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Comics: The most versatile art form?

I was going to call this “Comics are awesome,” but I guess Bill Reed has already cornered the market on that title! Oh, and SPOILERS below, in case spoilering things bothers you. And some minor NSFW work stuff, too. Man, I’m out of control!

Anyway, with all the doom and gloom coming out of San Diego about the death of comics and how Artists’ Alley is all depressing and shit and how the video games will soon come to life and eat all the creators and how even the movies and television crap isn’t even tangentially related to comics anymore, it’s useful to remember how incredibly awesome comics are. Hence, this post. Of course, I was already thinking about this before the con, but whatever.

I was struck by the versatility of comics when I read an admittedly not terribly original comic, Sweets #1 by Kody Chamberlain. There’s nothing wrong with Sweets, exactly, and I would encourage you to check it out, but Chamberlain traffics in very standard cop clichés to set up the story. According to Chamberlain (’cause I asked him), he did this to make readers feel comfortable before he pulls the rug out from under them in subsequent issues. Whether he will do that or not is not my concern right now. My point is that if you read a prose version of Sweets #1 or saw it as a movie, you wouldn’t think much of it. You’ve seen it all before. But it’s a good comic, because of what Chamberlain does with the art. Let’s check out some pages:

Part One: The dramatic shift in color

Part One: The dramatic shift in color

Part Two: The dramatic shift in style

Part Two: The dramatic shift in style

Part Three: Bringing it back around

Part Three: Bringing it back around

These come right in the middle of the comic, and we have no context for them. Chamberlain doesn’t explain them, and while we can certainly guess that it’s a flashback to the main character’s childhood, that’s not a given at all. But it doesn’t matter what they mean right now – if Chamberlain is any kind of storyteller, he’ll let us know down the road. What’s important is the way he conveys this information. The main story is presented in a fairly realistic fashion, as you can see. The coloring is heavily sepia-toned, true, but the locations and people are realistic. Then we get this hallucinatory interlude, where Chamberlain switches to garish blues and greens and a cartoonish drawing style that signifies a complete shift in location, time (perhaps), and even tone. The reason we can guess that this is a flashback is because we understand that this is a child-like way of presenting the information – the people are exaggerated, and even the panel where we see the van from the outside is a bit comical, with all four wheels off the ground as the man throws the beer bottle out. That it’s a disturbing scene – the mother tells the man that her kids will be asleep before her panties hit the floor – makes the way Chamberlain presents it all the more odd and commands our attention even more.

Why is this impressive? Without being too obvious, this is something that can only happen in comics. In fact, we often talk (or write) about things that can only happen in comics, but usually we mean stuff that, visually, would take prose too long to describe and would cost too much to do in movies (or, now that CGI is cheap, look too cheesy). But rarely do we discuss the versatility of comics with regard to how an artist can control the tone of a book and the feeling it elicits within us simply by changing his or her style. Chamberlain’s flashback couldn’t happen the precise way in any other medium. The closest equivalent would be in movies, where cinematographers and directors change coloring all the time to indicate a different tone or time period. A filmmaker could easily take Chamberlain’s sepia-toned “present” and introduce a lurid color palette for the flashbacks. It may or may not be as effective, but they could do it. But look at Chamberlain’s characters. Unless a filmmaker animated them, there’s no way human actors could look the way Chamberlain wants them to. His characters are filtered through a different perception. Movies have only one perception – the camera’s. Which changes nothing about the humanity of the people involved.

That’s not to say movies can’t show us wacky creatures, of course. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies have done such things for decades. Very often those creations fit into the movie very well, even if they’re not actually there (as in CGI creations) or if they’re humans wearing masks or puppets. Human actors have become very good at interacting with things that don’t exist or that they know are just other people dressed up. That’s not my point, exactly. I’m talking about the way artists can change the way actual people look like to elicit a mood or a sensation, like Chamberlain does. It’s very hard to do that in movies without it looking completely fake. Chamberlain’s characters don’t look “real,” of course, but they’re not meant to. If a filmmaker were to film Chamberlain’s scene, either the people would look exactly like regular humans, in which case the impact of the scene wouldn’t be as powerful, or the filmmaker would twist the way the people look to make them grotesque, in which case the scene would become unintentionally hilarious. Filmmakers can filter light and use odd camera angles to get an effect, but they can’t change the essential “human-ness” of the actors. Comic artists can do this very well.

