On What Comics Can Do

November 3rd, 2010 | comics talk

For the last three months or so, I've been working piecemeal in spare time on a short booklet about writing comics. Here's one small piece of it, the beginning of a section:

In what ways are comics not like film, you ask (in my head)?

Illustration creates a suspension of disbelief.

If Art Spiegelman’s MAUS had been filmed first, it would have had an audience of maybe three people at Sundance. Because the moment everyone trooped on wearing their mouse masks, any larger audience would have lost it and left giggling. Only in the space of cartooning could that conceit work. Not least because we’re already aware, when we come to cartooning, that we’re looking at someone’s processed and hermetic perception of the world. The great success of MAUS is that the mouse faces make us let our guard down, and so we’re hit by the horrible truth of that book from an unprotected angle.

There’s a page I often cite in these conversations, from the 1974 comic MANHUNTER by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. It’s an entire Jason Bourne sequence in a single page. In a Marrakesh alleyway, Damon Nostrand is in a car attempting to run down Paul Kirk and Christine StClair. Kirk pushes StClair to cover, rolls under the speeding car, draws a knife, tears it through the car’s petrol tank as it passes over him, gets clear, lights a match, touches it to the trail of petrol the car leaves, the petrol blazes down the alley to the car, the car explodes, and then they do three or four lines of dialogue while watching Nostrand burn to death about how it’s horrible but really he was a bit of a git and completely deserved it. One page. Employing “camera angles” and compositions that even now the likes of Paul Greengrass would go blind trying to replicate.

Also: a curling, snarling Peter Kuper piece can sear the page with its anger in a way that no photorealistic artist will ever be able to communicate. A room drawn by Eddie Campbell will be more real than any snapshot, because his line is almost like handwriting, and has human breath upon it. Dash Shaw’s work may look rough on first look, but stay with it, look at how he conveys the essence of an idea in every panel, and you’ll realise how hard he sometimes works to evoke an entire world with so few elements.

All of which is to say you’re not necessarily hemmed in by realism, or naturalism of any kind. This is a field that combines, on the one hand, the novel and the poem and the slogan and the news story, and on the other hand every stop from pointillism to cave painting. Understand comics as the marriage of word and picture, as simple as that, and you’ll get a sense of how broad the medium’s reach really is.

I’m currently driving my FREAKANGELS artist Paul Duffield mad by making him draw a sequence partly inspired by the main titles of Gaspar Noe’s ENTER THE VOID. Which is all typography and signwork.

Comics are not film. Film can do some things we can’t. But we have a far larger toolbox.


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  1. You can find Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis