Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comics Should Be Good - Storytelling

By Scott Clark & Dave Beaty
On the the Monkey House Games forum I shared that Scott Clark, one of the early creators at Image comics passed away recently. It was a big lost to a friend of mine, because Scott had helped him get into the Big Leagues, inking for DC and such. [see awesome image to the right]

Now Scott Clark had talent and skill and treated his buds right. Personally, I liked some of his work, some of Jim Lee's work and very little of the other Image creators. Many times, their work was all pretty girls and big guns and frankly, was missing real depth of story and characterization. And frankly, after they did a four year raping of the industry, no one wanted to collect comics anymore because of the multi-cover, super gloss, ultra-ridiculous content of so many books they put out.

Another poster called it what it was: The Dark Ages of comics. Storytelling went to hell as wallets were fattened on empty promises, cookie-cutter art and pinups.

There's "Hey!", "Hot!"
"HAWT!" & "Huh??!"
"Huh??!" :P
Again, I have nothing personal against these guys - they have some very admirable qualities and technical skills. But good comics are good stories, with stunning moments of writing, of art.

The motive behind your storytelling is almost as important as the tale you actually tell. We can smell a shyster, a pro who's offering you the ice cream of sexy babes and hot action to get you to pay for a trip in his unmarked white van with the tear-stained mattress inside.

This is not just my opinion; these young creatives nearly undid an industry as they soul-raped the myths we grew up with and offered something half as thought-out as the hot new replacement. Their temporary success was like what recently happened in the housing boom. All who invested ended up with unsellable property.

Their creations are all-but-gone; and if they are not extinct, they are still less than 1% of the market they thought to beat. They are forgettable mutants with extra ammo packets. [One could hope they all decided mass suicide was necessary to save the Earth's original heroes and finally did something anatomically correct and noble in the same breath.]

Good Artists Know their Calling
If you are going to draw, draw. But comics, as visual as they are, can survive fairly weak art with a good storyteller. There are usually three people working to make the page appealing - the penciller, the inker, the colorist. There is only one writer, 95% of the time. If he or she fails, no one can pick you up, except the editor.

I think that may be why so many editors jumped in to take fuller control of more storylines. They have a plethora of good artists, but only a few writers they trust. Story is king, baby. Even the artist, who tells the visual part of the story must obey the rules of storytelling.

And frankly, many FINE illustrators do NOT know how to tell a clear story - how to show what is necessary for clarity to the reader. They draw interesting angles and fabulous figures in great poses and you end up saying "What was this guy doing when he was reading comics? Did he think pacing, environment, structure, backgrounds, and close-ups were for sissys or something? Did he honestly think because he could draw well, he knew how to tell a story on a page in 6 panels?"

We Needed Top Gun Because Pilots Forgot Dog fighting
Did you know that in the 1960's the US found their air combat kill ratio in Viet Nam dropping so badly that they formed a school to RE-TEACH the art of aerial combat? That's why Top Gun was formed in 1969.

They thought fire-and-forget missiles would replace the art of dog fighting. They were wrong.

That's where we are today. We've forgotten good storytelling.

I want show you something nearly 30 years old by Frank Miller, artist turned writer. I was mesmerized by its pacing and power and realized as I re-read it - the art is so simple, so iconic, a 12-year old could have done it. But THAT made it work all the more. The simplicity WAS the power.

Here it is, from The Dark Knight Returns, vol. 2, pg. 47:

Now we've got SIXTEEN panels of story here, starting with a psychiatrist laying the blame for Two-Face's crimes all on Batman before we "cut" to ANOTHER ancient foe of Batman being visited at Arkham Asylum by a child-man in a pastel sweater.

But is he a sweet misguided soul? No, he's a bomb maker being commissioned by Two Face, so, out of loyalty, he visits the Joker. You understand the horrific irony here? The satire Miller is laying out visually? Our natural sympathies are being played with, and hard.

Cartooning is GOOD
Miller uses the clear-cut visual language of a cartoonist to keep the identities separate, even as the actual words belie their innocence: it adds up to make everything MORE impactful than if a serious or realistic figures had been used.

Another reason it is fitting for this particular book: Batman, Superman, James Gordon, Robin, Wonder Woman - these ARE well-known characters. They are ICONS. So by leaving out details but keeping the signature parts, the reader is treated as a knowledgeable adult, able to fill in the missing gaps.

The reader is "in" on the joke - and in the arched eyebrow with a long drag of a cigarette, Frank Miller's Jack Nicholson-esque Joker confirms our suspicions that his reason is perfectly clear, his evil is as strong and vibrant as ever. His calmness terrifies us.

Miller knew his craft, and we loved him for it. In my opinion, the original ending to the The Dark Knight Returns stands as one of the finest in mythic storytelling.

I think we need more storytelling like that.

I hope you agree and vote with your wallet.


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