During and shortly preceding World War II, Italy and Germany banned America comic strips in their internally-circulated periodicals. They did this for reasons that are obvious to even the most amazingly poor student of history, but because a number of the strips were so popular and lucrative, some of them were bootlegged domestically. One of these was Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON, which was dropped by Italian newspapers in 1938. Italian cartoonists tried bootlegging the strip, but even the rip-offs were prohibited and the strips didn’t see publication until after the war had ended. The faux-FLASH was produced by writer Edizioni Nerbini and artist Guido Fantoni, but for years after the strip’s production and deferred publication, Academy award-winning filmmaker Federico Fellini claimed—referring to it as a possible “imagined memory” when confronted with his claim’s veracity—that he wrote the strip. While Fellini’s claims are empirically false, he did serve as Nerbini’s assistant for some time and he did go on to write a couple of stories for Italian artist Milo Manara (as did fellow director Pedro Almodovar). And Fellini’s relationship with comics wasn’t slight or inconsequential; he claimed that newspaper comics like LITTLE NEMO, BRINGING UP FATHER, and HAPPY HOOLIGAN had a profound affect on him as a child, and he incorporated elements of them into his films.
Fellini’s aesthetic eye was shaped—according to him—by comics. And he’s not the only one professing a deep, abiding affection for the ninth art. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Max Landis, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon and Terry Gilliam all admit to reading comics voraciously as children and teens, and to those comics deeply affecting their visual sensibilities.
And in recent years comics have been returning the favor, with creators like Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello and Ales Kot citing Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg as influencing and inspiring. Comics has also seen an uptick in the number of cross-over writers: writers who either made their name in film dabbling in comics (Damon Lindelof, Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Lena Dunham, George Romero) and vice-versa (John Ridley, Craig Yost, Kaare Andrews, Frank Miller, Ed Brubaker). In his book COMICS ART, Paul Gravett mentions that many early cartoonists looked to Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE for inspiration, watching and re-watching, attempting to pick up as much as they can; while Welles was an outspoken fan of Milton Caniff’s TERRY AND THE PIRATE. But most importantly, the 21st century has also witnessed the rise of “widescreen comics.”
“Widescreen comics” are, simply put, comics that attempt to emulate film. They do away with thought bubbles and the gut-punching bombast that put superhero comics on the map: Jack Kirby becomes Jim Jarmusch. “Widescreen comics” typically decompress stories, spreading a narrative across two-to-ten times as many issues as previous generations would require to tell the same story. They favor less dense pages, with wide-angle, rectangular shots that connote “filmic” or “theatrical,” and dark, brooding stories that attempt literary/artistic depth (some succeed, while most do not). Some artists and colorists incorporate digital blurring to resemble a distorted depth of field (some things are in focus, while others are not). Their scripts are written by people who learned to write from watching films and reading screenplays—and this is evident in the use of filmic language and screenplay formats in the writers’ scripts.
And as comic book films become bigger and bigger business and Marvel and DC’s (who, much to my chagrin, still control the majority of the American serial market) corporate parents start exerting more control, film will grow to dictate more aspects of American mainstream serials. And as filmic storytelling techniques, and filmic script structures become more commonplace those things become more normalized and less noticeable; it grows and grows until it becomes lost in a sea of itself. While that’s not an inherently bad thing, I do think that it’s a one-dimensional view of comics and the perpetuation of the belief that comics and film are the obverse and reverse of the same coin, or that they are artistic siblings, is one that will lead to artistic stagnation (which it has already contributed to in the mainstream) if too many people buy into it. Now: too many people buying in to any artistic idea leads to stagnation, so we should all try to view not just comics but all art with a little more dimensionality.
But the popularization and (more insidiously) the dogmatic buying-into of idea of “Widescreen Comics” in particular creates problems—or maybe not creates problems so much as it is problematic—because it’s ultimately structured on a shaky foundation.
The idea is rooted in the simply notion that the art next closest to comics is film. This is rooted most obviously in the idea that because both them use pictures as their primary communicative tool they must be similar. And they are: they both do us images as their primary tools, both are places that you can tell whatever stories you like, and both are so young (as art forms) that they haven’t even reached adolescence.
But even though they do share certain similarities—both surface level and substantive—comics actually has more in common with prose than film. That may sound strange at first, and it’s admittedly an unusual way of looking at the medium, but peep game:
Comics and prose are different. They’re incredibly different, actually. Prose has no visual component. Prose tells stories with symbolic representations of ideas and comics tell stories with imitations of representations. (An idea being the chair, while the word “chair” is representative of the idea, and a drawing of chair is a representative of a representative of the ideal “chair.”) Prose is centuries old, with genres, movements, and traditions extending all the way back to republican Rome. Comics is approximately a hundred years old, with its foundation in cheap, pulpy newsprint and artists just trying to make rent. Until recently, short stories and novels were paced as differently from comics as they were from poetry. Prose can feature as much dialogue as the author would like, while comics is limited by the size of the panel and the need to incorporate…y’know…art. Diegetic editing is different, and comics is the only of the two with the ability to jump between expositional POV’s several times instantaneously. The differences are many and range from immediate and arresting to subtle and easy-to-miss, but the primary difference is in the mediums’ primary communication tool: words; pictures.
