Saturday, June 16, 2007

Of Comic Books and Super Heroes

Some people think that comic books are a miserable compromise between film and writing. When one reads a written text, the visual element goes missing. The readers have to imagine everything in their heads and the entire process lacks the clarity that the artist may have aspired for. When writers write, many of them do imagine the happenings within their story like a film strip. But there is absolutely no way to convey what they have imagined within the confines of the twenty six letters. However, the written word has its own magic. It corresponds directly to a fundamental mode of human thought. There are thoughts that can be written down but never filmed.

Film are a different ball game altogether. Although one does start from a written script, a film is imagined and developed visually right from the start. In fact, the story itself may be written keeping the visual effect in mind. With recent advances in CGI it has increasingly become clear that a new genre of film is emerging where the visual is much, much more important than the spoken/written word.

It is no surprise then that comic books are seen as a compromise between the two mediums. You have words and your have pictures. Comic books lack the striking verbosity of novels and also the gut wrenching action sequences of a modern science fiction movie. It has images – static and unchanging – which stimulate the reader’s imagination while he reads a narrative which is made rather insipid and fragmented due to the confines of the medium.

But this is a rather shallow picture of what comic books really are. Even from the beginning it was clear that comic books were a different medium in themselves.

And that is because it is comic books that gave us superheroes. Rest of it, we may have got from books or films. But not superheroes. Comics gave us superheroes and then they migrated to films and later television. The latest addition to these being the series ‘Heroes’ which premiered on NBC on September 25, 2006. Since then, twenty two episodes have been telecast and the show has already won several awards and acclaims. This show is rather unique in its blend of the television and comic books. Even if one does not like the storyline itself which isn’t really path breaking, it is the format alone that makes it stylistically very interesting.

There are some fundamental differences between how plot is constructed in a comic book and how it is constructed in a novel, a film or a television series.

Visual Continuity: Visual continuity has an entirely different meaning within the comic book. Within traditional film making, the action is supposed to be one continuous sequence. If you see, a hero kicking the villain in one frame, you must see the follow through of the villains head falling back, the blood spurting out and the villain collapsing onto the floor in the next. Not so in a comic book. The comic book delivers to you only the essence of the actions. In one short frame it will show you the heroes kick connecting with the villains jaw. None of the falling back, spurting blood or collapsing on the floor. Just the intense impression of the kick on the villains jaw. The frozen expression of agony on the bad man’s face. The drops of blood suspended in the air with sanguine brightness. And lo, in the next frame you may have the villain running out the door into the street with no evidence of any action in between.

Narrative Voice: In most comic book stories, the narrative voice plays a very important role. Dialogs are primary in a comic book. But the author is telling a story here. And a story has stuff other than dialogs. Opinions, authorial and characteristic; moods, descriptions and explanations. All this is delivered to the readers through the narrative voice. Typically these are the square bubbles in a comic book, the round ones being reserved for direct speech.

The narrative voice in a comic book is not limited to a single narrator. In fact, it is seldom so. There is, of course, a Universal Narrator. However, the characters themselves take on the role of the narrator from time to time. They have no inhibitions about broadcasting their innermost thoughts through the stolid square text boxes in the frame. The narrator may be the superhero in one frame or his teenage sidekick in another. There is no continuity to ne maintained. Within the confines of a single page one may get as many as three or four narratorial perspectives.

Fragmented Narrative: A comic book narrative is naturally fragmented. A comic book may come out once a month or once a week. Each issue features a small but self contained narrative. Sometimes the story may run over a two or three issues. Comic books may run for scores of years but the characters don’t age. It is as if they are suspended in an animated universe where time progresses only in a very local fashion. The clock ticks from one frame to the next but there is not significant time lost from one comic issue to another. Stories may be retold, familiar happenings can be given an altogether bizarre twist. Many versions of the same story may be told. Characters may be introduced in one issue and may reappear several issues or even years later. The comic book universe is one of chaos where order and sequence are strictly local.

