Article length: 4000 words (preview 1000/wds)
Comics are an incredible medium, art from the in-between space. Visual like movies, yet driven by words. Pictures powered by prose.
Having read comics for over 35 years, I’ve seen the trends come and go. Lots of folks say the medium has grown up. That today’s audiences are more sophisticated, their tastes more eclectic.
I’d agree that there’s definitely more people creating comics today, than the days when Stan Lee and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson first started.
But I often wonder if many modern creators jump into the medium with a full appreciation of what it represents and where it came from. Or if they just look to comics as a quick fix—a production of their IP quicker than a novel and far cheaper than motion pictures.
Whatever the current cultural status of the medium and whatever the future holds, you’ve landed on this article of mine today… and today we’re gonna stop and take some time to discuss what makes a comic unique. We’re gonna reflect and analyze the medium itself, and see if we can’t grasp the concepts that thrust a comic toward its true and full potential.
Originally, I wanted to title this article something like “What you can do in comics, but not in the movies”. But in the last bunch of years, computer graphics have really come along. I’d argue that there is little (if anything) you can’t do in movies these days.
Subsequently, I gravitated toward the title, “What you can do in comics a hell of a lot cheaper than you can in the movies”. This works for a lot of what we’re gonna talk about, but to simplify it, I threw away any kind of stringent comparative format, we’re just gonna focus on the core strengths of the comic medium, bouncing around with comparisons to its sister mediums (movies and novel fiction) as it fits the discussion.
As a comic is a collaborative effort between 6 distinct roles: Writer, Editor, Penciler, Inker, Colorist and Letterer, the lines of a comic’s core strength do tend to blur among them. For the purposes of this article (as always on this site and in my books) we will be focusing from the writer’s perspective.
Lastly, before we get into it, this is gonna be one of those long articles, appx. 4000 words, (I actually think I’m gonna start referring to them as “epic” in my newsletter so people know they need to grab a full cup of coffee before reading). Today, I’m gonna get down the main ones that jump out in my brain.
All the ones I forget… I’ll come back and add them in at a later time (I’ve already got a follow up list).
#1) A Medium Without Limitations.
Anything you can imagine you can capture in a comic. That’s powerful stuff.
Given the opportunity of complete creative freedom, it almost seems a crime to do something ordinary… something, familiar.
Kinda like the one time you go to the world’s biggest ice-cream factory, with every conceivable flavor and order plain vanilla or chocolate.
Comics are the birthplace of the unfamiliar. A place where imagination rules supreme.
Of course, you can do anything you want in a novel or movie too, but unlike a movie, the costs of production don’t change at all based on what you’re capturing. A NYC dive bar scene, a exterior space station scene and a jungle location shoot all have different costs associated with them in film.
In comics, imagination comes at a flat page rate.
And while novels don’t share the financial commitments of film, they do require a significantly greater time commitment from the reader.
Whether you’re delving into fantastical worlds with a timeless message of good vs. evil, or setting out to challenge the political status quo, never forget comics were born as a medium to entertain. The moment you put an agenda (any agenda) ahead of entertainment, you’re pushing against nearly a hundred years (U.S. Comics) of tradition.
Practical way to exploit this aspect in your work:
It’s easy dummy, get creative.
Don’t go for low hanging fruit—familiar concepts. Give your readers an escape into a new, original exciting world.
If you’re developing a story of limited imagination, say the next Law and Order or a realistic portrayal of Amish high-school. Look in the mirror and say this out loud—seriously. “Ok, this comic isn’t relying on one of the core strengths of comics. I’ve got to work twice as hard and twice as smart to keep my readers engaged.”
In this latter scenario you’ve got to funnel your imaginative energy into all the other aspects of crafting the story. If you don’t, if you don’t recognize compensation is in order, your story will never live up to its full comic potential.