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August 8, 2004

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The Chameleon Factor: Why Comics are Dying

Over at (where our own humble co-editor, "Drooling" D.K. Latta, is a contributing reviewer), John Byrne, comic book artist, writer and fellow Canuck, contributes a regular column in which he dispenses insight regarding his lifelong vocation -- comics.  I just got through reading last week's column  entitled "What Went Wrong?" in which Byrne gives a few of the reasons he thinks the modern comic book market is going the way of the pulp market before it (ie., down the crapper), and what we could do to fix it.  Byrne makes some interesting points and I urge you to surf on over and give it a look -- after reading my own rant, of course -- but I think there are other problems which Byrne misses.  Problems which  may contribute even more to the decline of the comic book audience than those he lists.

Before we approach this problem, though, let me explain the backstory FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE.  To the average mortal, when I say the comic book market is going the way of the dodo, he says, "huh?"  After all, in the theatres, movies based on comic books are experiencing a Golden Age.  Even Marvel Comics, which at one time was soundly whupped by rival DC Comics and couldn't get a costumed character on the silver screen for love or money, now has a virtual unbroken string of cinematic hits starting with Blade and culminating with the recent mega-hit, Spider-Man 2.  The comics themselves have never looked so good (or cost so much), and, where once they were relegated to a modest slot in the magazine rack at your local corner store, now they get the royal treatment, in vast jaw-dropping emporiums known as Comic Shops which sell nothing but comics.  (Well, and trading cards.  Which sell nothing but comics and trading cards.  And posters.  Oh, yeah, and posters.  Which sell nothing but comics, trading cards and posters.  And videos.  Yeah, videos too.  Which, forget it.)  Is this a good thing, Miri?  Well, apparently not.

The general concensus is that we are basically seeing the Twilight of the Gods here.  Comics are still pretty profitable, but only because they've jacked up the prices to the stratosphere.  In reality, the audience is shrinking with each passing hour, and the few remaining die-hard souls are being asked to pay through the wazzoo to keep the whole thing precariously afloat.  Why?  Well, if we knew the answer to that, little grasshopper, Uncle Byrne wouldn't have written a column called "What Went Wrong?", would he now?  Sheesh!

But there are theories.  Great Caesar's Ghost, are there theories!  Just about everyone, it seems, has their own list of reasons they think the market is imploding.  Some say it's the astronomical price tag.  Kids today just can't afford to pony up the loonies (Canadian argot alert...See "kaching") -- at least, not for an item like a comic book, which might turn out to be only second rate.  Then there's the rise of the Graphic Novel market.  Graphic Novels are expensive, glossy comics printed on high quality paper, with far more pages than a regular comic, allowing for longer, more adult stories.  Though originally hailed as the next stage in comic book evolution, they have proven of questionable value -- kind of like the Frankenstein monster was of questionable value.  They bleed the regular readership away from the mainstream monthly titles, but, because they are by definition one shots, Graphic Novels fail to provide anything more than a temporary replacement for that loss.

Then there's the Comic Shops themselves to consider.  It isn't enough to sell comics to a regular readership, because that readership is continually eroding as readers age and move on.  New readers have to be attracted to replace those who fall by the way.  Once upon a time, a kid picking up a Babe Ruth at the local corner store might chance to notice a comic book tucked into the magazine rack.  He picks it up out of curiosity, flips through it and...wham!  He's hooked.  Then, along came the Comic Shops.  To the readers, as to the publishers, it seemed like a dream come true.  An entire store devoted to comic books!  Except now there was no way for non-readers to "happen" upon a comic.  They had to visit a Comic Shop -- something they would only do if they were already regular readers.

Then too, the marketing geniuses (genii?) never stopped to consider the stigma already attached to comic books and their readership.  So long as comics were sold in mainstream corner stores with the other magazines, a kid could pick one up with a certain amount of discretion.  But selling them in Comic Shops made that impossible.  If your friends see you coming out of the Silver Snail with a plastic bag tucked under your arm... let the games begin!

