Friday, November 4, 2011

Best Of Times/Worst Of Times: Cinematic Storytelling!

Right now is the absolute best and worst time to be reading comic books, for a myriad of reasons.  The best books I've ever read in my now 30+ year career in reading these damn things...I'm reading now.  And yet it never fails that each week I find my blood pressure rising and throwing something down in disgust.  Sometimes I'll declare the same comic genius and also throw it down in disgust at some point in the reading process.  

If there's an over-arching, primary, 600-pound-gorilla-type-problem in the industry currently, it's the problem of value.  It's hard to scientifically clarify what we mean by a comic with that exhibits good "value", although having the page count to flesh out the stories does help.  I think we can all think of shorter comics or even back-up features that have entertained and earned the cover cost, and I believe we've all read longer works that didn't pay off with a visceral response.  Which had greater value?

I suppose we know it when we experience it, but also I think lost in the potential nitpicking is the very obvious and demonstrable claim:

Today's comics are the least efficient and most expensive comics in the history of the medium.

With very few exceptions, there are no comics that leave one feeling they've received good value - even the comics one enjoys.  I'm going to talk about two examples I read this evening; Last of the Greats # 2, and Cloak & Dagger: Spider-Island # 3.  Here's the thing.  I genuinely enjoyed both books, and in fact, I thought what was there in LOTG was pretty fantastic.  But here's the other thing:

This is Charles at the end of his presser, explaining to the world that the last remaining great is perfectly willing to fix the world as they know it, but he's going to require a serious adulation commitment.  Then he walks away from the mic.

Now, I'm not a complete rube.  I intellectually understand an attempt at poignancy when I see it.  But what does that PAGE, and what is pictured above is an entire PAGE of the LOTG # 2, actually accomplish?  I imagine that Joshua Fialkov sees us slowing down our eyes and fully digesting this, his most dramatic of all moments.  Because he has ordered Brent Peeples to fill a largely empty page with a microphone and a grim, statuesque figure, we are now understanding the true and pregnant implications of the people's decision.

And you know what?  If this kind of thing happened in a comic book series once every six months, these little tricks might have that kind of power.  The problem, or one of the big problems, is that today's writers think every little scene they write is the BIGGEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN COMICS.  That scene where Charles walks away from the mic is actually a waste of everyone's time.  We only get twenty pages a month to move these forward, gents.  You can't waste them with a line of dialogue and a smear of blue watercolor for a background.  That's a waste of time, and a waste of my money.

This scene to me is even worse:

What is the point of the first three panels, and why couldn't that have been conveyed in one panel, about half the size used?  Here's the story beat: the angry child is running away.  That's it.  Why does that require 70% of a page to illustrate?  We're not breaking new ground here or pushing the medium forward.  This is a waste of space, a waste of my time, and a waste of my money.

Comics are not television or movies, and I dearly wish they'd stop trying to be.  The juice in comics is what happens between your ears between the panels.  It's about connecting dots, not throwing still shots of film cells on a page.  Take this gun scene, as an example:

Charles is depressed. We know this.  It's fine to re-establish that, to show a grim despondency and set the scene emotionally again.  But why do we need a play-by-play of the gun inching toward his head?  "Sad look with gun on table" + "gun at temple" in next scene is more than enough for us to get the idea.  These panels don't need to be that big, either.  Not to tell the story.  

My conclusion upon finishing Last of the Greats # 2 was that it was an outstanding little chunk of a story I'm enjoying very much...that I also overpaid for.  And this one was one of the $2.99 books!  I didn't clock myself reading it, but completing the issue took closer to five minutes than ten. 

Joshua Fialkov is a smart writer.  He's not afraid to cut to the heart of the dark part of human nature, but he does it with some elegance instead of hitting you with a sledge hammer.  Last of the Greats has an outstanding hook - dirt simple with lots of layers.  I don't want to ruin anything by just blurting out all the plot details, but issue # 1 had me flip-flopping on where I invested my sympathy twice, and then at the beginning of the second issue, the remaining Great pulls a maneuver that makes you question everything again.  

A child is fed to sharks at some point, and its not just for Mark MillarianFialkov is good to the point where it pays to think about these things, because you can bet he has.  It means something.

This is a story with both theme and purpose, something more comic books should take note of and do likewise.  I really enjoy this story.  

But does Last of the Greats # 2 have good value?  No, it does not. It has better value than a dull comic of the same length, width, and efficiency, but that doesn't mean it's a good value.  Not enough happened.

And this isn't an isolated occurrence.  In the same pile I read Fialkov's I, Vampire # 2.  Also a good book with a wicked hook.  Star-crossed lovers in an unhealthy supernatural co-dependent relationship, ready to take the vampire nation to the next level, in inevitable opposition with the superhero community.  But if you break I, Vampire # 2 into its basic ingredients, what you have is a lot of poetic posturing, one vampire fight where the protagonist in never in any actual danger, and the realization that Mary set him up for it just to make life tougher for him down the line.  It could have been done in five pages, easy.  In the golden age, it probably would have been done in two pages at most.

And I'm not positing that we need a return to the golden age by any stretch.  Not enough sophistication there to satisfy modern sensibilities.  But neither do we need a page to show a many walking away from a microphone, either.  Surely there's a middle ground in there somewhere?
It's self indulgence of the highest order.  It's the assertion that these scenes are all of such magnitude that each sublime moment must have a double splash page for the masses to properly digest the galactic implications.  It's absurd.  

But Fialkov is by no means alone or the worst of his kind.  No, the King of Self Indulgence is the divinely conceived Nick Spencer.  And I'll show you how Cloak & Dagger: Spider Island # 3 blows the doors off LOTG in terms of inefficiency when next I pontificate at you.

- Ryan

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