Saturday, March 28, 2015

What do comics do better than, er, non-comics?

I read a few comics last week, which got me thinking about how comics tell stories. Here's an old post that asks a similar question.
I recently read a crime novel whose one distracting quirk was an occasional paragraph of dialogue or exposition that read like an editorial comment or an information dump.

I've also been reading Greg Rucka's Queen & Country, a comic set in the contemporary world of British intelligence, and it occurred to me that comics can sometimes convey information more efficiently than non-graphic books — verbal information, I mean.

Say an author decides the contents of a report about complex, high-level, multinational drug, arms and financial transactions are essential to his or her story. How is the author to convey that information without dragging the story to halt?

Queen & Country's characters spend good chunks of their time at their desks discussing intelligence and other data, but the discussion is never boring. One reason is that we can see their reactions.

A spy chief might slap a report on his desk in disgust or grit his teeth as a superior shoots down his plans. It's a lot easier on a reader to see a skilled graphic rendering of such reactions than it is to read: "He slapped the report on his desk in disgust, grinding his teeth as his superior shot down his plans."
What else can comics do better or more efficiently than traditional novels and stories? What can traditional stories do better? Have you ever read a scene in one medium that you thought would work better in another?

Rucka himself provides an opportunity to test these questions. He has written several novels based on the graphic-novel series. Read excerpts here and here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Blogger Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I think the obvious is action. Fight scenes with the right artist are so well done with out words.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Non-graphic stories may be better at describing the aftermath of a fight, though. (But our reading of comics is influenced by our reading of non-graphic stories. I probably could not look at a panel of a protagonist recovering from a fight without a million such scenes from books running through my head.)

I have been surprised several times in Queen and Country by expository passages that would have seemed information dumpish in a regular book but did not seem that way in the comic.

September 06, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I applaud your conversion to the art of comics. Some might consider it incipient senility, but not me. As someone woefully ignorant of that particular art myself I can only attempt to compare it with other graphic arts, such as film.

This post, by David Bordwell, on the use of bedposts as phallic symbols in movies (the D W Griffith screenshots work best), makes me wonder how a novelist might attempt something similiar.

But I don't think it can be done. The ambiguity of images allows for what politicians call plausible deniability.

A novelist, on the other hand, attempting to replicate this idea would require an explicitness that couldn't possibly compare with the 'subtlety' of a visual image.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This is not my second but my third childhood, at least as far as comics are concerned. I read them as a child, then became a Harvey Pekar fan years later when I had a housemate who was an aspiring cartoonist, and now this.

You were wise to put subtlety in quotation marks. The ease of talking about images as opposed to the difficulty of talking about words enables people to clothe the most obvious observations in a scholarly mantle.

Film is an apt subject for any discussion of comics. Several of the comics I use the panel as an obvious analogue to the shot in a movie, then "cut" rapidly among various distances of shots (close-up, far shot, two-shot, etc.).

I don't remember much of that sort of thing from the comics of my youth. I wonder when comic artists began deliberately to use movies as a model.

September 06, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm guessing that illustrated magazines do rather well also. The glossy ones often cost as much as a book. I tend to consume a number of them -- when I don't want to think too much.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I always think too much, though I am sympathetic to your point of view. Without knowing much about what has gone on in the world of comics since I was in short pants, I always had the idea that many comics of the past twenty years relied entirely too much on shadows, full-bleed pages, luxurious printing, and a dark, highly saturated palette, all meant to suggest that comics were Serious Art. They wanted readers to think that they were thinking without, in fact, really thinking too much.

Not the comics I read, though. The stuff I like is good.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

Comic crime fiction is underdeveloped, but check out any online listing for some pointers. Generally they are melodramatic and often light on subtlety, in the 'Sin City' style. Often the film is better than the comic it's taken from - example: 'History of Voilence'- but I do recommend GOTHAM CENTRAL not only because it is superhero light but because it's superb crime fiction writing.

March 29, 2015  
Blogger Charlene Delfin said...

Comics are better at describing the appearances of the characters than traditional novels and stories. When I read traditional novels, I struggle hard in search of words that describe what the characters look like so that I can picture them as if they're with me at the moment.

The visuals of comics give the exact appearance of the characters as soon as you begin reading. You no longer have to do extra reading and figuring out before proceeding to enjoying the action and plot twists.

March 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave: I'll give Gotham Central a look. Black Hood, about which I posted recently, has a marked superhero element, but it's a good noir story above all.

I have one issue of Sin City, and I seem to recall it was a bit much. My guess is that Watchmen set the bar so high that subsequent conics writers fell short when they tried to give their superheroes what they imagined was depth. I'm not sure if I have my chronology precisely right, though.

March 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Charlene: But in well-written novel, it doesn't matter exactly what the characters look like, does it?

March 30, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Not so much comics, but movies have become a problem. Thanks to sleepless nights and Turner Classic Movies, I often I have trouble distinguishing between what I have read and what I have seen.

I do agree that comics have a tendency to set the appearance of characters in stone. There is no confusing the appearance of Dagwood and his punk style hair with Rex Morgan M.D. or Lil' Abner with Snuffy Smith. On a personal note. I always thought Lil' Abner resembled a young Elvis.

March 31, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mary Beth: Your observation about comics' setting the characters' appearances in stone may explain why there was a minor flurry of excited conversation about recent changes to the costumes of some DC superheroes. And I quite like the idea of Dagwood with a punk hairstyle.

April 01, 2015  

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