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Comic Book Questions - Salvador Dali in a lawn chair.
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lost_angel
lost_angel
Comic Book Questions
I'm trying to learn more about comic books as a storytelling method. I have read only one comic book series, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, long ago and which I loved. But honestly, none of the other comic book series to which I have been introduced (which are few) have interested me.

There is also something a little simplistic about using a series of images to communicate a story. It often seems as if the writers and artists have to be very literal or explicit and that all subtlety is lost. They seem like super hero soap operas. This is an opinion formulated through very little exposure and I would be extremely happy if someone would give me examples to the contrary.

Lately (as I recently discussed with spiderknight), I have started to visualize story ideas in still image form. This is fine, except that the images are not translating well to the written word. I don't know if this is because I am out of practice for writing fiction and the process comes with less ease to me, or if these stories are better suited for a still image method.

I know several of you are fans of comic books and possess a large store of knowledge to draw from. Would you mind answering a few questions for me? You may either leave a comment or email me at ginger.cox at gmail.com.

1. Other than the traditional super hero fare, what types of stories are best told through comics?

2. Do you think the method of serial images lends itself better to certain scenarios?

3. What stories would you not tell via comics?

4. What titles do you recommend of the non super hero variety (I like super heroes; those just aren't the stories I want to tell)?

5. Is there a market for comic novels that are not released serially in segments?

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amazingmrparker From: amazingmrparker Date: February 19th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC) (link)
I'm commenting here since gmail is blocked at the office...

Which other comic series have you been introduced to and tried to read but didn't like?

There IS something very simple about using images to communicate ideas...but also something very difficult and complex. The cliche "a picture is worth a thousand words" rings particularly true with comics. Visual images are EASILY capable of as great a degree of subtlety and interpretation (and misinterpretation) as words are - just look at the Mona Lisa's smile, for example (which I'm certain many thousands of words have been written about). What if you didn't HAVE words to tell a story? How do you tell your story so that it will be universally understood and transcend the need for written or spoken language? What if you have ONLY the pictures to rely on?

To directly answer your questions:

1) Just about anything, as far as I'm concerned.

2) Kinda related to question #1, yes, the media through which you choose to transmit an idea can affect the clarity of that transmission. Some stories work better as prose, some work better as sequential images, some work better as film. Think about when you go to see a movie that's adapted from a book, and whether you liked the book or the movie better. It's like that.

3) Crappy stories.

4) Yeah, superheroes blow. It's really only in America that comic books have a cultural association with superheroes. In Europe, and particular in Japan, comics cross vastly more genres and age groups than they do here.

I don't know if you're looking for Stories of Deep Literary Value or just a fun yarn told as a comic, but either way, here are some of the things that I've read that I think are Fucking Awesome:

Oddly enough, my first recommendation is actually a superhero comic: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen". Originally published as a 12-part series, you can still get the collected volume. This is one of the few comics that I feel I can safely call a masterpiece of sequential art. Moore and Gibbons really push the boundaries of telling multiple narratives simultaneously using words and pictures: for instance, while the characters may be saying one thing, the way that they are standing is the same position as two different characters were standing earlier, giving their dialogue a slightly different meaning...oh my god, just read it three or four times. Let me put it this way: "Watchmen" is the book that I've loaned out to people, forgotten who I've given it to, and had to re-buy for myself more often than any other. I'm on my fifth or sixth copy. Every time I read it, another level of the story or a detail that I missed previosly becomes apparent to me.

Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", which is, as far as I'm concerned, the definitive text (well, it's really a comic) on how, not only comics, but storytelling and art in general WORKS. Reading this will answer more of your questions (and inspire more questions) than any amount of conversation with me possibly could.

Shit, I'm at the office, I shouldn't be on LiveJournal. Okay, here's a list of other stuff that I've really enjoyed, sans descriptions:
Bone
Strangers in Paradise
Fables
Y the Last Man
Strazynski's run on The Amazing Spider-Man (I know, superheroes, but it's GOOD)
Maus
Will Eisner's A Contract With God and Other Stories

Seriously, just take some vacation time, drive to my house in Atlanta, and spend a week on my couch reading my comics. Seriously. I've got damn near an entire bookshelf dedicated to nothing but graphic novels.

5) Yes, absolutely.

