The Ragamuffin Speaks: Comics Aren’t Movies

I know this sounds obvious. I mean, it’s stunningly obvious. It’s like saying, “apples aren’t oranges.” Yet, it still needs to be said – comics aren’t movies. I hear comics being compared to and talked about as if they’re movies all the time, and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of a medium which is wonderful in its own right. It has its own unique strengths and weakness and, ultimately, is as removed from movies as radio or novels.

The confusion stems from the fact that they’re both visual media, but while that is something they have in common, the way that visuals are used within movies and comics are fundamentally different. I have, over the years, heard a lot of people say that a comic is like a movie with an unlimited budget. Anything you can imagine, you can put on the page. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this view is generally espoused by writers and not artists. You see, it’s just not true. Say you can imagine a space battle that includes thousands of fighters and hundreds of capital ships. While I think most movie effects houses would relish that challenge, a comic book artist, who’s being paid a flat rate per page no matter what he’s asked to draw, is probably going to hate you for asking him to draw it. It’s also probably not going to look very good. Car chases are another thing that work brilliantly in movies but fall flat in comics. Why? Because of that fundamental difference between the way that movies and comics use visuals.

Comics are a static medium, whereas movies are fluid, they incorporate motion. While you can indicate motion in comics, through the use of speed lines, blurred backgrounds and the like, it doesn’t change the fact that comics present the reader with a series of static images. The skill in creating comics is picking a series of static images that create a narrative flow. Comics have to tell a story through single moments, whereas movies can show us the flow of events. We don’t have to connect the dots when watching a movie, we’re shown an action and its effects without having to mentally link the two.

I encountered a great example of this early on in my comics career. I was working on illustrating a comic for a young writer who believed that the unique thing they brought to the comics industry was their love of movies. Now…who doesn’t love movies, right? But, anyway, let’s say for the sake of argument that this guy was a particular expert on cinema. To be honest, it’s something I’ve seen a lot over the years, people seem to think that writing for the screen and writing for comics are essentially the same. After all, it’s just writing a script, right? However, what this cinematic approach led to was panel descriptions like the following:

 

“Joe gets up from the sofa, walks across the room, opens the fridge and pulls out a Coke, which he then opens and begins to drink.”

 

Tell me how you illustrate that in a single image? Now, you could pick a single moment within that series of actions and illustrate that, such as him taking a Coke out of the fridge, but then you’re second guessing the writer. Is him getting up out of the sofa important? Do we need to see that? Do we need to see him drinking? This one panel could be split into six, and take up an entire page:

 

Panel 1: Joe gets up from the sofa.

 

Panel 2: Joe walks across the room.

 

Panel 3: Joe opens the fridge.

 

Panel 4: He pulls out a Coke.

 

Panel 5: Joe opens the Coke.

 

Panel 6: He starts to drink the Coke.

 

It’s the writer’s job to pick which of these actions the illustrator should draw. A comic book writer needs to think in static images, in moments…rather than actions and scenes.

A cinematic approach to writing comics leads to so many other things that really don’t work well in the comics medium. One example that constantly leaves me scratching my head when I’m lettering other writer’s work is the frequency with which people talk from off panel. Now, in a movie, if someone talks from out of the shot then you know who they are, because you can hear their voice. In a comic…it’s just a floating speech balloon pointing off the panel. Unless you specifically want the reader to be unsure of who’s speaking, the speaker should be there in the panel. It’s something that can work in a medium that combines moving pictures with audio, but really doesn’t in a medium that combines static images with text.

I could go on, but I wanted to keep things short this week and just give you some food for thought. I think this is useful for budding comic writers and also useful for fans wanting to analyse comics and understand the choices that creators make and why they make them. Comics have their own specific dynamics and language, separate from film, they are very much not just movie storyboards with words, and understanding that is important when trying to understand how to write for, and how to dissect and understand, comics.

Ian D Sharman

Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Fandom Wanderers.

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