I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, May 29, 2009

The Comic Book Writing Paradox

I read comic books faithfully for over thirty years. I got hooked on them as a kid, collected them as a teen, and accumulated them weekly as an adult, spending a sizable portion of my monthly income on the continuing adventures of my favorite characters. But, I quite cold turkey a few years back. I realized I was part of the problem with comics--I was buying them out of sheer momentum rather than out of actual entertainment. DC and Marvel had tried to grow up with me, selling me comics when I was 10, 20, 30, 40... but the comics they were selling 40 year old me were of no interest at all to kids I knew.

Wores, I wouldn't want to show many of the storylines to kids if they were interested. Identity Crisis was great, but do I really want a child to read about Dr. Light raping Enlongated Man's wife? Or Green Arrow stabbing Deathstroke in the eye?

There's an interesting paradox in modern comics: On average, they are better written and better drawn than they were when I was a kid. At the same time, they just aren't as fun as they once were. Maybe it's just me... perhaps my "sense o' wonder" meter got broken when I turned 40. On the other hand, lately I have gone back and read some of the comics from the seventies, and I do spot some things that I think made comics better back then.

1: You got a LOT more story out of each issue. Comic books these days are very cinematic. A character can spend five pages just putting on his costume. You spend a few more pages of him dealing with friends and family, adding depth to the character. Before you know it you're down to only a page or two where the hero and villians can smack each other around, assuming you get there at all. In the seventies, things moved. Somebody was crashing through a wall by at least the third page. The Justice League could split up in a single issue and travel to the age of dinosaurs, Saturn, the 35th century, the Rock of Eternity, Smallville, and Atlantis and still wrap up all the plot lines by page 17. Seriously, the pacing is just headspinning. Most books today just move too slow.

2: You actually had new characters and villians showing up. Today, it seems like the majority of "new" heroes are actually reboots of old heroes. One surprise when you read Superman from the seventies is that Lex Luthor doesn't show up every issue. There are a lot of one shot villians. Batman can actually go a whole year without fighting the Joker. The storylines today overuse the same core characters. The characters are more trapped in their never-ending battles today than they were back then, even though comics were just as dedicated to returning to the status quo.

3: I know that this is going to sound dumb, but better writing has created worse comic books. I consider myself a pretty good writer, and feel like I have fairly high expectations of the novels I read and the movies I watch. I like depth of characters, I like thought-provoking plots, I like events that forever change characters and force them to contront hard moral choices. I think you can find these same elements in most modern comics. Today, if you get a writer on a comic book who is also a novelist (say, Orson Scott Card on Iron Man) he's going to bring to that comic book the writing aesthetics he's learned from novels. He'll spend a lot of time establishing motives for all the characters. He'll build a plot slowly and plausibly, nailing down every element and action so that it feels real. The science will be well researched and have at least some nod toward actual facts. Over the course of six issues or so, the novelist turned comic-book author will manage to tell a story that will present you with a smart, solid tale that will make you think.

When the story is collected as a graphic novel, it's a good tale. Unfortunately, when it's appearing in monthly installments, seventeen pages at a time, any given issuie is actually sort of... boring. (I'm not picking on Card here, by the way. I've seen this with almost all novelists turned comic book writers.) You pay four bucks to pick up a comic book, but you don't get a story for your four bucks, you get a fragment of a story, and it's just not that satisfying.

In the seventies, the depth of motivations for a supervillian was usually along the lines of, "Well, I've got this freeze-ray, and my mama sewed me this costume... why shouldn't I rob a bank today? What are the odds of the Flash showing up AGAIN?" And when the Flash would show up, he'd trap the villian inside a giant birdcage that just happened to be nearby at the giant birdcage museum, because, you know, you find these things in big cities. The moral dilema of the issue would be whether or not he should sign autographs for the cops afterwards or rush off to keep his date with Iris. It writing wasn't deep, and it wasn't sophisticated, the science made you roll your eyes, but, somehow, it also wasn't boring.

