I consume the vast majority of my TV shows either on DVD, Iplayer or Netflix. What this means is that I have not internalised the advertisement-based act structure that commercial television requires. In commercial TV shows, there is an ‘act out’ before each ad break to convince the viewer to stay tuned. For the viewer there is an escape point from watching, not just at the end of every season and every episode, but every time commercial pressures force the TV company to interrupt the flow of the narrative by trying to sell us washing powder.
Comics have a similar structure. A full story arc is often available as a collected edition and this generally collects 6 or so monthly comics. These collected editions are the single season TV box sets of the comic world. Many are the readers who, rather than wait for the story to be collected, want to watch the story unfold month by month, as soon as it is available. Clearly, each episode must also end with a hook to make the reader pick up the next issue. But, just like TV shows on commercial channels have the extra act out running up to the ad break, so every comic has a page out. Each odd-numbered page, found on the right hand side, must compel the reader to turn the page. This is what keeps the reader leafing through in a frenzy to discover what happens next.
DVD box sets and streaming services are diluting the awareness of pre-commercial act outs. Similarly, panel-by-panel or single page at a time comic reading software like Comixology is diluting our awareness of the page out. Most comics are still consumed in paper books, but as we increasingly move to digital models, it will be interesting how this narrative device will evolve.
I’ve always been a fan of the Urban Fantasy sub-genre, that intersection between fantasy, horror and the modern-day. The best known example is Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden franchise, though personally I prefer Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels. True Blood has been the best example on TV. In comics, the most successful example has been Fables, which places fairy tale characters in modern-day New York.
Which brings me to the two contenders currently bringing the Fables-style Urban Fantasy to our TV screens. Once Upon a Time‘s protagonist enters a community, ruled with an iron fist by an evil stepmother of a boy who believes that they are all amnesiac fairy tale exiles. The narrative of each episode is spliced with a parallel tale from the land of fairy tales yet cleverly leaves the ‘real world’ narrative ambiguous, leaving doubt as to whether the boy is externalising his delusions or whether the fairy tales are true histories.
Grimm on the other hand follows the story of a cop from Portland, Oregon who learns he is the last of the Grimms, the literal descendant of the eponymous writers. Writers and warriors against the unnatural creatures who prey on humanity. Each episode is part police procedural and part individual fairy tale retelling, whether it’s Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
While the scriptwriting in Once Upon a Time is tight, imaginative and clever, Grimm’s is obvious and clichéd. If you think you know where the story is going to turn in Grimm, chances are you’ll be right. It’s lazy, common denominator stuff. Audiences seem to agree; although Grimm has already been green-lit for a second season, Once Upon a Time has managed to draw twice the audience with every episode so far.