What comic books are, and what they are not

Photo By: James LeVeque

I could easily do one of those “Intro to comic books” posts, though there are quite a few of those around. I may even delve into some of the related topics, such as where to buy comics and how they are made. But for this first post, I want to take a look at the medium itself and put the comic book in perspective alongside two other storytelling mediums.

First off, what comic books are not.

They are not simply books with pictures. In children’s books, the illustrations serve as touchstones of important moments in the book, highlighting a chapter or event. The book text can be read separately from the pictures, as well. When they’re read, the child can look at the picture while an adult reads to them, it’s a collaborative style of storytelling.

In pure text books, the landscape of the mind is populated by our own imaginations, aided by some clues given to us by the author. Visuals, sound effects, characters, all the descriptions are there to set our minds alight and build those those things in our heads.

Comic books are also not movies. In film, everything is laid out for us, it’s a very passive experience. Of course we feel things, see things, have our emotions churned. We question why a character does this or that and sometimes find our selves saying “No, no, don’t do that! The monster’s down there!” or some such, but we’re not in control of the flow of the action. Unlike reading, where the pace is outlined by the author, but we can put it down to make the experience last longer, movies force us to watch according to a set timeline.

So, comic books are not books and they are not movies. I point this out because these are the two most common comparisons of what comic books are like. “Movies for the mind” and “Books with lots of pictures” are two descriptions you’ll often hear from people trying to sum comics up for those who don’t read them.

Both descriptions are incorrect, of course. They’re close, but don’t quite get it.

So, what are comic books then, right?

In short, they are unique.

They have a language that is both visual and literary. In comics the words and images not only share space, but also share duties. There are occasionally comics that are image-only, but they still follow the same format I’m about to describe.

When you open up a comic book, there are panels. In each panel there is an image and possibly some text. You generally start at the top of the page and work your way down. The best comic book artists are able to lead your eye naturally down the page, with one panel feeding into the next. Sometimes they “break” the panels to do this, making the page layout itself part of the storytelling.

When reading a comic, you simultaneously take in the words and images, grabbing action and thought together in one swoop. The words are backed up by the visuals (like in movies), but you are in control of the pace, of how you read it (like in books). At the same time as being sort of like movies or sort of like books, comics find this unique way of doing the best of both and being their own medium as well.

I hope that helps make things a little clearer and maybe intrigued you. Want to learn more? I have resources!

One of the best books on the subject is “Understand Comics” by Scott McCloud. It happens to be also written as a comic, so by the end of the book, the language of comic book storytelling is clear.
The other book I can highly recommend is “Graphic Storytelling” by Will Eisner. It’s classic and written by one of the masters of the craft.

If you’d like to skip all that stuff and just read a comic, I can oblige with that, too.

Webcomics (something I’ll probably give their own post) are pretty popular among independent creators. You’ll tend to find a wealth of diversity in webcomics.

A few of my favorites are “FreakAngels” by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield, “Last Blood” by Bobby Crosby & Owen Geini, “The Zombie Hunters” by Jenny Romanchuk, and “Demonology 101” by Faith Erin Hicks.

The Mary Sue also put a great list together with tons of suggestions if you want to see more. Don’t worry, I’ll be linking to more in future columns!

So that’s comic books, or at least what they aren’t. Come back next month where I’ll be talking about genre, content, and the diversity we find, or don’t find, in modern comic books.