One-offs, series, returning characters, regulars

The Goods News for All Readers blog has recently done a Halloween post about Misty; in the comments on that post, and on a related post on the Comics UK forum, a few of us have had a brief discussion about one-off stories, series, and regular characters. Different titles create different balances between the various kinds of comics: Misty has always struck me as having a strong focus on one-off (complete) stories in a way that Jinty didn’t, so that is an obvious comparison between the two, but there are other groupings that could be usefully looked at too.

One-off stories / complete stories haven’t ever been a big focus in the pages of Jinty, except for in annuals or summer specials which are by their nature reliant on complete reads. Indeed, I wonder whether the two examples that come readily to mind – “Mimi Seeks A Mistress” and “Holly and the Ivy” – might have been originally written for publication in an annual and for whatever reason then been included in the weekly comic instead?

If you ask someone who was a reader of Misty at the time for specific stories they remember from the comic, they may well mention some key serials but they are perhaps even more likely to remember the spine-chilling stories. Clearly, one-off or complete stories have important strengths: this format allowed Misty to be tougher on the protagonists than an ongoing story would typically be. Indeed, many of the Misty stories featured character death – or even a worse fate! You can also have a huge amount of variety with complete stories, with the rapid turnover allowing creators potentially to experiment with a lot of different themes or plots. On the down side, they don’t allow enough narrative time for much character development, and I suspect that can lead to a focus on clever ‘twist in the tale’ story structures. (I personally felt like Misty placed too much reliance on this at certain points in its life.)

‘Storyteller’ / framed stories are stand-alone stories that still fit into some sort of structure or framing sequence. Gypsy Rose is Jinty‘s most obvious example, but I would also classify “Is This Your Story?” and “Thursday’s Child” within this as being complete stories that may not have a narrator but do have a constraining element to them that means you have a certain sense of knowing ‘what you’re getting’. In a Gypsy Rose story you know you’ll have a spooky element, but also a sense of safety; the protagonist won’t herself suffer an awful fate. In 2000AD‘s “Future Shocks” there was no such guarantee, but you did know it would generally be an SF story rather than a horror story or a morality tale (as “Is This Your Story?” was).

Both the entirely stand-alone and the framed stories have the advantage editorially of great flexibility – they can be run in any order so it doesn’t matter if one story is not ready for printing that week, you can try out new artists and writers, you can try out new directions and ideas. This flexibility can also lead to problems – the results can be uneven in quality or interest level, or overly repetitive. I would also say that to my mind they’re a bit too easy to put down and not feel that motivated to pick up again – even if you know that Gypsy Rose or Future Shock stories are generally really good, to me they don’t have the “must read” factor that a cliff-hanger ending to an earlier episode gives.

Serial stories are Jinty‘s bread-and-butter, but if you count up the number of series in a given issue it is not given over totally to them: 23 February 1980, for instance, has 5 serials out of 8 stories in comics format. I am here using the phrase ‘serial stories’ meaning stories that run over more than one week with a beginning/middle/end narrative structure. The way the ‘end’ element works is important because Katie Jinx or the Four Marys also have stories with endings, but they aren’t final – we know that next week they’ll be back with more, which is what makes them ‘regulars’.

A serial story has a lot of degrees of freedom: it can be a story about a ghost or a horse or a superheroine (or maybe a ghost horse or a horse superheroine). What it can’t easily do is change tack dramatically once the story starts; the start of the story sets it into certain tracks and certain expectations. The strength of the serial is the length of time that it has to develop a story and to really hammer it home, or to twist and turn surprisingly. It also has the freedom to change the situation of the characters in the story: it can end with them healed, or vindicated, or with the protagonist growing as a person. A complete one-off story doesn’t have enough length to develop that sense of change, and we often don’t know enough about the character to even care that much if they grow into a better person. A story with a regular character, contrariwise, has to ‘reset’ at the end of each episode or each multi-episode story, so that as the next story starts it can pick up more or less from the beginning again.

There are still weaknesses in the serial story format, of course. It can get too long and lose its way; it can be too short to let itself develop properly while not benefiting from the punchiness of the self-contained story.

Jinty also has a couple of cases of returning characters, where the original series gets a second, follow-up story. There aren’t many of these – “Fran’ll Fix It!” gets a second run, and so does “Daughter of Dreams”. Each story is a complete serial in itself, but because the character or the story was popular, they returned for another go. One option would be to reprint the original story, which Jinty did a few times; but if the story structure allowed it then a whole new follow-up story might also a possibility. Some stories would be better suited to this than others – a sequel to “Land of No Tears” wouldn’t be impossible to imagine but would require quite a lot of changes (someone from the dystopian future travelling back to the past, perhaps?), while a sequel to “The Robot Who Cried” wouldn’t be that hard at all to do (her adventures at school as an acknowledged robot, and how other people reacted once she had no secrets left to hide?).