Chamberlain is, of course, not the only person who does this. That’s why comics are so very versatile. There’s very little that looks ridiculous in comics, whereas there’s often quite a bit that looks ridiculous in movies. A great deal of CGI is thrown together cheaply and looks it, and even when the budget is gigantic, there’s still something off about computer effects. The fact that it’s hard to change the way people look often hurts more esoteric movies, as well. Something like Pan’s Labyrinth relies on puppetry to achieve its distinctive and odd surreality, while The Cell, for instance, relies heavily on make-up and props. Both of these movies are artistic marvels (the debate on whether they’re good movies is for another day), but the fact remains that in comics, it’s easy to achieve these effects and it never looks too odd. Both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Cell show a landscape that is different from our reality, so we accept their conventions. But comics are superb at showing “our” “reality” with a twist, mainly through the way the artist chooses to portray it.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, although it’s become increasingly more obvious in recent years. The first appearance of the Joker is most effective in comics. Prose couldn’t capture the visceral horror of seeing the rictus on Joker’s face, while movies have never quite captured it either (Cesar Romero sported a mustache under his make-up; Jack Nicholson’s frozen smile was creepy in all the wrong ways; Heath Ledger’s greasepaint was a bit too “realistic”). But if we look at Batman #1, the first appearance of the Joker, we see this:

Seventy years later, this story still holds up

Seventy years later, this story still holds up

Whoever drew this (DC credits Bob Kane, but who the hell knows?) shows why comics are so effective. The Joker’s smile isn’t frozen in place, but his pallor and hair don’t look too out of place in the world of Batman (considering that by this time, Bats had already fought vampires, Hugo Strange’s monsters, and interacted with flowers with human faces). The Joker doesn’t look ridiculous (as Romero and even Nicholson did) or unkempt (as Ledger did), he looks scary. And this is from 1940, remember.

I’m not going to include all the examples from earlier in comics history, or even recent history, but there are many examples of this kind of thing. Bill Sienkiewicz is an early pioneer in the use of mixed media and surreality in comics, although he certainly wasn’t the first (I’m not good enough a comics historian to know who is; perhaps Greg Hatcher or MarkAndrew can chime in). In one of the more famous first pages in comics history, he gives us this dramatic splash page in New Mutants #18, signalling a strange new direction for the book:

I gets chills, I tells ya!

I gets chills, I tells ya!

You can do that in movies, but it wouldn’t look as organic as Sienkiewicz makes it here, with Dani’s blanket slowly bleeding into the face of the bear. And, later in the issue, Sienkiewicz gives us Dani’s first confrontation with the demon bear:

You'll forgive me for writing Boom Goes the Dynamite!

You'll forgive me for writing Boom Goes the Dynamite!

Again, a scene like this is possible in a movie, but not without CGI, to its detriment. The bear in the comic, as huge as it is, looks real, and because Dani is drawn in the same, Sienkiewiczian fashion, their battle feels more real than if a hot young actress was fighting against a green screen. Plus, the lack of background makes the bear and Dani pop more – a movie would have a background, even if it was snow-covered, and therefore the power of the confrontation would be muted a bit.

We can also consider Ted McKeever, who draws in a very non-traditional way. He certainly can draw attractive and “normal-looking” people, but his stock in trade is highlighting the grotesque in humanity and finding the beauty in that. Here’s a sequence from Metropol that couldn’t be done well in any other medium:

Oh dear, that can't be good

Oh dear, that can't be good

See? Definitely not good

See? Definitely not good

Not really getting any better ...

Not really getting any better ...

Oh dear

Oh dear

Yes, special effects could be used for some of this, but where would a filmmaker find an actress who is shaped like Uriel? The messy humanity that inhabits McKeever’s comics is unique to him, and it gives his comics a wildly distinct look. And it makes the instances when he does smooth the edges out even more effective, as at the end of The Extremist:

Judy totally creeps me out, man!

Judy totally creeps me out, man!

Judy has been through hell and come out the other side, and although she has been portrayed raggedly throughout the series as she experiences all sorts of “extreme” behavior, in this moment, she’s radiant. There’s a twist, though, as Peter Milligan (who wrote the series) is, at that moment, showing us how lost and even sad she is. That McKeever chooses that moment to make her the most beautiful she’s been throughout the series is fascinating. You might be able to pull this off in a movie, but it would be hard, because this moment is built on McKeever’s rather twisted world view leading up to it.

Sam Kieth is another artist who turns people and things into odd, surreal caricatures of themselves, all to add an extra layer of meaning to the work. Here’s the first page of his very odd mini-series, My Inner Bimbo:

She has no clothes on!  Shocking!

She has no clothes on! Shocking!

Kieth can certainly draw attractive women, as we see here, but he’s also able to skew our perceptions slightly, as Lo’s Bimbo is slightly rounder than you might see in a film (Christina Hendricks could play her, of course, but at 35 she’s a bit old for the part, and young actresses wouldn’t be caught dead with curves). The signs on the page look odd enough to fit, although they might not on film. The bubbles and the bimbo’s “singing skin” would have to be added with CGI, and while the bubbles might look okay, the skin, which looks strangely erotic on this page, would probably look slimy and, frankly, gross if this were film. Here’s a page from later on in the series:

We should all have hinges on our head

We should all have hinges on our head

Yes, this page is verbose (and it should be “to” instead of “too”), but the point is that Kieth opens Lo’s head and all these silhouettes and cameos spill out, each spouting some kind of philosophical argument, and this page would be very difficult to transfer to any other medium. You could do a scene on film that would get the same general idea across, but Kieth packs this page with visual and textual information, and in a movie, it would have to be done so differently that much would be lost, including the wry humor of the banner proclaiming what the page is about. The fourth-wall breaking could be done, too, but once again, the woman on this page looks slightly askew, because she’s drawn by a person with a unique style.

