Our Fascination with Comics by Mike Baron

OUR FASCINATION WITH COMICS

Why do comics attract such intense fascination? Much of it has to do with the form. It’s all there in your lap. It takes fifteen minutes to read. This makes everybody an expert. For those of us who grew up with comics, they are among our nearest and dearest entertainments. We all have our favorites and opinions on what constitutes a hero.

The art grabs your eye first, especially when you come across the shock of the new. Kirby, the first time you saw him. Steranko or Neal Adams. You read the words. There aren’t that many, but usually there are too many. Many writers can’t abide a wordless page. They’re the writer, it’s their job to add the words! So add words they must, whether they advance the story or not. A comic is not a novel. Words have greater significance in a comic because there are so few of them. Who reads a comic and skips the long-winded passages? Nobody.

Because they’re so simple, everybody thinks they can do it. And they can. Comics are the most forgiving of all art forms. You will believe a man can fly. Flaming Carrot. The Tick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These concepts would have a hard time gaining traction in other media without first launching as comics. It took sixty years for movies to present these concepts convincingly. In comics, they gain instant acceptance.

The underground explosion of the sixties, seventies, and eighties brought fresh writing to comics. The autobiographical musings of R. Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Dori Seda and Sharon Rudahl have an immediacy and freshness often lacking in mainstream comics, because they are unique to that individual, untethered to continuity or tradition. Many of these creators have continued to do groundbreaking, often literary work, such as Bill Griffith’s memoir of his mother’s affair, Invisible Ink.

Too often, mainstream comics have fallen back on cliches. How often have we read, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore?” “We have to talk.” “Move it, people.”

You can only read so many novels a week, but you can read twenty-five comics in a day. Now you’re an expert. Because the form is so simple, it’s easy to imagine how you could do it better. Everybody has their favorites. Everybody has strong opinions on what constitutes good story. Some writers understand the medium better than others. Carl Barks. Alan Moore. Chuck Dixon. The explosion in comic-based movies has not resulted in an increase in readers, but it has fired up the comic fans.

Movies require vastly greater resources than comics and because the stakes are so high, the level of professionalism is also much higher. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is better written than ninety per cent of the Captain America comics. When you grow up loving a character or book, you feel a proprietary interest. When the movie deviates from canon or just falls on its face, many readers feel betrayed, that the movie makers don’t understand the character, or pervert its intent.

While comic sales shrink, the obvious solution is to sell comics in movie theaters. But there is no communication between the comic book publishers and the theater chains, and even if there were, they couldn’t agree that the sky is blue. Comics aren’t important enough to occupy space in a modern cineplex, never mind there is plenty of space.

Comics are on life support for a number of reasons. Poor writing. The rise of video games. Most comics can’t compete with a good video game in terms of entertainment. The rise in illiteracy. The collapse of the distribution system. Take your pick. But they will never die because of their simplicity. Anybody can produce a comic. It is a labor of love.

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