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Friday, February 1, 2013

Shawn's Vision For the Next Level for the American Comic Book Medium

All over the world comics are seen as a storytelling medium for all genres of fiction. In places like Japan a reader can get stories in genres like fantasy, sci-fi and even contemporary fiction genres like romance. However in the United States the comic art form is mainly used primarily in genres like superheroes and teen comics like Archie. Because of this narrow focus by American publishers over the past 50 years the comic art form hasn’t actualized its potential in America as a storytelling medium.

Much of the artistic growth of the comic storytelling medium in America was suppressed in the 1950s after congressional hearings. Many publishers fearing being censored by the government scaled back their genre comics like mystery, western and romance for children’s fare like superheroes and teen comedy.

And when they scaled back to meet the standards of the comics code they sanitized the content. Because most commercial comic books were often associated with children thanks to their colorful artwork, images that could be considered sexually or graphically offensive were toned down in the hopes of not being a negative influence on most of the children who bought them.

In addition to the standards for content, that growth has also been hampered by publishers rigidly holding to an archaic 32-page format that prevents artists from telling more complex stories. Even though the technology exists today to produce paperbacks up to 720 pages in length, comics still are published in short 32-page volumes.

I believe that it’s time for the comic storytelling medium to break out of its archaic obsolete structure to allow for a form that will allow it to tell richer more complex stories. Growing up I’ve seen examples of what happens when writers and artists are allowed to take the comic medium to the next level such as Maus, Love & Rockets, The Dark Knight Returns, Road To Perdition, Return to Perdition,  and Watchmen. And I feel that we need more stories like this to get American people to take the comic art medium seriously as a storytelling vehicle.

I feel that readers of all ages could enjoy comics in America the same way Japanese, South American and European readers do. In those countries, Comics are published in numerous genres and enjoyed by readers of all ages.

I’ve read Japanese comics with adult themes and complex plots. I’ve read South American comics with adult content.

But in America these comics are the exception, not the rule. They’re usually the product of independent publishers, niche divisions  like DC Comics Vertigo, and self-publishers. Mainstream publishers like Disney’s Marvel and DC Comics main divisions won’t explore these genres out of fear of poor sales. That keeps the comic medium from growing into the serious art form that it is in other parts of the world.

My vision for the comic book in America is a book combining the rich complex storytelling of a novel with the cinematic visuals of film and the distinct nuances of  a painting. Comic book writers already use elements of storytelling that screenwriters and filmmakers use to make movies. I feel they should be given the opportunity to tell their stories the same way filmmakers are.

Comic book artists sometimes expand into stronger more expressive visuals on occasion. Many comic artists are solid painters in addition to being pencillers and inkers. And painters like Alex Ross and Joe Jusko have often been called upon to create striking visual covers and other materials in the promotion of comics. In a technological age where books can feature millions of colors I think it’s time to give these artists an opportunity to tell a complete story in different forms of mixed media in comics more regularly.

I’d really like to see the comic industry focus more on graphic novels with self-contained stories instead of 32-page serials. A graphic novel allows writers and artists an opportunity to tell, deeper, richer and more complex stories. Without the limitations of a comics code, a page count or a next issue, the artist and writer can have the freedom to let their stories flow the same way novelists and screenwriters do from beginning to end. When a novelist like myself tells a story we aren’t hindered by page counts or page quotas. We usually tell our story from beginning to end and the reader can enjoy them from first page to the last.

I also believe in a graphic novel format, they could tell stories with pictures with more artistic expression. The way I see it a comic artist could get the flexibility to get as creative as a painter, cinematographer, storyboard artist or a photographer in crafting scenes for their stories. Those artists are often allowed the opportunity to tell stories with pictures comic artists aren’t in America.

I believe a comic on the next level in the United States would be like reading a great American Novel but only with pictures. In those pages a writer and artist could tell a story with all the great literary elements such as irony, foreshadowing, symbolism. Artists could create complex visuals with the nuanced imagery of films and paintings. Together they’d be able create characters with the multidimensionality and complexity of their literary and cinematic counterparts.

With the cost of 32-page comics currently $3.99 a copy I feel it’s been past time for publishers to shift from publishing comic books to graphic novels. Most readers today prefer trade paperbacks and hardcover omnibuses because they cost less and provide a higher entertainment value per dollar. Most retailers prefer trade paperbacks and omnibuses due to their longer shelf life and durability. And most publishers and self-publishers prefer trade paperbacks and omnibus hardcovers because they’re cheaper to produce. A 200 page paperback only costs about $4.50 to print at LightningSource. And a 400 page paperback book only costs $5.60 to print. With a markup and retailer discounts these volumes offer publishers a much higher profit margin than 32-page comic books.

But the only thing holding back a transition from telling stories in comics to graphic novels in America is the American customers’ adherence to tradition. Most American comic readers are stuck in the habit of buying 32-page comics and only buy reprinted material in the paperback or hardcover format. Moreover, they’re stuck on the focus that comics are only for genres like superheroes and teen hi-jinx instead of more complex storytelling like drama, adventure, romance or fantasy.

With the high cost of printing and limited retail opportunities for 32-page comic books I think it’s time to return to publishing original comic content in the graphic novel format. Back in the 1980’s Marvel Comics experimented with the medium with mixed results due to their being pricy back then. But in the 21st century I believe it would be met with tremendous success as comic consumers consider them for their value compared to the expensive 32-page comic book.

Could the graphic novel help take the comic medium to the next level? I think it could. Readers are always looking for new material. And if it’s compelling enough they’ll give it a try if it’s well written and visually captivating. 

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