which is “A Judge is Murdered in the Middle the Court. Did Lucifer Do it?” That only even vaguely works because we spent the majority of the issue delineating Lucifer as much as we did Laura. The Second It for WicDiv was signalling this is a genre work with an actual plot, and not just ambling along Phonogram style. First It was “Here’s our world” and Second It is “And here’s where we’re going next.”

You may be reading the above and thinking of it as a checklist. “Must make sure I have Two Its.” That would be a mistake. The two Its are an analytical tool. It’s an editing principle when approaching your own material of what narrative unit makes a useful, accurate and compelling introduction to the story. In my case, it’s looking at my story, recognising the point where First It (introduction to the book) and Second It (reason to continue reading book and hint at immediate direction) have been fulfilled to my satisfaction, and then writing and editing to ensure I include them both.

In the case of WicDiv, I looked at the story and thought “I have to get to the murder of the Judge.” I could have perhaps ended with Lucifer having just murdered the assassins who tried to kill her… but all that would have shown is “these pop star gods who claim to be gods have godly powers” and I said that in the hype. Perhaps I could have worked out a way to make that work if I played with the sympathy towards Lucifer differently, but that still felt like reiterating the pitch. The Death Of The Judge leading to a murder mystery was clear and direct. That’s what I had to get to.

It’s also worth noting that many of the most successful first issues (and some of the biggest hits of recent years) are longer than 20 pages. Y: The Last Man (which is a clockwork masterpiece of First-Issue-ness) was 28 pages. Saga is double issue size. Monstress was triple sized. For me, WicDiv was 30 comics pages. Spangly New Thing is 34. Longer issues both let you spend more time making sure First It is done well, and more time to push towards whatever beat you consider to be Second It.

(That’s another reason why the Second It can come at the end of an issue. By definition, it’s the point you were trying to reach. When you’ve reached it, you can stop.)

And as another side point, it’s also worth remembering that How You Hype The Book can vary hugely. If I’d sold WicDiv as “Pop Stars who claim to be gods…” perhaps Lucifer having actual powers would have been enough for a Second It. I suspect not, because clearly me even posing the question is implicitly promising the reader the answer is “Yes.” That’d be like me selling an autobiography with “Does Kieron Gillen have magical powers?” and then showing across 300 pages that no, he’s just a dude. But still: you get the point.

That’s enough on this. It’s interesting stuff to think about, because this is only a tiny fraction of it. If Issue 1 is everything that has to be in issue 1, what is Issue 2. Issue 1s are the hardest worked issues in a series, because you’re preparing for so long, but Issue 2 are a special kind of heartbreaker.

I said it at the top, but all of this is also for a certain mode of comics. And not even all that certain mode for comics. The First Error I listed above? If a writer is figuring it’s primarily a trade based book, and they feel it’s not worth distorting issue 1 to serve the single, that could be a fine choice. I sometimes wonder if I’d have been better ending THREE’s first issue with the Spartans turning up rather than the slaughter.

That’s still a cliffhanger. You can go more extreme that that. When I launched WicDiv, and Warren and Jason Howard were launching Trees, I felt entirely ashamed having done this Pop Thrill Banger and Trees just cuts at the end of an issue and assumes you’ll be back in month. It believed in a maturity in the audience and a willing to follow it wherever it went. That’s something I find entirely admirable.

Point being: the above is only useful tools in so far as it aligns with your goals as a creator.