A Picture's Worth
Let’s get right into it…
So here’s a question I hear debated all the time: Which is more important in comics, story or art?
I can answer that in one word: WRONG!
The phrasing isn’t correct. You see, the art is PART of the story. That’s why art in comics is also called “storytelling” and artists are often called “storytellers.” You simply cannot read the story in a comic book (or “graphic novel” if you want to be all ejumacated and highbrow) without the art. If you remove the art and just read the dialog and captions and can still follow the story completely, the script is grossly overwritten and the comic should just be printed as a short story. The art just becomes illustration at that point, and that ain’t comics.
The two should and must complement each other. (That’s “complement”, as in “to complete”, not “compliment” as in “to flatter or improve.”) You should be able to look at the art and figure out what is generally going on and who certain characters are (protagonist and antagonist, love interests, and so on), but it should not be clear without the words either. That of course is more obvious because you’d have no idea what a character is thinking without thought balloons, nor what is being said in a conversation.
Similarly, you should be able to see an establishing shot and have a good idea where it is without a caption; those should be more reserved for whens than wheres. (“Meanwhile” or “Yesterday”.) If you need a caption to tell you the shot is of the White House, New York City, the desert, space or whatever, then the artist needs serious help! Captions should be about subtleties, the things you cannot know just from looking at a picture. For instance, you may be looking at a scene in space, but which solar system or galaxy? Stuff like that.
In comics, art and script together make a story. That’s the fact, Jack. If you didn’t like the story in a particular issue, that isn’t necessarily a criticism of the writer. You’ll need to specify and clarify. What didn’t you like about it? Plot? Characterization? Pacing? Suspension of disbelief? Dialog? Very few of those things are the sole realm of the writer. If you cannot follow the plot well, the artist is probably not doing his job. Same with the pacing. Also, the degree of suspension of disbelief is affected if the artist doesn’t make the fantastic elements believable for you.
A great example of how this works is some of those deliciously wonderful early Silver Age Stan Lee scripts drawn by Kirby, Ditko and especially Gene Colan. As a kid I bought much of that stuff hook, line and sinker because it just looked “right” if not downright “possible” due to the incredible artwork. If I’d just read it in prose, my eyeballs would have gotten much more exercise from rolling.)
Even something like characterization can suffer or aided by the artist. Expressions and actions can often make or break a pivotal scene. How many times (especially in the 90s) have you seen a character drawn with an angry grimace who’s just asking to pass the ketchup? Or likenesses or costumes vary from page to page (or even panel to panel)? The characters will seem “off”, the story will not flow, and the reader won’t enjoy it–because of the art.
The debate should be, “Which is more important in comics, writing or art?” or “…the script or the art?” Now you’re talking!
The answer, as mentioned above, is that they should both be equally important. I’m not saying that because I’m a writer and artist, nor because I want to suck up to my writer buddies. It’s simply common sense and logic. However, if we’re talking strictly technical DEFINITION of comics, then the art is certainly the more important element. Why? Easy! If there’s no art, it’s NOT comics! Pure and simple.
We’ve seen plenty of wordless comics but how many artless comics have you read?
Comics are, at their simplest, pages of sequential art, so as long as you have panels in some kind of sequence, it’s comics. And while you (and many writers) may argue you need a writer to tell the artist what to draw, we know from guys like Carl Barks, Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Evan Dorkin, Dave Sim, and countless others that that’s simply not true. The artist, without writing a lick of dialog or narrative, can pencil a sequence of events for a basic plot with characters. It may not be good comics, or even comics worth reading, but it’s still comics. Put nothing but text on the pages, however, and you have a script, short story or novel, NOT a comic book.
And yes, pages of lettering balloons still count as art, baby–again, as long as they convey a sequence of events as part of a whole. While the use of computers and comic-book fonts has clouded the issue a bit, lettering in balloons and such, as opposed to just typeset text, IS art, whether you like it or not (a subject I’ll opine on and elucidate in a future column). So a bunch of black panels with balloons of dialog (like two characters talking in the dark) would still constitute comics, whereas a script would not. Got it?
Anyway, the point I need you to take from this–and to spread to your friends on all your Facebook, MySpace and Twitter lists, fanzine pages as well as online boards, blogs and groups–is this:
–In comics, art and story are not two different things; you cannot have the former without the latter.
–Art and writing should be inseparable for real comics (as well as good comics).
–And by definition, a comic book without art is not a comic book.
Lastly, buy some art from an artist (ahem), buy a script from a writer, and continue to thank and praise, or pan and curse, both for what they do. At least now you’ll know the difference.
Take care ,