Even more recently, we have the stunning work of Josh Hagler on The Boy Who Made Silence, the best mini-series of 2008 and one of the most impressive comics of the past decade. Much of the effect of Hagler’s work is due to the art (the writing is very good, but the art is magnificent) and through the way he creates moods with it. In issue #6, we get a flashback that is truly amazing in the way Hagler shows us how Nestor, the young boy of the title, views the world:

Look at that lettering!

Look at that lettering!

Look at that coloring!

Look at that coloring!

Look at those heads!

Look at those heads!

His parents’ giant heads signify their dominance over the small boy, something movies would struggle to portray visually. It’s been done, but much more garishly. We shouldn’t forget Kari Marboe and Thomas Mauer’s astonishing lettering when his father speaks to him, making his words more portentous and sinister only through the font and coloring of the speech balloons. The fact that this entire scene is presented upside-down is interesting, as well. Nestor is being baptized in a river and when he goes in, his perception of the world is skewed. Again, we’ve seen this in movies and even prose before, but comics do it more effectively.

Even regular superhero books exhibit art forms that work better in comics than anywhere else, even now when special effects technology has allowed more versimilitude in big-budget men-in-tights films. Just one example is the cape, a staple of superheroes. It still looks a bit goofy in movies, even if it looks better than it did 50 years ago. But if we return to Batman, artists can go a bit nuts and it can still “fit” within their art styles. Todd McFarlane may have gone too far, but someone like Norm Breyfogle was able to strike a fairly good balance between a long, impractical cape and a good look within the context of the book:

Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na - Batman!

Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na - Batman!

And just so as not to pick on McFarlane too much, his depiction of Spider-Man was quite revolutionary, as he made him far more arachnoid than ever before, something that, unless Sam Raimi had hired DJ Qualls to play Peter Parker (let’s face it – now that I’ve thrown his name in the ring, you WISH he had played Spider-Man!), they couldn’t have done in the movies:

And remember that his web line is ... ADVANTAGEOUS!

And remember that his web line is ... ADVANTAGEOUS!

The way art styles reflect “reality” in many different ways, changing the tone of the work based on how the artists draws people isn’t the only way comics are more versatile than other media. Prose writers and directors, for instance, can create mysteries very well, even “fair-play” mysteries, but comics are, in many ways, superior to them. Comics can show images that need not be commented upon, just placed within the panel, and astute readers may pick up on them. In prose novels, clues must be mentioned or they don’t exist, and this draws attention to them. Movies can drop clues into the frame, but the static nature of comics means that readers can go back over and over again to spot them – obviously, you can do this with movies, but it’s a bit more difficult. Many comics don’t take enough advantage of this dichotomy between words and pictures to present crucial information in a mystery – many comics mystery writers show clues and have the characters comment on them, which defeats the purpose somewhat, or they simply don’t place clues throughout the book. But many writers do take advantage of the medium. Mike Barr is a good example, but perhaps the best murder mystery in American comics is, unsurprisingly, Watchmen. Here’s the very first page:

Yeah, shut up, liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers!

Yeah, shut up, liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers!

There’s not a ton of visual information on the page, but what is there is impressive. Moore and Gibbons give us clues to two of the main mysteries in the book – Rorschach’s identity and the murderer’s identity (note the truck by the sidewalk as Kovacs walks through the blood). They do this throughout the book, and only when you go back and look through it do you realize how airtight the plotting is and how intricate the clues are. Obviously, Moore and Gibbons are two of the best creators in comics, but this kind of storytelling isn’t that hard. It’s a shame that more creators don’t do this sort of thing in their comics, because it’s a wonderful place for it.

The juxtaposition of words and pictures has become more and more common over the years, reaching perhaps an apotheosis in the final issue of Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard’s Codeflesh. This is the famous issue in which our hero, Cameron, writes a letter to his estranged girlfriend, Maddie, and Casey puts the text of the letter in word balloons and Adlard just draws scenes of the other characters going through their days, quoting Cameron’s letter. It’s an impressive achievement, made more so by the fact that Casey incorporates signs and music lyrics to tell the story, never missing a beat. And it’s seamless. Check out three pages:

So cool!

So cool!

Note the sign outside the police station

Note the sign outside the police station

It's impressive how the words and pictures sync up so well

It's impressive how the words and pictures sync up so well

Movies have done things similar to this, but it would be very difficult to incorporate, for instance, song lyrics in a movie. This is just another place where comics are superior. (Chad Nevett wrote extensively about this issue five years ago, in case you’re interested.)

The last arena in which comics are more versatile than other media is humor. This might seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. There are many examples of humor comics, but I was struck by this idea about humor while reading one of the books I bought in San Diego, Erika Moen’s DAR! This is a fantastically filthy and very funny comic, and here’s a sample gag:

So cute!

So cute!

