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Opinion: Suffocating the comic book industry one formula at a time

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There’s a deep problem in how we consider our mediums of creative expression. Films, games, comics – all seem to be confined by the actual methods of production of their initial stages. Yesterday we looked at games. Today we’ll tackle comics.

I am a big comics fan, as of this year thanks to Watchmen and The Walking Dead. I’ve read roughly over five hundreds issues of comics in the last year. I’m rather obsessed, which sometimes knocks out the science or politics or philosophy I’m supposed to be reading. I must admit, however, economics seems less appealing than a single page from Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (the best thing he’s ever done – yes, better than Watchmen). I’ve even taken that awful step of trying to write a script. When researching writing and story-boarding, you realise there are a number of similar creative chains imposed on this medium, too.

For example, most comics today are still written at about 23 pages long, with an average of five to six panels per page. This is the restriction imposed by the measurements of an A4 page, usually, or some similar size. Panels tend to be a series of camera angles, which were largely an invention of Will Eisner. Alan Moore indicates as much in his book Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics:

“[E]ven in using the techniques of other mediums, there is a tendency for creators within the comic medium to stay firmly rooted in the past. Looking at… comics, we find that we usually looking at someone who has taken their idea of cinema almost entirely from… Will Eisner, or rather from the work that Eisner was doing 30 or 40 years ago. Not a bad place to start, admittedly, except that most people seem to finish there as well.”

Why should we limit ourselves in this way? We should we print comics 23 pages, using Eisner’s interpretation of cinema 40 years ago? Why use paper at all? Why use film-friendly camera angles? Indeed, it is environmentally and creatively friendly to go digital – and even digitally, we are still pretending to work within the confines of the A4 page. Breaking the A4 chains, we can be more at ease using non-film friendly panels. Comics are their own medium, not a glorified story-board for TV and film. The work of someone like Dave McKean in Mr Punch  or Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing  are brilliant examples of relishing in exploring comic presentation as its own medium, instead of the film industry’s desperate and poorer friend, constantly hanging on the stronger one’s shoulder.

What matters ultimately is the story and what we can benefit from it. If the story is better told as kind of minimalist, black-and-white storyboard, then fantastic. The Walking Dead comic series is exactly like this and remains one of the best comic-series ever written. Having great art and design does not necessarily mean a great story: Think of the Silent Hill graphic novels written by Scott Sciencin and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. Templesmith is an incredible artist, but nothing he did could save the ultimate stupidity that remains Sciencin’s Silent Hill stories: they are incomprehensible, childishly treated, narrow-minded middle-fingers to all Silent Hill fans.

The point though is to recognise that comics need not be limited. The chains of the A4 can suffocate a story, but many writers work with it. We don’t need to anymore and that should be kept in mind if we want to keep comics a healthy, powerful medium of story-telling. As with gaming, I don’t think it’s automatically bad to be working within the confines of the medium, but I think we need to realise it doesn’t stop there.

Last Updated: September 7, 2011

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