Guest post by Hagelrat.
Harry has been kind enough to let me ramble on again on his blog and join in with the Comic Book Appreciation Month. My reading has contained a small proportion of comics and graphic novels over the years, much more poorly represented on my shelves than they are in my affection. That affection goes back to borrowing old X-Men comics from a friend at school and to The Crow which came out towards the end of my school years (which dates me I guess).
Anyway I have been asked to consider the two elements of comics, art vs. story. As a result I have been thinking about what draws me most to a comic or graphic novel.
I'd like to say story. I'd like to say that the plot and characters are important to me in the same way they are in a novel. To some extent that's true. I kill giants (Joe Kelly) has a brilliant, moving story which drew me in and made me cry at one point. Back at school of the borrowed X-men comics the more unusual plot lines (Psylocke and Revanche) were the ones that really absorbed me. Gaiman's Sandman comics are typical of his superb story telling in any medium and James O'Barr's The Crow is as gripping a story of revenge as any I’ve read in a novel. So it's story then that makes a comic stand out for me, makes it stay in my memory and brings me back to it for endless re reading and I have read The Crow many, many times. Without a decent story it’s a moments diversion. At one point I read some of the Chaos comics (stop sniggering) and plot was never their strength really. They were light and fun and silly and mostly death and mayhem but plot and character never struck me as the strong focus. They were a fun diversion and I retain affection for them but they sit gathering dust and are unlikely to ever be reread. The tricky part of a story for comics is that you don't have anything like the number of words to play with. I've recently ordered a graphic novel with no text at all. At time of writing this it still hasn't arrived, so I can't tell you whether it works. I can tell you that for me at least, without a decent story behind it what you have is a bunch of pretty pictures.
As for artwork. I suppose the important thing about artwork to me is that it's right for the story. The artwork tells you whether this is a dark and gothic tale or frivolous and fun. Styles change with new techniques and are by necessity affected by fashions and trends. I remember clearly when Jet Set Radio (game) came out, being blown away by cell shading which I had never really seen before. So it must be with comics, you don't really see people drawing in the style of old Spiderman comics any more; everything is slicker, sharper, cleaner. As for me, well yes, I’m shallow, I like pretty things, I struggled with Watchmen because the art didn't work for me. I love the spikey black and white of both Sandman and The Crow. I loved that I kill Giants managed to be both playful and plangent, which was so perfect for the story. I was drawn to The Untamed by it’s dark strong colours and it’s sense of despair and brutality. I want to feel the world I am being drawn into before I start to read. I don’t think any single thing about the art can be more important than it being evocative of the mood of the comic. It tells you where you are and prepares the mood after all comics don't really allow for long descriptions of mood and set. If you take the words out of the comic completely the art should still be able to carry you through the story so with the wrong artwork the story vanishes and no caption can ever put it right.
Fundamentally, whether in each case it’s to your taste or not, for a comic to work the art and plot must support and compliment each other. If they are at odds then the reader will be pulled in different directions so perhaps the real skill is getting the right combination and balance. It's a symbiotic relationship, a comic with no real story is a picture book, a story without the right artwork will get lost. So what are some of your favourite examples of art and story and what matters most to you?