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09 August 2006 @ 09:03 am
comic book storytelling  
The ideal of a comic book is to tell a story so well wedded between words and pictures that it's incomplete without one of those aspects. More or less any comic book does that as a run of the mill storytelling aspect, with occasional forays into all-silent issues or, in Terry Moore's case, periodic breaks into actual prose when there's too much story to tell in a short period of time through art and limited wordspace. More, perhaps, than many storytelling formats, it's rare to see the genre used to its full effect. This may be of particular difficulty to accomplish with me as a reader, because while bad art can make me not read a comic book, my method of reading one tends to be words first, art, unless it's exceptionally beautiful, a distant second.

JLA #0 is easily the best comic book, in terms of not only telling a story whose impact is equally powerful in both visuals and in language, but also in terms of combining those elements so incredibly well that the idea of telling this story any way than how they did it is actually causing me physical pain, that I've ever read.

It's an issue about the relationship between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, which has been badly strained by events in the DC universe over the last year. It moves back and forward through time, from the first inception of the JLA to the most current incarnation, and it uses the art styles of the appropriate eras: the first pages are in 1950s style art, one frame even being in stippled four-color print.

Almost every turn of the page puts you in the right era with the barest glance at the artwork: you don't have to read the words to know you're looking at "Yesterday", as the script tells you. You see that this is a story told originally in the 70s, in the 90s, in the 80s; when the story flashes forward to "Tomorrow", the styles aren't quite what we see in comic art today, the costumes are a little modified from how the holy triumverate wear them today. The older eras are, of course, easier to pick out in terms of art style, but even someone as casually interested in the DC universe as I am can almost instantly recognize that the Tomorrow scenes aren't stories that've been told in our world yet.

There are four points of view in the comic: each of the main characters, and an omniscient narrator who tells us that it's tomorrow, yesterday, today, and offers a little context for the story as it flows through time.

And it flows beautifully. Each transition is carried by the text and even as you're brought forward half a century or more in real years, what you're reading is so well written and so well connected to the characters that it's incredibly easy to accept and follow their memories as they think about one another and their own context in relation to each other. There's power and pain and friendship and regret and love interwoven into how the story is told, into each point of view and each conflict and each frustration and into each character's fear and alienation and hope. It is beautifully, beautifully done.

I have, in the past, read comics which had great power and great social commentary and which I've considered to be the best comic book I'd ever read. Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan #5, the Mary story, is a particular case. It was a brilliant story, the best individual comic book I'd ever read, but JLA #0 as an art form blows it out of the water. I've never seen anything use the comic book structure so incredibly well before. I'm genuinely in awe, not only of the writer, Brad Meltzer, but also of the more than fifteen artists who turned their hand to helping tell this story and who did so with absolutely phenomenal skill. Now *that* was a comic book.
 
 
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rfrancis on August 9th, 2006 02:08 pm (UTC)
I have no opinion about JLA #0. I'm just here to take issue with the idea that comics are incomplete without words!

I agree with the notion put forward by Eisner and McCloud (amongst others, but they made books about it) that the fundamental nature of comics is a deliberate sequence of images (yes, yes, Scott, juxtaposed so we're not including film here.) This is not to say that words aren't a perfectly legitimate part of the comics form, since they are, but I dispute that "words + pictures = comics."

And I come bearing new evidence! http://normallife.livejournal.com/81110.html

(Note that saying that comics don't necessarily need words doesn't mean that they don't need a writer. If all a writer did was make neat-sounding words...)
kit: chance2mizkit on August 9th, 2006 06:43 pm (UTC)
I was practically certain somebody would take issue with my thesis statement there. :) I probably should've expected it to be you. :)

And, okay, I'll give you that I overstated my case. I don't actually think comics are incomplete without words, but I do think that nine times out of ten what a comic book creator is trying to do is wed the two forms to make a whole for the most effective storytelling experience. I think a comic that can tell the story so that it's absolutely comprehensible, and that so everyone reading it will get the same story out of it, without words, is nearly as rare a thing as a perfectly wedded story with words and pictures. The link you provided is an exceptionally good example, although I might make an argument that the emotive bubbles connotate actual language. The Marvel SHH! series, or whatever they called it, was not so good; I blew through them without understanding the stories especially well. Wendy Pini's Strongbow issue was good; I didn't even *notice* it didn't have words. So, yeah. No actual argument against your thesis, just an assertion that most comic books aren't aiming for a purely visual storytelling style, and in that case you're probably trying to create a story that needs both aspects to be told properly.
rfrancis on August 9th, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC)
I think that in fact my position is that words shouldn't be regarded as NOT visual storytelling (unless, I guess, they're played in audio from the book!) -- they just aren't representational art. But then -- neither are some drawings! If this seems facetious, consider the "emotive bubbles" you mention -- a good example of how the area is all really a lot greyer.

