When a new medium for storytelling appears, or even for entertainment in general, people who only grew up with the old media will look down upon it, even attack it. Yet somehow radio, TV, and even video games have shown their ability to tell a story, though video games are still low on the chart in some people’s minds. Tabletop RPGs are regulated to a dark corner even though nobody really questions them the way they used to. Maybe D&D ditched the symbolism worrying some Christians or the games found a more stable audience despite some approaching some darker themes. I don’t know. I don’t really follow RPGs due to a lack of time and a writer’s desire to control the narrative. I’m not cut out for it if I’m playing with others. Probably caused me some issues playing adventures with my friends, too.
However, while video games and animation are finally breaking out of their stigmas and finding wider audiences, for some reason comics are still seen as the lowest rung of the storytelling totem pole…and yet somehow it’s a format that’s widely used by everyone outside the stuck-up entertainment industry in advertisements, textbooks, and even instruction manuals. Comic publishers are so down on their own industry that they’ve been hiring novelists instead of comic writers to write their stories in the hopes of upping their profile with a bigger name in the literary world. Trying to understand the reaction to comics out there in an exercise in confusion.
However that won’t be the discussion topic for this article or for the next batch of Art Of Storytelling articles. Instead I will be going over what comics in general and the three forms of comics specifically–strips (including one-panel comics), comic books, and graphic novels. How does each format tell a story and where is it weak? Why has the medium endured for so long when it’s looked so down upon unless they can raid an idea for one of the “approved” storytelling media? Before we go into specific types of comics let’s look at what the comic itself brings to storytelling.
I’m no historian so I’m not going to do a deep dive into the history of comics and if you don’t know what a comic is by now that’s a miraculous feat of self-will or you’re new to civilization, or maybe Earth’s. Comics have been around for quite a long time, but newspapers are where they first really became popular The comic strip, and the one-panel comic, are still found in newspapers today, and even pop up on some news websites. You could also find comic strips in magazines. The first “trade collections” were actually comic strips collected into what we now call a comic book.
Then someone got the crazy idea of telling original stories in those mini-magazines and comics really took off. There were comics for kids, comics for grown-ups, comics for everyone, it was a grand old time. Horror, science fiction, comedy, and the rise of the superheroes, built off the prototype of old pulp heroes (some of which has been grandfathered in as superheroes), were on newsracks around the country right next to your favorite magazine and newspaper. Then literary snobs who couldn’t stand the idea of kids reading anything besides books, especially when they couldn’t read it themselves. Again, this isn’t a full history and I’ve already covered both Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code in other series. Point is this is probably what messed up what the general public perceives comics as.
At any rate from there came the graphic novel, basically a large comic book but usually one that tells a complete story, though like their prose brethren the novel there can be sequels. Think of comic strips as a short subject, a comic book as a short film or TV series, and the graphic novel like a movie. That’s how I explain it anyway. When we get to graphic novels however, I’ll go into the difference between a graphic novel and a trade collection.
Nowadays comics have gone online as webcomics follow those same rules for publishing but some have tried to use the internet to create a unique comic-reading experience. I will discuss this as well, though most of them fall into one of the other three categories. They’re just readable via a web browser or app. So they’ll be discussed in those sections but there will be an article devoted to the webcomic.
The comic has evolved from what it was to what it is today. New artists have found new ways to use traditional art tricks, panel layouts, coloring, word balloons, and other gimmicks that when done right tells a story in a way no other medium can and bring you further immersed into the story. Comics can be used as educational tools, social and political commentaries, and just a way to pass the time and tell an exciting story or just make us laugh for a few minutes. I’m not the type to choose one media over the other as to what is supposedly “best”. There is no best way to tell a story, just different ways. It is however the most fun for me to tell a story in so this is why I’ve chosen it as a goal. Over the next few installment I’ll go over these different formats to see what stories it can tell better than their kinfolk and which stories they can’t tell as easily. Next time we being by examining the comic strip layout and what it does and doesn’t do best.