I walked into class and sat down at a desk in the front of the room. I never sat in the back of the room. My buddy Adam sat directly to my right. We always tried to take one elective journalism class together. It made class more like fun and less like work. This particular shared class was Editorial Journalism.
Clyde, my experienced yet surprisingly animated teacher, announced the subject of that day’s class was “finding your voice.” He lectured. We listened. Eventually, Clyde asked the question that I knew he would ask. I mean, I knew he would ask this particular question when he announced the day’s subject. I didn’t know it when I woke up. That would be witchcraft.
“So, who or what are your influences?”
A couple of people volunteered answers, and by a couple, I mean exactly two. So I volunteered.
I rattled of the names of three writers: Nick Hornby (of High Fidelity fame), Irvine Welsh (of Trainspotting fame) and Clive Thompson (of Wired fame). I explained my love for their quirky senses of humor and how they inject pop culture into their writing effectively and with purpose. I also named Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene (I won’t insult you with links). I explained my fondness for Hemingway and Greene’s tight sentences and their ability to set intimate scenes.
Clyde, to his credit, said, “That makes sense. I can see that in your writing.”
I love those writers, and they’ve helped my writing more than they will ever know. But after I finished talking, I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I cheated. I didn’t plagiarize; I wouldn’t do that. However, in a way, I didn’t give credit where it was due. I didn’t say anything about comics, comic writers or comic artists.
That’s right, I like comics (of the strip and book variety). GASP!!! Believe it or not, they’ve actually influenced my writing and designing. Comics have a stigma, though, and that’s what kept me from mentioning them. They have bright colors, pictures and onamonapia words that the original Batman TV show made oh, so famous:
It all adds up to create the perception that comics are nothing more than literary pulp for children. That assumption is so simplistic and pompous it makes my blood boil. Comics have incredible value if you have the right mindset.
As a kid, I loved Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. Jim Davis and Garfield haven’t stood the test of time. Garfield Minus Garfield proves that. The strip is actually funnier without the main character. Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes is another story.
Calvin and Hobbes is every bit as clever and funny as it was when I was 10. I think it might be funnier now that I get all the jokes. Bill Watterson was a master. He conveyed so much with so little. He used everything so effectively: his color palate, the action sequences, Calvin’s precociousness, Calvin’s many facial expressions, Hobbes’ sarcasm, Calvin’s parents’ outbursts, the back-and-forth between Calvin and Susie…etc.
Everything mattered. There was no detail too small. Every drop of ink counted, whether it was a twig attached to one of Calvin’s snowmen or one of Hobbes’ stripes. That attention to detail played into his greatest strength: the ability to show and not tell. Often, his large Sunday strips had minimal dialogue, or none at all, but still told a story and conveyed emotion. Other times, on weekday strips, Watterson would forgo four panels in favor of one panoramic panel with a single gag. And that single gag was always hilarious.
This is what I’m talking about:
For all the detail in his work, the things Watterson left out of the strip made the most impact. He made some things intentionally ambiguous, such as the “noodle incident.” He let the reader’s imagination illustrate the events not depicted in the strip. He didn’t insult them by spelling things out.
The most prominent example of this was whether or not Hobbes was real. Watterson never showed his cards on that one, and it’s a good thing he didn’t. Denying or confirming Hobbes’ state of being would have ruined the charm and fantasy of the strip. Personally, I think he’s real.
Comic books might have an even worse stigma than comic strips. Not only are they for kids, but reading them at age 23 somehow makes you a pasty loser who has never touched a wo(man). I think it’s funny that superhero movies are making millions of dollars and breaking box office records, but as soon as you say you’ve read Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, you’re a monumental dweeb.
And speaking of movies, you know those dark Batman movies that were such a hit? Well, they were inspired by DC’s re-imagining of Batman in the 80’s. Books such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One; Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; and Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween served as source material for the successful reboot of the Batman film franchise.
They went in a different direction than some of the earlier (and ridiculous) Batman comics. They were dark. They were gritty. They were brave. In them, Batman actually acts like a man who lives in a city that makes Detroit look like Candy Land and who watched his parents get gunned down in cold blood.
