I Liked the Movie, So What Comic Should I Read?

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Curator's Note

When I try to introduce comics to non-comic-readers, I choose what I consider to be fairly straightforward modern comics, and frequently I get the same response: “I liked it, but I had a hard time reading it.” Those of us who are devoted comics readers often forget how much skill mainstream comic book reading requires, particularly from people who haven’t read comic layouts more complex than Dilbert. 

If you compare a random comic book from 2011 and 1961, you’ll notice that comic pages are more complicated now (not necessarily clearer or better, but definitely more complex). Dropping someone with simpler comic reading skills into modern comics can be like whisking someone out of the classical cinema and sitting them down in front of Inception.

Just as mainstream filmmaking uses increasingly flashy techniques, mainstream comics have developed sophisticated ways of telling stories. Look, for example, at two pages from artist J.H. Williams’s spectacular run in Detective Comics. Williams’s art calls attention to the panels’ graphic shapes, actually making it more difficult to parse the page instead of straightforwardly presenting the story world.

In economic terms, Williams is a craftsperson differentiating his work, much as (say) Gregg Toland made a name for himself as a cinematographer with a particular “look” in the classical period (Williams’s work garnered him an Eisner Award – the comics’ version of the Oscar – for Best Artist). In terms of artistry, Williams was being innovative in his use of the comics medium.

All this is fine within the comics community,  whose members are more able to manage the complexity because fans are more familiar with the changing “language” of comics. But what is showy within the tiny world of comics can be daunting to the uninitiated, to those who are looking to extend the experience of the Green Lantern or Captain America films by reading actual comics. Not only is it hard for a new reader to plop down in the long-running narratives of superhero comics, but the actual form of modern comics (developed for a niche audience) can be a barrier. Because the comics language has developed within a small community of producers and readers, it can be hard for someone to learn that language when entering the comics world.



Thanks for this!  I just wanted to note that Anthony Smith, on a Comics Studies panel at this last SCMS, did a presentation on how publication format has changed Marvel's editorial direction with regard to narrative.  Essentially, and those interested may wish to get in contact with him, Anthony made the argument that Marvel had begun shaping narratives from the compression required for monthly titles (emphasis on story, not spectacle) vs. decompression for graphic novels and trade paperback reprints (emphasis on spectacle over story).  One of the centerpieces was a comparison of a rocket launch in a silver age Marvel title (where it took up a panel or two) to a rocket launch in a contemporary title (where it took up multiple pages).  He built this formal analysis around interviews with Marvel personnel and with fan reactions.  You can probably guess that many fans became increasingly frustrated with decompression when purchased in monthly format ("Nothing happened!") vs. the reactions to the TPB reprint.  Comics have obviously come a long way from Winsor McCay's graphically sophisticated interior panel spaced, which featured "exterior" numbers dictating a preferred reading order!  

Yeah, you're right about the influence of the changing industrial context, Drew. The "compression vs. decompression" change has occurred in shifts as comic books make the transition from the good ol' "floppies" (the single comic issue) to trade paperbacks.  Many serialized comics organize their stories into five issue arcs not because "5" is a magic number for narrative but because five issues gives enough story to break even when published in paperback form.  (five issues at around 22 pages per issue passes the 100 page mark, which seems to be the price point for book-form comics).

If you read a trade paperback published a few years ago that collects stories originally published in floppies, you'll notice that the "graphic novel" has the odd habit of summarizing the story every 22 pages or so. This made sense for readers of the traditional comic book because it allowed them to catch up on the story if they missed a few issues.  In trade paperback form, these summaries just seem weird, and so many floppy comics have started using a "previously on.." text summary on the inside cover.  This serves the same summary purpose and can be easily excised when republishing the comics in paperback form.

The tendency to create the comics narrative for its eventual trade paperback reprint can be frustrating to the die-hard comics reader who visits the comic shop on Wednesdays to buy floppies.  As Drew notes, if the artist/writer envisions a larger narrative canvas, then the individual issue can be a bit thin.  Many comics readers plop down $3.99 for an issue and then take it home and finish the story in five minutes, particularly if it contains multiple page rocket launch sequences.  In this age of multiple options for the consumer entertainment dollar, this can make a $3.99 comic seem like a pretty shabby investment, and so this adds to the many factors causing the demise of the traditional physical comic shop.  We're in a transitional period in terms of comics publishing, and you can see the marks of that transition on the comics pages themselves.

