THE END OF WIDESCREEN COMICS?
(The following should be considered one of those ever-so-popular 'thought pieces.' It's a new idea I've come up with over the past week or two. I may disagree with it, myself, tomorrow. No matter the case, I thought it might spark some interesting debate. So, please, tell me what you think. E-mail and message board links appear at the bottom of this column.)
It is inevitable that every movement will have its backlash. Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. Popular and critical acclaim become unthinking mantra. It is only when viewed from a distance that the movements can be properly classified.
I wish to posit today that the current trend of "widescreen comics" has reached its peak and the backlash is soon to come. This does not mean that the comics that fall into that broad category – most notably THE AUTHORITY – are any less entertaining. It just means that the trend has started to peak and it might be time to move on.
We've seen it before. When Lee and Liefeld and McFarlane were selling millions of comics, the major publishers quickly tried to jump on the bandwagon, producing ridiculously absurd comics copying the surface elements of the en vogue style. Comics featuring wooden characters with too much crosshatching to make the picture legible popped up in the least likely of places. Superhero universes became the big summer rollouts. Grim and gritty team books sprouted like spring flowers. That eventually corrected itself, and a more retro fun-loving set of comics came into play. It's Newtonian physics – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Back to "widescreen comics":
I've been watching some classic movies lately. I've watched THE MALTESE FALCON and CHINATOWN and the Marx Brothers in COCOANUTS and DUCK SOUP. They're all remarkably good movies. There's something that sets them apart from just about all movies being made today. It's something that can be carried over into comics, too.
I read a newspaper columnist last week that talked about it. (Sorry to say I didn't save the column, so I can't tell you who it was.) The problem is in the dearth of banter in movies today. For comedies, particularly, the humor is coming from gross-out gags and sight gags and people acting stupid. Take AMERICAN PIE or THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or SCARY MOVIE. The bulk of their humor comes from disgusting their audience. It's quite possibly peaked with the recent Tom Green movie, which sounds so bad I don't even want to give it the benefit of a mention here. There's a complete and utter lack of finesse, acting talent, and sharply written dialogue present in those movies.
It's something that extends, I think, to a different level with the dramas. Your big money makers in movies today are the widescreen spectaculars whose style is so often imitated in comics today. I'm not even talking about the movies where special effects take precedence over plot or story. This isn't that gripe. (Although you'd think that with movies whose budgets are pushing $125 million these days, they could spare a million for a decent plot.)
I'm just talking about the awe and splendor and majesty of movies coming straight from the widescreen entertainment, the occasional risky storytelling device (whether is be THE USUAL SUSPECTS, TIME CODE, or MEMENTO), or the big name stars on the big screen. It doesn't come from the ability of a couple of talents actors and a talented screenwriter getting together and creating magic.
What happened to movies that were carried by their dialogue? All of the classic movies that I've watched in the past week had their pace set by the dialogue. The snappy patter. The witty banter. The ability for actors to speak their lines rapid fire and convincingly. Groucho would get uproarious laughter from a song with clever wordplay or a thirty second exchange of dialogue with two of his brothers -- one with heavy accent and the other a mute. Groucho didn't need to bare his ass or perform a sexual mannerism for the sake of a gag. Groucho, in other words, had more talent and wit in the tip of his pinky finger than Tom Green.
(Yes, it's also true that those Marx Bros. movies were often just a series of vaudeville routines strung together with a thin plot. Those routines were perfected in live shows first before being committed to film, with a couple of musical numbers thrown in for kicks. Such was the film audience of its day.)
Comics recently have joined in the widescreen storytelling kick. The "pop comics" phrase has been running rampant recently, too. Comics are meant to be disposable sexy entertainment. That's the latest theory behind how to sell comics to today's kids. Packaging these stories in trade paperbacks will make for a more fulfilling experience. It takes longer to read, so the reader will feel like he's gotten his money worth.
