In a letter column during his recent retelling of the origin of Concrete,Paul Chadwick cites a woman he knew, an obviously smart woman whoran a bookstore in Washington state, who simply couldn't read comics nomatter how she tried. It wasn't that she didn't like the stories, orsuperheroes repelled her, or any of the things comics pros or fans meanwhen they say they just couldn't read this or that. She meant it was aforeign language to her, that she couldn't work out in her head how thearrangement of pictures flowed, and get how you're supposed to read thewords and pictures at the same time and integrate them into a coherentnarrative.
I've had similar experiences. Back around '87, First Comics did a dealwith a small film company called Atlantic Releasing (their big hit wasTEEN WOLF) to do a Whisper movie based on my character. (Looselybased, as the screenplay turned out, but that's another story.) I was livingin Los Angeles at the time, and the president of the company asked meout to lunch to pitch other projects to him, and when we sat down, hestarted by saying, with some embarrassment, that he didn't read comics. Imade light of it, but, like Paul's bookseller, he emphasized it wasn't thathe didn't like the content. The form itself was beyond his comprehension.Producer jokes aside, this man wasn't stupid. He was very educated,very savvy. He read voluminously.
He just couldn't read comics.
If these were isolated anecdotes, theywouldn't concern me. But in the 12years since My Dinner In Hollywood(yes, I sold another project; no, neitherit nor the Whisper film ever got made,as the company bellied up first, butthat's show biz), I've continually encountered otherwise intelligent peoplewho simply cannot figure out how to read comic books. And the fault liespartly with us.
Recently I got around to reading Scott McCloud'sUNDERSTANDING COMICS, which DC is about to republish.Charmingly drawn, intelligently written, Scott's book is also misnamed.While its an excellent primer on the historical development of comics,the elements of comics, and trends and future developments in themedium, and explains very well why it's worth understanding comics,nowhere does it describe how to understand comics. Despite hisannounced intention of starting with no preconceptions about comics,Scott's caught in the trap most of us familiar with comics get caught in;he presumes anyone can read comics. Most of us have been at it solong we've forgotten the comic book is a learned language, as alien tomany as hieroglyphics or Sanskrit.
If there's one good argument for snagging readers while they're young, this is it.
But what do we do about those who are no longer children? Myproducer friend, Paul's bookseller, all those I've spoken with, had onething in common: they all wanted to read comics. They were interested,but they might as well have been a nine-year old trying to read Ovid inthe original without any training in Latin. When intelligent, educatedadults simply can't read comic books, something's very wrong.
Notably, none that I spoke with had any problem reading the dailyfunnies. The newspaper strip stagnated in form decades ago, and nowmostly exists as three or four panelunadorned gags. Even those featuringserial storylines, such as SPIDER-MAN and APARTMENT3-G, refuse many of the techniques we use in comic books. Captions aresparse to non-existent. (One exception, THE PHANTOM, has captions so pared they read like theywere written in semaphore.) This is largely due to form; there's simplyno room for elaborate development.
The comic book spent decades duplicating the familiar newspaper striplayout, despite early attempts by Eisner and others to develop a filmiclanguage, mostly based on the work of German cinematographers, tothe comic book, and by the late 60s, comics design was pretty muchstagnant. Between rigid form and castrated content, you can smell theboredom on most 60s comics, giving Marvel Comics room to capitalizeon the unusual boldness of Kirby and Ditko. By the end of the 60s, JimSteranko was bringing modern film technique into comics, as well asresurrecting the best, forgotten aspects of Eisner, EC and other comicsinfluences, while Neal Adams was shattering panel layout altogetherwith an energetic array of ad art designs. With Adams, Kirby andSteranko as patron saints (and underground cartoonists like RobertCrumb and S. Clay Wilson and French artists like Moebius andPhillippe Druillet as agent provocateurs), the 70s launched a grand andnecessary phase of experimentation in comics design.
It may not be coincidental that the 70s also saw a drastic decline incomics readership. Readership had been slowly tapering since the 50s,with a spike during the Batman craze, but by 1975 the bottom hadpretty much fallen out. Things recovered with the consolidation of thedirect sales market in the 80s, but the collapse of design standards incomics have caused as many ills as they cured. As dynamics haveoverpowered art, storytelling has collapsed. Basic storytelling skills areno longer considered important by many artists (and writers and editorsand many readers, for that matter). It's no wonder that superheroesdominate the business; most artists love superheroes because theyprovide opportunity for impressive bombast, and in many stories theonly way to follow who's doing what to whom is by following who'swearing what costume, a fact that mitigates against plainclothes material.
The 70s also saw the explosion of writers as a force in comics. Wordsfilled pages as comics writers tried to prove they were "real" authors,and a dizzying span of narrative techniques were introduced, partly as ahedge against the factory system of comics where frequently the writershave no idea who will be drawing a story when they're writing it. Againabsolutely necessary at the time, they've tended to emphasize theseparation of art and writing as much as the bombastic art styles have,particularly in the heavy use of captions to denote ideas not carried bythe art and well beyond the bounds of necessary exposition, and thisdisconnection of word and drawing has only added to the generalconfusion about comics. If they're not a coherent unit, there's nopercentage in trying to understand them as such.
If you've grown up reading comics, not much of modern comics art isterribly hard to follow, but if you're unfamiliar with comics, it's likefalling down the rabbit hole. We who read comics and work in comicsare precariously close to being our own secret society, our ritualsclandestine and our language arcane and incomprehensible to outsiders,with initiations increasingly rare and problematical. While the "secretsociety" aspect of comics appeals to many people, it badly inhibits marketexpansion.
So the comics industry has to make up its mind. Either we're going topreach to the converted or we're going to make comics moreaccessible. And more accessible means we're going to have to take allthese grand developments in comics design of the last 30 years andground them in real storytelling. If we don't want to do that, we'resaying we don't want new readers.
I'm not saying we should return to the past - that's never the answer -but making the comics experience more neophyte-friendly seemsnecessary to our time. It's time to strip any unintentional confusion outof the work, to pare the art and writing both down to a pleasingsimplicity, to once again create comics with an eye toward readingthem. By simplicity, I don't mean stupidity or juvenility; there's a greatrange of sophistication available in simplicity. But if we want morereaders for comics, we have to create comics that are truly intended tobe read. And this will mean sacrificing some of our dearest gimmicks,but maybe they've outlived their usefulness.
As always, the question is: what do we really want?
I've been getting this wrong for the past several weeks, due to one ofthose hinky calendars that starts the week on Monday, so here's the truepoop:
I'll be signing this Sunday, Sept. 20 at the Seattle Comic-Card Show inthe Northwest Rooms at the Seattle Center in Seattle WA. The showruns from 10AM-5PM, I'll be there from 11AM-3:30PM. Alsoappearing will be Mark Evanier, Matt Haley, Jim Mooney, Karl (andmaybe Barbara) Kesel, Jeff Matsuda, Randy Emberlin, Aaron Loprestiand Dev Madan. Admission $5 at the door, or $4 with a canned fooddonation for Northwest Harvest. I'll see you there.
As usual, information about me and my work can be found at the websiteSteven Grant's Alleged Fictions.
Next week: excerpts from the MOTO mailbag.