Monday, October 6, 2014

The Unofficial Sequart Author Bootcamp: Comic Theory and History

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about the basic protocols when it comes to writing articles, the word economy, the balance of content, and how to be timely and meet deadlines. Another thing to consider about writing articles for Sequart Organization is building a working knowledge of theory on comic books. Our articles can be informative on the surface level, but also knowing about the minutiae of comic history, the process by which comics are written, and the critical analysis of structure are just as important. 

A book I can recommend right off the top of my head is Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. It’s a great overview on the history, development, and theory of comics featuring appendix overviews of a variety of famous creators in the comic book community. Another book that I have heard a lot of good things about is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. I haven’t read it personally (yeah, it sounds lame of me to recommend something I haven’t read), but it’s been recommended to me by enough “important” people that I should pass it along. 

Because comics are not universally respected as of yet as “legitimate art,” finding good commentary on specific comics is very difficult. Sequart Organization however, has a large book line dedicated to the study of specific works. That’s my shameless plug, but it’s worth looking into.

Boning up on comic theory starts with a spatial analysis of what comics do: they are snapshots, moments in time. The measure of time for each panel is determined by the amount of text. (Keep in mind I’m stealing all this from Douglas Wolk, so I recommend picking up his book for a deeper, more rewarding investigation.) Writers skilled enough to recognize this employ it often. Neil Gaiman uses “silence” in comics quite often to instill a lingering tension in his stories. Without text, there is nothing to determine the passage of time in a frame. Therefore a textless panel is an eternity.

Understanding the dynamics of a writer-artist duo is also a foundational aspect of studying comic theory. Most of the art comics that inspired the stylized, mature comics that one might find in Vertigo’s line was the work of Artists that wrote and developed their own comics. Without being confined to the house style of any particular publisher, the evolution of certain styles and approaches to comic making rapidly accelerated. So when we read a comic illustrated by Scott Hampton or Charles Vess, we have early art comics to thanks for showing the world that the medium of comics could escape the shackles of DC and Marvel house style. 

Consequently, the introduction of a writer into the equation of comic book production fostered a symbiotic relationship between the two creators. Collaborative efforts mean comics can be produced faster, but this increase in turnover risks sanitation of style in the final product. Jim Lee is a phenomenal artist but his style has often been critiqued for its highly stylized depictions. His work is a far cry from Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World

I could go on, of course. 

The idea here is try to look at comics more critically. They have a long rich history, just like any other counter culture. Books have been written on them. People talk about them. Etc. I encourage you all to look into comics from angles other than characters and really try to understand them in their cultural context. I’ve always wanted to read a Marxist interpretation of Iron Man, but I still haven’t found one. But the possibilities are nigh limitless. Just think about them beyond the surface level details. Try to spot things that you haven’t seen before. It’s these details that will help you understand exactly what’s going on in the comic world.


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