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Friday with the Academics

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday with the Academics

Oddly enough, by “academics” I guess I mean me and my blog colleague Ms. Kelly Thompson. No, really.

It happened like this.

We’ve been here at CBR long enough that apparently when people do internet searches on “comics education” or “comics history” or “comics theory” or things of that nature, Comics Should Be Good pops up fairly often. So we occasionally field questions from journalists and others about The Future of Comics or The State of The Industry… or even Why Spider-Man Is Divorcing Mary Jane. (Seriously, we had Newsweek bugging us about that last one.)

We usually give them a couple of paragraphs, they use barely a sentence of that, and we’re done.

Not too long ago, though, we had one that was kind of interesting. A young grad student was doing a thesis on superhero comics and had several questions for us. I admired his pluck since he was not from the U.S. and clearly English was a second language for him…. and I have a soft spot for students working on comics-related projects, anyway.

So I leaned into it pretty hard, and Kelly answered him too, and I thought between us it made for interesting reading. At least in the sense that I enjoyed seeing what she had to say to these questions, and thinking through my own answers made me aware of a couple of opinions I didn’t even realize I had about comics until I was trying to explain them to this grad student.

So this week, just for fun, I thought I’d throw the whole thing up here and you all can weigh in with your own opinions as well. Kelly very graciously agreed to let me put her answers up here along with my own… I think we were the only two on the blog that went for it, but between us I think we did right by the kid.

Anyway, here it is.


What do you personally think makes a successful comic book?

GREG: Successful in terms of money? I assure you, if I had a surefire answer to THAT, I’d be out there producing one.

Successful artistically? Well, there are as many opinions about that as there are readers.

But to me it’s about STORY. To suggest that the rules of storytelling are somehow different for comics than for other media — books, movies, plays, even spoken-word audiobooks or poetry slams — is to lose sight of the objective. Successful comics, like any other artistic endeavor, entertain and engage their audience.

What’s different about comics are the tools a storyteller uses, that’s all. The best comics use art and writing together to engage the reader. A successful comic book is one in which the visual element is carrying a large part of the storytelling burden, it’s AS MUCH A PART OF THE NARRATIVE as the words. This is why so many comics writers talk about being influenced by movies and screenwriting.

However — this is a big realization I had when I actually wrote a couple of comics stories myself a few years back — it’s really NOT like writing a motion picture, because there isn’t any actual motion. It’s much more like narrating a slide show, a series of frozen moments.

So it’s incumbent on the illustrator to endeavor to pick the BEST moment to illustrate, in order to carry the narrative forward. Over and over and over again. It’s a very difficult skill to learn and I think it’s actually an impossible one for someone who’s never spent much time reading comics. Narrative illustration is like no other illustration there is.

In modern comics it’s even more challenging than it was in the early days because today artists have realized that they aren’t shackled to the idea of a grid layout. Comics used to be six squares to a page, or four, or sometimes even nine. Now they can be any size or shape, there’s no longer a common industry standard as there was throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

KELLY: I think the word successful is very subjective. If you mean successful as in how much money it makes, then I don’t really know, or care too much, as I rarely like the most successful things, so I’m probably not a good judge of what they are or what makes them good. If you mean what makes a “good” comic book (which may also be successful financially or otherwise and which is also of course a very subjective term) then I would say that for me personally, a strong story, writing, and art that all work together to complement one other and work as flawlessly as possible. The best comic books find a way to merge the writing and the art almost to the degree that I don’t feel any gap between them. When they become seamless, that’s when comics are really firing on all cylinders.

When constructing the story board of a comic what do you consider, how is it developed? Could this order perhaps influence how good/successful a comic book is?

GREG: I don’t think it will influence its success. Success comes from story.

Alan Moore’s scripts are very tightly described and laid out before an artist ever sees it. Stan Lee would give his artist a brief description of what he wanted and how many pages they had to fill up, and then come back afterward and put in the words after the pages had been drawn. Both writers produced enormously successful comics.

