This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 24, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Comics aren’t movies and movies aren’t comics. Shitty comics get made into good movies, good comics get made into bad movies… What makes comics more than just “a movie with an unlimited budget?”
Short answer: A lot.
For the long answer I’d refer you to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics (and maybeReinventing Comics). There’s a reason that man is the preeminent comics scholar in North America, and those books are both immensely entertaining and informative. There are a whole lot of reasons why comics are a unique medium, enough to fill multiple books or comics dedicated to that question. I’m barely going to be able to scrape the surface of a few potential answers here.
But you’re question focused on the dynamic between movies and comics, and that provides a nice point of focus. As superhero movies have blown up, becoming the most profitable collection of franchises in Hollywood and a prideful point of legitimacy for some superhero fans, the connection between film and comics has grown in prominence. It has reached the point where any superhero movie can be called a comics movie as if the two are synonymous.
We understand that superhero is a genre and comics are a medium, and that equating the two is fucking stupid. I’ll avoid beating a dead horse and leave it at that. The connection between all of these disparate elements has encourage not just superhero fans, but comics as a whole to seek legitimacy through comparisons to film. While just over a century ago cinema might have been considered every bit the dogged and disrespected medium that comics is today, now it is both big and serious business. Movies are an enormous industry and one that supports thousands of classrooms and critics around the world. Film is accepted as serious stuff and comics still get headlines containing phrases like “Biff! Bam! Pow!” and “Not Just For Kids Anymore”.
If you talk about comics with professionals or critics today, you’re going to hear a lot of film-based terms. The adjective “cinematic” is incredibly overused and referring to comics as “movies without a budget” makes a point, but is diminutive. Comparing comics to movies in this way makes the view of comics seem aspirational. Wouldn’t you like to see this thing in a movie? Well, you can’t, so I guess you’re stuck with the fucking comic book.
Here’s the thing though, if I want a movie with dozens of superheroes fighting one another or gigantic spaceships rocketing across the universe, I’ll go see Captain America: Civil War or Star War: The Force Awakens or some other sequel else with a hyphen instead of a number. Movies are doing ludicrous things on a regular basis. If I want to see a movie about beautifully constructed artificial intelligence or races across post-apocalyptic landscapes, I can just go to the theater or rent it on iTunes or hop on Netflix or pursue a hundred other options. If the goal of comics is really to aspire to film, they’re doomed.
That’s not the goal of comics though. You can compare comics to film (and there’s a lot of useful vocabulary in film that can easily be stolen for use in comics), but that doesn’t make them any more intertwined than comics and poetry or comics and painting or comics and ballet. Comics are their own thing and the elements that people attempt to use to connect them to movies aren’t aspirational, but a set of unique strengths that should be utilized and admired for what they are to the medium of comics.
Bryan Hitch’s work together on comics like The Authority and The Ultimates has been widely praised for its cinematic aesthetic. That adjective was applied to mean a variety of things. On these books they approached story with a blockbuster set of sensibilities focusing on enormous set pieces with lots of explosions and destruction. Hitch composed these books in “widescreen” emphasizing spreads, as well as composing panels with loads of layers and details. His dense background populated with dozens or hundreds of “extras” aren’t exactly common to comics.
Hitch’s collaborations with Warren Ellis and Mark Millar aren’t aspiring to be film though, although the same can’t be said of much of Millar’s later work that reads like elongated, illustrated pitches. Their work together was doing something fresh within the realm of North American superhero comics and, while influenced by film, was very much its own thing.
Consider a comparison between Hitch’s work at the climax of The Ultimates 2 and the finale of Joss Whedon’sAvengers: Age of Ultron. Both feature lots of larger-than-life characters wreaking havoc upon a landscape packed with unnamed characters. I won’t dig into the merits or lack thereof in Bay’s film, so let’s focus on what Hitch does that makes The Ultimates 2 stand out as a uniquely comics-based experience.
The first thing to notice is that when you open the gigantic centerfold at the heart of the final issue of The Ultimates 2, you stop. Every member of The Ultimates is engaged with a massive collaboration of villains spread across eight connected pages. It’s a piece of art that’s impossible to fully appreciate in a digital format because it requires physical space to take in. The act of working through this single, enormous panel takes minutes, at the very least, as you spot Quicksilver in different positions, pick out who is fighting who, and enjoy small details of setting and color in the background. All of the detail Hitch places in this display is designed to be seen. He does not what you to keep flipping pages but to pause and relish the moment.
That’s an element of timing. Comics have both the challenge and luxury of an audience who decide the pace at which they read. Part of the craft is designing pages that encourage readers to take in each new panel and its finer elements at a slower or faster rate. Movies have absolute control over their audience, where each cut and camera movement is a specific choice. When the Avengers surround a device to protect it at the finale of Avengers: Age of Ultron, a comparable moment, Whedon can swivel the camera around the team, but the audience cannot choose to stop and enjoy a particular moment or detail. Whedon is in control and the audience is watching the movie at the pace he sets.
In both The Ultimates 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, audiences are bound to find favorite characters and motifs. Does Iron Man annoy you? That’s fine, there’s some great bits with Hulk. However, you can only choose how much attention and time you spend with each character in comics. Hitch can more capably layer each of his panels with multiple characters and moments, providing a denser experience. An audience can only take in so much information in an instant, but a single frame of a comic can be savored forever. That’s not to say this is easy, but when utilized well it can provide readers a broad, immersive experience.
This points to comics being an active medium. Readers must make choices as to how they will engage with the story. How much time to spend on a single panel? Where to focus your eye? When to turn the page? Whether to scan ahead? The very act of reading a comic requires readers to continually make decisions. Movies only ask that you sit down, shut up, and don’t look at your goddamn cell phone.
None of this is to say that comics are better or worse than movies. They are simply a different beast. If The Ultimates 2 aspired to be a storyboard for Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’d be stuck with an overhead shot of the team, then close ups of each in action with glimpses of something else in the background, instead of that stunning spread. Both of these stories can be treated as relatively basic superhero pablum, but I’ll be damned if Hitch doesn’t do that type of story in style.
Hollywood notoriously steals comics artists for much better paid gigs as storyboarders in Hollywood. It took Brian K. Vaughan to lure Steve Skroce back to the medium for just a brief endeavor on We Stand On Guard. While both of these roles require similar skillsets, they still aren’t the same. You can take a look at the very dense of set of storyboards created for a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road and admire the detail and framing on display, but they don’t really make for a great comic either. There’s not a concern for timing or juxtaposition in those combined panels. They are a skeleton for something else.
Comics aren’t the beginning of something else; they are the thing itself. What you find on the page is designed to be a satisfying experience. When they aspire to be truly cinematic, they’re aiming to be the second best version of something else. Rather than attempt to be a movie with an unlimited budget, great comics just aim to be great comics. There are loads of tools and techniques within comics that cannot be replicated in film or any other medium. It is these elements that make comics great, not cheap lines about cheaper special effects.