Now, if we move past the fact that if you laughed at this, you’ll love the rest of this book (and if you didn’t, it’s probably not for you), why does this joke work better in comics form than any other? In prose, the punchline would be funny, but we wouldn’t have the simultaneous view of Matt’s face (the guy’s name is Matt, by the way), which heightens the humor. We could see this kind of thing in a movie, but what’s fascinating about actors is that they often can’t switch easily from smooth to goofy. Notice Matt when he’s giving the paper to Erika – he’s smug and satisfied with his paper. Then, when Erika gives him a withering look (and notice how easily Erika’s face shifts from dewey and loving to disbelieving – we can even imagine her shaking her head disgustedly), he becomes a complete doofus. That’s unusually difficult for actors to do. Seth Rogen or Jack Black could pull off the goofy look, but I doubt if they could look as suave as Matt does in panel 3, and that’s part of the humor of the gag. Plus, the static nature of comics works in the joke’s favor, as well – the shift in Erika’s face between panel 4 and panel 5 is done instantaneously instead of in stages as it would if it were a movie, and that helps make the final panel even funnier. Many humor comics do this exceptionally well – beats in comics that stretch the humor out don’t work quite as well in movies, although they do work. Comics just do it better.

I’m not bashing movies, of course, because film does some things much better than other media. There’s something wonderful in watching an actor inhabit a role and create a character, changing the way we perceive the movie just by making certain choices in facial movements and vocal tone. Much like great comic art can occasionally elevate a pedestrian script, a great actor can make a mediocre movie script worth seeing. An actor can change the timber and volume of his or her voice to add greater gravitas to what they’re saying, something comics (obviously) can’t do. One reason why I don’t like “casting” actors in comic books is because you only get the facial recognition, which is often the least interesting thing about an actor. Plus, music in a movie can’t be underestimated and can be used to great effect. Movies do many things very well. Comics, however, do more things better, and the things they lose can be overcome with those things.

I realize I’m preaching to the choir here (which is why I should write about comics for Time or Newsweek, man!), but too many comics readers become flabbergasted when outsiders dismiss the art form as “men in tights” and can’t refute them except by saying, “Well, it’s much more mature than that – look, they’re killing babies now!” Comic art can take the experimentation of fine art and wed it to the storytelling nature of movies, creating something unique and wonderful. Comics’ static nature might seem to weaken it when compared to movies, and its visual nature might seem to weaken it when compared to prose’s ability to describe turbulent emotions or wondrous landscapes, but good artists can make those perceived weaknesses and make them work beautifully. Whenever I read something about comics written by non-comics readers (even in something like Entertainment Weekly, which covers more comics than most periodicals), there’s a tendency to appreciate the “realism” of a Greg Land or Bryan Hitch, whose work makes comics almost indistinguishable from movies except that they, you know, don’t move. I understand that movies are where the money is, so many comics creators are making their comics hew as close to movie pitches as they can, but I would argue that ultimately, people like Mark Millar or Hitch are embarrassed to be comics creators – they want to be in the movie business and see comics as a stepping stone to that. Embracing the form means trying to continue in a grand tradition of telling stories with static pictures and using the uniqueness of the medium to make comics that wouldn’t fit easily into the film medium. I always think of books I love that are, essentially, unfilmable. Did Mark Danielewski care about making House of Leaves accessible to movie makers when he sat down to write it? It’s a terrifying book, to start, but Danielewski experiments with the way to present prose, and that makes it a work of genius (I haven’t read Only Revolutions yet, but it’s also an extremely experimental book). One of my favorite authors, Milorad Pavić (who died last October, unfortunately), wrote wildly entertaining and experimental books. His best, Dictionary of the Khazars, is laid out like, well, a dictionary, and tells all sorts of stories, both modern and set during the heyday of the Khazars (circa AD 700-800). He also wrote Landscape Painted With Tea, which takes the form of a crossword puzzle, and Lost Love in Constantinople, for which readers can use the tarot to determine in which order the chapters can be read. Another favorite author of mine, Italo Calvino, challenged readers through his fiction as well (his best book, If on a winter’s night a traveler, is one of the few extended second-person narratives I can stand). Writers in comics rarely challenge readers in this way (not to say they don’t ever, but not as often), but the great thing about comics is that artists challenge their readers all the time, and it often goes largely unnoticed because the art doesn’t “fit” with what most fans think of as “superhero” art. There’s certainly a place for Bryan Hitch in comics (and I usually like Hitch’s work), but it’s unfortunate that it’s the standard. Comics offer so much more, and the best comic art, like those books I mentioned above, is almost impossible to transfer to another medium.

So next time your friends pooh-pooh your comic book reading, pull something out a little more challenging than the latest issue of Avengers or Justice League. Comics are infinitely versatile, more so than movies, certainly, and maybe more so than prose. That’s why, even if I get burned out on comics every once in a while, I always find something new to dazzle me. And that’s why I keep reading them!

28 Comments

Wild guess? Earliest mixed media in comics was probably the old Kirby collage pieces in Fantastic Four.

Plenty of good examples here, though of Watchmen the most impressive passages are in my opinion the ones where Moore&Gibbons handle two simultaneous situations with talk bleeding back and forth between scenes…the ones with Dr Manhattan in TV studio and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre being mugged. A bit show-offish for sure, but still great.

