Thursday, May 19, 2011

Of Graphic Novels and Comic Books

Up until recently, I didn't see the point of comic books and graphic novels. They seemed a shortcut for kids and adults who were too lazy to read "real" novels, picture books with older protagonists. It seemed like putting training wheels on an adult bicycle. Imagination didn't need the crutch of artwork.

Joss Whedon changed that.

The first comic book I remember reading (and I'm not counting daily comics like Foxtrot, Garfield, and Over the Hedge coming out in book form) was a Dr. Horrible story, based off of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I didn't like the format. I remember wishing they'd just made a short live-action video rather than trying to tell a story this awkward way.

It was more than a year afterwards that I tried reading comic books again. This time, it was a three-part origin story for the web series The Guild (which I'd only gotten into because I knew Felicia Day from Dr. Horrible). This was also the first time I'd purchased a comic book, though it wasn't even a book, but a digital app. I still didn't love the format, but I enjoyed the story despite it.

It was around this time that I was transitioning from books to TV shows as my primary form of embracing story. Don't get me wrong; I still love books, as my sagging shelves will attest. But I estimate I've read well over one thousand novels in the past 15 years. Most of those have been the excellent type where you get so immersed in the story you feel like you are living the main character's life. That's a lot of lives to live. If I didn't have an old soul before, reading books certainly gave me one.

TV shows, on the other hand, have distance built-in. You don't read the characters' minds. You aren't viewing events through their eyes. You are an observer. But since you go through all of the characters' traumatic moments with them, you seem to be much more than an observer. The characters become your best friends, and you laugh and cry with them.

Novels send you off on an adventure. TV shows give you a whole new group of friends.

Wow, I didn't expect that tangent. I only brought up TV shows to explain how I was embracing my inner geek (thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory, which even features a comic book store) and to set up my next graphic novel experience, which was all the fault of a TV show.

Two TV shows, actually. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. After I finished watching all 12 combined seasons, I wanted the story to continue. And it did. In comic books.

So I read them. At first, all I did was compare them to the shows and think of what they'd be like as live-action TV. I even tried the motion comic version of an issue of Buffy season 8, but without the original actors voicing it, it was even worse than the books (I could at least imagine the characters' voices as I read). To complete the experience, I listened to soundtrack music from the shows as I read.

And along the way, something changed. I began to notice when an artist captured a facial expression just right. When a line of dialogue perfectly fit a character. When the final frame of a page or issue brought the exact right touch of suspense.

I began to slow down and study the artwork as I read, realizing it was doing just as much to tell the story as the words were. And that's when I began to see that comic books fit perfectly between traditional novels and television shows, blending elements of both into a unique art form.

Novels are generally limited to words. You can't show a smirk, or a worried look, or a fight. You have to describe it, and let the reader try to picture it.

TV shows generally can't share characters' thoughts and feelings. Actors do their best to convey them through expressions and actions, but viewers have to infer what's behind them.

Comic books, while limited in other ways, can both show the look on a character's face and state the thought that inspired it. You can see the fight and the feelings about it. And while the wait between issues of a series of comic books tends to be a bit longer than the wait between episodes of a TV show, it's far shorter than the wait between novels!

While I still prefer to experience story through novels and TV shows, I plan to continue reading comic books - and to enjoy them, in and of themselves.


John Cosper said...

Joss Whedon was my gateway into the world of comics as well! I've read his X-Men series, Runaways, Serenity, and Buffy, and I've branched out to read a few other series, including GI Joe (now that the original writer Larry Hama is back) and Deadpool. Alan Moore's been a big fascination of mine as well.

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