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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Some! Things! Comics! Do! Well!

CNN and news media in general... if you're going to write a story titled "Biff! Bam! Kapow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" please rename it to "Patronizing Thoughts On A Medium I Only Know Stereotypes About Which I Happened To Acquire Decades Ago". --Ryan North

Critics who treat "adult" as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence....When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
— C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

One of the oldest, most irritating tendencies in popular journalism is to talk down to comics. The kind of statements that consistently have me grinding my teeth tend to boil down to something like this:
  • This work is great! ...for a comic
  • Hey, I just discovered that Comics Aren't For Kids Anymore! What a revelation!
  • There's this fantastic book called Maus/Anja's Ghost/A Contract With God/Sandman/&c. and here's the part where I shoehorn an obligatory reference to Batman or Superman into my article!
This highlights, I think, the fact that comics are still very much clawing their way out of what, when we're talking about Animation, is called the Animation Age Ghetto. It's an affliction that plagues things like science fiction, fantasy, games, animation, comics, and many other junk genres or media. In comics, this takes the form of a fixation on action, violence, and outlandish power fantasies, as though this is all comics are good at doing.

Which is unfortunate, because it means that comics are trying to gentrify their little media neighborhood by deporting all the action and outlandish power fantasies.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem.

What's wrong with getting rid of all the juvenile action nonsense, you ask? Stop glowering at me from behind your beer glass and bear with me here. I promise this will make sense in a moment.

Remember back, oh, one post ago, when I blathered on about how I loved junk culture? Well, this carries over into genre and subject matter. I like explosive dramatics. I like the magic and the excitement and action. To some extent I resent the dichotomy that has been set up here by the media's obsessive adherence to the Age Ghetto--unless we behave like the most artsy of art films, the most literary of literature, We Are Not--Nay--Shall Ne're Be Worthy! Things have been divided into the independent auteur comics, which the media will grudgingly acnowledge and people will guiltilly purchase, and the more stereotypical fantasy, sci fi, superhero, and horror comics. Don't expect the latter category to be touched with anything less than a ten foot pole by the popular press, unless you're talking about a breakaway hit. Essentially, comics have gained respectability by throwing science fiction and fantasy under a bus.

What's so drastically depressing about all this is that comics do, in fact, portray ideas that fit wonderfully into the latter category. And it all comes down to some of the structural things that comics does well--I'm talking on the level of panels and pictures, and how images are composed. This is stuff unique to comics.

Right now, for example, I'm working on an essay that delves into pattern building in comics. Basically, the idea is that when you have a bunch of individual panels, all about the same size, and you build the intensity of the narrative across those panels, throwing in a drastically bigger panel, or strangely shaped panel, or whatever, will have the effect of releasing the tension you've been building. If you pair such a break with an extremely powerful moment in the story, you affect the reader more profoundly.

Want an example? Check out this set of pages from Ellis and Duffield's FREAKANGELS (note that there are some pretty major spoilers here, and it probably will come off as pretty incomprehensible if you haven't read up to this point. Don't panic, don't worry about the details, just check out what they're doing with the actual layout of the pages and the way Luke's ugly mug keeps getting closer to you. Euugh.)

Start here, and just keep going till this page.

What makes this interesting is that such dramatic shifts are, I suspect, much less easy to achieve in other media. In film, for instance, you're pretty much limited to the aspect ratio (the ratio of width to height) of the movie screen. So, say you want to build tension with a set of closeups, and then zoom out for a big reveal. Well, unlike in comics, you can't limit a closeup just to a person's face. Screens are a lot wider than they are tall, and so you're always going to be left with a little bit of space left over at the sides. Comics can get around that by grouping a bunch of smaller, human-head-sized panels on a page. Furthermore, the actual drama of the big reveal is enhanced in comics by the fact that you can literally take the shape of the frame from human scale to a very inhuman scale.