There are as many ways to do comics as there are people doing them. When I did mine, I did a detailed page-by-page outline, then I sent that to my artist and asked him to do a thumbnail rough of what he thought it should look like. When I got his rough idea pages back, I wrote a full script, looking at the roughs as I was doing it and being careful not to use too many words. Even at that I think I probably overdid it, it would have turned out very cramped. I’m a words guy.

I really do love this story... misadventures on the set of the groovy 1960s superhero show LIBERTY GIRL. Someday we'll finish it. Art by Jim MacQuarrie.

Sadly, the story never saw print, though it got as far as finished page pencils. But the publisher closed his doors before we could get it done.

KELLY: Well, while I have no published comics to my credit, I did go to school to study them and have done a lot of unpublished work on my own, so I guess I will answer from that perspective. When I write a comic that I intend to draw, I plot it out in an outline so I know what the story is, and where it’s going, and hopefully a pretty close guess to how many pages I need to tell the story. I then write and do little thumbnail sketches simultaneously, so that I can get a feeling for the pacing of the story, and know how much I can fit to a page for how much text I need. I will usually thumbnail and write the entire project in this way, and if I make it to the next step (which I rarely do and which is one of the many reasons why I’m not a comics artist) I will flesh those thumbnailed pages out into fully realized pages. If I plan to draw a script myself, I might never write out a formal script. If I am writing a script for another artist to draw, then I start the same way with a rough outline. But then I write the script in full – page by page and panel by panel, including all descriptions and text. How much I flesh out the descriptions, directions, and panel layout depends greatly on how much I trust the artist. Ideally, if you’re working with someone you trust, I think it’s best to let them do their job and you do your job – i.e. keep descriptions and directions to a minimum so that the artist themselves can find the best way to tell their part of the story. Since the biggest success of a comic to me comes from how well that collaboration between writer and artist works on the page, this to me is the biggest influence on how good/successful a comic can be.

Do you think action comics are read more than, say, comics like Calvin and Hobbes which use a lot of humour?

GREG: Good god no. Superman wishes he had a TENTH of the Calvin and Hobbes audience. Action comics — which is to say superhero comics, 90 percent of the action comics field today with the other ten percent being ALMOST-superhero books like Conan or Hellboy — are an extremely narrow, specialized genre. Humor comics like Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield or Dilbert number readers in the millions.

No wonder Superman's sad. The office geek is kicking his ass in bookstores.

Superman’s circulation, last time I looked, was somewhere around 60,000. Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men aren’t doing a whole lot better.

KELLY: Greg already answered this better than I could ever hope to.

Speaking of humour, why is it so hard to find humour in action comic books? Shouldn’t there be a balance? Or do people prefer the serious and more realistic nature of a comic?

GREG: That’s a false premise. The humor is there. Spider-Man and The Avengers, especially as written by guys like Brian Bendis or Dan Slott, have a lot of jokes and snappy dialogue. Warren Ellis, who wrote some of the grimmest adventure comics ever, always found ways to slide in snarky humor. Over in England, you have books like JUDGE DREDD which is nothing BUT action and it’s often still hysterically funny with its sheer satirical exaggeration.

…and again, I think you are confusing the package with the medium.

Yes, the 32-page stapled booklet comics as marketed in North America are primarily adventure, but the VAST majority of comics sales in this country are books of collected newspaper strips like THE FAR SIDE or CALVIN AND HOBBES or PEANUTS. In second place is likely collected translations of Japanese comics like SAILOR MOON or BLEACH or INU-YASHA, all of which are much more light-hearted than your average issue of the X-Men. Superhero books are only just beginning to wake up to the idea of selling in book stores, but they still tend to confine themselves to specialty shops that cater to the superhero and fantasy fan.

