On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Why I Love Comics And You Should Too
Posted on April 6, 2016
Since this column began, I’ve written a fair old bit about comics but I’ve never taken the time to look past the specifics and get at just why I love the medium itself the way I do, and why I think you should too.
Firstly, comics are accessible. Silent comics, as in comics where words are not used, can be understood by readers regardless of their native language. That’s why the safety information on airplanes is conveyed through sequential images. Likewise, the assembly instructions for your flatpack furniture. Comics, much like music, dance, etc., can convey information across barriers written and spoken language cannot overcome.
That’s also why comics have always been popular with young children, and adults with limited reading skills. Comics were included in care packages for U.S. soldiers during the Second World War for precisely this reason. They offered print material which could be understood and enjoyed by servicemen regardless of whether or not they could read the written word. When critics question the value of comics, suggesting that they are for children or ‘illiterate’ adults, they are in fact correct. Comics are for children, and adults with limited reading skills. Where they’re wrong is that they suggest that comics are for those readers only.
The accessibility of comics also calls into question the legitimacy of the monolithic idea of ‘literacy’. If a reader can’t read the written word, but is able to glean the same printed information from a series of images, we have to accept that there is no one single literacy, and that there are different forms of literacy, of which comics literacy is just one.
The problem with the argument of accessibility to readers is that it deals only with the medium in its abstract form, and not how that form is manifested in the real world. The comics industry, specifically the utterly broken direct market model, based as it is on nonreturnable stock, is fodder enough for another column entirely. We’ll stick to the positives this week. There’s always room to get negitave later.
The positive side of accessibility, though, cuts both ways. Not only is the form comparatively accessible to readers, but it’s also one of the most accessible visual communication tools for would-be creators.
Now, breaking into the comics industry is notoriously difficult, and making creating comics your profession is harder still, but just making comics? All you need is a piece of paper and something with which to draw and write! Children know this implicitly, because they haven’t spent years being socialised into thinking that artists and writers are some special class of people. They know that the only thing you need to do to be a writer is to write, and that drawing works the same way. Kids are DIY as fuck, and looking to them can remind us what we adults have forgotten: half the job of creating anything at all is convincing yourself that it’s okay to try something new.
Should you decide to create comics, you will not be amazing at it right away. The things you create will not be perfect, nor should they be. You probably won’t be able to turn your comics into a money-spinner, even if you stick at it for years and hone your craft. That doesn’t alter the value of the work. The act of creation, of communication, is justification enough. It always has been.
We’ve covered the inherent accessibility of the medium, both for readers and creators, but the thing I love most about comics, the thing that has made them a major part of my life for 25 of my 29 years on this planet is this: the sheer fucking scope of the things.
You can tell any story you want in comics. Unlike the comparable visual storytelling media of film and television, a battle scene in comics does not require a huge budget and dozens of people. You can set a centuries-long epic in a boutique clothing outlet which travels around the cosmos carried by a telekinetic otter. It costs no more or less than creating a kitchen sink drama. Case in point: the current glut of superhero movies has very little to do with post-9/11 anxiety (these films do well outside the U.S., y’know!), and everything to do with the fact that cinema spent half a century developing the technology to deliver the kind of spectacle Jack Kirby could knock out in his basement in 1963. Let me reiterate that: the superhero slugfests that dominate the cinema landscape take thousands of people, with access to hundreds of millions of dollars, over a calendar year to produce. Kirby could do that in a week, and he did it better. Now, not all creators are Jack Kirby, but that directness between creator and the work, between idea and reality, that’s the power of comics.
While Hollywood continues to strip-mine the more pedestrian end of the already pretty conservative superhero genre, comics keeps innovating, delivering new ideas at a rate film and TV can’t match. While TV and film are adapting what they think their budgets and audiences can cope with, comics remains the home to rare blooms like the apocalyptic sci-fi-western-alt-history leviathan that is East of West, the punk-rock-family-comedy-drama Hopeless Savages, and the transcendent spy-conspiracy-headfuckery of Zero. Some of these incredible creations will be adapted into other media, but by the time they are, comics will already be producing wilder, more ambitious works.
There’s a reason popular culture has been looking to comics for the next big thing. Comics is where the future is dragged kicking and screaming into life. It’s where people who can’t read a word of text can read and understand an entire story, and where kids can create entire universes with a few sheets of paper and some pencil crayons.
It’s the imperfectly perfect combination of words, images, and ideas, and I’ll follow its weird little light until either it burns out or I do.
Andy Waterfield has spent a quarter of a century obsessed with comics, and they will always be his first love. He’s on the committee of the British Comics Awards, in large part because he has a lot of free time and too many opinions. You can follow his intermittent gibberish on Twitter at @andywritesstuff.