These examples are all concerned with the marketing side of comic books.  But I frankly think there are other problems, many having to do with the content side of things.  The covers, for example.  Nowadays, it is common to think of a comic book cover as just a big "splash panel", a bright, well drawn picture meant to catch the reader's eye.  What the modern artists have forgotten is that covers are meant to convey information.  Most often, today, a cover will depict the titular superhero (and the vast number of comic book titles are superhero comics) in some generic, if suitably heroic, pose.  This tells us who the hero of this particular comic is, but not much else.  Sometimes the hero will be shown duking it out with a costumed villain.  All right, now we know who the villain is, too.  That's still not a heck of a lot of information.  Suppose some kid -- not a regular reader -- sees this cover.  Why should he pick it up?  If he didn't pick up the previous issues of this particular title, with their generic covers, why should this equally generic cover change his mind?

Once upon a time, artists used every trick in the book to squeeze in as much information as possible onto those covers.  Frequently, instead of a generic pose, they recreated some climactic scene from the storyline to follow.  Where necessary, dialogue balloons were included to highlight the central conundrum or challenge facing the hero in that month's issue.  If possible, the cover might imply some unexpected twist in the usual state of things, thereby provoking questions in the potential reader's mind.  Maybe Superman would be shown having a throw-down with Clark Kent.  Or Batman might be shown cringing in terror from a little baby dressed as The Penguin.  The game was to get a kid, who never read Batman before, to see this month's cover and say, "I have to know the story behind this!"

I can remember being in the hospital as a kid.  Everyday, a group of doctors would make their rounds to check on their patients -- a senior doctor and several student interns.  My comics would be scattered over my bed and, while the senior doctor droned on and on, there was always one intern who's eyes would wander to those comic covers.  Seconds later, the senior doctor would pause and look up in scowling disapproval to find his student thoroughly absorbed, intently reading through my issue of Ghost Rider or The Phantom StrangerThat is what a good cover can do. 

But I think there's an even more fundamental problem with modern comics -- the art.  Or, more specifically, the colouring.

Now, at first blush, absolutely no one would think there was a "problem" with the modern comic colouring process.  Quite the contrary.  The art today is light years beyond what it was even a decade ago.  Where once upon a time, the colourist was basically forced to use one colour for one surface, today the colourists can control their colours, creating delicate graduations, producing shadows and contours and highlights, none of which were part of the original linework.  The result is comic art which comes close to looking like a painting, with three dimensional figures that leave me breathless at the sheer beauty of it all.  And, more important, where once upon a time, the quality of the linework varied from artist to artist, today it seems there are few artists so bad they cannot be redeemed with some judicious use of colour.

So, what's the problem?

We in the Western world tend to equate the "quality" of a drawing with how well it duplicates reality.  Thus, we would say that comic art has steadily "improved" since its inception back in the 1940s, each change bringing it closer and closer to photographic realism.  That's why the photorealistic painted art of Alex Ross took the comic world by storm and remains the bar against which all else is measured.  But that attitude assumes that comic art is, basically, a series of pictures strung together, like paintings in a gallery, each picture a self-contained work of art striving to be the best work of art it can be.

In reality, comic art is less like an art gallery and more like a novel.  The pictures are there, not as stand-alone artworks, but as carriers of information, telling a story in the clearest form possible, just like the words in a novel.  And while realism may enhance the ability of those pictures to tell their story, sometimes it can get in the way, too.

How so?

