Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Comics: Art or Story?

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?


K. A. Laity said...

Faboo! As a writer of a wordless comic, I can tell you there are few things more difficult to write. It's really the alchemy of words and images together that give the medium of comics its magic -- that combination can do things that either alone cannot do.

Fortunately, we don't have to choose between them!

Hagelrat said...

Alchemy is a good term. My brother once described pottery glazes as alchemy, half science half witchcraft. :)

Stray Taoist said...

Cerebus (once it gets by Dave Sim's initial learning curve) is both epically art and story-wise. Frank Miller's Daredevil (and his and Sienciewicz's Electra) does the same. As does most of Ted McKeever's work.

Now, on to what I wanted to say. I just *knew* you would mention Sandman. (And The Crow is obvious, but I wouldn't have mentioned it if you didn't.) Sandman is nonsense. Overblown nonsense for depressed teenagers all in black who sit in the corner at parties and think they are better than the rest of us because they are sensitive and _think_ more than me. No, I get it. I understand it. I read it all (and own quite a few of them in individual comic form, not TPB). I would even go as far as to say the 'Brief Lives' sequence is awesome. But the rest? No thanks. It isn't High Art, it isn't Meaningful in the way a classic novel is. It has its moments, but those are few. And then end is just awful. Dirge.

And you never mentioned Preacher, a headkick of story and art. Nor (early) Warren Ellis (something like Doom 2099 up to early Transmetropolitan.)

But as for art in comics, I will be forever in love with Sienceiwicz. Which might explain _certain_ naming conventions.

I stop now. And leave you with an ace image. From an ace story.

Harry Markov said...

@ K.A: Alchemy is indeed a wonderful term for that.

@ Hagel: Can the pots do something else besides being glazed?

@ Stray: Eh, you blew me away... I think I just learned volumes about comic books in a matter of seconds. I read a small Japanese inspired limited series of Sandman and the art and writing were top notch, however I am quite clueless about the main storyline. It seems intriguing, but art-wise I am not so sure.

My top artist god is Michael Turner and it is so unfortunate that he is dead. Now that man could draw. Yes, unrealistic body proportions, but there was beauty to all his work. Sharp lines and just comic book art as understood by the uneducated masses propelled into epic proportions.

Thanks for the image. :) It really has quite some power in it. Boom. I can see why you like that guy.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think it's equal parts for me, as I am a visual person.

And The Crow is tops in my book!

Hagelrat said...

Stray - i've never read preacher, i know i know. ;)
Harry - yes, they can be fired without glaze, or he could have been referring to the clay mixes he used or any other aspect, he was specifically commenting on getting the colour.:)

Hagelrat said...

LDW yay.

Stray Taoist said...

Harry: On the subject of Sandman art, I do like Sam Kieth, but he must have fallen out with Gaiman/DC/whomever, as his next comic had this frame:

Harry Markov said...

@ Stray: To be quite honest after being treated with Mike McDonnell and Greg Land from DC, I have been extra resilient towards art and am more tolerable to art not befitting my personal preferences.

Lisa Lane said...

Comics really are an art (beyond the drawings). One thing that really drew me in when I first started reading and collecting was the level of dynamics achieved by the various combinations of elements used. One of my favorite comics is an X-Factor involving Nightcrawler sitting in confession, telling his life story to a priest. The ending--how the art and words come together to create something truly special--always gives me chills.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now I did like the art for Watchmen, but I read it and saw the movie back-to-back.

The story is probably the most important for me, but it must have great graphics, too.

Mark David said...

I would have to agree with K. A. Laity, the magic really comes from the "alchemy of words and images".

So I think you're right about the storyline being very important, as well as character development. Just because there are drawings doesn't mean that scriptwriter needs to do less storytelling. It's just a different medium.

Although of course, captivating pictures are always the first to catch attention :)

Harry Markov said...

@ Mark David: Exactly like me. I have the same stance. :)

Hagelrat said...

Alex - I read watchmen just before seeing the movie too. And yes, the art is probably what, when browsing is going to get me to shell out my cash.

Mark - I think it is interesting too when there are no words and the art has to carry the story on it's own.

Harry, thanks for having me over to play. :)

Chris Voss said...

hagelrat - nice, honest review!

Stray - so many things to say in response to your comment: agree on Preacher, although I think perhaps you don't give Sandman enough credit (the art is often fantastic, some of the individual stories are amazing, although the series as a whole feels more than a bit dated reading it again now). I'm only up to the 5th trade for Transmetropolitan, but it's great, as is my first real exposure to Ellis - Global Frequency.

As far as the question: it's a cheap answer, but one is able at times to support the other, but the whole point of the medium is to marry the two together, so I'll go with "Why Choose?"

Hagelrat said...

Chris, thanks and indeed, good answer. :)

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