Of course, this isn't a technique that is just useful in sci fi or fantasy--imagine the same thing used in a Western, for example, or even a serious drama. (Check out these three pages from Freakangels for a great example of this technique used for an argument.) But its a technique that the junk genres can make particularly good and frequent use of, and its impact can be felt in comics far more viscerally than in other media. This means that comics are almost a natural home for fantastic stories.

There's another rather interesting quality of comics that comes from its dual nature--the fact that it's telling stories through pictures. This means that it can really start to fiddle around with the narrative in some pretty bizarre ways, simply by turning the panels and moments into literal space. Check out this Dresden Codak comic.

What makes this comic so interetsing is the way it uses the actual panel shapes to show the shift between the real, human world and the world of ghosts. The further from reality things get, the more wavy and strange the panel shapes get. It's a great way of visually signifying the transition from reality into a dreamlike place, reinforcing the other fantastic elements of the sequence. So, if we want to pull back and make a broad sort of statement about this, one of the things that comics does well is create a strange, dreamlike experience where reality is more fluid. It is capable of showing the transitions between mundanity and fantasy in subtle structural ways that would, in another medium, boot the viewer straight out of the work.

These two things (there are others, but we'll leave that for another article, maybe) make comics an ideal medium for stories that push the imagination into new realms. I suspect that part of the continued popularity of the superhero comic is due to how well those types of dramatic, combat-heavy, larger than life stories line up with comics techniques. It's worth reevaluating some of the modern trends in comics, then--or at least trends in comics reporting. Should we really be happy that comics are gaining respectability, if that means ignoring the kind of imaginative stories that work so well in the medium? What do we lose by bringing comics into first-class citizenship as [snorts snuff, adjusts monocle] Sequential Art?

I'll leave off with a rather interesting quote from Jules Feiffer, from the 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes (quoted in Dooley and Heller's The Education of a Comics Artist): "Comic books, first of all, are junk... there to be nothing else but liked. Junk is a second-class citizen of the arts... There are certain inherent privileges in second-class citizenship. Irresponsibility is one."

That's a rather bold statement, isn't it? But what do you think? Hollar at me in the comments, or on Facebook, G+, the Flavor and Storylines board (you know who you are!), or my e-mail:

And, as always, let me know which articles you like, which you hate, which you want to see more of, and so on. And, of course, if there's something about these damn Liberal Arts Intellectuals that you just don't quite get, let me know, and I might end up doing an article about it.


  1. I loved the references to Freakangels and Dresden Codak, but I'm wondering how well the Freakangels references went over among those who hadn't read it...

    For instance, getting hung up on the fact that Luke has a bloody hole in his forehead...

    But all in all, great post, and well-condensed!

  2. Your blog is a dangerous pit of temptation for reforming tropeaholics.

    Also I like that quote about second class citizenry. There is something to be had by not having to please the masses, or the critics.

    However there is something to be gained from being noticed and criticized, the artform can get better. It just has to stay true to itself.

  3. Yeah. I think there's a tradeoff either way. My mind isn't totally made up on which one is better...

  4. I must say, I love that C.S. Lewis quote at the top.

    As far as the age ghettos, just try to convince anyone over about 35 to watch Avatar: the Last Airbender or, God forbid, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I imagine there are people who, even after hearing reviews of each, would rather see the Airbender movie than the TV show. After all, they can't watch a 'kids' show, right?

    I pride myself on being the kind of person that embodies the C.S. Lewis quote, that because I know who I am, I have no need to follow stereotypes and can appreciate good fiction no matter the medium. And yes, I do enjoy watching Modern Gods defeat evil repeatedly, thank you very much.

  5. Hey Sam it's Claire, Addie sent me the link for this. Looks like pretty interesting stuff. This post caught my eye since I've been re-reading Achewood for the 8 billionth time as usual, but the more serious overtones are really starting to hit me. Totally disguised under talking otters and teddy bears and cats and dogs that aren't even recognizable as cats and dogs. Case in point: Cartilage head story for starters Then the next strip is about taking a whiz on Kraftwerk.
    Anyway, just thought I'd say hi since it's been awhile.


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