Thursday, July 17, 2008

Making (or not making) a Splash

I've been working on edu-tainment DVDs for Big Monkey, and mostly recently one on comic book terminology and lingo.

Explaining some of these concepts has been a pleasure for a natural born didact, er, I mean, teacher like me. But it's also made me a little sad... .

As I've been writing on them, I've realized that some of the conventions in the comic book medium (as opposed to "comic book conventions"!) have fallen into desuetude, and I think comics are poorer for it.

Things like...

  • Letter columns
  • Editor's notes
  • Logospeak
  • Caption boxes
  • Continuity (heh)
  • Splash pages

I think the splash page is one I miss the most. The splash says, "Here is where the story begins and this is what it's about." Nowadays, if there is anything like a splash page, it's made part of the story, and instead of being prefatory, it's often the last page of the story. When and why did our comics become Latin sentences, where you have you to wait till the end to get to the one word necessary for understanding all the others?

Perhaps it's because stories are now "arcs" and take place over six issues instead of one. In any case, we've lost something valuable. Since covers nowadays often are isolated pieces of art, relatively unconnected to the story within, the absence of splash pages means that most stories have no single-image that represents them.

If you want to refer visually to "Robin Dies at Dawn" (as Grant Morrison has lately... a lot), all you have to do is use the cover. If you want to refer to the Space Canine Patrol Agents (as I do ... a lot), all you have to do is use the splash page (well, splash panel, really).

Without such conventions, we lose the ability to make easy visual reference to a particular story. In fact, most of the faded conventions I mentioned are of that same order: they are visual hooks that allow a reader to understand a story better.

To many modern comic books readers, such devices may seem too, well, device-y. But comic books used to be cups with many handles; easy for anyone to pick up and access the contents, no matter where they were coming from. In losing these conventions, we've removed the handles from the cup. This makes it much harder for the uninitiate to pick up, and more likely to drop or spill if they do.

If we want comics to be accessible to more people, we need to stop worrying that a story relies on past continuity; we need to start worrying that we've deprived ourselves of the tools (like editor's notes) to explain it when it does. Some new conventions have arisen, such as the "catch-up" intro that Marvel's using on some titles (such as Spider-Man and Hercules) that tells you the story to date. Do not criticize those conventions as old-fashioned, but as forward-thinking. Comics always need new readers, and they need such conventions to help them become seasoned readers. YOU may not need such things, but comics do, so embrace such conventions as the open doors through which comics greet their new fans.


Ajit said...

'Robin the Squid Wonder'?! Holy cephalopodia, what were they smoking in the DC offices back then?

Scipio said...

Um, that's a pardoy, Ajit.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I didnt take a good look at the parody splash page until I read the comments. I thought it was real from a casual glance without reading copy because an image of Batman underwater with a clear diving helmet and Neptune's Trident would not have been out of place in the 50's. I did think that Batman's pose reminded me of a parody splash page that featured a naked, but cowled Batman whose secret identity was Adam and who fought a Joker headed snake.

Ajit said...

Heh, I should have guessed! I now egg all over my face. Or squid ink anyhow...

SallyP said...

I blame the '90's. In their rush to be "edgy" and "gritty" comics lost a lot of their charm and accessibility. (And the gawdawful artwork didn't help).

The disappearance of single issue stories is another factor. It's hard to get somebody interested, when they have to pick up a book in the middle of an eight-story arc, and don't have a clue what is going on.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, too many writers today don't love comics. They love the characters, but they want to write screenplays, Serious screenplays and comics are not Serious. Also, I don't think comic writers study comic techniques as much as they study cinematic techniques; it's not as cool and chatting about splash pages doesn't impress at parties.
The real problem with the 6 issue arc system is it flattens the amount of time spent on stories. An arc spent on Daredevil fighting the Gladiator is 6 issues, just like a 6 issue Kingpin arc. What is supposed to be more important? In olden times, 6 issues meant "epic". Now it means "padded".
And at the end of a year, you've had just 2 Daredevil stories.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Actually I liked what Geoff Johns does in his books. Hawkman had a brief description of the history/origin of him and Hawkgirl. Same as he does with Justice Society with the addition of a few words to sum up each character. If I were a new reader I think it would help catch me up.

H said...

You are absolutely right about comics being the poorer for the loss of all of the listed items. I might argue that the editor's note is the one that is the greatest loss - it made the reader feel part of the larger picture without forcing said reader to out down the book and Google the characters to learn the back-story.

Anonymous said...

I miss Marvel Value Stamps.

And go-go checks across the top.

And Sea Monkeys.

And a six-foot tall Martian Moon Monster of your very own! For one dollar!

Things sure were different before all these changes.

Anonymous said...

Iron Man's nose.

Remember when the Legion of Super-Heroes was called Frederick's of Hollywood in space?

Herb Trimpe on the Hulk.

Irv Novick on the Joker ... in the Joker's own comic book!

Kang attacked every three months like clockwork.

The Freedom Fighter had their own book.

Reprint comics out the wazoo.

Giant-Size Man-Thing.

Anonymous said...

well said!

Anonymous said...

Have we told you lately how much we love you for your literate, forthright, and passionate comic discussions?
Have we told you you should write for DC?
Hell, have we told you that you should be the EDITOR IN CHIEF at DC?