I'm grateful to Roger for alerting me to this discussion.

I prefer comic books to trade paperbacks for a few reasons. The first is simply long-term habit: I've been collecting comic books since I was in elementary school.

The second has to do with the level of commitment required. A 22-page narrative is long enough for a satisfying reading experience, yet short enough to be finished in a single session. I find it a much less daunting task to read five 22-page comics as opposed to one 100-page book, because when I finish each of the comic books, I feel as though I've had a significant reading experience, rather than 1/5 of such an experience. And this explains why decompression is such an annoying phenomenon, because it reduces the completeness of the reading experience; I tend to prefer single-issue stories. Usagi Yojimbo and the Marvel Adventures line are two current examples of comics that do an excellent job of providing a complete, self-contained reading experience in the space of about 20 pages.

Finally, the third reason is format. A 22-page comic book is a satisfying artifact. It smells nice and it's easily portable. And organizing my comic books is fun, although it's a lot of work.

Finally, I think there is an element of aura involved; to me it just feels more authentic to read an original Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four rather than an Essential volume, even if neither of them is actually an auratic document.

As soon as I finished writing this post, it occurred to me that comic books, in the narrative sense, are similar to half-hour TV episodes. An episode of The Simpsons or Futurama is a complete and self-contained and therefore satisfying narrative, but it's short enough that you can watch several of them in one session.

I'm right with you, Aaron.  Nothing duplicates the feel of turning the pages or the satisfying pleasure of bagging and organizing my collection. All is right with the world when my comics database is updated and I reach for the next floppy on my enormous to-be-read stack.

And yet I feel like a dinosaur, a participant in what has been called "paper culture." Those of use who love the tactile feel of print books, paper newspapers, and floppy comics are rarefied connoisseurs in the computer culture of convergence where content is king and format doesn't matter.  I'm not crazy about comics on the Ipad because they fundamentally alter the experience of page layout for me. Zooming in to read the dialogue in a particular panel and then whisking to the next one doesn't give me the sense of the page as a whole that I get when reading either a floppy or a trade paperback.  Again, we're in a transitional period where DC and Marvel are trying to redesign their lines for digital distribution, but they haven't redesigned the basic page layout to work well with the tablet format.  That day is coming, I know, and I hope that it opens up new possibilities for comic expression.  But for the moment, I'm still buying paper comics.

To relate this back to film, your reference to "paper culture" reminds me of the way that film grain is often discussed in film studies. If I understand this argument correctly, visible film grain is a reminder of the material and mechanical nature of the film; it reminds you that you're watching a photographic film strip that was produced by chemical means. Because digital cinema does not have film grain, it seems less like a physical artifact, and more like an ethereal illusion.

Similarly, in comics, the presence of paper -- the smell and the feel of it -- is proof that the comic is a material and physical artifact, not just a transparent support for a reading experience. And there's a long tradition of making comics in ways that emphasize the physicality of the reading experience. Good examples of this include Acme Novelty Library, or on the other hand, the gimmick covers of the early '90s.

Incidentally, the other reason why film grain is important is because it reminds you that the film is an index of reality, that it captures a reality that actually existed. Digital films don't have film grain because they were made by manipulating digital information, not by recording  The lack of film grain in CGI films is a reminder that the events shown on the film never actually happened, but were brought to life by artificial means. In this respect it's interesting, though I don't know what to make of it exactly, that superheroes are one of the most popular genres of CGI films. The superhero genre is perfectly suited to CGI because it involves the portrayal of things that are impossible to stage in front of the camera.

Yep, I think that much of Hollywood's recent embrace of superheroes has a lot to do with finding already recognizable characters/stories where they can show off their superior special effects capabilities.  When Hollywood adapts superheroes who don't have super powers (Batman, Daredevil), they still parade their gadgetry. If you're interested in the connection between CGI and superhero films, I'd point you to Scott Bukatman's piece in the latest issue of Cinema Journal (50:3, Spring 2011, http://www.cmstudies.org/?page=current_issue), which has some interesting things to say about the difference between filming the physical body of the actor and the computer generated body of the superhero.

