When you say ‘comics’, most people think of simplistic goodie/baddie tales, stilted dialogue, terrible fashion and KAPOWs. And quite often, they have a point.
Many comics have been ongoing for decades, with the characters barely ageing – if not for the so-called ‘elastic timeline’ the X-Men would be octogenarians. So it can be quite difficult for writers to find new situations for our characters to find themselves in, which leads to inconsistent characterization and some jarring plot twists or reveals, as writers struggle for a new direction.
Death is almost comically impermanent in superhero-land. There used to be a saying at Marvel that everyone comes back except Bucky (Captain America’s sidekick) and Uncle Ben (of Spiderman fame). Sadly, this was somewhat undermined when Bucky was revealed to have been abducted and brainwashed by Soviet spies, while in a parallel universe Uncle Ben popped by for a visit.
This isn’t the only problem with the genre. It can often be overly simplistic, cutting down big issues to patronise its audience. It can also be unbearably cheesy – anyone looking back at 1970s comics may wince at the dialogue as much as the haircuts and clothes on display. Despite all this, there is something wonderfully positive about traditional comics. They’re hopeful, and funny; they’re escapist, yet they deal with issues ranging from heroin abuse to nuclear disarmament.
Comics are a unique media – somewhere between film, visual art and literature – and as such they can do unique things. Take Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example – aside from the miniseries itself, in the graphic novel are countless documents and background information relating to the characters, their predecessors in The Minutemen or confidential correspondences, not to mention a comic within the comic.
The main problem with Zack Snyder’s cinematic take on the comic wasn’t that he wasn’t faithful enough – it was that it was impossible to be fully faithful with the huge wealth of content in Moore’s original. Moore himself stated he created Watchmen not just to explore the ideas of superheroics, but show what comics could uniquely do as a genre.
Many comics are world-class: stories like Kraven’s Last Hunt, The Dark Knight Returns, Dark Phoenix and countless others. They’re more sophisticated than you might think. No prior experience is needed – just dive in. And who knows, in a few months you could be in the cinema to see Thor, grumbling about the inaccuracies – I bet it’ll be nothing on the comic.
I wouldn’t quite go as far as artist Eddie Campbell and declare that the ‘comic book has become an embarrassment’ to us all. But I have to admit my favourite graphic novels are those that show that there’s far more to the genre than superheroes.
Yes, I’m thinking of stuff like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: one of the first to prove, through stark black and white drawings of the Holocaust in which Jews are depicted as mice and Germans as cats, that comic books don’t have to be comic. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran rendered in a similar woodcut-esque style, has become pretty famous too, having beaten Harry Potter to become the best-selling novel in Foyle’s bookshop in 2008 and been turned into an award-winning film. But Satrapi’s talent didn’t stop there: Embroideries, her tale of Iranian women getting together while the men are sleeping to exchange sex tips, is made particularly hilarious by the way she captures expressions: when people laugh, their wide mouths fill almost the entire page.
Good graphic novels don’t have to be about the unfamiliar. Ethel and Ernest, by the creator of The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, is a simple but affecting cartoon strip tribute to his parents, with all the minutiae of their lives- from each brick on their house to each wrinkle on their faces-shown in painstaking detail. Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe recently hit the big screen, but it is in the original comic-book portrayal of rural life that you can really see her skill at conveying personalities in just a few words matched by meaningful poses.
But if you’re looking for something a little more out-of-the-ordinary that still doesn’t involve superheroes, try John Porcellino’s Diary of A Mosquito Abatement Man, which, as the title suggests, depicts the artist’s unfortunate early career pouring chemicals into swamps of larvae, in minimalistic line drawings. Or Julian Hanshaw’s Art of Pho, a ‘deliciously surreal’ graphic novel/travelogue/recipe book about a creature almost but not quite resembling a pig, who discovers a passion for spicy noodles when abandoned by a mysterious man in Vietnam.
Some say that books with too many pictures prevent the reader from using their own imagination. But to be honest, left to myself I doubt I could dream up such a range of beautiful art, that can tell all types of stories, big and small, almost without any words at all.