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Why are comics ashamed of what they are? Esentially, they combine the best creative opportunities of all media. So why do they desperately try to be movies?

Let’s start by looking at three different media, shall we? Prose, movies, and comics.

  • Prose relies only on words. That makes it most difficult (in relation) to create compelling action scenes and to set up exotic locales. However, it offers a completely different set of possibilities. While deprived of the visual sense, prose has it easiest of the three to aim at all senses. It’s as easy to describe how something feels or smells as it is to describe how it looks. Also, prose is the most efficient medium to really get into a character’s head and emotions. The only limit is the creator’s imagination, and his skill in communicating his ideas only through words.
  • Movies go for the audio-visual. They attack you with sound and pictures and motion. That makes it the most external of the three media. Smell and touch are by necessity mostly ignored (unless you give some exposition through the dialogue), but it can’t be beaten when it comes to actually showing locales and visual effects. Regarding going into a character’s head, it can provide either a voice-over narration or a musical backdrop that underlines how the character feels, or both. Plus, of course, the actor’s ability to emote convincingly. The only limit is what the production can afford.
  • Comics are a visual medium that can show locales and provide visual effects. Depending on the artist’s skill, they can provide the reader with the information of all the senses that the characters use. And because the pictures share the space with the written word, they can get into the characters’ heads with equal ease. Because it costs as much to draw Newark, New Jersey as it does to draw Dormammu’s Dark Dimension (I always wanted to type that), there is no limit to locations. Indeed, since comics rely heavily on art, comics can easily go beyond the pure storytelling and into the real of art in a way that the other media can’t do. The limits are the artists’ skills, for example in conveying emotion, and the fact that comics cannot provide motion.

So why do comics want to be movies? Why are they afraid to exist on their own virtues?

If you look at Avengers #501 (If Bendis continues to provide me with examples, I may have to start co-crediting him – but I am not Bendis-bashing. Honest.), there is a page that focuses on Tony Stark and Iron Man. It starts with a close-up of Tony Stark that gets progressively smaller until it turns into something seen through one eyehole in Iron Man’s helmet. Then we go back out to show Iron Man flying. As a storyboard for a movie, the sequence works nicely. But a storyboard is just a tool movies use to set up shots. This sequence would work nicely in a movie (and indeed, similar sequences have worked very nicely in a lot of movies). Why? They provide a bridge from one sequence to another. But to work, it requires motion.

Remember what we said about comics and motion?

Without wanting to pull a Jesse Baker, I think that Bendis was thinking of exactly such a bridge when he wrote that particular page. I’ve looked at published Bendis scripts, and he works in a fairly loose, screenplay-like format. Working in that format, instead of writing a panel-by-panel description makes it easy to fall into this pattern. Heck, I’m guilty of it myself. On Berserker: The Wild Hunt, I had a very active and synergetic relationship with the artist, Harris O’Malley. Consequently, I wanted to give him more freedom in designing the page layout and the visual pacing. So I also wrote in a fairly loose style. When I had finished, I looked at the script and realized that you could easily take the script and shoot the movie from it. No, really. Since I wasn’t writing a movie screenplay, I do not consider that a good thing.
Now, when I don’t know who will draw something I wrote (mostly when I write on spec), I write full script. In comics terms, that is when the format looks a bit like this:

Page X

Panel Y

Description of panel

Character: Dialogue

I have more control over the story. Even more importantly, this format forces me to think comic-book page, instead of movie. Yet the screenplay format seems to find more and more fans among the writers.

Perhaps that is why people complain that more and more comics look like movie pitches. (Of course, more and more creators do already think of selling the movie rights when they create a comic. There’s nothing wrong with that. So long as it’s not the primary reason to create the comic.)

On the other hand, we have a comic like Daredevil: Parts of a Hole (Marvel Knights Daredevil #9-15.) Written by David Mack, art by Joe Quesada, David Ross, Jimmy Palmiotti, Mark Morales, Richard Isanove and Richard Starkings & Comicraft. Go out and buy the trade. Although the story is only average, I mention it as a positive example because the word “art” really does apply to this comic. Beautifully set up, it goes far beyond simple storytelling and crosses the threshold into art. Some pages are downright surreal. So what if I don’t like surrealism. I like this because it shows a glimpse of what comics can accomplish, what they can become when they make an effort. The trade paperback’s title might easily refer to the comic itself, where the writing, the art and even the colors and lettering are parts of a whole of a comics experience. (As a writer, I really wish I could get my hands on the script, to study it and learn from it.) It shows what a comic can do if it thinks of itself as a creative effort on paper, instead of a movie that doesn’t move. Which, considering that “movie” is only a shortening of “moving pictures,” is a contradictory concept.

Why, then, do comics try so hard to be something else? Why do comics try to be movies, instead of just being comics? Is it because the comic creators lack vision? Considering that there is the occasional break-out project, such as the aforementioned Daredevil, I doubt it. Is it because comics seek at least a fraction of the respect that movies have? You don’t get respect for imitating someone else instead of being the best you that you can be. Is it because the readership wouldn’t support it if comics were to try their hand at being art? While I don’t know the sales figures for Daredevil 9-15, I do know that publishers frequently cancel more innovative and daring books (Wildcats V. 3.0, anyone?) because they don’t sell enough copies.

My personal theory is that it is a combination of all three factors. That creators would like to dare more, to explore the limits of the medium, if they thought that the readers would support it, in order to win more respect for the medium of comics. But for purely economic reasons, comics don’t dare to be the best they can be. And for that, they will always find a lack of respect.

Jens H. Altmann is a German writer who has written in almost all media, and a variety of genres. His comic Berserker: The Wild Hunt will be available in 2004 from Studio Underhill.

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