I wrote an article for my college newspaper The Daily Athenaeum on why I like comics and find them worth the time. I’m not sure if I managed to express everything, but I like my attempt. It’s written with an outsider audience in mind, but, if you wish, you can read it.
Comic books. Those pulpy collections of scrap. A trashy source of entertainment only fit for those on the fringe of the social circle. A laughable commodity. A dead end. A zone preoccupied by childish fantasies. Who cares about comic books?
Me. I do.
As Scott McCloud notes in his seminal work “Understanding Comics,” communication through pictures holds deep roots in man’s history. Cave paintings depicted the life and culture of our ancient ancestors. These were the first examples of man’s ability to create and pursue artistic ventures. Maybe these remnants are now considered paintings, pertaining more to a medium of acrylics, but look at what those early visuals accomplished. They told stories. They illustrated an idea.
And in such a direct fashion. Like comics.
Comics derive their power from how accessible they are. Anyone with a pencil and a sheet of paper can cartoon. In fact, I’d say most of us already have.
Middle school, stuck in a useless math class, you doodled. Maybe your doodles didn’t shape up into panels and sequentially act upon one another, but the idea of pencil to paper is the same.
What you thought of in your mind only took minutes to translate to physical copy. Whatever your idea was, it came out on paper without going through a middle man of some sort.
Other media does not offer such a luxury. Hollywood makes it nearly impossible for a director or screenwriter to tell the exact story they desire. Television shows act similarly because of network constraints.
Hell, even news reporters are confided to two minute packages, and even me, the little sophomore of a writer in the old college newspaper, I go through a middleman. You may not even read this statement.
Comics, in their ideal form, bypass this. Anyone with an idea and a lick of talent can draw and self-publish a comic book, and because of that comics can offer a wide variety of perspectives, genres and voices.
The artists behind them also possess much more control over the final product and ensure their vision comes through.
What matters more, though, is the form of communication. We all know, on some base level, how comic strips work. There’s a picture, and there’s a caption or word balloon laid overtop of it. It seems simple, and most would say the combination requires little to no complexity because of how little attention it takes to read a comic.
Fact is, you’re wrong.
The marriage of images and words involves a lot more than you’d initially expect. Both elements have to coexist. It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both can work well on their own decorating bread, but when you combine them, they have to be even. If one overpowers the other, the formula fails, and you end up with an unsatisfying experience. You need to find joy in both elements in an even, collaborative state.
Many artists fail to find this balance, but when the execution works, man, it’s like nothing else.
Because, even though ideas through visuals may seem first grade, the form strikes a chord. We’re all influenced and emotionally struck by images. Visuals are visceral and up front. Novels packed with thousands of words may seem scholarly, and they are, but text, prose – it takes much more effort to inspire reaction.
Comic panels may seem infantile because they can be so direct, but, fact is, the ease of ability to convey a point makes comics a complex beast. Skill of an artist is responsible for such an ease of understanding on the reader’s end.
If anything, comic books are a breeding ground for new ideas. The accessibility I mentioned earlier allows creative individuals to go wild, and it seems with some comics – at least the very good ones – ideas manifest on each and every page.
Comic books aren’t slow. At least, they shouldn’t be. They work in small chunks of 20 pages and release on a monthly basis. An artist has little time while telling a story through comics. Not only because of the system and format but because of how the medium works.
Panels cannot act repetitive. It’s like film in that sense. You become bored after staring at the same image for so long. Comics have to keep you on your toes; therefore, each page and each panel go somewhere new.
And through this comes, what should be, an ever exciting landscape of narrative.
But, even as I write this in order to somehow legitimize comics, remember: They are comic books. Never are they cool. Most of them involve tights and capes or zombies and space ships.
The medium itself, the inner working of the art form. Yeah, that’s sophisticated. But the content? Sure, large, universal ideas can be communicated and often are, but usually these themes shine through grown men punching each other while wearing funny outfits.
I mean, they are “funny” books after all.