I'm not going to say that I'm any kind of expert on comics and sequential art...however, I DO have a piece of paper at home that says I have a degree in it (with a shiny gold seal and everything!) I'm not any kind of authority, and I haven't really DRAWN in more years than I can count, but it's still something that I have a LOT of passion for and would be more than happy to discuss with you at any time. :)
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC) (link)
Our answers are, not surprisingly, similar.
amazingmrparker From: amazingmrparker Date: February 19th, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC) (link)
Not surprising indeed! You've listed a few that I haven't (YET) read, actually.

My only point of contention: for Ginger's purposes at this time, I wouldn't recommend Comics and Sequential Art. Though it is absolutely The Book on comics, I think she'd find it more technical and less Big-Question-Answering than what she seems to be looking for.
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC) (link)
It's Eisner. That would be like skipping the Bible to read a Jack Chick tract. :P

But "Understanding Comics" is more approachable.
amazingmrparker From: amazingmrparker Date: February 19th, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC) (link)
Approachable, that's the word that I was looking for regarding Understanding Comics.

It's also, I'd like to point out, NOTHING like a Jack Chick tract :P
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC) (link)
True, bu compared to the light of Eisner, all others are shadows.
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 19th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC) (link)
Unless it requires a knowledge of differential equations, I'm usually okay with technical books. I have been known to plod through such books with a dictionary and wikipedia open in front of me. Admittedly I may not get as much out of technical books as someone better grounded in the field, but I should still get at least something out of it, which is the goal.

But from your discussion with mistervimes at least I know the order in which I should read them: Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" followed by Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art".
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 19th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC) (link)
Thank you for a most thorough response!

I think you have some very good points that I had not considered:

a. How do you tell a story without words? With sounds or moving images or still images --> you can tell a whole story simply through one still frame (which I am the most familiar with, painting and drawing in a more traditional sense). As a lover of surrealism, and all the interpretations one scene might have, this makes sense to me.

b. I also did not realize that the superhero dominance of comic books is only an American thing (although it should have occurred to me from living in Japan that the huge selection of manga from all genres of stories would have been a good example).
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC) (link)
You know, I think I need to chime in here.

1. Other than the traditional super hero fare, what types of stories are best told through comics? Biographies are very good. The imagery lends itself well to this type of story. Quasi and semi biographical stories work well too. Here are some amazing examples:
Maus - Art Spiegelman's biography of his father and how he survived the holocaust.
American Splendor and Our Cancer Year - Harvey Pekar's examination of everyday life and the tiny triumphs and tragedies we all experience.
Ghost World - Daniel Clowes story of two young women on the cusp of adulthood.


2. Do you think the method of serial images lends itself better to certain scenarios? Obviously. The master of sequential storytelling is, unarguably, Will Eisner. Panel layout, borders and visual expression are as key to storytelling as a camera angles.

Two sources for this sort of thing would be Comics and Sequential Art and Understanding Comics.

3. What stories would you not tell via comics? There is nothing you cannot tell in a comic form. It's just a different type of storytelling, like oral history or film.

4. What titles do you recommend of the non super hero variety (I like super heroes; those just aren't the stories I want to tell)? I am so glad you asked. In addition to Maus, American Splendor and Ghost World, I would add:
The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner
The Contract with God Trilogy by Will Eisner
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
Bone by Jeff Smith
From Hell by Alan Moore

5. Is there a market for comic novels that are not released serially in segments? Yes and no. Yes there is, but buying a whole graphic novel without a serialized background is busually reserved (by publishers) to people with a proven record in the comics field. The storngest way to do something like this (that I have seen) is a web comic, that then gets collected.

Edited at 2008-02-19 04:15 pm (UTC)
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 19th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC) (link)
When I wrote this post, I expected that you and your giant, comic-loving noggin' would have a complete list of works to introduce me to the world of comics.

(No, I don't think you have a big head; I think you have a big brain and I wanted to exploit it to turn me from ingenue to respectful fan.)

You also gave me a very specific example of alternative subjects that lend themselves to comics: biographies. Thank you!

I have heard of Harvey Pekar but not via his work. Anthony Bourdain spoke with him when he visited Cleveland, and I thought that the concept of Pekar's gritty, depressed Americana was very cool. I had completely forgotten his name until you mentioned it now.

I notice that none of you mentioned Frank Miller, whose work I have never read but fell in love with when turned into movie format. What do you think of his work?

Thank you so much for the very thorough list of recommendations. Since the name Eisner has turned up most often on this page, his work, if I am able to find it easily and cheaply, will be the first I seek out.
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC) (link)
You'll be surprised at how much of Eisner's work can be found at a decent library, check there first.

