Monday, March 14, 2005

More Ralk: Better Comics

So most comics are real turds and I hate them. That much you know already. But what about the rest? What about the real brilliant things that just explode into your mind and your heart? Now, obviously there's no set formula to making better comics, but if Comics indeed Should Be Better, what are some ways that comics TEND, at least, to be better.

To help me out, I'm going to look at three Great Comics of yesterday and three from today. From the archives, representing Great Comics gone by, we've got Preacher, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Eightball #23. From ongoing stuff that is very Heart-able, let's look at Street Angel, the Goon, and Amazing Joy Buzzards.

Now, why did I pick these comics, Brad Curran might ask (Lex is too busy coddling his Teen Titans comics to care). Well, they are all GREAT comics. They also have completely different creative teams, no repeats there. You'd be hard-pressed, though, to find a more varied selection of six books. Sure, they're all great, but that's pretty much the only thing they have in common. Emphasis on "pretty much."

If they DO have something else in common, is it not fairly safe to assume that said commonality may have SOME sort of tie into what, exactly, makes these books great? That is to say, if all these otherwise-completely-different Great Books share some qualities, perhaps those qualities are inherent in Great Books period. What qualities, then, do they share? Well, from where I sit (about an inch in front of Alex's cardboard model of a keep), they share:

1. Creator-passion content
2. Elasticity
3. Emotion

1. Creator-passion content

Some books, most books, anybody could make. Whether the book is superhero, autobio, horror, whatever, about 99% of the time it's a generic lump that, even when well-crafted, bares no authorial touch aside from the occasional tic or habit in form. But these six great comics (and, of course, I'm betting others) differ from that prototype. Could anyone other than Garth Ennis have written Preacher? I love Grant Morrison more than is healthy, but that book could never have come from him. The Goon sans Eric Powell would be like a John Lennon album without John Lennon. These are books that are FILLED with the idiosyncrasies and passions of the creators (textual and artistic). Smith and Hipp's loves, as closely as they seem to match up with my own, make Amazing Joy Buzzards the delight it is. When creators stuff their work with things they love outside of their work, it goes from job to passion. The work is elevated to higher artistic grounds. The creators love the work more, that love translates to the page, and into the reader. Street culture, blaxploitation, ninjas, homelessness, and teenage strife flow together under Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca to make a comic so goddam fun you can't help yourself. When a work goes from a job to a passion, it goes from Good to Great.

2. Elasticity

But despite what your mamma may have told you, just love and passion aren't enough to destroy you. The second thing these six great comics have in common is elasticity. They're elastic in form and in content. Lone Wolf and Cub can be used to tell harrowing dramatic tales, all-out Samarai action, or even paternal love stories. It can be fast-paced, or slow, or switch at will between the two. The Goon can crack tard jokes on one page, thrill you with a punch-'em-up on the next, and then dedicate an issue to actual sentiment. Eightball #23 is elasticity of form personified (er, comic-ified?) with its multiple genres and styles contained within a single binding. All these comics are stretchable to different moods, different styles, different stories, and different interpretations. Look at most of the comics out there. They sustain a single mood or style [be it "excitement," sarcasm, bittersweetness (hello, Astro City)] and a single type of story. Good as they may be, they are Not Great.

3. Emotion

The last one's probably the most nebulous, but it is one personally important to this here critic. Let me explain via Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies. The first one was a romping, quoting, "DJ directed" film taken from some of my favorite films and genres. It left me totally flat and disappointed. Quotes without content, tributes without sacrifice. The second came along, and surprised the hell out of me with actual emotional content. There were characters you could actually care about and feel for, not just cheer for. Cheering is all well and good, but if you want to be Great . . .you need emotion. Even the apparent slightest of these books, Amazing Joy Buzzards is infused with some sort of emotion (in this case, most often unbridled, well, joy). Street Angel has a loneliness and a hope rarely seen in modern works. And fuck you if you can read Lone Wolf or Preacher and not give a damn about the characters, because you're an asshole! Granted, this rule is the least "hard and fast" of three rather un-"hard and fast" rules to begin with, but I believe I've made my point.

