It does stick out a bit; an English major that can’t shut up about his picture books. While most of my peers are studying the effects of postmodernism on modern entertainment or writing passionate theses on the evolution of the Byronic Hero, I’m talking about comic books. This isn’t at all bashing other English students or rhetors in any way. Their work and passion is of immense importance to the survival and appreciation of art and literature. My interest comes from not only my love of comics as a storytelling medium, but from my belief that they are just as much part of the artistic legacy as prose, theater, and film. Admittedly, it took a long time for them to reach this point. It is largely considered by critics and creators alike that comics didn’t have much literary merit until the arrival of such creators as Art Spiegelman (Maus), Alan Moore (Miracle Man, Saga of the Swamp Thing, Watchmen), Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) Neil Gaiman (Black Orchid, Sandman) and others in the early to mid 1980’s. These creators ushered complex and mature concepts into a medium that up until that point, as Gaiman recently said, “No one was taking seriously.”
Above: Maus courtesy of Pantheon Books; Miracle Man from Marvel Comics (formerly Eclipse), Swamp Thing, Sandman, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns property of DC Comics
The above works are credited with starting the modern era of comics. Their success is what helped eliminate the Comics Code that had held comic book storytelling back for over thirty years prior. Their influence can be felt in even the most mainstream and family friendly of superhero comics on stands today. Mainstream experimentation with multiple genres in superhero comics, as well as natural dialogue are what mark the modern age of comic book storytelling. This is not to discredit the work of pre-code comics, or the work of code-era creators such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby or Arnold Drake. Their work in the 1950’s and 60’s established characters that could be just that: complex, multidimensional human characters in a medium that was largely thought of being exclusively children’s entertainment.
Style: What Separates the Graphic Format from Other Mediums
The advantage of the prose (written) medium is it’s complete unobtrusiveness from a visual standpoint. A reader can look at a series of words, decipher their meaning, and get their imagination as invested into the details as it so desires. It allows readers to create their own visuals to go along with how they perceive a story’s characters, world, plot, etc. It’s considered the most critically favored medium not just because it’s the original medium (even oral stories have been written down at this point), but because it is considered to be the most demanding for the participant to be a part of. The reader is part of their own storytelling experience.
Film and television is more focused on bringing the audience in to someone else’s visual interpretation of a story. A written story in the form of a screenplay is brought to life by the vision of a director and cinematographer, and therefore the story is brought to fruition by their idea of how it should be presented. This is not to say that audience members will get the same experience out of viewing a film (subjectivity and all that), but the story will look and sound the same to everyone that views it.
Comics are an odd mixture of both the detailed written element of prose and the visual presentation of film. Both internal and external dialogue are written out in a way that lets the reader imagine their delivery. The plot and actions of the characters are conveyed by multiple still shots of varying detail. While comics are just as varied in style and genre as prose and films are, the element unique to comics is the reader’s control of time. I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but imagine turning the page on a comic or graphic novel. Notice how both pages show you a series of images and words all at once, but they chronologically follow a desired plot order. Or not. That depends on you. Also, you can spend as much or as little time on a specific panel and image as you want. Sure, in a film you can pause, or in a book you can hang on a sentence, but only the comic format can deliver a visual presentation with a space in time naturally devoted to how the reader desires to process it.
“There is no other medium in which the beholder of the art can confront silence in indeterminate measure; no art form in which the artist can show silence in time.” – Neil Gaiman
As much as I love to wax poetic about writers, it is ultimately artists that make the comic medium what it is. Any comic writer worth his salt will openly admit that artists work harder. After all, without the artists, the writers would just be stuck in the prose medium. Where a writer writes a few words of scene description on a script, the artist translates these words into a page (or pages) full of activity and detail. Most likely associate comic book art with either the newspaper funnies or the action filled splash pages found in blockbuster-style superhero books. This is not to discredit these elements at all, as they’re brilliant in their own way. What really makes comic art stand out from a storytelling standpoint is the nuances that are impossible to capture in any other medium.
The above image is an example of such nuance great comic art is capable of. The speaking male character’s expression goes from inquisitive, as he’s posing a question, to conversational. It then ends with a daring proposition, and his face matches his changing moods. The same goes with the woman in the panels. While her changes are more subtle (angry no teeth to angry with teeth), they are made visually important. This also has to do with comic art’s special relationship with time. Sure, actors can simulate human emotions on screen. That’s obviously part of acting. But their actions are only captured for however brief of extended a period of time the director and editor has chosen. This page on the other hand will remain constant. The expressions here will never change, no matter how many pages are turned. The reader can take as long as they need to in order to judge what the characters are thinking and what the art is trying to tell them.
What’s so cool about this medium is that it takes this perception of time and art and applies it to essentially every genre imaginable. Comics have grown to house every genre of style and storytelling that has already been covered in prose and film. From grandiose space operas like Saga, to crime thrillers like Criminal. From Harrow County’s particular brand of horror, to Milton-esque examinations of religion in Lucifer. Even superheroes have grown to replicate literary genres, with their own unique twists. Look at Tom King’s Vision as a warped examination of adjusting to life with a nuclear family. Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central is a crime procedural that just so happens to show the behind the scenes reality of working under the Batman and his rogues gallery. Peter J. Tomasi’s run on Superman is just as much a look at what it is to be a first-time parent as it is a superhero tale. The unique style that can only be found in the comic and graphic novel medium has altered how I perceive these genres, even when I am witnessing them through other mediums. They have done so in the best ways possible.
This has only been a rough and brief overview of why I love the medium of comics and how they got to where they are today. I’ll probably talk about this subject in the future with more detail surrounding specific developments in the comic industry. Stick around for reviews of series I read, overviews of comics I love and why I love them, thoughts on comic culture and some analysis on subjects I’d like to talk about.
Thanks! I hope you’ll join me in what’s to come. And welcome to my soap box.