I love strongly expressive art, the kind what McKeever and Kieth are doing, and the casual switches from relative realism to subjective expressionism depending on the need of the story. Visual cues which never work in movies because, well, there’s the camera which tends to suck at telling things which are not there. Also I should mention Corto Maltese comics by Hugo Pratt, because he does the best dream scenes ever…by not doing anything special, at some point there is just a realization that oh, wait, that can’t be happening, this must be a dream…while still the dream logic is followed, talking moons and expanding keyholes are treated matter-of-factly and the reader just has to keep up which parts are dreams and which are not and what really happens if anything happens at all (generally I should note that comics as a form narrate dreams much better than any other medium, several other artists beside Pratt have done good work on that field).

Another artist doing interesting things with narrative is Gilbert Hernendez, who at some point started to do this extremely chopped narrative with each panel being a scene of its own and the reader is just supposed to figure out what does every fragment mean in the bigger story.

Yeah, comics as a medium and art form have plenty to offer, and that’s why I tend to shrug at those comments about death of comics and so on…sorry, can’t see it. It might change how that art form is packaged or distributed, how many people will be reading those and so forth, but in one way or another it will be around.

Oh, and as counter-point: the best movie Joker is Conrad Veidt in Paul Leni’s old silent film The Man Who Laughs. Which served as an influence to the comics villain. Recommended.

Plus 100 internets for namedropping Italo Calvino! The man loved him some comics; it says so right here in my copy of The Uses of Literature.

Great column; lo, I was just bemoaning the presence of bland, uninspired “house styles” at the bigger superhero companies, and this was a great sort of “wine tasting” of what’s really out there. Sure, you can read Tony Daniel’s Batman, or something drawn by one of those two hundred new Brazilian up-and-comers who are all repped by the same agency, but you can also hand someone Asterios Polyp, or even something less formally experimental like Cooke’s new Man with the Getaway Face, which is just an exceptional offering from a cartoonist who has mastered his craft. Like Pekar said, bless him, and as Ellis reiterated– you can do anything with words and pictures. It’s good to actually see some of that anything be produced.

(That’ll be $2 for your usage of “Comics Are Awesome,” though, Burgas. Cheers.)

Ever since first reading it, I’ve thought Asterios Polyp did some very interesting storytelling with its art. The story itself is kind of mediocre (though enjoyable), but the art is really what makes it work.

Also, couldn’t you say that animation is the most versatile art form? It can do all the things film can do PLUS most of the things that comics can do. The only things I can think of that it can’t do are the subtle clues thing you mentioned and using panels in a creative way (because panels don’t exist, obviously).

Great article.

I love it when I’m reading a comic and come across something that I realise could never have the same effect on me in another medium. Artists shifting styles is a great example of that – although I think animation does can do it too.

I find that the advantage that comics have is that they are a static image. You look at Wednesday Comics’ The Flash or Morrison’s Club of heroes arc on Batman, where the artists are varying their styles, and you’re seeing ALL of those styles simultaneously. You’re not governed by where an editor chooses to cut. It can be overwhelming in the best possible sense.

Most often I find that what impresses me most comes down to panels. That’s the language of comics. A unique panel arrangement, messing with the boarders or guttering or using the juxtaposition of frames to indicate motion in an interesting way…it’s those things that get me. So much so that I actually have a folder on my computer dedicated to saving scans of pages just like that (it’s a pretty small folder atm, only 16 images.)

I agree with the sentiment that house styles are frustrating. It bugs me that DC is full of watered down versions of George Perez and Jim Lee, most of them put on MAJOR titles, while some of the more talented artists are on lower-tier books. Similar things happen at Marvel (it annoys me that Hickman’s FF is marred by an artist that emulates Bryan Hitch, when there are truly distinctive talents that could be on that book.)

This was a great great article. Great examples and a great premise. Comics rule, man!

Over at the 75 Memorable DC moments, I voted for the first Joker death, more because I remembered this great page that you show here, with the Joker sitting there with his fingers together like that.

From what you show of The Boy Who Made Silence, it looks like it’s doing something similar to the Codeflesh story, where the story is being told in word balloons that aren’t necessarily continuing from the same character, but continue the story. (I didn’t explain that well. Nevertheless, it’s something you can only do in comics.)

One thing you might have mentioned was how movie adaptations have to alter the look and feel of the comics they adapt. I’m thinking in particular of Sin City right now. They had to take Miller’s stark, B&W no tones art work and make a 3D world, and it actually makes the movie look more cartoonish than the comic.

Other examples of what you’re talking about (and I love the examples you do use, some great creators): Since Bill Reed has been mentioning him lately, Dave Sim did AMAZING things with comics in Cerebus. He mixed in text pages, the use of “actors” as characters (Lord Julius/Groucho Marx) but also characters modeled after cartoons and actors (Elrod’s speaking patterns are modeled after Foghorn Leghorn, iirc), layout experiments, time jumps (see the second part of Guys), weird dream sequences, and amazing lettering. He even finally got Gerhard to do the “submarine background” panel towards the end of Rick’s Story. Cerebus is my all time favorite comic, and I know most people have problems with Dave’s beliefs, but his comics artistry is amazing.

