The comic book is a topic of discussion quite often. As the media of choice for me to create in I probably do think about the state of comics more than I do the other media I cover here at the Spotlight. However, that’s usually about the goings on, the creators, and reviewing the stories itself. Today I just want to discuss the medium itself on a general level.
The first comic books (unless you want to get into early predecessors or other stuff you usually get from the people who want to show you how smart they are by tying comics back to cave drawings or some such) were reprints of comic strips from the newspaper. Over time original comics, ranging from superheroes to science fiction to crime stories to romance stories to horror and others, started appearing on newsracks around the country. They used to be a cheap form of entertainment, something to get you through lunch when you didn’t want to just read a book or magazine. I’ll skip the usual commentary that comes up from this discussion and simply ask: what can a comic book do that other media formats cannot?
Well, the cheap part has gone as modern publishers want the shiny paper and biggest names they can find, but I’ve discussed that in length and will do so again. Also the same publishers are writing for the trade, which means the graphic novel, which we’ll get to next time. I want to focus on what a traditional American comic book does, not the graphic novels, manga collections, or the digests they stopped making years ago when even Archie dropped them and K-Mart stopped carrying them anyway. I’m not saying that’s why the company closed…because it clearly isn’t, that’s on Sears Roebuck…but they were the last place to have them.
The comic book is a good place for two things: short stories and longer series. The classic periodical is like a television series or miniseries, except you come back each month instead of each day or each week for the next episode. A comic can tell one short story, one long story, one short story with a longer subplot going through multiple issues until it reaches a climax, or a continuing serialized narrative. While the comic strip and graphic novel by nature starts and ends the periodicals can go on for years, giving you a closer connection to those characters and that world. While some comic strips have tried that (For Better Or Worse is a great example of doing it right) it’s rare because it’s a bit harder with three panels a day and seven on Sunday that you have to remember not every Sunday paper will have. This is one advantage comic books have since as long as you can find a store that carries it you’ll have a new “episode” each month. Or in the case of webcomics maybe one to three times a week you’ll have a new page.
The comic book is a great example of one things comics in general can also pull of. They’re moments in time, like a snapshot showing the best angle. Imagine never freeze framing a video on a weird facial expression that just comes from sounding a “k” sound or something. Imagine not worrying about set design or lighting not because it’s not necessary (it totally is if you want a good background and if you’re not going to have shading at least be consistent throughout the story even if it looks flat) but because budget isn’t an issue. That’s one failing of photo comics. Outside of a few done with toys on toy-sized sets or backyard “location shots” I haven’t seen a photo comic that didn’t look weak. If you’re going to build human-sized sets, props, and costumes you’re better off just making a video. Comics offer a freedom only found in animation. You don’t have to worry about special effects (beyond making something glowing look cool I guess), camera angles, or actors. It’s freeing in that you can pull off things that wouldn’t be believable in a real world live-action production because drawn realities like cartoons and comics looks unreal enough that you can get away with a bit more. Comics just lack the larger budget needed to make a cartoon and requires less drawings.
Of course that leads to a problem with comic books besides a wonky perception by non-comic fans about the comics, that’s it’s just some thing for kids. It never was and I’ve often complained about efforts by some to push kids out in order to show that instead of doing some actual work to promote comics as a storytelling medium. (Video games have this same issue but somehow have made more headway. Even anime hasn’t help animation and few “normal” people have heard of manga…heck, there are geeks who don’t know what manga is.) The problem I’m referring to here however is that comics are motionless pictures (which is how the word “manga” translate I’ve heard). While it does offer advantages it’s up to the art team or lone artist to give the impression of movement not only from panel to panel but within the panel itself. Over these many years techniques have been created and there are different techniques favored by different artists, but it still is something that needs to be kept in mind. It also has all the strengths and weaknesses of prose in that you have to make the sound effects and voices in your head. On the other hand you don’t have to worry about creating the sets in your head or the character designs. It does take a good artist to pull that off.
Also of note is that comics have a set form on store shelves for convenience but comics aren’t locked into that form. Mini-comics offer a pocket-sized version of a comic. Some are made to resemble a shrunken comic while others are designed to be included with certain packaging, or to invoke a particular feel. One independent creator (I’d have to track down the right Lean Into Artcast where they talked about this) was designed to resemble a happy meal. The Masters Of The Universe and Princess Of Power minicomics were designed with a more squarish form to better fit in the toy package. I remember seeing one in the shape of a car. You can also make them giant sized, and maybe have a lot more panels per page. A newspaper a friend of mine’s grandparents got (he showed me some he collected) put the comics into a comic book layout. Webcomics that take their cue from comic books in layout can follow the traditional panel layout for later printing or take advantage of the website or app to create a unique layout and some early webcomics even included animated gifs in their panels, offering a unique reading experience. You don’t see those anymore since it’s harder to put into print and make extra money off of but it’s something that’s been done.
When it comes to versatility I think the comic book is the best but only when it tells the kinds of stories that work, either exclusively or otherwise, in comic form. There will be differences in translating it to animation or live-action, even if you think you can get away with using the comic as your storyboard (or a starting point for the storyboard) by nature but it’s the form I enjoy creating in most. I want to do a full series but there are ideas that might make for a good graphic novel or series of graphic novels. That’s more like a movie and what I’ll be dissecting next time.