Monday, December 14, 2009

30 Tiny Truths - 7

7. Worth a Thousand Words

I think comic books are the highest form of published media available today.

This is not to cast any disparagement upon our other forms of communication. Books, magazines, newspapers - they all range, just as comic books do, from unbearable to superb. Comic books seem ephemeral compared to these stalwarts of media. They dart endlessly from one story to the next, often endlessly retelling similar stories in slightly different situations as writers struggle to pump out fresh ideas after nearly 70 years of being in the public eye. A book is solid, stalwart, written as a testament to the subject contained within to stand eternally as it is, ever unchanged. By comparison, comic books seem almost trivial.

In school, we study Dickens and Twain, not Morrison and Straczynski (though I maintain Mark Twain would love X-Men). We are given a thorough education on William Shakespeare, but learn nothing of Jack Kirby. Friends and family might guide us to the works of Hunter S. Thompson, but few are the people pointed in the direction of Alan Moore. Comic books as a form of art and literature exist on the fringes of the acceptable mainstream, more likely to garner attention as a summer blockbuster than as a monthly periodical.

Yet I solidly maintain that the comic book is the highest form of printed media we have attained as human beings. The story of a comic is not told in the pages between the covers, but in the journey of its character. When a comic story comes to a close, it is only so the next one might begin, and the lesson it teaches continue for the next reader. Atticus Finch and Tom Sawyer might provide a useful example of men fighting prejudice, but children who grew up reading X-Men have been learning that lesson their entire lives. We might get a thrill by reading about Sherlock Holmes and his brilliant deductions, but followers of Batman have watched the titular character use science and logic to the benefit of justice for over 7 decades. Frank Castle's endless journey in the pages of The Punisher show more about the ultimate futility of revenge than Moby Dick ever gets across, and with way cooler action scenes. Also, I'm pretty sure he used a whale to kill a guy once.

There are things you can express in a well-written comic that simply cannot be reproduced in normal print media. Iconic drawings stay with us just as long as a well-written passage. Facial expressions and subtle motions of hand and eye can be conveyed without the need for extra words to describe them. You can become emotionally attached to characters in comic books in ways books never quite attain. For once a book is over, that is the end of it. The next time you read it, the story will still be the same. In a comic, the story goes on forever, and the possibilities are endless.

So when you're questioning how to teach your kids the important lessons in life, look no further than your nearest comic shop. Spider-Man can teach them responsibility, Superman will show them the value of restraint, the Fantastic Four will illustrate the power of family. And if times are tough, Daredevil can show them that sometimes life is a bitch. There's no need to hide a love of comic books, in my opinion. On the contrary, I find avid readers subscribe to, at least in my estimation, the highest form of published media available today.


Brett said...

Devil's advocate/curious boy wonders...

By "comic book," you seem to mostly be praising superhero comics; what about manga, or Archie? Also, you compare mostly to prose; what about TV/film, which can convey an image just as succinctly (if not as imaginatively) as a comic?

How do you feel, then, about graphic novels or limited run series, if your primary argument for comics being foremost amongst modern storytelling arts is their longevity and continuity? Or for their half-cousins, webcomics (of which there are many still being told in never-ending-story format)?

Or what about other extremely long-running story modes, such as soap operas (Days of Our Lives is as old as the X-Men or Spider Man and still running, ) or serialized, multi-author prose tales (such as Sherlock Holmes, Conan, the Hardy Boys, or the Land of Oz).

Personally, I believe that no one genre is better than any other (they all have strengths and weaknesses) and that, perhaps, some of the best "grand stories" or universes are those that traverse between them - like Hitchhiker's Guide, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or the Buffyverse, or Dr. Who, or, yes, DC and Marvel superheroes, all of which are iterated time and again in format after format - prose, radio, TV, film, comic, video game, etc.

I think what you argue for being unique to comics is not unique because of some inherent artistic superiority - but rather because they're cheap to produce, and so it is possible to continue to explore one character in many, many iterations over decades, whereas in TV - even if it's animated - the cost would be prohibitive and the outlets are limited. (The Internet may change all that eventually.)

Finally, I would point out that while comics have the advantage of neverending adventures and new angles on beloved characters, they also frequently falter and go through periods where characterizations are destroyed or overturned, upsetting many loyal readers; whereas a story with an ending - be it at the end of a six-page story or a six-year TV series - can achieve an unadulterated arc, with no requirements that entire volumes be ignored in order to have a cohesive understanding.

David Pratt said...

