Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reading Novels vs. Reading Comics [by Carl Vincent]

When Harry asked me to be involved in his ongoing discussions about comic books I couldn’t have been more thrilled. While I grew up reading the occasional funny book, my true introduction to what comics were and what they could do came when I was an adult, sometime around the mid 1990’s. I had traveled to New York City to spend a week with a good friend, and while there he handed me Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and all that existed at that point of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (the final issue was released while I was visiting). He insisted I read them. My reading life has truly not been the same since.

The subject I have been asked to write about is Reading Novels vs. Reading Comics. This past Christmas we gave my mom, among other things, a very old copy of Dr. Spock’s famous Baby and Child Care book. My brother was thumbing through it, reading passages which elicited laughter because of the dated viewpoint. In one chapter Dr. Spock was sternly warning parents against the negative effects of children reading comic books. They were the gateway to juvenile delinquency. While that attitude seems quaint and misguided today, there is arguably a hold-over sentiment in many circles when it comes to judging the merits of the comic book medium. Listen to me kids, don’t listen to the snobs. The literati, those who drink tea with their pinky finger in the air and insist on Grey Poupon*, do not know what they are talking about. Comic books are da bomb!

Any person can walk into their local comic shop or book chain and pick up a comic that is garbage, a funny book that is the epitome of all the negative things said about comics since the day the first one was printed. But you and I know that the same can be said about novels. For every gem there are hundreds of plain, ordinary rocks. “Okay, so maybe you are right Carl and there are comics that are worth reading, but why should I read comics when I have a towering pile of novels to read?” Just as well to ask why read at all…because in comics, like in novels, there are stories that can have a profound effect on you. They may cause you to look at an issue in a way you never have before (Maus). They might ignite a passion for classic folklore and mythology (Sandman). They may inspire you to track down copies of classic literature that you had always meant to read but never got around to (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). They might teach you about the ups and downs of true love (True Story Swear to God). Comics have the potential of doing all the things that a novel can do, only in a slightly different way.

They use pictures.

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” may seem trite, but its truth is born out in the very best that the world of comics has to offer. We are a visual species. Images sell us products, inspire us to action, shape our outlook, and teach us different ways to look at ourselves and the world in which we live. Advertisers have tapped into the power of images for decades. Comic books tap into that same vein, using the one-two punch of visual imagery and the written world to tell you a story. Comics are not just limited to the realm of the spandex superhero, although there have been many stellar stories told in the superhero realm in the past. Series like Fables dig deep into the folklore of nations while putting a modern spin on familiar faces. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival wordlessly tells a profound story of what it is like to be an immigrant in another country. Joe Hill’s Locke and Key gives his old man a run for his money in the horror genre. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series not only tells great stories but also shows how the individual comic panel can be used to add atmosphere to the story and lead your eye across the page. The recently completed mini-series I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly, deals with serious, heart-tugging subject matter in a story with a kick-ass young protagonist. In each of these and many more examples, skilled storytelling is combined with eye-catching art to tell a rich, fulfilling story.

I have had comics bring me to tears (Mom’s Cancer), keep me rooted to my seat in page-turning fashion (Watchmen), take me on long, soul-satisfying journeys (Bone), help me better understand the nature of creativity (Kabuki: The Alchemy). Every pleasurable, worthwhile experience that I have had reading novels has been duplicated over the last decade and a half reading comics. And in reading them I have developed wider tastes in art, discovered films and books and other comics that have enriched my reading life, and have had the unique pleasure that only the perfect marriage of art and prose can bring. You are truly cheating yourself out of a rewarding experience if you are not open to reading comics. Reading comics and reading novels, as part of a balanced diet, are what makes for a healthy, happy reading life.

*no offense to pinky lifters and poupon eaters who are not literary snobs.

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Carl Vincent: He is a man of taste, a man with high aesthetics and a man of many books [the ones he have read anyway]. I am not good at these introductions [should not forget to ask for bios], so just go to Stainless Steel Droppings and be amazed with style.

6 comments:

Carl V. said...

Great addition of the pics, Harry. Thanks! And thanks for the nice words about me. (Your check is in the mail.)

Jeff said...

I for one am a big fan of reading both novels and comics. I read both comics and novels as a young adult but dropped off reading comics during high school only to rediscover them while dating my wife in college. In fact she is the one who was collecting, Elfquest, and got me back into reading comics. Comics are not as simple as they seem at first glance. A good comic story teller forces the reader to read between the panels and engages the reader as a good novelist does.

I love so many of the examples Carl lists above ( Sandman, Bone, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and most of all Kabuki ). I would urge any lovers of reading to check into comics today because the field is not all filled with super heroes although the still dominate the hobby. Now days their truly is comics that appeal to readers of any genre.

Here are a few more suggestions of comics to look for on to top of Carl's great ones.

A current all ages comic in the spirit of Watership Down is Mouseguard by David Petersen. For the dinosaur lovers out there I will also point you to Age of Reptiles by Richard Delgado.

For a Science Fiction fan I will point you to Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday. Also Orbiter by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran is great as well. Also Y the Last Man Standing by Brian K Vaughan and Pia G. Sorry I can't remember the artists last name.

For fans of crime fiction in the old pulps style I can't recommend highly enough the Criminal series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

For fans of the horror genre I point you towards The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman. It's an examination on how survive after the end of the world.

For fans superheros their are a lot of great stories which include; It's a Bird by Steven S. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen which I can't recommend highly enough. Also check out DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke and The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

For fans of romance you might enjoy Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore.

For fans of the behind the scenes of Hollywood check out Fortune and Glory by Brian Michael Bendis.

For fans of forklore check out The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess and others.

Lastly don't ignore comic strips as well. My favorites being Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson and Prince Valiant by Hal Foster.

Carl V. said...

Sweet examples all, dude! I should have had you ghost write this sucker for me! :) There are a lot of those that I haven't read but want to, including the Brubaker stuff. Later in the year when I'm on a noir kick I'm going to have to check that out.

Harry Markov said...

@ Carl: You are most welcome.

@ Jeff: I like you already, man. Thank you for all these recommendations. I am in the seventh heaven. I am reading the Walking Dead, although I think I have fallen behind a lot on those.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Glad you enjoy The Walking Dead. I have heard recently that the AMC movie channel is turning it into a TV series. Wonderful if they film it in black and white? I'm sure they won't but wouldn't it be cool to stay so true to the source material. Kind of like Sin City.

Harry Markov said...

I loved Sin City, because it was so noir in the black/white use of color and I would love for the Walking Dead to be shooted like that. But frankly I would love to see it filmed any way...

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