Comics: Why Traditional Writers/Authors Should Care
By Will Greenway
Comic books, kid’s stuff, right? If you agreed with that statement, then some or all of these things apply to you: A, you haven’t been in a movie theater recently, B, you have some preconceived notion about comics, C, you’ve probably never actually read a comic book.
I am a hard core writer. You might even go so far as to call me a “writing scientist”. I deconstruct narrative and poke around in the innards of what makes stories work. I am not young, although I certainly wouldn’t mind shedding a few years. I have written a lot, close to ten million words. Given all that, I still find things in comics that give me pause. I respect the medium, and the many talented people who created its foundations.
If you didn’t pick up on what I was intimating, comics aren’t just for kids anymore. In fact, they’ve been catering outside that demographic for more than thirty years. I’m not really sure why people are so slow to pick up on this stuff. I guess it’s because you really wouldn’t know about the world of comics and their vast universes unless you sidetracked to a comic shop.
So, what exactly are you missing? Simply put, the big picture. Genre this, genre that, open up your minds. Comic books are imagination on steroids, stylized exaggeration, the human condition, artistic expression, and all of humanity’s myths crammed into a single medium. Other than movies, comic books are one of the few artistic products created collaboratively. In the case of comic books, the sum is usually greater than its parts. The products of Hollywood, usually have us rolling our eyes at plot holes and inconsistencies. In comics, where the creators are closer to their buying public, canon is something that is milked and maintained—until it isn’t.
The thing that makes comics special is that they are serial. This gives the (good) writers of the medium, huge canvases on which to portray epic stories and gigantic interconnected universes. Notice, I’m talking about writing here. I haven’t mentioned the pretty pictures. Take a look at the samples from the different eras that I have arranged through the length of this article. You can see comics evolving through the last sixty years. The leading artists of comics have ridiculous skills and talent. Emotion, melodrama, beauty, narcissism, good, evil, portrayed in ways that just boggle. Look. Put aside preconceived notions, and let yourself appreciate what these men and women made come to life.
It’s no surprise that the medium has inspired Hollywood time and again. The groaning part is the creative movie makers who didn’t have the first clue about comics making truly lame adaptations that flew in the faces of decades of canon. What makes comics comics is that superheroes are not alone in their fictional continuities. The reason TV and Hollywood won’t and can’t do it correctly is because of licensing. So, as a result, these iconic characters bounce around in stories where nobody has ever seen a superhero. These TV and Movie depictions seem pale and flat compared to their printed counterparts.
In recent years, the obstacle of licensing got out of the way for the new behemoth in town. Disney bought Marvel, and now with 99% of the comic book publisher’s character portfolio they can start to make comic book movies that feel like comic books. Still, it took a guy who knew comics (Joss Whedon) to make a successful comic book blockbuster. Comics are basically three things: fighting, dialogue, and tropes. In Hollywood, the tropes make us roll our eyes. In comics, the foregone is what we drool over. Example, the new hero on the block has to fight with the protagonist(s).
Okay, so what about all of this? Why am I worked up about it. It’s not like this is real literature, right? This is what bugs me. Comics have this stigma, this blotch that somehow denies the art form the same legitimacy as other creative mediums. Look at the art. Especially in the later eras. There is some amazing talent showcased each month across dozens of titles. True, not every one is a Rembrandt, but still there are tens of thousands of pages and some are stunning. Think of the classic painters, are their works any more imaginative? For certain, they are not. These artists aren’t just splashing paint on a tarp and calling it art. These are crafts-people who use object and character references, understand perspective and composition, and can depict truly crazy ideas.
Perhaps it’s the fringe stuff, the trite and the weird that have stamped our collective consciousness with “for kids” over the art form. Of course, if you had to come up with story ideas every month for thirty years, the well might start to run a little dry. I’m certain that was the challenge for the writers and artists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, who did not have the technology or the perspective we have today.
If you grant the art a little respect. What about the writing? We started off, entering into why traditional writers should care. The reason? To challenge yourself. If you walk into a comic store and stare at the bewildering number of titles and pick one at random, chances are it won’t be your cup-of-tea. Of course, this is true of any book store. Superhero comics are definitively genre, epic-science-fantasy-supernatural. If you go into the relationship expecting and respecting the tropes, you will find a book that catches your fancy. I don’t know a person who truly gave comics a shot that didn’t find at least one title that hooked them. Once you are hooked, the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more your appreciation for a connected universe will grow. It’s something unique to the medium. The overlapping story arcs, cameo appearances, and repercussions that have consequences across multiple titles is something you won’t see in books or movies. (You will see it in anime, but we’ll save that for a separate rant.) I myself am so enamored with that intertwined narrative that my book series work the same way.
I understand there are people out there rabidly opposed to genre fiction. They don’t get fantasy or sci-fi. I have always wondered what it is they don’t get. You speculate, you take a ‘what if’ scenario and you explore. What if a person suddenly gained the ability to fly? How would it affect them, their family, and how would society treat them? Most writers wouldn’t be challenged by a story where that one speculation was explored. Yet, we add a few more distortions of reality and their whole ability to deal with the “fiction” gets defenestrated.
