Master Of The Obvious: Issue #32

Wed, March 8th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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One of my favorite stories:

[Ax]A man traveling on business and drinking alone in a bar in a strange town late one night when he sees on the bar's TV a report on an ax murderer who has been terrorized the town for months. When the report reveals the murderer waylays solitary victims on the street after dark and the police have no clue to his identity, the man gets very nervous. Suddenly the lights come up and the bartender announces it's bar time. Before he knows what has happened, the man, now very drunk, is ejected onto the street.

His hotel is a few blocks away, and he walks toward it as inconspicuously as possible. Nonetheless he's faintly aware of someone not far behind him. He looks back and sees nothing, starts walking again. But he still hears footsteps, almost in time with his own. He speeds up abruptly, and, sure enough, there are footsteps. He looks over his shoulder to see a man in the shadows not too far behind him, steadily keeping pace with him. He speeds up, the other man speeds up. He turns a corner, the other man turns a corner. He walks faster and faster, and pretty soon they're both running. He glances back over his shoulder as they pass near a streetlight, and he sees in the other man's hand a sharpened, bloody ax.

By this time, the man can see his hotel just down the deserted street, but he's starting to run out of breath, and, suddenly, the other man is right behind him. He tries to dodge but the other man swings his ax, neatly slicing off the man's left leg. Fortunately the man is so drunk he's feeling no pain, all he can think is that he has to get away, and he doesn't fall, he desperately hops down the street on one leg as fast as he can.

But the other man is still faster. Swing! Off goes the man's right leg. The man topples to the sidewalk, but he's still desperate to survive, and starts to pull himself along by his hands. Swing! Off goes his left arm. He tries to pull himself along with his right hand, but it's so slow, so slow, the hotel's right there but he knows he's not going to make it, then swing! Off comes his right arm.

Great story.

But that's the truncated version.

In comics we're used to the truncated. Storytelling in comics consists of a weird shorthand - in many cases it could be more accurately described as semaphore - an algebra of fitting x amount of story into y number of pages, with, in most cases, elements a, b & c forced into the equation. Unfortunately, there's no mathematical certainty in comics. (For those who want prayer in school, I'm willing to consider a tradeoff: algebra in church. If you're so hot on absolute truth, I've got absolute truth for you.) Unromantic as this may sound, storytelling is problem solving, and that's the down and dirty truth of it. Every story creates its own problems. How does this character interact with that one? How does character three warp that interaction? What setting, and how does that change the action and the mood? How do you rationalize everyone in the same place at the same time? What makes their motives, actions and emotions credible? You can list all the stock questions you like, but there are no stock answers. Unless you bring every element down to formula, you enter the Forest Perilous with each story, clearing your own path as you go along, and the only real way to see if you've found the holy grail is to toss the work out there and gauge the reaction.

Then you get to start over the next time. The paradox is that if you're sure you've got it down, you're probably doing it wrong. Formula is the usual result of dealing with the problems of storytelling, and the worst one. It's an easy trap to fall into, particularly when one has an eager fan base; what begins as style often devolves (and often fairly quickly) into shtick, until comics writers and artists become equivalent to old rock stars on oldies tours, dying to play new material but sure the audience will turn on them and feel cheated if they don't performer all their #1 hits instead, if they haven't convinced themselves to begin with that playing the same riff over and over constitutes a style. That particular pose, that way of laying out a page, that story structure, that cute catch phrase, that particular attitude. The common excuse is to blame it on the character, of course - "But that's the character!" - so talent and characters both get settled and flaccid, and, as Shakespeare put it, enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry and lose the name of action. Readers come to expect certain things from certain talent, and when they don't get it… well, sometimes they're thrilled and sometimes they're not, but traditionally the smart money bets on not. The smart money (or, rather, the publisher, "smart money" just being the name of the shop) also bets that while the occasional aberration is good for attention, the aberration-as-standard is a sales killer. Talent generally accepts this as well. For big fun, create something totally off-the-wall - I take that back, it only need be marginally off the wall - and jot down all the reasons you're given for why it won't sell.

Like it isn't all a crap shoot anyway.

Comics have been published for 65+ years, and what we've sought most in that time is shortcuts. And why not? Talent generally produces under great time constraints, under pressure, and who under those circumstances wouldn't resort to "dubbing" what's worked for them before? What publisher has the instinct to run a disconcertingly unfamiliar project when they can run a knockoff, whether by the original talent or others, of something that sold well for them before? If the audience demonstrates they're no longer interested in frills like denouements and visual coherence, writers and artists expressing concern about such things come off as finicky. The industry has spent its existence awash in short term thinking that has become shorter and shorter as time goes on. Instead of developing and encouraging a greater understanding of exactly what the medium is and what it can accomplish, we've wallowed in gimmickry, repetition and complacency (I'm talking about talent, publishers, dealers, the audience, you name it), increasingly winking at in jokes paraded in lieu of characters or drama, and usually defining the nature of the comic book by reference to what it isn't.