Another example is the Greyshirt story in Tomorrow Stories #2, “How Things Work Out” (I think is the title, or “The Way…”, it’s been a while). I wrote a paper in college on this, as it had come out recently at that point in time. The story is set in a building, and there are 4 tiers to each page. From the top down, it’s 1999,1979,1959,1939, and each tier tells a continuing story. But you can read the page like a normal page, and each one follows and flows into the other (as in, the 1999 panel continues right into the 1979 panel, and that panel’s dialogue flows into the 1959 panel, etc, then at the bottom of the page, the 1939 panel flows back into the next page’s 1999 panel). You can also read it from the bottom across (all the 1939 panels, all the 1959 panels, etc) or the top across (all 1999, all 1979, etc). It’s an amazing story, and now, I have to dig it out and reread it (dammit Burgas!).

Like you say, while our interest in comics may ebb and flow, there’s always SOMETHING about comics to catch our interest and make it so we never truly lose interest, if we’re willing to take a chance on some “out there” stuff. Thank goodness for bloggers like you.

Re: animation. True, animation can do the style shifts like comics, and get also some of the good things about movies (not all though, there are things which work best in meatspace), but it does lack the juxtaposition of several images of which the comic reader can be aware of at the same time, while preferably concentrating at each of them one after the another, and there are tricks that can be done with movement from one panel to another.
Also having four dimensions, time included, shown in two dimensions (as opposed to three dimensions of films) is tricky, but time can also be more malleable in comics…
And from that Greyshirt example above, it is easier to carry several narratives at the same time. I have seen some artists who tell the main story in the page and then in the bottom of the page have a smaller strip which in some way is unconnected to the main story but comments on that. Another example is old Gyro Gearloose stories of Carl Barks, which have Gyro’s Little Helper on the background having his own little story…trying to pull that in movies is usually highly disruptive.

Picking out The Most Versatile Art Form is a bit silly though, each one is versatile, can do things others can not. All of them are the most versatile.

Re: Cerebus. True, Dave Sim did lots of great things there. The use of actors as shorthand was used a lot in Hollywood in Studio System days, turning the actors and their mannerisms to symbols which saved a lot on the need to introduce the characters. No matter what the name of the characters were, they were Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Basil Rathbone, Lana Turner and the audience knew it.
Just like “casting” Groucho Marx to to be Lord Julius: no need to say anything more what kind of character Lord Julius is.

but movies have moving images !!!

(dumbest column here – evar)

Not only was this a great article, but it also showed me a few comics that I have to check out.

I hadn’t heard about Codeflesh or the The Boy Who Made Silence, but they both look great and that DAR! joke made me laugh my ass off! (no pun intended).

Regarding Italo Calvino, would you recommend Invisible Cities?

Invisible Cities is one of the best books ever written.

Seconded on Invisible Cities…it is a mind-blowing read…

I love articles like this because it forces me to not only see the writer’s point but to re-assess why I like the books that I buy now.

Travis, you are totally on point with your second to last line. Even when comics frustrate me to no end, there is always one or two books that I will discover that reminds me why I go to the shop every Wed for a fix.

Thx for the stimulating read, Greg.

Tom Fitzpatrick

August 9, 2010 at 5:13 am

I like the scribble notes.

I might try that someday. ;-)

Remember that Metropol sequence.

Guess Ted McKeever’s back with Meta-4.

I’d like to throw in Teddy Kristiansen’s work on “It’s A Bird”, written by Steven T. Seagle; the man pulls off about 20 different, distinct styles to show off different ideas and thoughts and emotions.

Artistically it’s a brilliant book, and that the story is good is just a kicker. I just wish DC would release it as a hardcover.

Invisible Cities is probably Calvino’s SECOND-best book. So yes, I would definitely recommend it!

Michael: It’s a Bird … is in hardcover … because I own the hardcover! The hardcover might be out of print, though. I’m not sure.

I know it’s silly to throw out bold statements like “most versatile,” but I do like stimulating discussion, so I do it! And thanks for the suggestions, everyone. There’s always something new and cool out there!

Dude: Codeflesh is now available in color, but I don’t know if it makes it any better. And some of The Boy Who Made Silence is available at the link where its name is – Hagler has planned 12 issues and only 6 have come out, but I live in hope that he’ll be able to finish it someday.

I loved all of this article except for one part:

Even regular superhero books exhibit art forms that work better in comics than anywhere else, even now when special effects technology has allowed more versimilitude in big-budget men-in-tights films.

I don’t understand the usage of the word “even,” as if the fact that comics due a better job at portraying superheroes than other media is the most surprising fact of all. I’d argue that superheroes will always be the genre comics are best suited over other media portrayed and that such a result should be expected.

Think about it, superheroes are the only genre in entertainment actually CREATED SPECIFICALLY for comics. No other genre can claim that, to my knowledge. So of course the medium that a genre was created for and monopolized it for decades would continue to be the medium that does it best.