So what effect do all these things have on the reader? The effect is to create an alternate reality which becomes believable by the sole virtue of being so chaotic. It is so chaotic that the reader’s mind finds it futile to find order within the narrative except from one frame to another which link together (quite physically) by associative logic rather than a causal one. That is to say, the happenings appear to be in a logical order merely because they appear side by side in two frames. Over the long run there may be no causal connection between the various happenings. In fact, each frame itself maybe regarded as a mini-narrative. Defined in its immediacy. Telling the reader something that the larger picture misses.

So how does ‘Heroes’ draw on to this rich and elusive comic book universe?

‘Heroes’ does it on various levels. It uses many techniques to create a fragmented narrative some of which are native to television while some have been borrowed freely from comic books. The most clever but the least imaginative of all is introducing too many characters.

In ‘Heroes’ we get to see seven or eight simultaneous storylines. Of course, parallel storylines are nothing new to television or film. However, seven or eight are just overwhelming. Let me count – 1) Claire, the cheerleader 2) Isaac Mendez, the painter 3) Hiro and Ando, the japs 4) Niki with her alter ego Jessica 5) Mohinder Suresh and his father Chandra Suresh 6) Claire’s father and the Haitian 7) Eden the hyponotist 8) Sylar 9) The Perterelli brothers – phew! There may be more. And more characters get introduced every now and then. There are just too many storylines in there. It is reported that they actually got six different writers to create six different storylines in isolation and then sat down and yoked them together. The show also buys into the American comic book tradition of encapsulating little stories into a larger arc. Each episode or two will tell you a small story but eventually the series is tending towards a larger story arc.

Comic books are central to the plot itself. The painter, Isaac Mendez, can see the future and paint it. Most of his artwork is done in the comic book style. His artwork gets published in the form of a comic book which Hiro Nakamura, a Japanese who can travel in time and space, retrieves from the future. The comic book depicts incidents from the future and Hiro and his friend Ando go on to enact the episodes printed in the comic. It is interesting to note here how this corresponds to reading an actual comic book. While reader an actual comic book the reader may occasionally flip to the middle of the comic or even to the end and by glancing at the visuals alone have some idea about what is going to happen next. And then as he reads the comic he finally experiences the actions in its full detail. This is the kind of effect that the series creates through its constant prediction of the future and the consequential enactment in detail. The viewer knows the gist of what is about to happen but does not know how it is going to happen.

The effect that is created is one of timelessness. One already knows what is about to happen. Therefore the narrative is static. One merely gets to know the details as one watches. Second, by focusing on how things are happening rather than what or how, causal logic is delegated to the background.

As part of the publicity material a ‘Heroes’ comic is also being distributed free on the internet. Each comic book is just six to nine pages long and is released every week. The entire exercise shows what deep impact comic books have on the design of this show.

Comic books are an entirely different way of storytelling. And if one leaves the Superman, Batman and Spiderman movies aside, which do not take much from comic books as a medium, ‘Heroes’ is perhaps the first experiment of its sort. It is a beautiful blend between the world of comics and television and a laudable effort at that.


  1. Well this is called food for thought!
    I used to be a voracious comics reader when i was a kid. But with time, novels and non-fiction replaced it. But now after reading this article I am certainly gonna download a few.

  2. Indeed, some believe it is partly the name itself (comic book) and the shtick that goes along with it (comic book guy, from Simpsons) that restricts the popularity of the medium.

    Since Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller came on the scene, things have been a little different though. Moore brought the Graphic Novel (as opposed to a comic book) to widespread popularity, and redefined the amount of psychological layers you can put into the medium, effectively showing us the potential of comic books to go beyond books or movies (and thereby making it closer to TV shows).

    Miller, on the other hand, has, along with Robert Rodriguez, helped created the first direct port of comic books to movie through Sin City, which makes for interesting watching as you see how they fill in the blanks between the panels.

    And yeah, Heroes (mostly thanks to Jeph Loeb) dips into the comic book pool a whole lot.

    Nice write up, keep it coming