"The industry has spent its existence awash in short term thinking that has become shorter and shorter as time goes on."

Responding to last week's column, Ward Stone said (among other things):

To me, a long well done graphic novel, no matter what the topic or characterization (read: spandex or no spandex related stories) is simply this:

A movie that never got produced.

While the column generated a flood of e-mail, this comment stuck with me. The "comics as film" philosophy ("Comics as television" is more apropos, though the level of writing and visuals in comics doesn't, generally, approach that found on even mediocre TV shows… a pretty scary thought…) has circulated in the business since the late 30s. There's a lot to be said for the notion of the comic book as a relative of the film storyboard. The late 70s saw it in particularly strong currency, with scholarly texts being published on the subject, but it has become one of those things we accept as a given when it isn't. Film storyboards are exclusively about storytelling, and have little function beyond that. What passes for storytelling in most comics would come across as psychotic translated to the screen.

"What passes for storytelling in most comics would come across as psychotic translated to the screen."

I'd like to try the "paper movie" concept sometime: a small line of comics marketed to a general audience not as comic books or graphic novels but literally as Paper Movies™, specifically designed, drawn and written to evoke in the audience the experience of watching a movie: "widescreen" panels, copy limited to dialogue, a structure familiar to the movie viewer. (Tagline: movies you can read anywhere™.) It'd require three things in short supply in comics: patience, discipline and space. Lots of space. Action that takes 30 seconds in a movie can take pages in the comics medium. The comics format as we know doesn't even begin to support the underlying standard structure of film; as I said last week, it imposes its own structure on material and twists it to its own needs, regardless of the needs of the story. Rather than "storyboarding," which separates action into crystallized moments and usually only implies connections (arrows to indicate which direction characters will move, that sort of thing), to get the effect of a movie on paper you'd need many more intermediate panels than usually found in comics today. The trend over the past ten years has been toward decreasing numbers of panels per page, and while I know quite a few artists who'd love to get away with one panel per page every book, and a few who've occasionally done it, the writing has generally not developed new techniques to compensate (in some instances actively prevented from it, and in many instances it never even occurred to them), resulting in shallower and shallower material increasingly dependent on "semaphore" to achieve anything even remotely resembling meaning. This doesn't fly with a general audience. They want their connective tissue. They want their payoffs. They want the whole experience.

But that'd only be a detour. Certainly comics and film have a lot of elements in common, but to make comics out to be poor man's film is missing the point. If Walt is correct and graphic novels are only movies that never got produced, something's horribly wrong. Ours is a unique medium, there's nothing else like it. For all its limitations - unlike film or TV, it's incapable of sound or actual movement, handicapping that "suspension of disbelief" business something fierce - comics make possible the blending of words and visuals into something unique, the parts stronger together than they are separately. That it rarely works out that way doesn't diminish the medium's potential. Comics have the capability of generating an experience unlike any found elsewhere. They have room for all kinds of new ways to tell stories, to merge their components into a new cohesive thing, and, as with every other storytelling medium, they have a lot of room for new stories to tell. It's popular now to say "maybe at a better time" and focus on old forms, worn ideas, familiar styles and concepts - basically, comfort for the miserable few - but what better time to light fireworks than when you desperately need to make people look?

"Comics have the capability of generating an experience unlike any found elsewhere."

Release notes: sometime in the next couple weeks, X-MAN #63 and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28 will appear from Marvel and DC respectively. The former begins Warren Ellis' Counter-X revamp of the title character, and working with Warren on it has been a gas. Great concept for a superhero comics. The latter features one of the last pieces Gil Kane drew before his death and features two of the characters he's best remembered for, the Silver Age Green Lantern and The Atom. There was other new material partly completed when he died, so hopefully LODCU #28-29 (it's a two parter) won't be the last new Gil Kane work ever published.

@VENTURE, the online fiction site specializing in prose stories by comic book writers, will launch next Wednesday, and I'm deep in the final design stages. We'll launch with a couple dozen stories. To the contributors, I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to you (particularly you, James and Kurt) but I will within the next couple days. Promise.

To those who sent art submissions for the Eros project: shortly after I asked for samples, a flood of work came in, and that, with the @VENTURE venture, have eaten up all my time. After @VENTURE gets up and running, I'll figure out what's what with CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES. Thanks for your patience.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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