If I may digress -- this is why the Ancient Egyptians (Yes, the Ancient Egyptians...When I digress, I digress!) kept the same two-dimensional art style for two thousand years, virtually without change. The Egyptians had a written language called hieroglyphics -- stylized pictures used to convey information.  To them, art was information.  There was no distinction between the two.  Their hieroglyphics were the ultimate expression of this, but Egyptian art -- that is, the paintings found on the walls of temples and tombs -- were basically the same idea.  These were meant to convey information too, to tell stories.  To do that, the Egyptians created a sort of standardized art, part reality, part symbol.  For example, in Egyptian society, social status was very important.  Thus, in their paintings, they often used size to indicate social status.  The Pharaoh would be depicted as a giant looming over his much smaller servants.  At a glance, the viewer could see which was which.  Obviously this wasn't reality, but it served to convey information better than if they had used the real relative sizes.

For the same reason, they kept their art form simple and consistent.  Almost all figures were shown in profile.  There was no attempt to portray perspective or depth.  Today, scholars say the Ancient Egyptians "never discovered perspective", but I think it is possible they knew about perspective but elected not to show it because it would have made their pictures confusing and unnecessarily complicated.

So, how does this relate to the colouring in comics?  Allow me one final digression and all will become clear.

Have you ever wondered why a zebra (Yes, a zebra...When I digress...) has stripes?   Something to do with camouflage, right?  But what good are black and white stripes to a creature that lives on the brown savanna?  The zebra doesn't match its surroundings, so how can stripes help it to hide?  The answer is this.  It isn't necessary for an animal to blend into its surroundings, so long as its body is "broken up" with a random pattern of contrasting colours.  A predator's brain is keyed to recognize prey by its shape.  If that prey is a single colour, the shape is obvious.  But give the prey a random pattern of stripes or spots and its shape is much more difficult to pick out.  Not impossible, mind you, but just difficult.

(And do you know why so many animals have white underbellies?  Being three-dimensional, an animal will usually appear bright on its back where the sunlight hits and dark on its underbelly because it is in shadow.  The predator's mind is keyed to look for that combination, bright on top, dark below.  But, if the underbelly is coloured white, it counteracts the effect of the shadow, making the underbelly just as bright as the animal's back, thereby disguising its three-dimensional shape.  Remember, there will be a test...)

The point of all this is that as beautiful as the modern colouring process may be, its sheer complexity works against telling a story in a quick, clear way.  Once upon a time, a colourist used one colour for one surface (or fabric).  The Hulk's pants were a single shade of purple -- simple.  Today, a colourist might use countless colours and shades all blending into one another, against a background equally complex, with a result much like putting stripes on a zebra.  It becomes more difficult to pick out the important details from the unimportant ones, difficult to discern the outline of the separate characters.  Not impossible, mind you, but just difficult enough that the experience of reading the comic ceases to be relaxing and instead becomes an effort.  To work well, the pictures must be instantly recognizable, just like the words in a novel, just like Egyptian art. 

I call this problem the "Chameleon Factor", (mainly becauses it makes a kick-ass title for an editorial).  And I frankly think it is probably one of the main reasons the comic book audience is dwindling.  Comics are just too damn confusing!  But just try convincing anyone of that.  It seems counter-intuitive, I know.  After all, I'm not denying that the art -- as Art -- has never looked more breath-taking.  But the hard truth is, comics aren't about Art.  They are about communication, fast, effortless communication.  The more the reader has to work to figure out what is happening, the more likely he/she is to toss the whole thing in the garbage and take in a movie instead.  If we hope some intern's wandering eye will settle on the latest issue of Spider-Man, we've got to do everything we can to see that a single glance is enough.  There's no point in saying "The picture is perfectly clear if you're willing to work for it" -- because most casual readers are not willing to work for it!

In an earlier column, John Bryne made some disparaging remarks about the way comics used to colour the Silver Surfer -- all white to represent chrome.  Today, by contrast, with the new colour process, Silver Surfer can better approximate what a reflective chrome figure would really look like.  Well, I went out and compared the two versions.  Trying to read the modern Silver Surfer is a bit like looking for Waldo. The original white Silver Surfer may have been primitive, but you know what?  He literally leaped off the page at you.

And you know what else?  Back then, no one had to ask "What Went Wrong?"

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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