Things Common Only in Comics, Part 1
Travis Hedge Coke
There are things we take for granted, as regular comics readers, as fans. When I encounter someone who really doesn’t know comics, any genre, any publisher, or, more to the point of this article, comics made and first published for the English-reading market, American and British comics, it can be hard for me to have, ready in my mind, the things I’m going to take for granted that they won’t even be prepared for.
Most people do read comics. They read more comics than they realize, because they reflexively discount the comics they read. That’s not a comic, it’s just a comic strip they read because they were waiting for the train. That’s not a comic, that’s a meme their friend posted on Facebook. That’s not a comic, that’s just graffiti with a dialogue balloon next to the dude.
So, let’s take a look at a couple things that all us crazy diehard comics people take for granted, but would probably throw your average person for loop.
Comics love merging universes. Temporarily. Permanently. Smashing all the people and places together or stitching them like Frankenstein monsters into amalgamated versions. These can happen subtly, as with a recently purchased or licensed set of characters being merged quietly into a larger base universe of characters and scenarios (the integration of Captain Marvel properties or the Milestone Universe into the DC Universe), in a celebratory cavalcade of connections and visitations (DC vs Marvel and the Amalgam Universe; Kurt Busiek and George Perez presenting a montage of annual meetings between the two teams in JLA/Avengers), as thematic mashups (the 90s Image-verse during Savage Dragon’s worlds tour; Stephen Pastis’ borrowing other comics famous faces for Pearls Before Swine).
Does this show up in other media? Naturally, yes. But, nowhere with such frequency or readiness. You just don’t see The One Where The Friends Live In the Star Trek Universe and a Disaster Is Merging It With the Xena Universe So Now Chandler’s a Centaur. And, if you did, it would be novel. It would be super really weird. It could be an SNL skit, but not a serious, “real” story.
DC Comics has done a merging universes storyline almost yearly for my entire lifetime. Grant Morrison has only written about half of those. (And, I can make that joke, because it is that common. And, because I’m incredibly geeky and without shame.)
Where It Gets Weird: American comics also has this weird received wisdom that you can’t legally talk about other people’s comics as comics. It’s on its way out, as we get more creator-owned comics and more educated and legal-savvy comics talent, but still pretty pervasive. You can miscolor a character and call them an original, or do parodies, but you can’t, goes the reasoning, have Character X from Publisher X talk about Comic Book Y from Publisher Y.
The Fourth Wall
Comics tips its hand, when it comes to fourth walls and borders more readily than any other medium. A movie may have a character go knock on the inside of your tv screen - this was, in fact, the only scare I had during an entire bad feature-length torture clown movie last year - but it will be rare. Cartoons get a little more into it, because Duck Amuck was that much of a game changer. But, even then, it’s not a given, it’s just used when it’s the point.
In a movie, or a novel, it would be an incredibly rare piece wherein a character, being erased from reality, would be reduced to the letters she’s made up of in the book, the separate colors of early film stock, or the digital elements and pixels on the screen. But, in comics, when someone is degraded in this manner, that’s practically the go-to method of illustration. The character fades to black and white, to blue line pencils, or similar effects.
Imagine an episode of any television show where the protagonist perpetually leans against the edge the screen instead of a wall we can see. Flashbacks on a modern sitcom that replicate 70s or 50s television broadcasts down to clothing styles, even though it’s supposed to only be a flashback of five or ten years.
Fourth wall breaking does not have to be the point, in comics. From Stan Lee’s innovation of the ever-present editor’s notes that chummily and cheerily addressed the reader like an informant and friendly dealer, to Spider-Man climbing or perching on the edge of panels, comics readers are inured to how much the barrier between the “real” of the comic and the structural stuff, the panel borders and thought balloons gets blurred.
Where It Gets Weird: Comics fans can get ridiculously uptight about this “meta crap,” even while they buy Deadpool like the issues will come to life and eat us if we don’t purchase them. Most of the fourth-wall breaking actually goes right past the majority of comics readers, unless it seems to be politicized.