Using these three commonalities of six Great (but wildly differing) comics, its interesting to look at other great comics and see if they fit. So far, to me, they seem to. Whether you're looking at Seven Soldiers, Invincible, Sleeper, Lee/Kirby FF, or Sin City you keep running into Creator-passion Content, Elasticity, and Emotion. If you're one of those fools out there actually trying to write these damn things, keep these three items in mind. I can't promise you a home run, but at least you'll be swinging your bat in the right direction.

* Note - I find it interesting, re-reading Cunard's Idea post, that it rather goes well with this. His Ideaspace junk has merit, as we're pulling from similar areas. Which is probably just fancy pseudo-mystical bullshit for "Great minds think alike, and fools seldom differ.


Blogger Spencer Carnage said...

Two great points about this article(besides the whole 'Comics should have A, B, and C' which is fine, too): Grant Morrison's lack of emotion in his work and calling assholes out that are above being gay for Preacher and Lone Wolf And Cub after reading it. Good post.

3/14/2005 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

Uh . . .I'd never say that Grant has a lack of emotion in his work. In fact, rather the opposite. The pathos, the joy, the heartbreak is without par in superhero comics these days.

3/14/2005 07:52:00 PM  
Blogger Eliot Johnson said...

Mr. Rice, you have summed up in your post, more or less, why I love indy comics so much.

Mainstream comics (with a few exceptions of course, i.e. New Frontier and Plastic Man) are of a factory production line quality and could be made by just about anyone. Books like Teen Titans, GL Rebirth, passion or uniqueness (word?) from the creators whatsoever. Then, look to the small press and you see tons of books (Skyscrapers of the Midwest, Same Difference, Pulpatoon Pilgrimmage, any book by Damon Hurd, any book by Scott Morse, and yes, dammit Owly to name a very few) that just overflow with creativity and emotion. And emotion basically falls in that category too in my mind.

The other thing you mention is elasticity which a lot of the great indy comics have (Usagi Yojimbo, although not really indy, has it in spades. True Story Swear to God has it. And you can't get more elastic than Happy Town.), but it's not nearly as prevelent amongst indy books.

I mean, can anyone really see SCURVY DOGS, great as it is, being poignant? Hell no. But, that's also why Scurvy Dogs (and a lot of indy books) was ended at the time before elasticity would be necessary to keep the book great. It was funny as a squirrel with no arms trying to climb a tree for five issues and it ended. Basically what I'm saying is that elasticity is necessary, only, for GREAT ongoing comics. You can have a great mini or graphic novel that's not elastic.

Indy books, without a doubt, will give you a book full of passion and unique to the creator. How well-crafted will it be? That's debatable. But, I'm much more willing to give my money to a hardworking, if talentless, dude that draws for the fun of it than a soul-sucking robot monster of death like DC or Marvel.

P.S. I didn't mention it in my comment, but Street Angel is a fucking great book.

3/14/2005 10:02:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

Monotonality is a problem I have with most of the "indie" books for which I don't care. The longer they go on, the more they need to show diversity. What sets Eightball apart from Peepshow or My Monkey's Name is Jennifer apart from Beg the Question is elasticity. Sure, you can do one thing with your book. But can you do more? If you can't, in my mind, it'll be damn hard to consider it Great.

3/15/2005 07:09:00 AM  
Blogger Dread said...

So where does the idea of "entertainment" fit in?

3/15/2005 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

It fits right in. Great works can be entertaining works, they just don't have to be. Myself, I'd find it hard to be entertained by a monotonal, unemotional work without its creator's passion and interest. If a work is sufficiently entertaining, I'd say it's got some of these factors. I don't really hold "art" and "entertainment" to different standards. Great is great, whether it's "Move you," "make you think," or "cause enjoyment."

3/15/2005 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad Curran said...

Oh wow. I've been referenced in a post. My life is now complete. That said, I wouldn't ask why you chose those books, because I know they're all awesome from first hand experience. Well, except AJB. Haven't given that try yet. But the majority of them.

3/15/2005 05:55:00 PM  
Blogger alex said...


I really think we would all be better served if you just linked to E-Bay auctions of these books rather than discussed them.

Or give us lengthy, detailed plot summaries.

Also, maybe we could tell you what to talk about, in an open We-Decide kinda forum.

That would rule.


3/16/2005 09:18:00 PM  
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