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Vincent S. Moore Presents:

Comics Ain’t Movies

I was speaking with a studio partner a few weeks ago about approaches to comics. He mentioned he was adopting an approach that he felt would lead to the comics feeling more like movies. Where he was trying to figure out how to make the reader’s eyes move across the page in such a way as to imitate a film camera. Except what he found that by stripping down the pages to a burst of images with minimal word balloons and/or sound effects he made the pages read too fast.

The very same idea another professional I know had tried in a recent book but was now expressing some regret and uncertainty about how well the comics were reading. Again the common response to these lean pages were that they read too fast.

I think and feel that problems like these will continue to plague many a writer and artist in the comics biz for some time to come.


Because in the last decade, with the growing together of the comics industry and Hollywood, the prevailing æsthetic going around is that comics are storyboards on the page, paper movies (apologies to Steven Grant) perfect for pitching to studios and producers.

And that view simply does not do justice to what comics as a medium can do. Namely things that can approximate film but so much more, things film cannot do very easily even with the modern advantages of digital technology available. For example, whole cities, planets and galaxies, in a very extreme example, could be destroyed and resurrected in simply a few panels. Or the entire origin of Superman could be expressed in four simple panels on one page, as Grant Morrison did in the first issue of All-Star Superman; conversely the origin of Superman takes up more than one hour in the motion picture from 1978.

Comics is a medium all its own, deserving of both respect and mastery of its tools and techniques.

To digress for a bit, my own personal theory is comics are a place where literary, cinematic, and artistic tools meet, collide, combine and contrast with each other, along with some very interesting tools that native to comics.

Many of us know that comics is a medium all its own. Yet we see so many at conventions nowadays talking about comics as the perfect pitch tool for Hollywood, containing full color storyboards for any executive to plainly see how a particular story could be told on film.

A very nice sentiment.

Let’s reverse the question, shall we?

Are storyboards comics?

The easy answer is no, not necessarily.

It’s not as if one could pick up a copy of Setting Up Your Shots and immediately translate the examples of storyboard layouts contained therein onto the comics page. Where is the sense of design and composition? What body language and facial expressions do each of the characters display within each frame? While one could use this book as an aid in scripting for comics, one cannot simply transfer ideas and images onto the comics page. Not without taking the very nature of comics into account.

For example, in The Art Of The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers show the influence of comics upon their work when displaying some of the storyboards drawn by Steve Skroce. These storyboards, being drawn by a working comics artist, come to life through his dynamic art style in addition to how they are laid out upon the page. In fact many of the storyboards were specifically drawn in the manner of a comics page in order to maximize the visual impact upon anyone who saw the boards, namely the producers of the film. Even so, the storyboards from The Matrix are more like comics for their design and the lack of usage of the visual language peculiar to storyboards. Speed lines are used instead of arrows between images to denote action. Panels vary in size to increase or decrease the drama, whereas storyboards are usually uniform in size and shape. The storyboards in The Art Of The Matrix are not Matrix comics, although they do come close.

Except close only counts in horseshoes, right?

And seeing a bunch of storyboards from an action movie, even if they were drawn by a comics artist, isn’t the same as seeing that very action movie.

Seeing that movie in the darkened theater, with the sounds bursting and blaring from the surrounding speakers. A group of theater goers gathered around the collective camp fire to see and hear a story being told to them. Sitting relatively still as the images and sounds wash over and through and into these people.

Movies, as exciting as they can be, are a fundamentally passive medium. You go into the theater and the movie plays and you merely watch and absorb. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Just as there’s nothing wrong with a medium that stimulates your imagination as well. Like reading a book. Or reading comics.

Reading comics engages one’s imagination. Even as all of these wild or quiet images are on display in front of one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye that does much of the work. Word balloons and sound effects are translated into voices and noises by the imagination. If the stage is set correctly, as in the prose heavy comics of Don McGregor, even smells and tastes come to life in the theater of the mind.

One of the early masters of comics to figure this out and to use it to make comics that felt like movies was Will Eisner.

In his seminal text on comics, Comics And Sequential Art, Eisner discusses, amongst many other topics, this relationship between the comics reader and the comics artist to co-create the feeling of motion and action in comic books. At one point, Eisner mentions how the rolling out of the film frames prevents viewers from seeing more than one frame at a time, whereas a comics reader can view an entire page of panels at once, only moving his or her eyes from panel to panel by choice. Once one is aware of this, the differences between comics and movies begin to stand out.

