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The Hidden Language of Comic Book Writers

Comic book lingo has gone mainstream, but there are still terms—like "red skies event"—that make no sense outside of the comic world. Writer Fred Van Lente explains what they mean.

Photo by Flickr user Sam Howzit

In the Hidden Language, Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.

Fred Van Lente speaks with the rapid buoyancy of an enthusiast, and he can't help going off on a series of tangents before navigating to whatever his point is. A popular culture maven, he attended film school but was frustrated by the inefficiency of the creative process. Now a writer for Marvel, Valiant, and other comics publishers, he tells me he became a professional comics writer “when [he] was fired from [his] day job at the United Nations.”

As serialization has spread to other popular media—most notably television—the vocabulary of comic books has begun to permeate mainstream culture as well. Van Lente, who is intimately familiar with the fascinating and bizarre construct that is mainstream comics storytelling, sat down with me to explain some of the terms that make this complex world easier to break down and understand.

Fred Van Lente. Courtesy of Fred Van Lente

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Brackets denote paraphrasing. Everything else is in Fred Van Lente's words.

Done-in-one: n. A single-issue story.

Anthology: n. A collection of stories by a variety of creative teams.

Miniseries: n. A comics title with a definitive endpoint, usually three to six issues.

Maxiseries: n. The same as a mini-series, only eight to 12 issues. Usage: Used heavily in the 1980s. The most famous maxiseries of all time is Watchmen, which originally ran as 12 serialized issues.

Title: n. Synonym for "series,"  e.g., Amazing Spider-Man, Detective Comics.

Line: n. An imprint connecting a particular set of titles under a specific form of branding, e.g., Marvel Adventures [presents stories for] younger readers.

Universe: n. A set of titles connected by the characters all operating in the same world.

Crossover: n. A storyline that goes across multiple titles. Usually, these days, a crossover has its own title (an “event book”) as well. The first comic book crossover was 1940's Marvel Mystery Comics #8. The two most popular features, Human Torch and Submariner, fought each other. From that moment on, [crossovers] became standard operating procedure.

Classical crossover: n. Two books [intersecting]

Event: n. [A crossover] that’s happening to the entire universe, the entire line, simultaneously. Almost all the titles participate in that.

Event Book: n. A miniseries or maxiseries [containing the central story of an event].

Tie-in: n. The individual issue or issues of an [ongoing] title that link into a specific event (unique to events as opposed to crossovers).

Red Skies Event: n. A disparaging term meaning [a book is linked to] a tie-in just to trick somebody into buying it. Etymology: A reference to Crisis on Infinite Earths, when all the skies in the DC titles [became] red.

Continuity: n. The idea that each story is a building block of a larger fictional universe.

Reboot: n. When take a pre-existing franchise [or fictional universe] and you wipe everything that happened clean and you start from scratch [usually with the same characters]. Most reboots are also a relaunch. e.g., Casino Royale [is a reboot of the James Bond franchise.]

Soft Reboot (or In-Continuity Reboot): n. When you change some [details] but not others. It’s usually contained to certain characters within an ongoing continuity, e.g., Spider-Man: One More Day, where Mephisto, using his demonic powers, managed to undo Mary Jane and Peter’s marriage so that nobody had memory of it.

Full Reboot: n. Rebooting the entire line.

Relaunch: n. When you take an existing franchise—you do not break from continuity—and you start it over with a new #1, usually just an excuse to get new eyes on the series.

Retcon: n. Short for “retroactive continuity." A "fix" or "patch" to continuity that smooths over something that happened that either the writer doesn’t like, or wasn’t interesting, or doesn’t support the current story.

Death (of a character): n. A kick in the ass to continuity. It’s peaks and valleys. You kill somebody off, you’re getting a lot of eyes on that. Then when you bring them back, you’re getting a lot of eyes on that. The only unkillable character is the one with extremely good sales.

First Appearance: n. [The comic in which a character is] first seen, e.g., in Batman’s first appearance, called "The Case of the Criminal Syndicate,” it was never explained who he was.

Origin Story: n. [The story in which we see] where a character came from. (Note: Many origins are also first appearances. In Spider-Man’s first appearance, [Amazing Fantasy #15], you meet Peter Parker, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and Uncle Ben gets shot.)

Pacing: n. The rate at which storytellers dole out "beats," or distinct movements of story progression. [Early] comics were about 64 pages long and had four to eight stories per issue. In the mid 60s, [Marvel] pioneered stretching out stories across multiple issues when their heavy hitters, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, wanted to flex their storytelling muscles in titles like Fantastic Four and Dr. Strange. Now story pacing is set by the current economics of the market, which is four to six issues followed by a collected edition.

Decompression: n. Dragging the story out way longer than it really [deserves], partly to sell more comics, partly to lessen the burden of the creative team.

Idle: n. The curse word of comics. Idle means no one’s working, meaning a penciller doesn’t have script, an inker doesn’t have pencils, a colorist doesn’t have inks, a letterer doesn’t have pencils. It almost always results in a domino effect.

Six-Month Week: n. It takes a penciller six weeks to finish [each] issue. You start 12 weeks in advance. What that means is that, in four to five issues, that artist will have to be replaced.

THE TAKEAWAY

As popular culture continues to recycle and regurgitate itself, knowing the difference between a reboot and a soft relaunch might come in handy. These narrative terms are also fun to apply in the real world: Compare your friend’s first appearances to their origin stories. Or relaunch your life by quitting your job, moving to a new apartment, and legally changing your name. And idle is a handy way to describe any workflow problem that throws a whole system off, resulting in a waste of time or a late, cold pizza.

FURTHER READING

To learn more about the process of making comics, read Make Comics Like the Pros by Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak. To learn more about the history of comics, read The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.

Follow Nat Towsen on Twitter.