I hesitate to mention Miller for two reasons (A) I associate most of his work with Superheroes and (B) after a while, his blatant misogynism begins to grate. You will note in "Sin City" that all of the female characters are dominatrixes or whores. This is a pretty common theme with him. Innocence is despoiled in some way and the woman be comes a man-hating lesbian or an object of lust. Seldom are there any alternatives. Relationships are dysfunctional and typically degenerate into brow beating instead of reconciliation. Children are often portrayed as being used as weapons or are deranged.

All that being said, I like Miller, most of the time.
amazingmrparker From: amazingmrparker Date: February 20th, 2008 03:54 am (UTC) (link)
I agree wholeheartedly. Sin City is pretty freakin' awesome, but it gets to be the same tune after a little while.
From: spiderknight Date: February 19th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC) (link)

*throwing a pair of pennies on the table*

1. Other than the traditional super hero fare, what types of stories are best told through comics?

Actually, I've seen some very compelling stories told using superhero fare (Watchmen was good, but I also love "Squadron Supreme" as a story of philosophical concepts taken to extremes in the name of good...)

But to answer your question, any story can be told reasonably well through comics. I should loan you "Understanding Comics," a fairly useful analysis of the subject for people who aren't as familiar with it.

2. Do you think the method of serial images lends itself better to certain scenarios?

Definately. A picture will always be worth a thousand words.

3. What stories would you not tell via comics?

"The Giver," for one. If you've read it, you know why. I'm sure I could think of others, but that's the only one immediately coming to mind.

4. What titles do you recommend of the non super hero variety (I like super heroes; those just aren't the stories I want to tell)?

Maus, definately. Maus II, possibly. (Study of Nazis and Jews) Bone is also good. (Fantasy) Transmetropolitan, definately. (Think Hunter Thompson doing maverick journalism ina twisted future setting) If you like fantasy/magic, then anything by Vertigo, (home of Sandman) including Lucifer, John Constantine, and Books of Magic, all excellent.

5. Is there a market for comic novels that are not released serially in segments?

Absolutely, however, that market tends to be dominated by established industry professionals. I have, however, met many newer creators who made noble efforts and found satisfaction in it.
mistervimes From: mistervimes Date: February 19th, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC) (link)

Re: *throwing a pair of pennies on the table*

Oooh. Transmet, That's a good one, also, (and we're heading back towards Superheroes here) Animal Man by Grant Morrison, Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and any of the Miracleman stories.

Watchmen is also brilliant.

If there is one single story in the long-underwear genre I would recommend, it would be "Coyote Gospel" in Animal Man (issue #8, I think.)
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 20th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC) (link)

Re: *throwing a pair of pennies on the table*

As always, Geoff, thank you :)
mandis13 From: mandis13 Date: February 19th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC) (link)
Most of the previous respondents covered the basics, but let me add my opinion to theirs, especially on the subject of "non-superhero fare."

There are several comics that are non-superhero that are amazing reads (I'd start with "Maus" or "Ghost World" as it should be easy to get a copy and is very, very good). Asking what does or does not work in comic-book-form is like asking what does or does not work in verbal storytelling form to me; anything can be done if you have the right person doing it.

But what I want you to remember is that many of the BEST stories told in this genre, from an adult standpoint and from the perspective of literary weight, are in the superhero genre.

Eason covered a few of my faves here, but in this category I'd have to recommend Alan Moore's "Watchmen" more than the rest of the pack. The story is involved, and with amazingly little "daring-do." The characters are so tragically human. But even moreso, this comic is considered THE reason by many people that such stories can be successful in our media today. Its not necessarily better than everything like it (tho I could argue for that), but it was made at a time that set it up to be the forefront of the adult graphic comic movement.

For an example of how a story can be ALL about superheroes and yet still not be about powers at all, allow me to recommend Moore's "Top Ten" series.

I'd also recommend the Miracleman series, but those can be VERY hard to get ahold of and it has not been released in graphic format that I have ever seen. A full set of these is like the comics Holy Grail, both in value as a collector and for the content itself.