As someone who went through the "decompression" crazy in the early aughts, I completely empathize with the fanboys who were annoyed that comics were being decompressed. I remember reading Ultimate Spiderman and thinking "gee, it took Bendis (the author of Ult Spidey) 6 issues to tell the same story that Lee and Ditko did in one? How is that better?"

I've mostly eschewed the monthly comic for graphic novels and trades, but I wonder if digital comics will change the decompression tendency of the past few years. DC has already promised shorter storylines in their new 52 series.

I'd also like to address Greg's discussion of the complexity of modern comics. I remember giving a copy of Sacco's The Fixer to a friend of mine getting her degree in history and who had an interest in the Bosnian Civil War of the 90s. She told me she had no idea how to read the comic. I was dumbfounded, but Greg's post reminded me that some comics (esp. William's almost deco-ish layouts and Sacco's expressionistic documentarian style) are very difficult to read for the uninitiated. Great post.

Thanks, Roger. (and for those of you who are a little fuzzy on the Bosnian conflict, I can't recommend Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde enough, though it does require a bit of comics-reading savvy)  I'd like to combine Roger's and Drew's comments here to point out that not only can highly decorative comic art styles cause difficulties, but simple ones can cause some of the economic discontent we're talking about here.

I bought Jeff Smith's Bone (a beautifully crafted, child-friendly adventure story) as floppies, and I can remember waiting for months for the next issue (Smith took great care with each issue) only to breeze through it in a couple of minutes because of Smith's elegant, clean, animation-influenced drawing style.  In a different vein, I remember individual issues of Seth's Palookaville (a lovely evocation of the everyday lives of people such as salesmen) which were so slow that virtually nothing happened. Both serialized publications created terrific graphic novels (see Seth's charming It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken), but at a certain point these writer/artists had their eyes on the big eventual publication, not the serialized one, and so these serial issues weren't particularly satisfying.  (Seth has now moved toward publishing book-sized issues of his serialized Palookaville, which gives a much bigger dose of narrative)

The economic crunch has hit the comics industry in such a way that a ornate style (such as Williams's) can create barriers to the unitiated reader and a simple style can create frustrations for the devoted comics reader.

This is a fantastic start to the week, Greg!  You've raised some fantastic points here. The concepts of compression and decompression in relation to the industrial/narrative change in comics and their transition to film is also an intriguing idea.  I'm particularly interested in how these recent Marvel films might be considered, in an overall context, examples of compression in relation to the massive release Marvel plans for next year (The Avengers).  All of these recent releases, while unique creations of their own, have more or less been produced with the crossover film as the ultimate goal.  These individual films attempt to introduce us to the characters through origin stories (arguably focusing on story over spectacle, although there is still a great deal of spectacle involved as potential blockbusters), and The Avengers may turn out to be more spectacle - i.e. the thrill of seeing all of these "star" heroes all in the same film - than story (although it is impossible to know until it comes out).  Captain America's end of title sequence (and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler for anyone) is a trailer for this "graphic novel" of films.  With these impending sequels constantly in mind when viewing films, does this in some ways mirror the older consumption patterns of the monthly comic?  And do you think that this, in turn, might aid those who are new to comic books in their attempts to engage with the medium?

Hi Ian,

Your connection between the Avengers film and the Marvel films is really interesting. I'd disagree slightly with the terminology you use. The movies (more or less) are mirroring old 1960s-70s Marvel practice of creating a tight continuity between their books by having characters appear in each other's comics. This started with short cameos: Captain America might appear in a Spiderman comic with a little caption at the bottom saying something like "What is Captain America doing? Buy the most recent ish of his comic to find out!" This tight continuity made Marvel extremely popular when it was first published. And continuity was established in Marvel comics soley in the monthly titles. There were no trades available when these comics were first published. 

In fact, titles that established themselves as "graphic novels" originally meant a very different thing than they do today. The first self-proclaimed graphic novels came out in the late 70s, and signified longer comic narratives (novel-length as opposed to the standard 20 or 22 pg single issue) on bound in hardback or high quality paperback. In other words, not the newsprint that was used to publish serialized comics. Grant Morrison's Batman: Arkham Asylum is a good example, it was never published serially and was only published as a longer piece in hardback and paperback. It was really with the publication of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen that the term expanded to mean any collected story bound in a novel-form. Originally the two works were published serially, but were later collected into larger volumes due to their high popularity. Today, graphic novel is synonymous with a collection of comics because publishers sell more comics in bookstores than they do speciality comic stores, but that wasn't always the case.