Eisner also discusses how dynamic and expressive anatomy can make a comics panel convey more than whatever information is given in words. As well as how the very shape of the panel can indicate emotional and/or action content. Means of expression film finds not so easy to convey, or feels much more contrived than with comics.

In many ways, one could argue that film--a series of photographs given motion through rapid display of sequential shots--derives from comics. Then again, comics--itself a mixture of words and pictures--derives from the earliest languages and ways of storytelling of man.

At least that’s one of the arguments made by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics.

McCloud manages to both cover much of the same ground as Eisner and find new ground to cover in seeking a scholarly language for comics.

For this column, chapters 3 and 4 in Understanding Comics serve to broaden out the differences between film and comics. McCloud mentions such ideas as the panel as both frame of film and multiple frames of film, depending upon the size of the panel and how much information it contains. Also how word balloons themselves function as panels within the panels, conveying more than one action at one moment in time whenever possible. And the many different types of panel transitions that both move comics beyond film and allow for imitation of the moving part of moving pictures. Without necessarily saying, McCloud shows how comics can be like film and something completely different from, if not greater than, film.

But it is hard to shake the influence of movies upon comics.

I recall saying after seeing The Matrix for the first time that the industry would soon find itself drowning in black leather costumes and wuxia style fighting. While the stylized fight scenes never completely arrived in comics, plenty of black leather showed up, whether it was in the X-Men movies or the X-Men comics and others. As a culture, we Americans are definitely reading fewer books but watching more movies and TV and playing more video games. Which does affect how comics writers and artists approach the medium.

As Dan Jurgens pointed out in Writers On Comics Scriptwriting, too many writers in comics are thinking they are writing movies and are not maximizing what comics alone can do very well. His primary complaint was of writers putting too many actions into a panel description, treating a panel as if it were a sequence in a movie. In many ways trying to tell too much story in too little real estate on the comics page.

Which is completely different from the phenomenon known as decompressed storytelling.

While many critics and fans feel this storytelling approach came into American comics from Japanese manga, Peter David in Writing For Comics felt that decompression was something else. That decompression was really the arrival of cinematic storytelling in comics. By telling stories using this approach, the panel is treated much more like a frame or two of film than ever before. Moments, both significant and not, would be captured and shown. My favorite example of this approach isn’t a perfect one but it works for me. The Ultimates volume 1 takes 13 issues to tell, essentially, the same stories it took Lee and Kirby to tell in Avengers #s 1 and 4--two issues, mind you--plus Independence Day thrown in for good measure. Naturally, there isn’t a one to one comparison here, but the idea of the founding of The Avengers and the return of Captain America being retold as a summer blockbuster movie permeates all of The Ultimatesvolume 1.

In fact, when selling the hardcover collection of The Ultimates, I often refer to it as a Jerry Bruckheimer movie on the comics page. It isn’t a perfect analogy but it comes close enough to sell the book when I need it.

That’s the beauty of analogies. They allow one to compare two or more different items or ideas through their points in common.

As in the current idea of comics as movies on paper, as storyboards ready to go.

That’s fine, I reckon.

I mean, can comics feel like film?

Yes, sure, but…

Comics are their own medium as well. To deny this is wrong. To only view comics as the pale cousin to motion pictures limits the ways comics are used to tell stories. I haven’t even covered how this model could affect the kinds of stories told in comics, but it isn’t hard to imagine how many folks out there are trying their damnedest to create PG-13 kinds of comics, just to get an option deal.

I’m not saying it is wrong to make money with comics. I’m only worried that any of us who really care about comics as a medium could be losing out on doing the best comics possible.

It isn’t too late, however.

One could take the time to read the books I mentioned above, as well as some of the classics of comics. Works like The Spirit, Watchmen, Cerebus, Lone Wolf and Cub, The Incal, and many, many others. See what the masters of comics can do and try to see what you can learn from them and apply to comics of your own.

And push the envelope. Break the rules. Do what Hollywood wouldn’t do or couldn’t do.

And treat comics as comics, first and last. The medium and all those who have gone before deserve that respect.

Namaste and Happy Thanksgiving, folks.


Vincent S. Moore

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