Probably one of the best stories out there, as mentioned by others already, is Warren Ellis's "Transmetropolitan." Buddy, this book is for YOU! I think its out-of-print now, but was popular enough that you could probably snag all 10 graphic novels offa Amazon on the cheap. For what you are looking for, I really can't recommend this one highly enough. Its not superheroic, but it is sci-fi... but not like ANY sci-fi you've ever seen! Its sci-fi like Firefly is sci-fi; whereas Firefly was a Western in space, Transmet is a modern mystery-drama (andy very, VERY often, comedy) in the future.

And finally, if you don't mind you graphic novels REALLY graphic, you could always get your hands on Ennis's "Preacher" series. Its got a lot of religious overtones, both fantastical and secular, and is NOT for everyone. But if a little of what most religious folks would consider "bad things" doesn't bug ya, then I'd rank the story as another really, really good one. One of my top picks, and I think you'd dig it A LOT.

BLARG!
mandis13 From: mandis13 Date: February 19th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC) (link)
Almost forgot!

Do you like samurai movies, very specifically Akira Kurosawa's works? The get "Lone Wolf and Cub." Its the one that proves that Japanese manga is NOT all crap! Its a historical epic of, well, EPIC proportions!
mandis13 From: mandis13 Date: February 19th, 2008 08:28 pm (UTC) (link)
LOL... just glanced at my comics, and also forgot "The Walking Dead." Imagine the Romero-esque zombie apocalypse. Now picture the survivors, with all their human strengths and weaknesses. Now don't just tell the one "big story," but show how these people have to SURVIVE. Its drama at its highest, and intensely personal characterizations of people in a situation that, the more you see of it, the more it shows how much you have to fight to have keep your hope alive.
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 20th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC) (link)
Maus, Watchman, Miracleman, GhostWorld, and Transmet seem to show up on several of the lists y'all have left me. Honestly, other than the Eisner that I told mistervimes I would be starting first, it will all come down to which I can get a hold of most easily.

I haven't yet read imnotsatan's comment below, but I did see the word library. If I can get any of these at the library, I will be so pleased. I am not above borrowing either, as it has introduced me to some wonderful work. It was because of everraven's trust in me to loan me her hardback copies of "Sandman" that I was able to fall in love with it (and Neil Gaiman altogether; previously the only Gaiman work I'd read before that was Good Omens).

I think I've talked with you more about books than anyone else in this thread (which still isn't much) so I take your recommendation for "Transmetropolitan" very seriously.

Jason Floyd once told me he was in love with the "Preacher" series. I usually like sci-fi with religious overtones (or undertones or throwing stones), and the gruesome and grotesque doesn't bother me. Thus, this series will definitely make it on my "to read" list, provided I can get a hold of it for minimal cost.

To answer your later comment, I am not a particular fan of samurai stories. The characters are usually not very believable to me: nobility in the face of futility, honor for honor's sake, and even the ethic of western knights don't appeal to me unless they have been tempered with elements of realism. Otherwise I never develop interest in the characters. They have to have believable motivation, flaws of the small and tragic varieties, and both good and back luck to induce me to care about what happens to them.

Thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I have a great many series to get me started, and I hope I will soon have many more questions and comments to share with you :)
mandis13 From: mandis13 Date: February 20th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC) (link)
Preacher, Maus, and especially Watchmen should still be easy to get (I think they are all still in print). The Transmet stuff you can score on Amazon at $10 or less, and the used ones for less than that.

I'd start with Watchmen (easier to find plus its kinda the book that got the ball rolling), and I THINK I have a copy of Maus lying around somewhere. If so, I'll try to get it to ya. You can probably find a copy of it on Amazon on the cheap, and its WAY worth the price.

As for "Lone Wolf and Cub," you'd probably like it a lot more. It happens during the Shogunate (high political intrigue and corruption), and really is a tale of vengeance and of a man's willingness to turn his back on what he used to believe in order to achieve said vengeance. Not for everyone, but a good read nonetheless.

And "Preacher," well, its not for everyone, for sure. But I think you'd dig it. Just remember it doesn't REALLY take off til after the second trade paperback; the first one has a lot of action on its own, but the later volumes REALLY pick up the pace!

BLARG!
imnotsatan From: imnotsatan Date: February 19th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC) (link)
1. Other than the traditional super hero fare, what types of stories are best told through comics?

First off, superheros may have won the battle for comic supremacy, but they form only a relatively small slice of the traditional comics landscape. Detective stories, "mystery" comics (largely concerned with the occult), romance, and war comics were all wildly sucessful in their day, and I think in a lot of ways they're much more suited to the medium than capes and tights.

