Story Bored, Comics as a Perfect Storytelling Medium
by Nick Locking
Why can't comics be more like prose? Why can't they be more like film? Well, why the hell should they be? Comics are such a perfect storytelling medium, Nick Locking argues, that they've spoiled him for just about anything else.
I think comics are the best storytelling medium, ever. And I'll tell you why.
I can't read prose anymore. Now, my too-short attention span is probably a factor here, but I have to level much of the blame at sequential art. Over the last month or so, I've started to read perhaps six or seven books, and I've finished none of them. Good books, too - I've liked all of them, while reading. And this is strange, for me. A few years ago, I'd happily devour that many books in a week or two. (Does that mean I can have back my copy of Kavalier and Clay? - Ed.)
And honestly, I think it's because I'm so spoiled by sequential art that I can't really sink my teeth into prose anymore.
Comics are perhaps the most efficient storytelling method of all time. This is, I think, my problem with prose. Setting up a scene in a novel requires any amount of text, but in comics, hey - just draw a picture. I'll look at it, in as much detail as I decide. If I want to count the squares on the chessboard, make sure the guitar has the right number of frets, I can. If I want to simply know that we're in someone's bedroom and that someone's been shot dead, I can.
This, incidentally, is also the reason that US Army training manuals feature a lot of sequential art (much of it drawn by Joe Kubert, so I'm told, though I've never been called up by a foreign power). When you need to communicate an idea to a bunch of people very quickly and with no room for miscommunication, a combination of words and pictures is definitely your best bet. See also warning signs - a big skull with the word 'DANGER' underneath it or a two-image sequence of someone drinking poison and dying horribly fall squarely in the medium of comics, as far as I'm concerned.
So for me, personally, reading a prose novel after reading a bunch of comics represents a jarring change of storytelling efficiency. To be honest, the same thing happens even inside a comic, when a prose section is added to a story. Dave Sim did it a lot in Cerebus (particularly Minds).
For those of you who haven't read Minds, four or five pages of text were inserted between every three or four pages of sequential art, featuring a sort of semi-fictional commentary on Dave Sim's experiences in the comic industry, represented by a fictional avatar, Viktor. Now, I am reliably informed that I am not the only person who found the text inserts in Minds utterly boring, but I couldn't have forced myself to read those things even if I'd wanted to.
I'm the same, I'm forced to admit, even with good prose. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - I still haven't read that Allan Quatermain story in the back of the hardcover. "One day", I promise myself. I'm starting to doubt. I didn't even attempt the prose backup in the first issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume 2.
Film and television are better than prose for me. The storytelling efficiency is certainly a step up from prose - again, I can ignore details I'm uninterested in or that I feel are superfluous - but I suddenly find myself unable to go at my own pace, skimming past the dull bits, slowing down on the good bits. And nothing's perfect - even in my current favourite television show, Six Feet Under (possibly the best drama ever created), there are bits I wish were over quicker. Usually the sex scenes, to be honest. Sex scenes in film and television bore me senseless. But anyway.
It can also be a disadvantage in that you can space out, lose interest in what you're watching, and five minutes later when your attention returns to the story, you've missed plot elements. No such problem with comics (or, admittedly, prose, for that matter).
But again, I think comics have the advantage. That pacing thing is key - even adverts in television programmes can't be skipped easily, while in comics with ads, a quick half-second flip is all that's required.
Where comics have the disadvantage to film and television, of course, is in the richness of the experience. A film represents photo-realistic picture quality and sound quality so convincing, it's as if you're standing right beside Arnie when he destroys that building with a grenade launcher.
Another factor to consider is that a comic often represents the communication of an idea from only two principal creators - the writer and the artist - and sometimes just one. A film or television programme's core concept could easily be filtered through a few dozen 'creative' minds before it hits the audience. I like the kind of directness between the story and the audience that comics offer.
I know not everyone will feel the same way I do. I do have a short attention span, it's true, so being able to skim details I find uninteresting is a decided advantage when I'm choosing my favoured storytelling medium. And I'm sure I'll rediscover my love for prose eventually, of course. My interest in prose fiction goes up and down all the time - Zodiac Mindwarp's Get Your C**K Out is very probably going to be the next prose novel to carry me through to the finish.
But the inherent strength of comics as a storytelling medium should be equally applicable to everyone. There's a large part of the population that really can't be bothered reading prose, but who'd love a more efficient storytelling medium. And they don't know it exists.
Nick Locking is the award-winning co-creator of The Atrocity, and the writer of the Robocop: Simple Machines (2004). His work for the Ninth Art included the essay series Salacious Illustration, plus reviews of Transformers and the indie anthology Never Mind the Comics.
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