But what separates comics and film is the thing that connects comics and prose: a difference in intrinsic levels of authorial control. Everything else is surface-level. It’s literally a facade. The difference in how the media interact with time is the real deal; it’s substantive. Images are important for how both film and comics communicate everything, but how both manipulate time is integral to how they emotionally manipulate the reader.
Horror and comedy are impossible without careful manipulation of diegetic time. How creators stretch or compress time will make or break the emotional resonance a scene has—do you hold on the face, wait for the tear? For how long?
But thinking about diegetic time as the most, or one of the most, tool that creators have reveals the distance between comics and film. In film, the author/auteur/director controls time. He is much like a deist’s conception of god. Because in film, diegetic time is objective; every single person who watches a film will experience that film at the same speed. Because of that, it all comes down to the filmmaker to take as much or as little time as he wants to depict what he wants to depict. But in comics and in prose, the reader will experience a scene at a subjective rate. Writers and cartoonist can manipulate that, though. Cartoonists can introduce more panels, consciously layout their pages, break a single image into multiple panels, et al. They can throw linearity out the window, packing pages with high panel counts, squishing them in an array that beleaguers a straight A-to-B reading. But even that is an art unto itself.
Katsuhiro Otomo occasionally warps time and heighten the literal punch of action sequences. He can pack his page with dense, rapid-fire, visceral imagery and manage to arrange it in a way that conveys that feeling of simultaneity. Otomo is unusually good at crafting the page so that your eyes jump from panel to panel with the intended speed. But Geof Darrow did a similar thing with his recent SHAOLIN COWBOY mini-series, stretching a few minutes into four issues—and that’s an interesting example, because he cuts time very thinly for most of the series, stretching seconds into entire issues, but then Darrow compresses a single instant into a page, with tactile, well-textured sequences (so he bounces back and forth from one extreme to the other). The fourth issue in particular of SHAOLIN COWBOY acts like the polar opposite of the preceding issues, and it’s in that issue in particular that we can see how well Darrow can manipulate the reader’s eye. The hand-to-hand fights are fluid and fast, with your eye moving as quickly as the Cowboy’s fists. But as an interesting contrast, in PALOOKAVILLE, cartoonist Seth stretches a single instant into an eternity by essentially “replaying” the same image over and over again on the same page. So there are no hard and fast rules on how to create the illusion of control, but there is evidence that it can be done.
Similarly writers can manipulate commas, semi-colons, paragraph breaks. They can split a thought into multiple sentences, multiple paragraphs even.
If I write a single sentence like this, you can’t read it as quickly. It takes a little more time. You have to slow down a little.
You’ll slow even more if I force a paragraph break.
But if I write that same sentence like this: “ See, if I write a single sentence like this, you can’t read it as quickly; it takes a little more time; you have to slow down a little,” then it comes a little more quickly. But even though I can force a pause or a beat, each reader will still read this at a different pace. Just like every person will read comics pages and panels at subjective and unique rates. This makes certain things harder to pull off in comics than in film. Talent and ability notwithstanding, of course.
And both novelist and cartoonist have to learn to manipulate time to suit their medium. Because the potency of every single scene is dependent more on how the artist is communicating than in what the artist is communicating. And that how is dependent on, foundationally, a control over the experience that the reader has. And that is based so firmly in the speed at which the reader experiences what the artist is communicating.
Comics and film give their creators such a radically different set of tools, and that creates a dissonance between what is possible in one media and what is possible in the other. Comics can emulate, or attempt to emulate film—or the experiences that certain films are able to create—but they have to do it using a completely different resource pool. The fundamental difference between the media is something that’s not reconcilable with something as simplistic as “But…but…pictures?” That’s not to say that comics and films don’t have things in common, or that comics and films can’t have a symbiotic relationship; but their differences run too deep to heap them together. It is instead more valuable to think of comics as their own unique thing, because while comics and prose provide their creators a more-similar set of tools there are also innumerable differences between them.
It’s more important to think of comics in strange and new ways, and film and prose are both media that can have a give-and-take relationship with comics. But comics are essentially neither and both. They combine elements of both, but the synthesis hides the seams so well it’s as if they’re not there. And that’s the beauty of comics, as it is the beauty of every other distinct art form. They almost defy comparison to other media, and it’s reductive to think of them as something that is defined by their relationship to something else. So while comics do have more-substantive similarities to prose than film, they’re not defined by those similarities—and it would be cool if we stopped trying to define art by its relationship to other art.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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