I find that to be an effective comic, a story needs to have a gripping sense of atmosphere. Suspense and horror are naturals for the genre for this reason. Urban stories also work better than pastoral ones, because it's much easier to keep visual interest.

2. Do you think the method of serial images lends itself better to certain scenarios?

No. I've read superhero fights that were meant to be action packed that failed entirely to exploit the medium or hold my interest, and I've read comics with basically no action at all that kept me riveted. It depends entirely on the skill of the artist and writer.

3. What stories would you not tell via comics?

I've written both straight fiction and comics, and I have to say that I don't like writing romance or relationship-driven works in comic form. I feel that the visual component often contributes little to nothing to the story.

4. What titles do you recommend of the non super hero variety (I like super heroes; those just aren't the stories I want to tell)?

Eesh. I'll go down the list:

Transmetropolitan (Warren Ellis)
Crecy (Warren Ellis, one shot)
Fables and Jack of Fables (Bill Willingham)
Grendel (Matt Wagner; the early stuff's a bit hard to get ahold of sometimes, but Behold the Devil is brand new and AMAZING)
Minimum Wage (Bob Fingerman; collected as Beg the Question)
Lucifer (Mike Carey)
The Phantom Stranger (1969, various writers and artists)
The Question (specifically Rich Veitch's 2005 limited series)
Testament (Douglas Rushkoff; I've yet to get very far into this one yet, but what I've read so far is great)
Futurama (You think I'm joking.)
Return to Sender (Though it, sadly, has never been finished)
Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse (Ben Templesmith)
The Spirit (Will Eisner or Darwyn Cooke; some people will argue that this is a superhero comic)
Blankets (Craig Thompson)

Though they're technically superhero comics, I strongly recommend James Robinson's run on Starman, Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Kurt Busiek's Astro City.

4b. While I'm listing, some comics of the non-super variety that I've read but can't recommend:

100 Bullets (Azzarello and Bermejo got me into comics in the first place, but this comic makes me cringe)
Y: The Last Man (I found it trite and subtly misogynistic)
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (The first volume is alright, but the second one goes nowhere very slowly; I've heard good things about the Black Dossier though)
Basically anything Frank Miller ever wrote or was in the same room as (He's an overrated hack)

5. Is there a market for comic novels that are not released serially in segments?

That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn't it? I think the jury is still largely out on that. There's certainly a proven market for manga, which is the exact same thing. With the resurgence of comic book movies, there's growing recognition of trades. I think trades are much more accessible for the average reader, but the comic industry is really not exploiting the market like they should be. Time will have to tell, I'm afraid.
imnotsatan From: imnotsatan Date: February 19th, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC) (link)
PS: I should point out that the Oxford Library has several of the books I mentioned in their very well stocked graphic novel section.
imnotsatan From: imnotsatan Date: February 19th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC) (link)
Oh! And if you're looking for books about comics, particularly if you're curious as to why superheroes are an American thing, I can't recommend Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones strongly enough.
lost_angel From: lost_angel Date: February 20th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC) (link)
I very nearly leapt from my seat when I saw the word "library" written below. I am so excited that I might be able to get a hold of a few titles to get me started without dropping couple hundred dollars. I have had an Oxford library card but I have yet to use it. :)

I find that to be an effective comic, a story needs to have a gripping sense of atmosphere. Suspense and horror are naturals for the genre for this reason. Urban stories also work better than pastoral ones, because it's much easier to keep visual interest.

You make an excellent point. I think intensity and catharsis are the true gold of any storytelling method, but since comics are completely dependent on the illustrations to carry that emotional edge, such environments and settings are easier to charge and release the energy.

Thank you too for the most exhaustive list of recommendations, and, just as helpful, a list of titles to avoid. There has been a great deal of overlap in recommendations, which focuses the direction of where I will start first.
mandis13 From: mandis13 Date: February 20th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC) (link)
Eason mentioned it before, but the re-mention of Astro City is a good one. Astro City is an amazing look at how having super heroes around would affect a much more realistic world, plus the stories are more often or not about the lives of the people behind the masks or the people that are affected by these heroes and villains.

Lordy I only wish my library had a graphic novel section...

Another good thing is to go to any bookstore that has chairs for lounging, grab a stack of graphic novels (Preacher comes to mind, as its 8 or so volumes and so can get pricey, but is also still in print and nearly always in stock), and read for an afternoon. Glover and I used to do this every other month or so. :)
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