I think the best comic writers frequently challenge the conventions of writing frequently, especially by using the 2nd-person narrative. It was almost the house style of Marvel in the 70s, yet never seemed as unnatural as it does in prose. Also, most modern comics use a shifting 1st person viewpoint that is pretty rare in mainstream prose (with the exception of Dracula). Finally, look at just about everything Grant Morrison has written and his use of “time travel” — only by reading a later work can an earlier work be understood (like Mister Miracle/Rock of Ages were missing something until Final Crisis).

Another example that came up between my writer and I today is “I Kill Giants.” Even a film starring Abigail Breslin directed by Peter Jackson or Terry Gilliam wouldn’t come close to evoking the same adolescent soft spot that Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura conjured with their comic work.

I think it also has something to do with comic signifiers (like Scott McCloud’s happy face and reality pyramid) tapping into our deeper recesses in a more universal, expressive, manner than “reality” can achieve.

Encountering Calvino here was unexpected. I think Cosmicomics was his best.

I definitely enjoyed Cosmicomics– when they finally let me write Aquaman, I’ve got a choice quote from that book to work in– but I agree with Burgas that If on a winter’s night a traveler is his best (though I haven’t read everything); sublime experimentation with the narrative form, there. He beat me to an idea I had decades before I had it! Damn, he’s good.

I second Kirby’s collage pieces – but what about Steranko (definitely pre-Sim) and Steve Gerber; albeit he’s a writer???

Great piece, Greg!

I’m honored to be included with such an amazing list of referenced talent.

Well, with the exception of the usual party pooper, everyone here is very intelligent and loved this article. Cool.

I believe that Invisible Cities is the Calvino I have read. I need to read more, as it’s been awhile since I’ve read that, and from what I remember it was good.

Roman had a good point, in that comics WRITING also allows for interesting experiments that can’t be done in prose as well. Your article seemed to highlight the art a bit more (although some writing experiments were highlighted, it seems you focused on the art a little more — but that may just be the easiest part to “see”). I think the EC guys used second person narrative as well, and somehow it does seem to work better in comics than prose.

T, the way I read the sentence you quoted above was that Burgas’s other examples were more “out there” with artistic styles and the books they were used in weren’t superhero books (other than New Mutants). Burgas seems to be saying that even in your non-experimental super hero books, there are artistic elements in play that are done better than anywhere else. I do grant your point that it seems obvious that comics “do” superheroes better than any other medium since they were created for that medium. (It has been argued, though, that video games, especially as they continue to evolve, may end up doing superheroes better as they can/will put you right in the action and let you “be” the superhero even more than comics can. It’s an interesting argument.)

Thanks, Kody and Jason.

Travis: I thought of focusing on writing, but it seems like comics writers, while they experiment a bit more with second person than prose writers, don’t seem to stretch things as much as artists do. And when they do, it’s more of a marriage between the art and the prose (your example of the Greyshirt story sounds like a good example of that). The actual prose is often nothing too out there. Maybe it’s because it’s just a written language bound by letters and symbols, while art is almost infinitely malleable. So while I do appreciate it when a writer steps outside the bounds of what we consider the “norm,” it seems like the great artists in comics do it as a matter of course, which is keen.

And I didn’t respond to T., even though I should have, but you did a very good job articulating what I meant. I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

2 things I thought of, 2 different posts. (Actually, probably a third)

Sound: here’s where comics do falter a bit. To use my Cerebus example, there are times when the comedy can’t always work, because while certain characters (Elrod/Foghorn Leghorn, Lord Julius/Groucho) have distinct, Hollywood based voices, others (Cerebus himself, Jaka, Cirin, etc) don’t have that distinct, real world based voice (at least no one most people know, I believe that some if not all characters were at least BASED on people Dave Sim knew) (and actually, iirc, when he featured Seth as a character [back when he did Mr X for Vortex], he hadn’t met him yet, so based his voice/speech patterns on, I believe, Diana Schutz. Not that most people know what SHE sounds like either, but…). Since he mixed real world voices and ones we as readers had to come up with, certain exchanges may fail for the reader.

I also remember something Dave wrote in the back of Cerebus about seeing Vaughn Bode performing a Cheech Wizard strip, and being disappointed that Cheech’s voice was that of WC Fields, when Dave thought it should be, iirc, Bugs Bunny or Leo “East Side Kids/Bowery Boys” Gorcey. I forget if he said who he thought Cerebus sounded like, but I’m guessing it disappointed some of his readers if he did say.

It should be noted that I don’t tend to “hear” characters speak when I read, so unless there is a distinction to the voice (as in some of the examples above), I don’t have any particular voice in mind for characters. Maybe a notion of the tone of voice, but I don’t think that, say, Captain America speaks with, say, Johnny Depp’s voice.

Although I found in doing my own little comics, that once I figured out that one character’s voice was that of an acquaintance of mine, it was easier to “act out” the stories in my head.