A regular character may have short complete stories like “Sue’s Fantastic Fun-Bag” or individual longer story runs as in “No Tears for Molly“. Either way there is no real change in or development of the character over the time her story runs. “Merry at Misery House” was also basically a regular, with story arcs; you don’t really get a sense of a planned resolution that Merry was struggling to reach from the start of her story, it’s just… time to wrap up the story so her mum and dad announce that her name has been cleared, bang.

They can be great fun reads, with a real comfort factor – we can get to know the characters well, and look forward to seeing them again, like old friends. That is really the draw of regulars; like reading a beloved Chalet School book, we know what we are getting and that we will enjoy it. The characters can develop some strong external recognition, too – the interviewees in Mel Gibson’s “Remembered Reading” consistently mentioned long-running regulars “The Four Marys”, and “Bella” from Tammy.

On the down side? If the reader just isn’t that interested in the character in the first place, or doesn’t find their antics funny, it ain’t likely to change for the better… The main counter-example I can think of in this area is 2000AD and Judge Dredd in particular: he is a regular who has turned into a proper, fleshed-out character with a backstory, a life, and unpredictability. Through him now, all sorts of stories can be told. The Four Marys changed their uniforms and were updated to become more modern on the surface, but never changed their fundamental natures – and that is much more the usual case with regulars.

At the end of the day, a weekly publication needs a balance of different types of story, not just thematically, but also structurally. There are other types of story structure that I don’t know of within girls comics: is there an example anywhere of the Buffy tv story structure, where individual self-contained stories build up in an overall arc to a series finale? I’m sure there are other kinds of structure in girls’ comics and elsewhere: what can others think of?

Edited to add: I have thought of another kind of story structure – Worldbuilding, or Shared worlds. This is where the reader is shown an imagined world that is developed in story after story. Perhaps one set of creators are mostly responsible for writing and drawing that world, or maybe a number of different creators add their own influences to the world. In traditional British comics, I guess that Dan Dare inhabits this sort of built world, though I’m not that sure as to how much of the world we see outside of stories focused on Dare himself; it is at least a strong enough world in itself for Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes to develop their own take on it in Revolver’s “Dare“. 2000AD does a lot of this worldbuilding: what else is Judge Dredd’s universe of Megacities, isocubes, and the Cursed Earth? But in traditional girls’ comics I’m not sure I can think of any examples. This is a big shame I think as this would provide not only very fertile ground for telling stories but also a lot of ongoing reader loyalty in the way that 2000AD has seen over the years – eventually even moving into mainstream acceptance.

Edited further: Lorrbot points out in the comments that there are also examples of Spin offs, where the characters in the original story generate stories with further characters from that setup. It may not be the same case as Worldbuilding, if there is no very obvious effort to invent a whole new world different from ours, but it shares some characteristics with this.

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21 thoughts on “One-offs, series, returning characters, regulars

  1. Tammy had complete story series with a theme a few times. One was “Monster Tales”, which were complete stories about monsters, ranging from gargoyles to possessed oak trees. I suspect it was originally written for Misty and held in reserve until space opened in Tammy. There were “Old Friends” during the Tammy and Jinty merger, which was a slot for old regulates (Bessie, Sue, Molly and Tansy). Later on there were “Pony Tales” and, of course “The Button Box”. Tammy had more regulars than Jinty, but most of them had come over from mergers, and Tammy had had more of them than Jinty.

    1. It wasn’t quite clear to me from the GNFAR post but it looks like Misty had two sets of ‘framed stories’ – Nightmares, and Beasts. Did Monster Tales cover both of those areas would you say?

      Yes, “The Button Box”, how could I miss that out! Very much a framed set of stories.

  2. At one point Tammy had the Storyteller give stories that were’t complete stories but mini-serials that were several episodes long. They included “Dark Star Wish”, “Drawn to Destiny” and “Sharon’s Shadow”. I think this was the result of readers’ demand for him to go for this type of story. It was in 1976-77, but they didn’t last and he went back to his complete stories. Multi-part Strange Stories resurfaced in 1980 when Misty joined, probably because Misty occasionally had two-part stories such as “The Haunting of Hazel Brown”. These were two or three part stories but didn’t last long either.

      1. Yes, there was one story where the Storyteller explained how he got started on his career as the Storyteller (by popular demand). I’ll hunt up the details when I get the chance.

  3. There was one Strange Story, “Nightmare at Grimm Fen”, which set up a premise (accidentally reviving the evil spirit of a medieval knight by doing a brass rubbing of him) that brought the story back as a full-blown serial. This is the only time this happened with the Strange Stories. It might have been inspiration for the mini-serial Strange Stories I mentioned earlier.

