Apr 7, 2016

Things Common Only in Comics, Part 2

Things Common Only in Comics, Part 2
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 herd 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.

Changing the Basic Conceits

When was the last time you saw the third movie of a series be silent (with score or without)? What was the last TV series you were watching that had an episode where we saw very little, or nothing, but had narration the entire time? The last time you put a CD in your computer and it played songs one through seven, but track eight was an unexpected explosion of video, then nine through eighteen were music again?

Having one or two integral drawings in a novel is unusual. A TV episode that breaks TV traditional formats even though the rest of the series does not is virtually unheard of. These cause waves, or at least get championed for their novelty. But, comics do that stuff all the time. Comics is pretty much the one narrative medium, pop medium, in which there are traditions of fundamentally altering how you engage with them and, even, reducing elements to the degree where they may not even be “proper” comics any more

The prose, or barely-illustrated prose story isn’t entirely uncommon in comics. There’s even an Alpha Flight issue where the dialogue is visible, on the page, but nothing else is, because the story takes place during a whiteout snowstorm. And, reverse of this, there are comics that are purely visual, purely illustrative, with no text appearing. And, we barely blink an eye, as comics regulars. In any other pop media, this would be artsy. In comics, Rob Liefeld can do it.

Liefeld gets laughed at, by comics regulars, for a sideways issue done early in his career, more than a decade before Marvel Comics would publish an entire line of annuals in the same format, but imagine a short story asked you to turn your book around suddenly, or a movie purposefully demanded you turn your screen sideways to watch it. It’d be a thing. Alan Moore writing a comic that has to be torn apart and reassembled to read fully? Walt Simonson time-coding a comic page by page, so you flip back and forth to read it in sequence, giving us at minimum, three different ways to read the comic? Other pop media do these things, but they’re not general-audience releases, they are usually confined to museum showings or fancy, low print run imprints.

Where It Gets Weird: It is not “proper” comics, according to many comics regulars, despite the long history. It’s not real comics. This is the equivalent of movie fans still being upset that adding sound or color has changed what motion pictures are and accepting these changes muddies the medium to the point of meaninglessness.

Huge Shared Universes

Comics do not have the only shared universes in fiction. They did not create the first, they may not even have the best. But, there are a whole hell of a lot more of them in comics, taking the medium as a whole, than in any other medium. And, to be into comics, at all, you’re expected to know at least half a dozen of them, or people start to treat you like you’re ignorant of the fundamentals of your own universe. The 616 Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, the Pre- and Post-Crisis DC Universes, the Image Universe, the Savage Dragon Universe, the Leijiverse, the Valiant Universe, the Tardi Universe, Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean/Crankshaft Universe…

It’s complex enough that each comic may have a thoroughly formulated and idiosyncratic cosmogony, with realms and religions and cultures and jargon (Dilbert has a cosmogony, The Invisibles, X-Men, and Preacher have cosmogonies), and any two or more comics may crossover together at some point, without being part of a shared universe or with being temporarily so, but that a wide array of comics may form a larger, fully interacting universe can, to outsiders, seem impenetrable, unfathomable for anyone who isn’t one of those ridiculously smart sort of geeks or fantasy football leaguers. And, then there are multiverses. Collections of coordinated and interrelating universes full of planets full of nations filled with characters and… and… and…

Where It Gets Weird: Anyone who tells you they really have a full grip on any of these larger comics universes is bullshitting you. And, possibly, lying to themselves. Even one as preemptively and directly designed as the Crossgen Universe will not hold together perfectly, when closely examined in all its details. Authors may also be operating from bibles that contain information that is not for the public, that will never make it explicitly into a comic, and which, ten years later, will be contradicted by someone who didn’t see that bible or does not have to be beholden to it. The larger these universes get, the more authors are involved, from pencilers and writers to editors and vice presidents, the more contradictions arise, the more details and specifications are added or forgotten, altered and re-altered.

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