September 2010

Martyn Pedler


Why Read Comic Books?

Sometime back around 2004, geeky Seth Cohen became the unlikely heartthrob of teen soap The O.C., relegating the traditionally dreamy Ryan Atwood to sidekick status. If I was forced at gunpoint to pick the exact moment that comic book reading lurched into the mainstream, this might be it.

In this post-Seth world, however, convincing someone to read a comic is more like getting them to try a new band than getting them to admit that “music” as a whole might be worthwhile. If you’ll forgive my apples-to-oranges comparisons and rah-rah cheerleading, here are some random reasons why I read comics.

Starting big: comics can do anything. (Cancer? Cured!) Without limitations like sets, makeup, or special effects, comic art encourages the transformation of subjective reality to objective reality. The art can feel like it’s coming directly from the artists’ sticky subconscious to the page. It’s also why the best horror comics always feel like nightmares; like drawings that require a child to be sent home early from school.

That’s because they feel less mediated, too, thanks to the illusion created by pencil, ink, and especially lettering by hand. Of course I know most comics are mass-produced, and yet that illusion remains -- the odd notion that what you’re holding could be the only and original copy, made just for you. (Even the most idiosyncratic novel is still obviously typeset, right?) Comic books are an especially intimate artform, and many autobiographical comics succeed by exploiting that sense of reading someone else’s diary.

I won’t begin to explain -- or, frankly, entirely understand -- the mechanics of how sequential art tells stories and make motion. Writer and editor Dennis O’Neill once wrote that “a comic book world is a world lit by a strobe light,” and how that hypothetical strobe is used varies wildly from artist to artist.

Exhibit A: the animal-like characters of Norwegian artist Jason. They don’t seem to move like other comic stars. His precise art seems to capture them in the most awkward moment between two events, showing them frozen, deadpan. Jason’s been compared to Buster Keaton -- high praise, but warranted. At one point in his chess-themed western Low Moon, someone’s so surprised their hat flies off their head, and yet it seems to hover in the air like a bemused UFO.

Exhibit B: Jack Kirby, the King of Comics. Writing on “why read comics” without mentioning him would be cause for revolt, as he’s responsible for much of the visual vocabulary of superhero comics to this day. His men and women are drawn in such energetic poses that they exude dots of extra ink -- the famous "Kirby Krackle" -- and I always imagine the simple act of standing like statues in each panel requires herculean effort. Tensing every augmented muscle, they stay frozen until the moment I look away, turn the page, and they leap back into action again.

(A quick, tangential rant about “motion comics.” More and more, comic companies are hoping to supplement sales by offering digital versions of their titles with limited animation and voice acting that sounds like a first take at best. They think it’s just adding a gimmick to an existing story, like, say, slapping 3D on an old film. What they don’t understand is that forcing this motion onto sequential art actually breaks something fundamental about comic book storytelling. It suggests a group of executives throwing a comic on the ground and poking at it with sticks. “Look!” they say, jabbing at the page. “It’s moving! It’s moving!”)

Returning, then, to my scheduled evangelism. Once thick comic collections are sitting on your shelf, it’s easy to forget that these stories were ever presented in any other way. I was surprised to hear that Daniel Clowes’s latest tale of misanthropy, Wilson, was his first true graphic novel -- everything else had first been serialized. Why buy individual issues when, more and more, everything is out in collected editions soon after? And sold in respectable bookshops? It’s not just the credibility of comics that’s made them more accessible; it’s this newfound ubiquity.

Focus too much on the package, rather than the content, of comic books makes me feel like one of those people who decries e-books by reducing reading to physical objects and waxing lyrical about how paper smells. (You’d swear they snort up every sentence like cocaine.) But I do believe design and narrative sit together more closely when it comes to comics. Adrian Tomine asked that his earliest Optic Nerve comics, once found in a fancy collection, could be reprinted as the photocopied mini-comics they were always meant to be. He explains why in the new introduction: 

The format -- the very thing that tempted me in the first place -- seems too professional, too aggrandizing for the material. […] Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like there’s a different criteria that we apply to a little Xeroxed pamphlet versus a fancy-pants book, and in the translation from one iteration to the other, these comics of mine suffered.

Similarly, Jeffrey Brown’s heartbreaking novella, Every Girl Is the End of The World for Me, has just been collected in a larger book -- but it just won’t feel the same as the original version. Its scribbled pictures and shaky text sit in the palm of your hand. If the idea that a comic has been drawn just for you is an illusion, Jeffrey Brown’s so good at it that he could have his own Las Vegas magic show.

As comic book collections crept into those respectable bookshops, they were inevitably lumped together under the banner of graphic novels, no matter what sort of stories they might be. Autobiographical indies sit next to hysterical manga teens next to sequential art documentaries next to corporate-owned superheroes. As annoying as this might be, it accidentally highlights how comics possess unheard levels of generic bleeding. When a movie or TV show does a “western in space,” it’s a high-concept hybrid. When a comic book has frozen World War II soldiers, Norse gods, billionaire inventors, and gamma-powered monsters fighting side by side? That’s just business as usual.

Let me get my pom poms for the big finish. Ready? I love the strange split between stillness and motion, action and contemplation, that defines comic book reading for me. I love the inventive pages-as-puzzles techniques used by Chris Ware to illustrate angst in Jimmy Corrigan or that J. H. Williams employs for his spectacular action in the recent Batwoman-starring Detective Comics. I love the stylistic tornado of Grant Morrison’s conspiracy-fuelled series The Invisibles, and how it somehow made meaning out of its dozens artists using a dozen techniques.

I’ve run out of room to mention the pleasures of serial storytelling; the addictive fun of cliffhangers; or the sheer scope and dependable insanity of superhero stories. One last thing -- I love word balloons. When it comes to prose, I’m with Elmore Leonard. Almost any word used to describe dialogue delivery other than “said” makes me wince -- but the shifting shapes and sizes of word balloons are a wonderful thing. Growing, shrinking, dotted lines for whispers, icicles for dripping sarcasm. By combining the verbal and visual into something ridiculous, effective, and unique, word balloons serve as shorthand for comic books as a whole.

Right now, as I’m putting the final touches on this column (mostly involving kicking myself over all the books I promised myself I’d mention that didn’t make the cut) it’s August 28. It’s been declared the first annual Read Comics in Public Day:

Let strangers see you reading a piece of sequential art. Take to the streets. Be proud. If someone asks what you’re reading, say, "a comic book" (the phrase "graphic novel" is also acceptable, but let’s face it, it sort of defeats the whole purpose).

I’m for anything that generates sales for artists I admire, and it’s sweet to choose Jack Kirby’s birthday, too. But call me Pollyanna, call me naďve, call me blinded by Seth Cohen’s charms -- it feels about a decade too late for a rallying cry like “be proud.” The same could be said for everything I’ve written here. I can see the headlines now: “Biff! Kapow! Comic Books Worthwhile After All!”

Why read comics? As with all art, there’s only really one answer: why not?

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, but he’s most at home in the opening credits of The O. C. Find him at