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Tension Deficit Disorder: Why Some Comics Work - And Some Don't

A page from Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth, by Chris Ware.

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth is an example of a comic where the art is doing its job. Random House hide caption

itoggle caption Random House

Last week, NPR Arts correspondent Lynn Neary had an enlightening piece on All Things Considered about the new graphic novel adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451. I say enlightening, because one learns several things upon listening to it, among them:

One:
Bradbury refers to the book as "Fahrenheit Four-Five-One," and not, as you probably do, "Fahrenheit Four-Fifty-One." Huh.

Two:
Artist Tim Hamilton struggled with the classic Adapter's Dilemma (What to include? What to exclude?).

Three:
To the surprise of precisely no one, I sound on the radio exactly like the gigantic nerd I know myself to be off the air. ("Many-tendrilled creature?" Seriously?)

Four:
Bradbury's book isn't really about censorship, it's about a creeping societal apathy toward culture in general and literature in particular.

Four Point One:
Bradbury wrote the book in the early 50's, and was way out in front of the TV-rots-your-brain movement.

Four Point Two:
A smart writer like Bradbury could see the threat TV posed to his livelihood, and no doubt wrote the book feeling the hot breath of Uncle Miltie on the back of his neck.

In the piece,I also pontificate about good graphic novels evincing "a tension between text and image." Several people have asked what I meant by that, which is my fault for talking in the abstract (see above, in re: huge nerditude, pontification).

Let me try to put it more concretely: In the best graphic novels/comics/sequential art/whatever, the art doesn't just sit there. It doesn't simply illustrate what the words are describing, because comics are more than just books with pictures.

No, the art takes over a share of the heavy lifting. It does its own, independent narrative work: it characterizes, sets the tone, advances the plot, etc.

The art, in other words, gets off its damn butt.

After the jump: Art that puts in a hard day's work, and how the Watchmen movie is — literally — illustrative.

Please note: Smart people like Scott McCloud, Douglas Wolk and the great Will Eisner have thought and written about this question in greater depth.

The State of the Artless
The classic rookie mistake — made by many first-time writers of comics, particularly if they come from a prose background — is to maintain a white-knuckle-grip on their precious, precious words.

It comes down to a lack of trust — they don't trust images to do the job as precisely, as specifically, as all les mots they worked to make as juste as possible.

So they use art to simply support their text, to recapitulate it — as a result, their comics read like a series of isolated plot beats — little more than a succession of movie stills.

And their text? Oh, it's there — it's all there — it's all over the place.

Physical descriptions. Inner thoughts. Great honking clots of expository dialogue. It's all there, shoved into narration boxes and thought balloons and word balloons that pile up on the page like so many University of Phoenix pop-up windows.

Fire the Narrator, I'll Do it Myself
Now this is a perfectly legitimate, if less than effective, approach. It's certainly got a long history. It was, for example, standard operating procedure for every book from Classics Illustrated to Superman for years.

Until relatively recently, in fact, most superhero tales read like old-timey radio scripts:

Great Scott! That man, clad in a rubber costume and wearing metal gloves, touched the store window and the glass BURST! That must be an electric-generator on his back! — *GASP!* — He's stealing that invaluable HEALING-URN, whose radiations can cure almost any illness!

That's from one word balloon in one panel of the October 1962 issue of Adventure Comics.

In cases like that, the art doesn't have room to do much more than just sit there. It's illustrating the text, but it's not illuminating it. The images don't express mood, they don't interpret meaning, they simply document the prose. There's no discernible tension between word and image, because the words are carrying all of the weight.

And when that happens, reading a comic becomes something of a chore. This has less to do with the fact that the page is loaded down with text, and more to do with the fact that the art starts to seem superfluous.

Credits Where Credit is Due
You know what it's like? It's like watching the movie Watchmen. I'd read the book at an impressionable age, and looked forward to the movie. But what director Zach Snyder delivered was so reverent an adaptation, so unrelievedly dutiful, so much a shot-for-shot recapitulation of the graphic novel that the whole thing felt hidebound, claustrophobic and ultimately — here's the thing — pointless.

But those opening credits? When Snyder found the inner strength to break away from the book — and actually began to interpret it? A revelation.

Attention to Tension
That's the feeling you get when comics creators allow both text and image to share the load. They can work in concert — the art amplifying some element of the narration, say, or isolating one character or object to give it greater symbolic weight. Or they can work in opposition — as when the words tell us one thing, but the art shows us something else.

In books like Maus and Persepolis (forgive me for dusting off the go-to NPR-demo examples), a cartoony style contrasts sharply with the violence and chaos of events depicted.

In a masterpiece like Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware shuts up for long stretches of time, letting his art do all kinds of things on its own. His clean, unnervingly precise linework, for example, tell us something about Jimmy — something deep and intuitive and heartbreaking that words can't quite get at.

And in an all-ages, cute-as-all-get-out, utterly wordless book like Owly, the art does all the work. Cutely.

"Transplanted?" Like a Liver?
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a book like the ongoing comic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, illustrated by Tony Parker.

On paper, this project can't miss: based on a fascinating cult novel, gorgeous noir art style, a savvy publisher.

So why will I be avoiding this book like the freaking plague? The answer lies in the press release:

Boom! Studios is honored to present the complete novel transplanted into the comic book medium, mixing all new panel-to-panel continuity with the actual text from the novel in an innovative, ground-breaking 24-issue maxi-series experiment...

Got that? Complete novel. Transplanted. Actual text. 24 freaking issues.

I read the first couple issues, and it confirmed my fears — the sheer ponderous weight of word balloons and text boxes makes it hard to lift the pages, much less turn them. Parker's art — what you can make out of it, peeking around the word balloons — is strong, and filled with visual shout-outs to Blade Runner, but it's not getting any room to breathe.

Six pages in, I was struggling for air myself.

Maybe some fans of the orignal novel will see this comics adaptation as a value-add proposition: hey look, novel + pretty pictures! But this fan of the novel is an ever bigger fan of the magic that happens in comics, and only in comics, when text and art work together to create something wholly, wonderfully new.

In the Dick adaptation, that happens not at all; in the Bradbury adaptation, and in most mainstream comics, it happens intermittently. In books like Jimmy Corrigan — and the just released Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (about which more later), it happens on every. Single. Page.

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