When Words Collide: "Tails" & the Perils of Comic Book Realism

Mon, July 30th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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Comic books have trouble with reality.

Novels and films can operate in a realistic mode, for different reasons, but comic books struggle with the approach. In a novel, the author can provide in internal life for his or her characters and can be more digressive and exploratory about the emotional struggles of the characters. Novels gain nothing by being filled with cataclysmic events, because novels are ultimately personal stories about the characters interacting with, and reflecting upon, the world in which they live.

I happen to like novels that push against the boundaries of realism and present their world in a more fantastical, unorthodox way, but there's no arguing that the history of prose fiction over the last century and a half has been riddled with examples of realism. It's a dominant mode, for sure.

And in cinema, though the blockbuster movies tend to have spectacular visual conceits and rely more on extreme moments than quiet reflection, realism tends to garner the awards. It's a mode that works in cinema because of the humanity of the actors. The actual humans on the screen, emoting and selling the reality of their emotions and interactions (and the ability of the movie camera to capture the subtleties of those moments) provide the glue for the realism to work. Done well, it's powerful storytelling. Even the most banal of scenarios can feel overflowing with profound revelations in the hands of a confident director and skilled actors.

Comic books, like film, are a visual medium, but without the essential human component of an actor selling the story's reality before your eyes.

Comic books, like novels, are a prose medium in the sense that much of the internal story information and reflection can be conveyed strictly through the words in a caption, or through a character's thoughts.

But comics are hindered by their lack of human actors connecting with an audience, and they're hindered because the dominant feature of a comic book page belongs to the art, rather than the words which accompany the visuals.

Of course, those hindrances are what make comic books different than other media (and it's why they were so long dismissed as sub-literary or even sub-cinematic by the populace -- and maybe that's still the case), but it's also what forces comic book creators to use different strategies to connect their stories to the readers.

In comic books, style must take precedent, even more than in cinema or prose fiction. Control of style, meaning a consistency but also an energy and sense of risk, is the best way to connect to the readership and make the story more than just static images on the page. And because style is important, realism is hard.

Think of the great comics from your lifetime. How many of those comics were in the realist vein? Certainly none of the superhero or crime or sci-fi or horror comics you might enjoy. Those are all Romantic in the classical sense. And the milestones of literary comics, like "Maus" or "Asterios Polyp" or "Jimmy Corrigan" are masterpieces of style first, and content later. In all three of those cases, the visuals (whether they be scratchily symbolic or architecturally-designed or just refined so much that they bear no close resemblance to the way reality actually appears) are of primary importance, not their relationship to perceived reality.

"Fun Home" is a rare case of comic book Realism, and so is much of Jaime Hernandez's work on "Love and Rockets," but he has robots and superheroes in his comics, too. I'm sure you could name other exceptions, that tend toward Realism, but the point is that they are far, far fewer, in proportion, than the comics that greatly exaggerate or warp reality or present it with a kind of extreme visual symbolism that leads to superheroes with easily-recognizable logos on their chests or cartoonish representations of big-head characters or talking animals that represent something real in the most outlandish, visually interesting way possible.

Comics are best at that stuff.

They are not so great at the everyday.

I'm thinking about this stuff because I recently finished reading the collected edition of "Tails," by Ethan Young. Three years ago -- has it really been that long? -- I talked to Young about his experiences creating the webcomic version of the story, back when it was almost purely autobiographical. Young's expressive art helped to capture his emotional state -- or the protagonist's emotional state, depending on how much distance you want to put between art and artist -- but what I had read of "Tails" back in 2009, as well-drawn as it was, still suffered from the problem of comic book Realism: how interesting could a comic about a guy and a girl and their cats really be?

Young made it pretty interesting by focusing on the relationship, and the oh-so-human struggles that go along with life and love, but the collected edition shows how "Tails" ultimately ended up taking a vastly different approach to the subject matter by the end. It's evidence of a work in progress, but a well-drawn one, as Young shifts his narrative technique to serve the better serve the medium, and his own story, by providing increasingly bold visual symbolism as the story deepens.

It's not entirely successful. "Tails," as a whole, is still the work of an artist finding his voice in the midst of creating it. But it's an excellent start. It's a bold first attempt at telling his story.

And what Young does, after an opening sequence of scenes which is grounded in Realism, is open the story up visually to bring his protagonist's passion -- his own passion -- onto the page.

Young is a struggling artist, as is his autobiographically-based lead character, and by about a quarter of the way through the book, his imaginative side begins to come out -- his character's fantasy world starts to overlap with his real life, and we get superhero felines and mecha-suited puppies.

As good as Young is at drawing the intimate relationship scenes between the real-life characters, he's better at drawing huge, ridiculous, heroic battle scenes.

And once that Romanticized reality overlaps with the rest of the comic -- even if those scenes are hallucinations of the main character -- the integrity of the Realism falls apart. Characters slumped sorrowfully on a fire escape or talking on the front steps of the building just can't compete, visually, with the power of gun-toting, cigar-chomping giant humanoid rats.

So the job then, for Ethan Young, as writer/artist, is to balance the dream-world Romantic fictions with the Realism of the protagonist's struggles. Too much of the animal superhero sci-fi action and the protagonist's real life relationship and personal problems get overwhelmed and seem insignificant. Too much of the personal, relationship stuff, and the reader impatiently waits for those crazy animals to appear and blow up some stuff in the crossfire. Young doesn't quite manage the balance as well as a more experienced creator might -- there's too little of the hallucination elements in the first half of the book and too much near the end -- but he uses the Romanticized reality in a powerful way: to symbolically present the meaning of the story to the reader, by allowing the protagonist to realize the price he has paid for the decisions (or indecisions) he's made in his life.

"Tails" is an imperfect book, but it's one that has ambition. Ethan Young's artistry elevates it beyond what its words alone would have been able to achieve, and he leverages the power of comics -- the range of visual modes, from the most intimately human to the most anthropomorphically heroic -- to tell his story. Romanticism and Realism smashed together, as comics can.

The cover of this volume identifies it as "Book One." I hope it doesn't stop there.

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