Monday, September 06, 2010

What do comics do better than, er, non-comics?

I recently read a crime novel whose one distracting quirk was an occasional paragraph of dialogue or exposition that read like an editorial comment or an information dump.

I've also been reading Greg Rucka's Queen & Country, a comic set in the contemporary world of British intelligence, and it occurred to me that comics can sometimes convey information more efficiently than non-graphic books — verbal information, I mean.

Say an author decides the contents of a report about complex, high-level, multinational drug, arms and financial transactions are essential to his or her story. How is the author to convey that information without dragging the story to halt?

Queen & Country's characters spend good chunks of their time at their desks discussing intelligence and other data, but the discussion is never boring. One reason is that we can see their reactions.

A spy chief might slap a report on his desk in disgust or grit his teeth as a superior shoots down his plans. It's a lot easier on a reader to see a skilled graphic rendering of such reactions than it is to read: "He slapped the report on his desk in disgust, grinding his teeth as his superior shot down his plans."
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What else can comics do better or more efficiently than traditional novels and stories? What can traditional stories do better? Have you ever read a scene in one medium that you thought would work better in another?

Rucka himself provides an opportunity to test these questions. He has written several novels based on the graphic-novel series. Read excerpts here and here.


© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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6 Comments:

Blogger Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I think the obvious is action. Fight scenes with the right artist are so well done with out words.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Non-graphic stories may be better at describing the aftermath of a fight, though. (But our reading of comics is influenced by our reading of non-graphic stories. I probably could not look at a panel of a protagonist recovering from a fight without a million such scenes from books running through my head.)

I have been surprised several times in Queen and Country by expository passages that would have seemed information dumpish in a regular book but did not seem that way in the comic.

September 06, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I applaud your conversion to the art of comics. Some might consider it incipient senility, but not me. As someone woefully ignorant of that particular art myself I can only attempt to compare it with other graphic arts, such as film.

This post, by David Bordwell, on the use of bedposts as phallic symbols in movies (the D W Griffith screenshots work best), makes me wonder how a novelist might attempt something similiar.

But I don't think it can be done. The ambiguity of images allows for what politicians call plausible deniability.

A novelist, on the other hand, attempting to replicate this idea would require an explicitness that couldn't possibly compare with the 'subtlety' of a visual image.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This is not my second but my third childhood, at least as far as comics are concerned. I read them as a child, then became a Harvey Pekar fan years later when I had a housemate who was an aspiring cartoonist, and now this.

You were wise to put subtlety in quotation marks. The ease of talking about images as opposed to the difficulty of talking about words enables people to clothe the most obvious observations in a scholarly mantle.

Film is an apt subject for any discussion of comics. Several of the comics I use the panel as an obvious analogue to the shot in a movie, then "cut" rapidly among various distances of shots (close-up, far shot, two-shot, etc.).

I don't remember much of that sort of thing from the comics of my youth. I wonder when comic artists began deliberately to use movies as a model.

September 06, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm guessing that illustrated magazines do rather well also. The glossy ones often cost as much as a book. I tend to consume a number of them -- when I don't want to think too much.

September 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I always think too much, though I am sympathetic to your point of view. Without knowing much about what has gone on in the world of comics since I was in short pants, I always had the idea that many comics of the past twenty years relied entirely too much on shadows, full-bleed pages, luxurious printing, and a dark, highly saturated palette, all meant to suggest that comics were Serious Art. They wanted readers to think that they were thinking without, in fact, really thinking too much.

Not the comics I read, though. The stuff I like is good.

September 07, 2010  

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