Thursday, January 26, 2006

Comic Books (i): Comics as Narrative

I'm a big fan of comic books, and I've bored many people by trying to convince them that comic books/sequential art/graphic novels are, or can be, high art in the same realm of creativity as books, drama, or films.

As narrative, books have one drawback, in that so much has to be described — the appearance of characters, the landscape, the setting. The writer has a lot of leeway in how much to describe; he can be impressionistic or very detailed, and a good writer can make these passages part of the whole experience. But some immediacy is necessarily lost, and the narrative flow is always in danger when description has to happen.

Films have the opposite drawback; although they are the most intense art form in terms of immediacy, they are unable to portray easily anything "below the surface" — characters' thoughts, back stories, necessary background info. They don't have to describe characters: there they are. But what are they thinking? That's one reason, I think, why "great books," which depend so much on the depth of information provided, often make poor movies. Only the principal actual events can be transferred to film (and this is my big beef with the Lord of the Rings movies — marvelous spectacle, but so much of the feeling of the "dark backward and abysm of time" and the historical texture of Middle-Earth was lost).

Graphic storytelling can evade both of these problems. The comics have always been closely linked to film in the way "shots" are set up, angles and perspectives shifted and varied, and color variations used as signifiers. But they're also linked to literature by the employment of the written word, which gives them a possible depth unmatched by film. We can tell what people are thinking, and this is a good thing to know for lots of stories; but we don't have to stop for 5 paragraphs for a description of the protagonist's clothes, or how the clouds looked that day.

Plus, to a degree unmatched either in literature or film, the reader can control the pace of the story. With a movie, you are in the director's hands, and you will see the story unfold at his rate, not yours. With a book, you can stop or slow down, or go back to repeat a scene, but there are no visual landmarks (e.g., "where was that conversation that, it now seems clear, provided crucial information for the scene now unfolding? Chapter 10 or Chapter 12?" or "wait, I thought John was the father, not the brother ... where's the place he was talking about the family?"). With comics, you can slide up and down the temporal scale with greater ease just by flipping back. (Of course, with DVDs, the experience of movie-watching is changing.)

Comics also have the advantage over movies of being able to engage in first-person narration. Movies do attempt this occasionally, as in High Fidelity with John Cusack (a pretty faithful version of Nick Hornby's book); but of necessity, the action has to stop while the actor actually addresses the camera (as Cusack did) or relies on voice-overs. But in comics, the first-person "voice" comes through the written word; when combined with the visuals, it works pretty well, as in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. (The movie, however, perforce had to become a movie about Pekar instead of a narration by Pekar. It worked as a movie, but was semiotically different than the comic book original.)

Of course, comics themselves have drawbacks. They have to be physically bigger than pure literature, so that the illustrations can have a proper impact; for practical reasons this tends to limit their size and length. (Jeff Smith's wonderful Bone, which I recommend to all lovers of fantasy, is the size of a telephone book.) Also, purely by the accidents of history, they have been associated with juvenile literature — superheroes, etc. Personally, I still enjoy the pure super hero comic (especially Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spiderman); but there are abundant signs that the genre is beginning to transcend its origins, even when it doesn't necessarily break away from them. (Alan Moore's Watchmen is a prime example.)

All of this is by way of introduction to a discussion of Steve Ross's graphic novel version of the Gospel of Mark, Marked, which I hope to talk about in my next post.


Chris Riley said...

Well written. I have nothing to add because I agree with your point of view that comic books are the highest from of storytelling. I may be biased though as I am also a comic geek.
Chris Riley

Anonymous said...

comics aren't art ... they're funny books. :) seriously though anything can be art and anything can not be art. lol

Christopher Heard said...

Wow, I'm not alone! Cool!

I'm always interested in convergences between my "professional life" and my "entertainment life." Recently I ran across a new comic book in DC's Vertigo line, called Testament. As you might expect from such a name, it is heavy in religious themes (rather than being, say, an adaptation of a John Grisham novel). The storyline flips back and forth between biblical narrative (with some interesting twists) and a near-future dystopian society, developing thematic parallels between distant past and near future. For example, the first issue flipped back and forth between Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and a scientist father's struggle about whether to implant his son with a government-mandated circuit board. In the end, he injects it into the dog. One of the interesting "twists" that the comic puts on the biblical storyline is the idea that the god who told Abraham to sacrifice his son and the god who told him not to were different gods (Moloch being depicted as a minotaur-like creature usually found conversing with a topless Astarte). There's a noticeable amount of "cussing" and sexuality in the book, so be forewarned.

EMC said...

I've heard vaguely about "Testament" but haven't read it ... I'll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Although I haven't acquired it yet, from the looks of the website ( for this graphic novel version of the Book of Esther (Hebrew and English text), I'm impressed. It appears that the illustrations bring to fore midrashic/rabbinic elaborations, as with the tradition that King Ahasuerus expected Queen Vashti to come before him and his banquet guests naked, wearing only her crown.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will be impressed that I bought the first Fantastic Four, the first X-Man, etc. off the rotating rack at my local drug store.

So maybe it is time that I "decloset" as a graphic novel fan!

David Bailey