However, in terms of educating viewers to understand comic continuity, I think you're right about that. Of course, movie-goers also have longer serialized films like the Harry Potter series to get them thinking about continuity. 

What I am struck by is the relationship between the comic book's increasing formal complexity and the restructuring of the industry since the mid 1980s around pairing particular titles/characters with specific "auteurs/artists". It is only once the "auteur" becomes a marketable commodity; a means of differentiating titles and either encouraging re-investment in a character with an expired sell-by date or an unproven one that the formal aspects of the medium are subjected to a higher degree of experimentation. Without denying the artistic talents and sensibilities of individual artists, the degree of current creative innovation is at least in part driven by the economic and labor dynamics of how the industry currently operates, with artists encouraged to cultivate fan bases in order to draw consumers to their work, which in turn generates greater job security (landing an exclusive contract complete with health benefits and a guaranteed paycheck from either Marvel or DC is no longer directly correlated with one's workman-like ability to churn out pages, but with one's ability to generate sales by providing a recognizable, unique [and marketable] style that draws readers to particular titles).

I am not so convinced that Marvel is reproducing a variation on its late-1960s/1970s comic book crossover strategy with its build up to The Avengers. Crossovers were  intended to boost sales and encourage reader migration across titles. Compared to the movies, pay-off was almost immediate, with titles coming out bi-weekly or monthly. They did promote a vision of a unified Marvel Universe where characters co-existed and were aware of one another, but to some extent, their effectiveness was predicated on both the spectacle of character team-ups and the mundane manner in which they might reference one another (the recent Thor motion picture perhaps captures this mix best). The cameo appearances in the Marvel films seem to function more as teasers that build anticipation for a cumulative pay-off down the road. After all, there is a reason why film Thor didn't fight the film Hulk right off the bat, which would have happened in the 1970s comic rather than hinting at some epic battle to come. Much of he criticism lobbed at Iron Man 2 was that there was too much decompression and set-up that detracted from the main plot and made the film seem like a very expensive placeholder. 


Perhaps an interesting parallel can be built between the auteur market for comics and the market for cross-over films. While I agree that the payoff model is completely different (in that comics and film are two entirely different modalities), it seems that the conceptual scheme is similar: build excitement for the Avengers film by seeding cameos in other films, get fanboys remembering why they loved Marvel in the first place by creating the idea of a shared Universe in the film.

I don't know if any of you have seen this, but someone has already pieced together a movie timeline for the new films:


What's interesting to me is that the first Iron Man movie occurs in 2009 and the Incredible Hulk occurs in 2010 (after Iron Man 2) - despite the fact that both Iron Man and Hulk were released in 2008. So it seems that, already, some retconning is occuring to make all of the events cohere into a single narrative.

My question would be - if, as Avi argues, the rise of the comic auteur is needed for the formal innovation seen in the past few years (there was innovation before in Underground Comix for example, but not as much in Superhero comics - which relied more on a house style to achieve consistency), then what kind of market innovation is necessary for film innovation in comic adaptations? And what would these innovations be? 

First of all, "continuity" in comic books (the alleged attempt to create a unified narrative universe) is a sometime thing, as Gershwin might say. DC and Marvel assert continuity when it's in their interests (such as attracting fans of a particular character to a team book such as the Avengers or the Justice League), and they ignore it when continuity presents problems.

Marvel/Disney does seem to be hoping that these brief reminders within films will serve as a kind of "imbedded trailer." After all, the audience that has paid to see Captain America is a core group that is likely to plunk down the cash to see The Avengers, and so a cameo functions as a brief "shout-out" to fans (and the prospective audience). Roger and Avi are both right in that cameos, previews, and crossovers are all economically driven phenomena. I'm doubtful that Marvel/Disney is deeply invested in continuity except when it suits them, however, and so they feel more like a relatively cost-efficient way to reach their target audience (like a preview).

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