The Strength of the Comic Medium
By Bevan Thomas
In his screenwriting guidebook Story, award-winning screenwriter Robert McKee discusses the relative strengths of various storytelling mediums, and deduces that live theatre is the medium best-suited for detailed dialogue, novels and short stories for character introspection, and movies for visual subtext observed by witnessing characters’ behaviour and their environment as opposed to what they say or think. It’s an interesting theory, and certainly novels allow us smooth access to characters’ thoughts in a way no other medium does, while movies and television display a private and highly visual world and plays are certainly primarily about conversation and monologues. There are, of course, exceptions such as the movie My Dinner with Andre, which entirely consists of two people discussing philosophy in a restaurant, or the television show Dexter, which makes extensive use of a voice-over narrations to get inside the protagonist’s head. However, despite such productions, McKee’s analysis rings-true as a general overview, if not as all-encompassing as he implies.
What then is the storytelling specialty of comic books?
In Writing for Comics, prominent comic author Alan Moore comments that comic books can combine a movie’s visual subtext with a novel’s ability to be experienced at whatever pace the reader desires, which opens up the possibility for complexity and reference that movies lack. One comic book where this is prominently displayed is in Legends in Exile, the first collection in Bill Willingham’s Fables series. In that story, a detective investigates a murder, and prowls the crime scene to study everything there. At the end of the story, the detective explains the whole mystery in true “drawing-room mystery” style and as he does so, images from the crime scene are shown with the significance of particular sections explored.
As I read the explanation, I often flipped back to the initial appearance of the crime scene in order to see the clues in their original context and to judge how well they fit in with the detective’s theory. It was something I could only do with a comic. Rewinding through a DVD is usually more hassle than it’s worth, and in a novel, it is difficult to find a scene from skimming page after page of pure text. However, it is incredibly easy to return to a particular place in a graphic novel, just keep flipping until the pictures start to look familiar. It is a medium suited for easy back-and-forth movement between sections.
In a novel, with the exception of the occasional illustration, all information must be explained with words; if something exists in a scene, then the author must actively describe it. In a movie or television show, that, of course, it can be placed in the image without the author needing to bring it to the audience attention, but still the visual subtext is limited by the speed at which the film moves. A particular scene cannot be studied for as long as the viewer desires. It is there for a few moments and then gone, and the viewer just has to hope that he didn’t miss anything important. Now in a comic book, the reader can decide how long he stays at each image. A picture can be as complex as needed, as filled with as many figures and clues as suits the story, since there is no limit to how long the reader can spend on the panel to figure everything-out. Graphic novels such as the aforementioned Fables and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are packed with visual information, with numerous panels filled with references and hints about the richly detailed world which the reader can discover and decipher at his or her leisure, and which create an incredibly intricate environment with a huge amount of depth.They play to the strength of the medium.
When the depth of pictures is organized to tell a story, when a visual narrative is placed on the page so that each scene can be dwelled on as long as the reader wishes and referred to whenever he wants, when the intimacy and narrative detail of prose is combined with the intensity of art, then that presents a unique form of storytelling. Fables: Legends in Exile, Watchmen, and numerous other comic books tell their stories in ways that no other medium could.
I completely agree. I must have spent hours on the fearful symmetry chapter in watchmen. The double page in the center is my favorite page from any comic. I could read that chapter for days and still find something new.