Master Of The Obvious: Issue #7

Wed, September 15th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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In a letter column during his recent retelling of the origin of Concrete,

Paul Chadwick cites a woman he knew, an obviously smart woman who

ran a bookstore in Washington state, who simply couldn't read comics no

matter how she tried. It wasn't that she didn't like the stories, or

superheroes repelled her, or any of the things comics pros or fans mean

when they say they just couldn't read this or that. She meant it was a

foreign language to her, that she couldn't work out in her head how the

arrangement of pictures flowed, and get how you're supposed to read the

words and pictures at the same time and integrate them into a coherent

narrative.

I've had similar experiences. Back around '87, First Comics did a deal

with a small film company called Atlantic Releasing (their big hit was

TEEN WOLF) to do a Whisper movie based on my character. (Loosely

based, as the screenplay turned out, but that's another story.) I was living

in Los Angeles at the time, and the president of the company asked me

out to lunch to pitch other projects to him, and when we sat down, he

started by saying, with some embarrassment, that he didn't read comics. I

made light of it, but, like Paul's bookseller, he emphasized it wasn't that

he 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, they

wouldn't concern me. But in the 12

years since My Dinner In Hollywood

(yes, I sold another project; no, neither

it nor the Whisper film ever got made,

as the company bellied up first, but

that's show biz), I've continually encountered otherwise intelligent people

who simply cannot figure out how to read comic books. And the fault lies

partly with us.

Recently I got around to reading Scott McCloud's

UNDERSTANDING 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 the

medium, and explains very well why it's worth understanding comics,

nowhere does it describe how to understand comics. Despite his

announced 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 so

long we've forgotten the comic book is a learned language, as alien to

many 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? My

producer friend, Paul's bookseller, all those I've spoken with, had one

thing 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 in

the original without any training in Latin. When intelligent, educated

adults simply can't read comic books, something's very wrong.

Notably, none that I spoke with had any problem reading the daily

funnies. The newspaper strip stagnated in form decades ago, and now

mostly exists as three or four panel

unadorned gags. Even those featuring

serial storylines, such as SPIDER-MAN and APARTMENT

3-G, refuse many of the techniques we use in comic books. Captions are

sparse to non-existent. (One exception, THE PHANTOM, has captions so pared they read like they

were written in semaphore.) This is largely due to form; there's simply

no room for elaborate development.

The comic book spent decades duplicating the familiar newspaper strip

layout, despite early attempts by Eisner and others to develop a filmic

language, mostly based on the work of German cinematographers, to

the comic book, and by the late 60s, comics design was pretty much

stagnant. Between rigid form and castrated content, you can smell the

boredom on most 60s comics, giving Marvel Comics room to capitalize

on the unusual boldness of Kirby and Ditko. By the end of the 60s, Jim

Steranko was bringing modern film technique into comics, as well as

resurrecting the best, forgotten aspects of Eisner, EC and other comics

influences, while Neal Adams was shattering panel layout altogether

with an energetic array of ad art designs. With Adams, Kirby and

Steranko as patron saints (and underground cartoonists like Robert

Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and French artists like Moebius and

Phillippe Druillet as agent provocateurs), the 70s launched a grand and

necessary phase of experimentation in comics design.

It may not be coincidental that the 70s also saw a drastic decline in

comics readership. Readership had been slowly tapering since the 50s,

with a spike during the Batman craze, but by 1975 the bottom had

pretty much fallen out. Things recovered with the consolidation of the

direct sales market in the 80s, but the collapse of design standards in

comics have caused as many ills as they cured. As dynamics have

overpowered art, storytelling has collapsed. Basic storytelling skills are

no longer considered important by many artists (and writers and editors

and many readers, for that matter). It's no wonder that superheroes

dominate the business; most artists love superheroes because they

provide opportunity for impressive bombast, and in many stories the

only way to follow who's doing what to whom is by following who's

wearing what costume, a fact that mitigates against plainclothes material.

The 70s also saw the explosion of writers as a force in comics. Words

filled pages as comics writers tried to prove they were "real" authors,

and a dizzying span of narrative techniques were introduced, partly as a

hedge against the factory system of comics where frequently the writers

have no idea who will be drawing a story when they're writing it. Again

absolutely necessary at the time, they've tended to emphasize the

separation of art and writing as much as the bombastic art styles have,

particularly in the heavy use of captions to denote ideas not carried by

the art and well beyond the bounds of necessary exposition, and this

disconnection of word and drawing has only added to the general

confusion about comics. If they're not a coherent unit, there's no

percentage in trying to understand them as such.

If you've grown up reading comics, not much of modern comics art is

terribly hard to follow, but if you're unfamiliar with comics, it's like

falling down the rabbit hole. We who read comics and work in comics

are precariously close to being our own secret society, our rituals

clandestine and our language arcane and incomprehensible to outsiders,

with initiations increasingly rare and problematical. While the "secret

society" aspect of comics appeals to many people, it badly inhibits market

expansion.

So the comics industry has to make up its mind. Either we're going to

preach to the converted or we're going to make comics more

accessible. And more accessible means we're going to have to take all

these grand developments in comics design of the last 30 years and

ground them in real storytelling. If we don't want to do that, we're

saying 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 seems

necessary to our time. It's time to strip any unintentional confusion out

of the work, to pare the art and writing both down to a pleasing

simplicity, to once again create comics with an eye toward reading

them. By simplicity, I don't mean stupidity or juvenility; there's a great

range of sophistication available in simplicity. But if we want more

readers for comics, we have to create comics that are truly intended to

be 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 of

those hinky calendars that starts the week on Monday, so here's the true

poop:

I'll be signing this Sunday, Sept. 20 at the Seattle Comic-Card Show in

the Northwest Rooms at the Seattle Center in Seattle WA. The show

runs from 10AM-5PM, I'll be there from 11AM-3:30PM. Also

appearing will be Mark Evanier, Matt Haley, Jim Mooney, Karl (and

maybe Barbara) Kesel, Jeff Matsuda, Randy Emberlin, Aaron Lopresti

and Dev Madan. Admission $5 at the door, or $4 with a canned food

donation for Northwest Harvest. I'll see you there.

As usual, information about me and my work can be found at the website

Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

Next week: excerpts from the MOTO mailbag.

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