In the seventies, comic books were written by people who understood they were writing comic books. They had a set number of pages to fill, month after month after month, and each month had to cram in a story. To meet their deadlines, they would throw in the wierdest crap you can imagine, and explain it with the flimsiest of logic. You wound up with 17 pages of strange wonder. Today, comic books are being written by people who write excellent novels, televisions, and movies... but who don't know squat about comic books, where a single issue is the most important unit of story. Today, any given issue of a comic is just a fragment of a larger graphic novel. Who wants to spend 4 bucks on a chapter when you can wait and buy the whole story line for half the price of buying it chapter by chapter?

If novelists want to write about superheroes, they should... in novels. In the mean time, the industry should go and find a bunch of hacks who turn out stories quick and dirty, in hope of recapturing the lost formula that made comics great.

Or, perhaps looking to the past is the wrong approach, and it's time to fully embrace evolution. Blasphemy of blashemies, maybe it's time for the comic book to disappear. Instead of publishing monthly issues of Batman and Spiderman, the publishers can release two or three graphic novels per year. I think you'd wind up with even better graphic novels as a result, because you'd finally be acknowledging that this is the artform that is actually being published.


Lucifal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucifal said...

I have a feeling graphic novels may well be on the way "in" and serialisation on the way "out". I think more prose readers are becoming interested in the graphic novel, hence Murky Depths' mix of prose and comic short stories in a "graphic novel" package.

Drakonis said...

The older comics seem to have come back here in Japan. They are called マンガ (how the heck do I spell it in English?)

James Maxey said...

Drakonis, it's interesting the way that American and Japanese comics have fed off one another. While europeans did do a little bit with comics, it's really in Japan where comic books escaped the straight jacket of superheroes and grew into an artform appropriate for telling any and all stories, from adventures to romance to science fiction and fantasy to porn. Now, it's interesting to see how much American artists mimic manga styles.

As I understand it, a lot of manga in japan are published weekly, so the expectations of how much the story will advance each week are somewhat different. I know reading Shonen Jump here in the US that the pacing of weekly serial strips like One Peice is completely different from anything found in American comics.

I also admire the fact that manga don't seem to have any restrictions on mixing genres. You can freely mix science fiction and fantasy elements, throw any anything else you want like pirates or cowboys or funny animals or ninjas, and tell stories that are simultaneously serious and funny, violent and romantic.

A lot of Americans feel like American popular culture is hands down the best in the world, but I really think that Japanese popular culture is the next dominant wave. Maybe American comics will be able to respond and adapt to compete. We'll see.

Drakonis said...

Manga. Is that it? Jpan isn't the only country that makes good ones, Germany and France have some great ones too.

Ethansdad said...

Great blog post James. Something I thought of as you were talking about introducing 'hacks' into the comic industry - I believe television writers are for the most part considered hacks - same basic concept - cram as much story into a half hour/hour show as you can. Interestingly, I was also going to mention that Joss Whedon's work on Astonishing X-Men is some of the best I've read in years (very much harkening back to an earlier time) - and look at that, he comes from a TV background. I'd have to look into it more, but I wonder if some of the more successful comic writers of 'today' (those writing complete single issues) have that TV writing background.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Ethansdad. I agree that TV writers often get branded hacks, and often deservedly so. On the other hand, they are writing in a severely constrained medium. A novelist is free to use as many words as it takes to tell a story, and he's unrestricted by budgets. His characters have no limits except for those imposed by his imagination.

If you are writing a sitcom, every story has to unfold in exactly 22 minutes. Depending on the show's budget, you will probably be restricted to a few specific sets. Your ideas for the actions and dialogue for the characters are going to be limited by the acting abilities of the actors potraying them. Also, the actors might push back against you're writing if they are big enough stars and feel they own the characters.

Given these limits, it's astounding how much good television actually exists. I like to think of these things as akin to writing sonnets. The form has arbitrary boudaries set long ago by others. What you do within these boundaries is where the art lies.