In The Dark Knight Returns Batman deals with a crumbling Gotham society, the public questioning his vigilantism and the return of the Joker. In Year One Batman systematically takes down the mob in Gotham while Jim Gordon is ordered to hunt him down. In The Killing Joke the Joker kidnaps Jim Gordon and paralyzes his daughter, Barbara. Batman faces him and is forced to accept that he is more like his nemesis than he thought. In The Long Halloween Batman goes up against the mob again, hunts down the Holiday Killer and deals with the fact that Harvey Dent was not all that he seemed.
Of course, Batman doesn’t have a monopoly on these types of stories: The Watchmen deals with the idea of complacency due to relying on heroes and sacrifice for the greater good; Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D explores hurting friends and cooperating with enemies to “do the right thing” and X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, examines sensationalism and uses mutants vs. humans as a metaphor for intolerance.
All these stories have commonalities, though. They tackle complex issues often reserved for “real art” such as novels or films. They deal with humanity at its highest and lowest form. They challenge the idea of what a hero actually is. They take on the gray area that is morality. They do it tightly and compellingly with a limited amount of space. And, most importantly, they engage the audience and evoke emotion. As a writer, if that doesn’t teach you anything about crafting a story you’re probably not a writer.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stan Lee. Lee is the original writer and creator of many of Marvel’s most popular comics. With so many books to helm, Lee was a busy guy. So he developed something that would later be referred to as the “Marvel Method.”
When Lee was writing multiple stories, he would give a synopsis of the plot to Jack Kirby, or another artist, and let them pace the story and plot specific scenes. The artists also added minor characters as necessary. Then Lee would take the draft and fill in the narration and dialogue.
Lee was forced to think visually, something many writers, especially journalists, neglect. Just think about that. I don’t know many reporters, and I know a few, who would be willing to let a photographer and a paginator have such power molding a story. The body copy, in most instances, is only one part of a story. The pictures, infographics and sidebars will initially draw readers in, but the copy will keep them.
Let’s review class.
Comics have been the bastard stepchild of literature for many years, but it turns out they can be valuable if you have an open mind.
The most obvious example of their value is that they teach you to think visually. Often, writers are so busy worrying about transitions, word play and editing, that they don’t give a second thought to visuals. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of this in the past. It’s a shame too. Visuals can take a story to the next level. They really can make or break a story, because a story without an entrance point, such as visual, isn’t a story.
Also, as a result of comics being a visual medium, they are forced to be detailed. If the colors in the first and third panel don’t match, the reader will notice. If the perspective is off, the reader will notice. However, if a minor character or object in the background winds up in a later panel, the reader will notice, but in a good way. The planning and foreshadowing will be appreciated. As my favorite journalism teacher, Berkley Hudson, once said, “Details are like stones, they give weight to a story and make it solid.”
When thinking visually and being detailed are added together, something happens. That something is a meticulously set scene. The key is show and not tell, which has a much greater impact. It will draw the reader into the story. Then the reader becomes part of the story rather than an outsider just reading the story.
Then there’s the economy and efficiency of words. In the spirit of this point, I’ll just quote Hemingway when criticized about his limited word choice by Faulkner:
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
But comics greatest value, for me at least, is their simplicity. Comics deal with complicated ideas and issues, some of which I mentioned previously, with a handful of panels, speech bubbles and illustrations. I never thought that reading The Uncanny X-Men as a kid would benefit me later in life. But when I became a reporter many years later, I was in a position that required me to explain foreign ideas and concepts to readers. It was a difficult task, yet I managed to do it easily. I don’t know for sure if that ability was due to reading comics, but I like to think so.
I have one last point to make.
Comics teach you to have fun reading and writing. And, in the end, that’s what it’s supposed to be about, right? So, if you’re a parent I encourage you to let your kid(s) read comics. I started reading The Amazing Spider-Man, The Green Lantern and X-Factor, but I ended up reading A Farewell To Arms, Great Expectations and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
So, I encourage you youngsters to read, write, sketch and act!