10 December 2009

What Makes Good Comics?

Ambitious title I know, but bear with me here…

So the key to good comics is good storytelling. In comics that isn't just the right words together or a great plot, but it’s the ability to put all of that in a sequential format to convey the story. Great art helps, but truly great comics benefit from art that moves the story and creates that flow to draw you into each page. A great comic is a symbiosis of art and writing that tells a story in the unique method of the medium.

But what makes the comic book medium so different? Why do some things work and others fail? Why is it so difficult to make a comic book movie right?

A good story is a good story, doesn't matter what medium its in. A good story should come through and pull you into it. But not every story works in every medium. Some are tailor made for certain mediums…

Movie:  the latest Star Trek is an amazing example of why a movie should be a movie. There are sequences in there that are why people got into the business. That story was grand, but also tight and could come across perfectly on screen. Visually it had a specific feel that another medium likely would have lost.

Novel: Infinite Jest is a rambling, brilliant and funny exploration of humanities obsession with entertainment. It brings a specific perspective that really could only work in a book. Its insane juxtapositions of theme and constant flipping between character perspectives takes full advantage of the novel. The reader is invested from the start and only pulled deeper as the author leads you to where he wants to take you.  It's brilliant, but dense, and brings out everything that can be great about a novel.

Comic: The Dark Knight Returns is an almost perfectly crafted comic. It takes full advantage of the page and the ability to fill it with information while still generating a sense of flow to everything. Its big moments are dramatic because they take up the space to drive home the impact. The constant TV anchor works because its narrating the action, something that would be challenging at best to sit through in a theatre and would be disjointed in a novel.

TV:  The Wire, in my opinion, is the best show to ever air on television and a genuine accomplishment in story telling. The characters (and by that I mean the writers) use the sense of time you can accomplish with a series and a set of seasons to convey growth and genuine humanity. By the end, every last character is a fully realized person whose motivation follows a track that has been set since they were introduced. You understand why someone does it, and almost tragically, you see the bad choices coming from a mile away but can't look away as someone jumps off that cliff into a painful dive.

Could any of these worked in the other medium? Maybe. I don't think Infinite Jest could come across in a movie. If it did, we all might leave the theatre mad as hatters. It *might* work in a TV format, but honestly, it’s a novel and best explored as such. TDKR is a comic through and through. While elements have found themselves in the latest movies, it too plays with tricks that only work in a comic. Star Trek would feel flat on the page, and as a TV series, would feel like a bunch of mini movies. The Wire *could* work as a novel or even a comic, but it is so damn good as a TV show, why jack with it?

And there's the rub... why jack with it? Why make something that works and push it to another place? Why did we *have* to have a Watchmen movie? Somehow it just didn't work. Its great, but the comic is revered and is probably the pinnacle of what you can accomplish with the medium thus far. Was I the only one who felt like Sin City felt stiff and visually forced? It’s a fun movie, don't get me wrong, but for me it just fell flat a little. In the same vein, why do we need a comic book adaption of every big movie? Other than the obviously naked grab for revenue of course.

But sometimes it works… Iron Man for example. It is a GREAT movie. That's what it is tho… it is a movie. It isn't a comic book adaption, it is characters who were first brought to life in a comic and then brought into the medium of film to become that much larger than life. It also doesn't hurt that Robert Downey Jr. is the most perfect bit of casting this side of the Harry Potter movies.

But I digress….
Good comics take advantage of the medium. They play with the limitations and create brilliance through working with it, not against it. The comics in the 90's, particularly the bad Image books, failed in their ability to tell a story because they were all flash and no substance. The same way so many books from the 70's are almost unreadable because of how over emphasized the writing is. Good comics take both writing and art to build a story and create a page flow.

What's the point of this rambling? Not even sure any more… I guess what I'm trying to convey is that good comics take advantage of the unique medium of sequential art and use it to enhance to tale. A good story is a good story, but a good comic is a good comic.

Anyone have any thoughts?


  1. I have to agree. The beauty of different media is that each one is perfect for its own expression. Movies as novels lose something in the translation and undoubtedly comics lose something as movies. That isn't to say comics can't be adapted as good movies, but great comics lose something when translated. It's like idiomatic language, something in the feel or subtext is lost in translation.

    Thanks for repping comics as a fully viable and unique medium for literary and artistic expression. I think they are fully capable of standing on their own. Your picks are solid, amigo.

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