I did the lettering for my own VERY LAMENTED comic strip (ahem) and it was eye-opening how much a part of the composition and artistic statement placement and lettering really is, by the way. (I learned that by way of noticing how my hamfisted attempts at these things really weren't helping, mostly.)

Okay, I'm forgetting what the original point was, so I'll stop now. :) I do think that art is not properly in service to writing, or vice versa, but that both are in service to the greater artistic creation, and when -- in whatever balance! -- the two become one, as you say, the results are phenomenal. Conversely, there's nothing worse than a writer and an artist (even, or perhaps especially, when they're the same person!) working at odds to one another.
kitmizkit on August 10th, 2006 12:15 pm (UTC)
both are in service to the greater artistic creation

That's a nice way of putting it. Yeah. Like that. *pretends I said that* :)
mostlymaylone: Butch BW & Colormostlymaylone on August 9th, 2006 02:38 pm (UTC)
Why must you write such a tantalizing description. Now I will have to go into the ONLY shop up here and pick up JLA #0. The problem being that while I'm there I might as well pick up some others while I'm in there. Oh, and some more dice, not that there's a game I'm invol - Oh, shiny. *cough* The last time I went on a whim and picked up a book you recommended I ended up with six others following me home. This time as funds have gone to more important things I shall have to resort to thievery. The dice will be easy as they end up in my mouth anyway, but the comics...once I add the plastic wrap and backer the will no longer fit on my person. (at least not with the gut I've developed) They MUST NOT be bent! So the only alternative is to run and thus renew my life of crime. You will have successfully destroyed eight years of artful_dabbler's hard work. Then again, I need someone to drive the get away mini-van.
kitmizkit on August 9th, 2006 06:44 pm (UTC)
You could stand in the comic shop and read the comic without buying anything. :)
mostlymaylonemostlymaylone on August 9th, 2006 06:57 pm (UTC)
I suppose so, but that kind of would get rid of the whole Mr & Mrs Smith mini van chase scene I was looking forward to.
kitmizkit on August 10th, 2006 12:13 pm (UTC)
Would this be a bad time to tell you that artful_dabbler is Jewish?
Harold Zablehzatz on August 9th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC)
I agree. JLA #0 was a fine comic book.

I'm not quite as much of a JLA fanatic as a Superman fanatic; I only own about 400 JLA's as opposed to about 1600 Superman books. But I appreciated that every small section got the characterization right, even in sync with what the characters' attitudes towards each other were or would be at the time.

Now, if you're looking for another fine comic book, go out and get the latest Astro City special. Busiek, as always, does a fine job of capturing the best elements of the medium.
kit: comicsmizkit on August 9th, 2006 06:45 pm (UTC)
I'm not a fantatic of either, but wow, they did a nice job of characterization through all of that. I thought the ... what, 4th to last or so page, where they're all converging, was just heartbreakingly beautiful.

I haven't read any Astro City. I take it I should?
Harold Zablehzatz on August 9th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)
Probably. As I've said, they're very well executed.

I'd loan you a copy, but the handoff would be a bit tricky.
kitmizkit on August 10th, 2006 12:13 pm (UTC)
*laugh* I could probably borrow it more locally, or even stand around in a bookstore and read it. :)
das_uberdas_uber on August 11th, 2006 02:34 am (UTC)
I haven't read any Astro City. I take it I should?

Heck yes. Based on your comics-related posts, I suspect you'd like them.
(Anonymous) on August 9th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
JLA
I was never a fan JLA/ DC comics mostly Marvel for me. I imagine it must be difficult to write this stuff because so much has gone on before. Besides cracking into DC/Marvel as a writer is tough especially in an established series. In other fanfic like Star Trek etc, the novels in most cases stand alone. Comic books have too many plot cross overs.

Jim