It is ironic that I was working on this post during the same week that Stan Lee left for another corner of the multiverse, but since he always loved to fight for the underdog, the timing might be poetically appropriate.
Creators of narrative art have several choices when deciding the medium to tell their stories. Books, film and theater have been the traditional media for the 20th century. They are the benchmarks for masterworks and the proving ground for genius the world over. In the last 25 years, video games have also emerged as an interactive storytelling media with huge achievements and potential.
But all of these storytelling methods have inherent limitations.
At the same time, comics have been disregarded as banal by the mainstream. Until recently, both its creators and its audience were often mocked and ignored. And in spite of the newfound popular acceptance, the masses still fail to see comics as a superior storytelling method, with both an artistic and popular appeal that elevates it above all other narrative art.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” This is especially true in storytelling, since the medium that a storyteller uses influences the way the story is told. In his seminal book Story, Robert McKee broke down these narrative constraints into internal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal conflict.
Prose: Novel, novellas and short stories are best at showing the inner life and struggles of the characters. The novelist can take the reader inside the mind and thought process of anyone in the story, whether it’s the inner dialogue of Albert Camus or the stream of consciousness monologues of Anais Nin.
Theater: Plays and musicals are the perfect stage (pun intended) to display interpersonal conflict. Because all of the action and reaction are played out in dialogue (or song), the playwright and the actors can focus on elevating language to its highest expressive form, whether you’re talking about Waiting for Gadot, West Side Story or MacBeth.
Video: TV, film, and video games have the ability to create extrapersonal spectacles that are too cumbersome to describe in words or to impractical to put on stage. One only needs to look as far as the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, or the inventiveness of Horizon Zero Dawn to see the power of the medium.
Breaking Down Barriers
I’m not trying to say that inner life can’t be captured on film or that grand spectacle can’t be described in prose. Every narrative medium has the capacity to explore all three levels of conflict at a high level. I am saying that each medium has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. I’m also saying that comics can take advantage of the strengths of all other narrative media at the same time.
Inner Life: Through thought bubbles and caption boxes, we can know the inner lives of all the characters on the page.
Interpersonal Conflict: With facial expressions and word balloons, dialogue can be subtle, ironic, efficient, and powerful all at once.
Extrapersonal Spectacle: The art on the page can go literally anywhere and show anything, from the microverse to the multiverse to a quiet kitchen table, all in the blink of an eye.
The storyteller who uses comics can create any story and every story in ways that other medium can’t.
So what do you think? Is there something inherently superior about the other forms of narrative art that I’m missing, or is the mainstream overlooking the multilayered depth of comics? Leave a comment and let us know, and if you want to read more about the business and legal aspects of independent comic book publishing, sign up for my free monthly newsletter today.
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