Are these people, are you, so caged up you can’t let go of the real and suspend disbelief? That is why comics are important to writers and authors.
If you can’t stretch your imagination to encompass escapist literature, how do you expect to convince people to buy into your fictional worlds?
World building is an important part of any fictional story. If you pick up any Marvel or DC comic that isn’t issue number one, there is usually a massive amount of back-story that is simply taken for granted. The story just rolls on. The good writers will stop along the way give us flashbacks on the important stuff, but overall you just dive in and learn as you go. In fact, this is where the comic book addiction can start. You get introduced to a new character you like and you end up buying issues of that title (and back issues) to learn about that personality’s history. This, of course, is the evil genius of comics and why the industry has stuck around for so long. The fans (like myself) of the medium can be rabid in their support and appreciation.
For the true fans, I am aware of the sell-outs and other bad karma, blah-blah-blah I am covering my ears now. Yes, this article, which is all pro comics, won’t delve into the ugly aspects of the industry, the reboots, the pilfered properties and lost legacies. Where there’s business and large sums of money—there will be ugliness. Just step back. I will remember comics fondly despite all that feldercarb.
So, if you are a non-comics person, you probably don’t really grasp the size of the continuities I’m talking about. So, allow me to blow your mind. Marvel claims to have 7000 thousand characters (yes, thousand). DC Comics lays claim to ten thousand characters in their library. Think about this for a moment—17000 characters between two companies. This doesn’t even take into account the dozens of indie comics, some of whom had respectable character portfolios of their own (Image, Wildstorm, Darkhorse, and so on). I was not a hard core collector, but in my heyday I followed around 30 titles a month. I knew some guys that were buying a hundred titles a month. As comics became more expensive this became impractical. At three plus dollars a title, we’re talking a significant chunk of expendable capital. Back in the 70’s when comics were truly flourishing, title prices hovered around 35 to 50 cents. Fifty bucks a month is doable for a high school student with a minimum wage job.
Obviously, the stories don’t have all those characters in them. However, any given story with a single title character will have supporting casts of ten or fifteen characters, plus cameos from cross title heroes. Above that, we have groups for Marvel like the X-men, the Avengers, the Defenders. For DC, groups are Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, Teen Titans. For Avengers, and Legion, the casts of characters often just got crazy, ten to fifteen protagonists plus ensemble cast. Give the artists props people, each design must be distinct and recognizable in a panel. Look at the cast shots above. A true fan of comics can name them from little distinguishing characteristics of costume, skin color, or carried paraphernalia.
Writers, take note—tags—the main characters were designed with recognition in mind. In a visual medium, such attention to detail is paramount. In an entirely written world, we should learn from this.
Now, if keeping track of thousands characters weren’t tough enough, there’s the little thing about parallel universes or reboots. Because comics are collaborative, sometimes a writer will veer down a path that, for whatever reason, the editing staff decides to invalidate it. The next writer usually has to un-canonize the previous history. Sometimes this is done in the story, sometimes it’s just slopped out, the book is terminated and re-badged. This kind of stuff (because comics is business) creates snarls that have to be tracked. Sometimes, parallel worlds are done just to explore alternatives. So, as a result, both Marvel and DC have various versions of canon that co-exist, that never happened, and so on. You can get a glimpse of the various versions of their realities here (marvel’s multiverse continuity) and here (DC’s multiverse continuity). Just looking at those should at the very least amaze you a little bit.
Honestly, it is understandable that such staggering complexity would daunt anyone. Then again, worlds and universes should be diverse and varied. Of course, to just enjoy a story for entertainment’s sake doesn’t require you invest in the entire mess. You just have to buy-in enough that the concept doesn’t scare you away.
Bottom line, I’m not inviting writers to come to comics for their complexity, or their giant casts of characters, or even the amazing art. It’s for the ideas. By that, I mean speculation completely unfettered by mundane science and physics. Of course there’s plenty of pseudo science thrown in to make it feel a little bit plausible—but forget that, it’s the raw spectacle of possibilities and what-ifs. The exploration might be a little shallow here and there, but there’s plenty of room left for each reader’s imagination, and that’s the way it should be.
I think we writers too often forget that good stories are about people confronted with extraordinary circumstances. Comic books never forget this paradigm. The stakes are rarely forgotten, and each protagonist struggles with a greater good. If it’s a little cliché, trite or hackneyed it’s okay, because the spectacle is what matters, the experience of something beyond our mundane reality that makes it enjoyable.
Each of us as writers should keep our minds open. Learn to enjoy fiction in all its forms, not just one particular style or genre. There are so many other mediums filled with ideas and wonder that can serve as the seeds of possibilities for your muse. Try some comics, then break down and get some otaku to show you some good anime. Prepare to get your mind blown again…