KELLY: I think that most action/superhero books do have quite a bit of humor. Most of the books I read are at least a little bit funny or try to be. Very few books that I read have no humor in them. Most of the mainstream action/superhero comics writers I read use a fair bit of humor in their books. I think there are few books I enjoy that are completely humorless…maybe because I don’t enjoy much in life that is entirely humorless. You gotta have the funny.

Do you think that realism sells better than fantasy/fiction/exaggerated storyboards?

KELLY: I think comics is a medium that thrives with fantasy and similar genres. Realism can work well in a comic and does in autobio and journal comics, and the occasional non-fiction, but it’s definitely a medium that skews toward the fantastic, and I don’t think that’s an accident. In comics, much like in prose, you are limited only by what you can imagine and execute on the page. A talented artist can draw almost anything they might imagine, but film and television for example have strict budgets and can often not afford to go where the story wants to take them, or at least not go there and have things look as good as we’d like them to. That’s not much of a problem in comics. I’m terrible at stats and sales figures, but for the most part considering what is published in American comics, I have to imagine that Fiction and fantasy sells much better than Non-Fiction and realism.

GREG: Does ‘realism’ sell comics? The evidence suggests that this is not so. The most famous ‘true story’ realistic-type narrative ever done in a comic book is, I’m pretty sure, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS — and he told that harrowing story of Nazis, Jews and death camps using drawings of cartoon animals.

If you want photorealism, comics are simply not your best choice. The narrative tools available to you in comics include exaggeration, caricature… even something as subtle as lettering or page design can influence the mood and the narrative. Those are all things where if you lean too much toward “realism,” you lose the advantage of employing them in the first place. Even superhero comics’ most famous ‘realists,’ artists like Alex Ross or Neal Adams or Alex Maleev — they’re still not drawing especially ‘realistically.’ They just got that label because they’re the least cartoony of the guys in the business.

Will the materials used in a comic book influence its success?

KELLY: If you mean the physical materials…then I guess I would say no. People have their preferences of course, and I personally love a great looking book with specialty matte paper and things, but for the most part for me it’s the content much more than the packaging. I’m personally really averse to the slick look of current superhero comics with all their glossy papers, so it really depends on personal preference and thus is about content primarily I think. If by material you in fact mean CONTENT then I would say that yes, the content matters greatly, as that drives the quality of the book, but if you mean are certain subjects off limits, then I would say no. Comics have proven that they can tackle everything from the epic to the mundane and the glorious to the gruesome, with equal aplomb.

Comics sometimes find ways to address difficult subject matter that are frankly brilliant, as in Greg’s example of Maus. Comics is a wonderful and wildly flexible medium that is limited only by the creativity and talent of the creator.

GREG: Not sure I understand the question. ‘Materials’ meaning the subject matter? I don’t think so. I think it’s more about the skill of the storytellers. I would never have thought I’d be interested in a comic about the troubles in Sarajevo, but Joe Kubert’s comic about his friend’s experiences there was riveting. Likewise the late Harvey Pekar’s story OUR CANCER YEAR. Neither one of those would normally have been on my radar as a superhero fan but they were great, great books.

On the other hand, if you want to SELL your comic in traditional U.S. or Canadian comic book stores, you better be doing a superhero story for Marvel or DC. This is why so many new talents are turning to the internet as an alternative way of getting their stories to a reader.

Sorry about the number of questions…i got a little too enthusiastic!

KELLY: No problem, I’m happy to help. Good luck on your project!

GREG: Enthusiasm is of great value to a student, believe me. I am a teacher of comics in my city and I know. Everything else can be taught. Enthusiasm is something you better have already or it is much harder for you to learn.

Hope you can answer them!

GREG: I can talk about comics for days. Ask my wife. A very tolerant lady.

KELLY: I hope the answers we gave will help you out. Best of luck!

Thanks a lot for your time and effort!

GREG and KELLY: You’re welcome!


And there you have it. Thanks again to Kelly for letting me co-opt her answers for this column, and I’ll see you all next week.

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