I'd like to make the argument today that it's time to think about a retro phase. Let's consider comics that don't necessarily take full advantage of comics' limitless special effects budget. Let's use the comics as just another vehicle for the storytelling that is carried by its "actors" and its dialogue. Let's have simple 22 page pamphlets that take longer to read because there's more banter in them, more plot, and more invention. Let's rely on the artists to be great actors more than special effects mavens or expert monster designers.
It's starting already. You can see it most prominently with Brian Bendis, who has made his career with stories overflowing with dialogue. His stories are the most cinematically influenced, with borrowed techniques showing up even in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. But the draw to his writing is in the dialogue, and I think that's starting to catch on in bits and pieces in comics today. Take a look at Brian Haberlin's work in AREA 52 from Image Comics. That's a very heavily dialogue-driven book. The trick to both of these books I just mentioned is that the dialogue carries the story without hampering it. You don't feel like you're spending all day reading a simple comic pamphlet. It flows so nicely you run along for the ride and don't ever think to look up at the clock on the wall or the watch on your wrist.
Dialogue is a very tricky task. Just writing a ton of it won't carry the story. It must be chosen carefully. It must feel natural, no matter how many birthing pains it goes through. And it must advance the plot with every line. It must be unique to every character, preferably to the point where you can tell who's talking just by the cadence of their speech, or the slight accent they use. (Say what else you might about Chris Claremont's text-heavy approach to comics, but in the glory days of X-MEN, he was an expert at this.)
There is a downside, of course, and one that comes with the medium itself. All that dialogue can really make a page look confining. We've all seen pages where three quarters of the space is taken by word balloons. Remember how big a turnoff that was? The problem with it is that usually it's in the form of boring exposition. All of those words aren't advancing any plot. They're there to set up the plot or explain something that just happened that might have been confusing.
Dialogue takes longer to read than a "decompressed" story where a fight scene or a car chase can extend over ten or twenty or a hundred pages. (See the opening 100 pages from the first Dark Horse AKIRA trade. It's brilliantly done, but it amounts to a 100-page action scene. It reads much faster than any given issue of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR. I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It's just the difference between text-driven stories and action-driven stories.)
There are plenty of people who will complain when they spend their three dollars for a comic that they finish reading in five minutes or less. (Sometimes it amazes me that the complaint isn't leveled more often at Chuck Dixon, who can combine action-driven and dialogue-drive scenes in the same issue. In the end, though, his comics are often the ones I breeze through the fastest.) Throw a dialogue-heavy book in the same readers' hands that will take them a half hour to read and they'll complain of the verbosity of the book before they start to read it.
You can't dismiss, either, that there are some readers who just aren't good actors. They may not be able to infuse the dialogue with the kind of energy or acting skills that a gifted actor on-screen would. For them, reading a dialogue-heavy comic might be too difficult.
This isn't to say that I want wordy stories. Heck no. That's just bad storytelling no matter the medium. The point is that the dialogue should carry the story. It can be witty, fast-paced, biting, melodramatic, teasing, sexy – it doesn't matter. Just make it good and make it interesting and nobody will notice that they're spending more time on the page reading than ever before. Heck, the artists might even like it, thinking they can draw less. (They can't, really. For good storytelling, odds are good that they'll just have to draw smaller to fit their art on the page with all that dialogue.)
"Widescreen comics" have been with us for a couple of years now. It's brought a new dynamic into comics, and for that we should be grateful. But we are better off stopping short and analyzing what it means now instead of running it into the ground by surface-level imitations. And while we do that, let's look towards similar inspirations for different techniques.
I don't have a clue what next week's column will be about just yet. I do know that I'll be writing it early – much to boss man Jonah's delight – because I'll be in Pittsburgh at this time next week. I also intend to put up a couple of Pittsburgh Comicon updates over the next weekend. Look for those on Saturday the 28th and Sunday the 29th. It'll be another Pipeline Con Journal spectacular. (Hopefully.)
Come back Tuesday for a couple of reviews of books not scheduled to be released for another month or so.
More than 200 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in 7 short weeks…
This year, I'll be at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego), and the Pittsburgh Comicon, which requires no second name. Hope to meet some of you there.
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. And sometimes they post them to the site…