    1. It’s a bit surprising that this didn’t happen more. Having said that, the writers of girls comics were clearly not short of inspiration, so maybe they had no particular interest in going back to work they’d done previously, and getting more out of it.

      1. The story where the Storyteller explains his origin is “The First Mystery”, in Tammy 12 June 1976. Illustrated by John Armstrong, of course.

  4. Yes, the disadvantage of regulars is that they would not appeal to everybody. Some people would like a particular regular while others don’t. The most polarising example of this was probably Molly Mills. Tammy’s letters page was always filled with letters that either loved her or told the editor to get rid of her because she was boring/unrealistic. At one point Tammy put her on hiatus and asked readers whether they wanted her back or not. A move that would have been a lot more fair if Tammy had not ended Molly on a tantalising cliffhanger instead of, say, an open ending.

    1. Interesting post, mostly I preferred serials to one offs, I also found Misty too over reliant on short stories, although there are some complete stories that made a lasting impacting.

      Another development is the Spin-off series. Although the only example I can think of is Bunty’s The Comp, One of the character’s Roz, her sister Carly who lived in America got her own series “Carly’s Crowd”. I think unlike other regular series like The Four Marys, the more soap like Comp was able to develop more, there were some lasting changes, new characters introduced, other characters left, even the original group of friends moved on and a new group of main characters were focused on.

      1. Thanks – you’re right, the ‘spin-off’ is definitely a separate development. I’d categorize it as being similar to ‘World building’ in that you are telling more stories based around the fundamental set-up that the writer has created, but it does feel different from exploring a world that is really an imaginative creation that works quite differently from the day to day world the readers live in.

      2. Maybe Misty did have too many short stories per issue. If she had limited herself to, say, two, there would have been more room for more serials and regulars.

        One of the most fascinating things I read in the letters column was the controversy over Miss T. The division was over whether Miss T really fitted into a horror comic as she was a humorous character. Some readers said to get rid of her for that reason while others loved her. Someone even suggested starting an action group to save her (SOW Save Our Witch). Anyway, the fact remains she was a regular and the only real Misty character to carry on in the merger.

      3. Misty serials that did make a lasting impression included The Sentinels, Moonchild, Winner Loses All!, Screaming Point, The Four Faces of Eve, The Cult of the Cat, The Black Widow, and The Body Snatchers.

          1. No, The Nine Lives of Nicola was the sequel to The Cult of the Cat. The Black Widow had its own sequel, Spider Woman, which ran in the merger.

  5. Sometimes regulars were made out of serials that were so popular they were brought back as sequels. Bella Barlow is perhaps the best example. Nothing in Jinty quite matches that. Dora returned after a break while Pam and Fran came back by popular demand. I don’t recall any Jinty serial getting a sequel, except maybe Miss Make-Believe. Is that right?

    Some Tammy serials got sequels, such as Mad Hattie, Sandy and Steve, Melanie’s Mob, Maisie of Mo Town, and Rosie of Ragged Row. Other stories were left open to sequels (inviting readers to demand the story back) that never materialised, such as Witch Hazel and My ‘Brother’ George. Slaves of the Hot Stove is another story that I suspect was set for a sequel because of its ending (villain escaping with a blurb that the world would hear from her again), but if so, it didn’t happen.

    In fact, Tammy had more sequels than Jinty.

    1. Miss Make-Believe is the only other Jinty story to have had a sequel. Dora I would class as a Regular, Pam also – Fran could be classed as a regular but I think of her two stories as more like two serials, rightly or wrongly.

      1. I wonder why sequels weren’t common in Jinty? A sequel to Combing Her Golden Hair was feasible. Perhaps Land of No Tears eg a counter revolution to the fall of the hive system. Now that would have made some story. Or maybe sequels revolving around the return of some villains, such as the ones in Slaves of the Candle, Bound for Botany Bay, Waves of Fear (after all, we didn’t see any punishment for that Jean).

        1. I think you could come up with some sort of sequel to most stories, if you tried hard enough. Land of No Tears – thinking about it now, I thought it would perhaps be coolest if someone from the future could come back to our time and… set up the Hive system? Prevent the Hive system from starting in the first place? Well, that’s all a little bit Terminator, but why not!

          1. But Jinty didn’t really go in for sequels. I wonder why? Maybe she was like Walt Disney, who did not approve of sequels? He used to say “you can’t top pigs with pigs” (from when popular demand had him make sequels to his short “The Three Little Pigs” – against his better judgement, and he was right). He would probably be turning in his grave at all the sequels that are coming out of his studio now.

            1. Heh heh, that’s a good Disney anecdote! I think you have to be careful and imaginative with sequels, but they can be done well & give the reader more to learn about the character or story they loved.

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