I purposely excluded soap operas or any other form of televised story telling when I specified that it's the highest form of "print" media. While I don't personally regard such ongoing stories to have the same impact as a good comic book, their characteristics are the same. However, professional wrestling comes much closer to capturing the comic essence than a traditional soap. Still, they do hold the same advantage of nuance and imagery that comics do over books.

I'd also argue your point about points of comic history needing to be glossed over. Some completely wretched stories have been told (and are still being told), but a truly masterful writer can take the worst story and revisit it later to give it new meaning and possibilities. Therein lay another advantage of comics; the story is not only never-ending, it can also double back on itself and revise history to open up new avenues of future exploration.

David Pratt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.Graham said...

I can lose myself, completely and totally and without remorse or indication of ever recovering, in a book. No other media, printed or otherwise, can do that to/for me.

Brett said...

Ooops! Egg on my face from not picking up on the "print media" part. Questions about graphic novels, webcomics and crossovers (is the print media of comics enriched, cheapened or unbothered by film adaptations?) into both print- and non-print media still stand though.

Cause it's my soap box and I like it, I'd possibly argue that it's pointless to restrict to "print media" -prose and comic are as different as comic and TV. All storytelling media have to be considered together, I might argue. Maybe. Possibly. Some other time.

My larger aim I think was to get to the root of why you praise superhero comics. Saying wrestling has the comic "essence" makes me wonder what that essence is, because I don't think it's *just* the neverending chance to develop and revisit characters and themes; it seems more specific to the genre.

Ozkirbas said...

An Outline
(if this is inaccurate let me know!)

Main Idea: Comic books are the highest form of published media known to man

Comic books are essentially the underdogs of print media, pushed to the side when compared to traditionally and classically renowned mainstream print media. However, comics still win.

"Criteria" (or highest form because...):
- theme reiteration
- plot and character recycling and revamping
- character-centered storytelling
- transitions from story to story (implies that
print media should conform to series format)
- reader learns a "moral" or "lesson"
- visual art provides the image itself
- character longevity reinforces identification with
and attachment to comic characters
- potentially endless story-cycle
- near-limitless plot possibilities

Therefore: Superhero comics represent humanity's highest print-media art form


Ozkirbas said...

While the comic medium is certainly one of the most interesting, and I agree highly underrated, I'm not yet convinced that comics represent humanity's highest form of print media.

Interestingly enough, a lot of your criteria could apply to pulp or romance novels. Crime novels. Fantasy novels. Genre Fiction. Brett's covered all else. The only thing that doesn't is, perhaps, the fundamental difference between comics and most print media - it's use of illustrations, as opposed to straight prose (given, some graphic novels may use both, but the grand majority of a given comic is illustrated). I take issue with the assertion that subtleties being illustrated, as opposed to taking the extra words to describe them, is actually beneficial. Yes, the collective team producing a given comic is able to convey exactly what they intend within the illustrator's style. However, part of prose's greatest strength is its use of imagination - allowing for the audience's interpretation - as opposed to having it shown directly. These "extra words" can spawn endless debate and intellectual discussion over an author's meaning, especially after the artist has died. To assert that an illustration of a given scene is superior because using extra words is not necessary is awfully dismissive.

Even if your criteria didn't so much apply to other print media, I still wouldn't quite buy it. To sum up, it seems to assert that comics are superior because "they never die." While it's hard to contest the immortality of certain characters, themes, and plots, it's also important to remember that finality and closure of any given work may add to its value. Even comic book story-lines are often cut into different "arcs," which inevitably must end (even if the option for revisiting remains open). I have a personal preference for works that DO end, in a completed whole, in where my emotional attachments to characters may actually increase because it is, in fact, over. And I may even become disgruntled when a sequel has come out of the works (depending on the work) because that value may diminish. I may not have as much experience with comics as you or other members of this blog, but I find that comics with the most value are ones that actually have a conclusive ending, as a creative work. How a story ends can create lasting emotional resonance and limitations can produce focus for an artist that wouldn't otherwise be there - all upping the value of nearly any given work.

That said, I totally agree that comics are often looked over and dismissed. They have an unfortunate and unfair social stigma attached to them and there's ample amounts of discussion to be generated from them. Their uses of storytelling is unique and a study unto themselves and their source materials are no less novel than the classic pieces your post discusses. They're incredibly accessible and are as much a part of our culture's consciousness as anything else. But, understanding that this is simply your perspective, I can't go so far as to say they represent the highest form of print media.