Where comics do succeed sound-wise is in sound effects. There’s no good way to represent, for example, the SFX that are featured in the Incredible Hercules. They depend on you reading them to yourself and going, ah! (Of course, I think I’m still missing out on some of those SFX, that there are jokes that I’m just not getting.)

No good way to OTHERWISE represent the SFX in Herc, btw.

A bit of a play off what I was talking about above: the more recent notion of “casting” Hollywood stars in comics (Millar and JG Jones did it with Wanted, Bendis or whoever was responsible for Samuel L Fury in the Ultimate line, and my other examples coming up). Obviously, Cerebus used Hollywood characters as Cerebus characters, but I think because his art is (maybe WAS, really) on the cartoonier end of the spectrum, it comes out more as cariacature and not photo ref. Dave also used the personality as well, although Samuel L Fury has a bit of that.

What struck me the other day was reading Ellis’s newuniversal, and seeing James Gandolfini at the end (as a sheriff). Then I flipped back through, saw Nicole Kidman and Johnny Depp, Gene Hackman, and maybe Bruce Willis (not sure on that one). It was a bit disappointing. And I know it was an Ellis thing (and not just the artist being lazy), because his Thunderbolts came out right around then. The jarring bit in that was seeing Norman Lee Jones Osborne. I’m wondering if he told the artists to make them look sort of like that or just said “they are that actor”. To me, these Ellis ones don’t really utilize more than just the look of these people, and that’s off-putting. Although Tommy Lee Jones as Norman/Green Goblin WOULD actually work.

Superheroes in other media: I think, but it may be confirmation bias, that comics DO do superheroes better than any other media. Definitely better than books. Possibly better than movies. So far, same for video games.

Take what I’ve seen of the first Spider-Man movie. From what I caught of it, the origin sequence takes, what, half an hour? In Amazing Fantasy 15, it’s 11 pages. 11 PAGES! And it’s all there, everything in those 11 pages is absolutely perfect. Geeky science kid, experiment gone wrong, attempt at cashing in, too good to stop a criminal, later horrified about that, tragic consequences, “with great power…” In 11 PAGES.

However, best superhero show on TV ever? Buffy. So there are some things that outdo comics for super heroes.

Books I want to mention briefly — Minister Faust wrote 2 books, the title of the first being too long to type (and it really only makes geek references, it’s not a superhero book per se), the second “From the Files of Dr Brain” is an interesting story of a super team (JLA or Avengers type thing), but nothing in that is any better than any other well written super team title of the last 30 years. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s not great.

Barry Lyga’s The (Amazing?Astonishing? can’t remember which) Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is a good young adult novel, where (SPOILER) Fanboy (he’s not called that repeatedly, but I forget his real name) is working on a GN that Goth Girl thinks is amazing. From the descriptions, however, I’m not sure why a Sandman fan finds the story that intriguing. Plus, the pages that are done are, if I understood correctly, non sequential and not all entirely finished. So I don’t know that it “works” for me. (It’s a story about a woman that can make dreams/fantasies real, but nothing about the description, to me, makes it read as anything so revolutionary as the Goth Girl thinks it is.) The BOOK is good, just the comics story described just isn’t as much.

I think it’s the fact that it’s prose descriptions of comics art pages. The old “dancing about architecture” syndrome, if you will.

I assume you’ve finished Kavalier and Clay by now. The Escapist and Luna Moth (that WAS the character, right?) pages described are everything you WANT to see in comics, but weren’t being done (even by Eisner) in the time period described. And the stories I’ve read in the Escapist comics weren’t so “revolutionary” either. But Chabon makes you wish they DID exist, and it’s disappointing that they can’t. I did like how he seemed to capture the excitement comics guys probably felt on seeing Citizen Kane for the first time and trying to apply what that movie did in its medium to their own medium of comics.

Another annoying bit on that notion is when you read a scholarly piece on comics that doesn’t include a copy of the page being discussed. I ran into some of those back in college, and it was frustrating. I believe that when I wrote the essay on the Greyshirt story I mention above, I HAD to include copies for the prof to see. Without being able to compare the two, you can’t really know how well the author describes the page in question. There are also times when you look at the page yourself and say, no, didn’t they see that? Or someone else points out something you yourself didn’t see (check out the recent year of cool comics bit Brian did on a page from Watchmen, and all the neat stuff Tuomas unpacked from that one page. Awesome).

One example where prose did work better, and I think I’ve mentioned it on Hatcher’s posts before, is Jeff Rovin’s Encyclopedia of Super Heroes. If you can find this book, from about 1985, pick it up. It’s amazing. As it says, it’s an encyclopedia, and it has capsule descriptions of characters, their costumes and powers, and early and significant stories. I think I fell in love with Flaming Carrot from the description of how he came to be FC, by taking a bet about reading 5000 comics straight, and that he won the bet but “became simple”. (Which may be verbatim from an FC comic, but still…) How can you NOT love a book just off that entry? But like Hatcher says about some of the pulps that featured awesome Frazetta or other covers, the blurbs on the backs of those, coupled with the covers, make the books out to be better than they are. And I think, in the case of (especially) Golden Age characters, Rovin’s distillations are more interesting than the characters and their stories actually were.

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