The Most Forgiving Medium by Mike Baron

THE MOST FORGIVING MEDIUM

Comics are the most forgiving medium. You can get away with things in comics that you couldn’t in any other medium. Just look at Superman. He first appeared in 1938 and it wasn’t until the advent of television that they tried to transfer him to another medium. The early Superman show with George Reeves was entertaining in its day, but no one watching actually believed a man could fly. It wasn’t until the advent of CGI and multi-million dollar budgets that film caught up with what comics could do with a little ink on paper.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Tick. Men of Mystery. In order for these to succeed, comics had to pave the way. These days, comics have conquered so much popular culture that you can pitch such ideas and be taken seriously. Producers know that comic book awareness is universal, even as comic book sales plummet. The medium invites parody. Trashman. Squirrel Girl. Punisher Vs. Archie. Anybody can string two words together and make a comic about it. And people will buy that comic. Because it’s a comic.

Serious comics that succeed are the exception. Watchmen. Maus. Biographical comics such as Bill Griffith’s Hidden Ink, or much of Fantagraphics’ product come to mind. Fantagraphics is that rare publisher that takes comics seriously, and by that I mean they see comics as a legitimate avenue for serious writing. There are tens of thousands of “serious” comics from major publishers that fail to entertain, because their goal is not to entertain, but to deliver a message. Nothing wrong with it, but the writer’s first duty is to entertain. If you create a lifeless block of lectures and talking heads, the reader will flip the pages until the end, and then toss it in a pile that includes gas station handouts and free weekly fliers.

Comics are the worst medium for horror because the most horrible rendering can’t match what the reader would imagine, had the picture been painted purely in prose, like the work of H.P. Lovecraft or Robert R. McCammon. Yet horror comics proliferate. Readers can’t get enough of them. The old EC horror comics usually ended with a gruesome comeuppance to the psycho protagonist. As far as evoking supernatural terror, fuggedaboudit.

What comics do best, even badly written comics, is create magic between the page and the eye. When you gaze on a full page rendering of an undiscovered city in the Amazon, and the picture draws you in so that you inhabit the environment, that’s magic.

Novels and cinema are the best medium for horror. A skilled novelist can create unforgettable moods, settings, and characters. Remember when you read The Shining? Movies control pacing, lighting, and especially sound. Remember The Exorcist? We love our Universal monsters, and stories about werewolves, vampires, and zombies will always be with us.

As for comics, the writer’s first duty is to entertain. If the reader succeeds, all other things are possible.