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Friday, August 1, 2008

The Great Middle Ground

What can the graphic novelist do to increase the value of their stories, not just in the eyes of the comics reader, but also to the average civilian?

The general public has been weaned, even spoiled, by motion pictures. I use motion pictures here because comics have become film's strange bedfellow. And it appears that a number of creators have deemed it necessary to create comics that approximate film.

But comics can never be film. Comics do not have the benefit of physical motion. And the more that comics are attached to film, the lesser its value becomes.

So what can the graphic novelist do to place the medium in its rightful independent place as an incomparable artform, and yet not be too artsy that it alienates the common Joe?

The principle I've always held is this: "Give them what they want, then give them what you want." To be profitable, the graphic novel should think "profitability." Structure a story using the standard genre of film--romantic comedy, sci-fi thriller, buddy cop, etc.--to make the story familiar and seemingly comfortable to read, but offer the left field surprise.

1) While the graphic novel can be made to look like a film, it should have important elements (visual and verbal) that are difficult to translate to film. In effect, offering an audience the experience that only comics can provide.

2) While the graphic novel can have stories that can be imagined as a profitable film, it should have story elements that would make film producers think twice. In short, important story elements that can be depicted freely in an unregulated medium, but would be subject to extreme scrutiny by the film industry.

3) The success of a lot of films is hinged on celebrity--bankable actors with reliable performances--which the graphic novel does not have the benefit of. It is thus required of the graphic novelist to position him or herself as the celebrity, by producing compelling well-written and drawn stories. The graphic novelist has to think and work like a professional novelist, and not just "some person who makes comics."

4) One aspect of film that the graphic novel can freely exploit is the presentation of thought. It is almost impossible to present conscious thought in commercial film, but thought is a mainstay in the arsenal of comics creation. Also note that the presentation of thoughts is widely used in prose novels. The graphic novelist can use thought to enrich a narrative.

5) The graphic novelist should put equal weight the planning of words and pictures. It is not enough to have a great script. The graphic novelist would have to play the role of production designer--taking care to research for the depiction of locations, locales, costumes, props, etc. And this visual research ought to extend to the "performances" of the characters, with each character serving as an "actor." The graphic novelist should provide a wealth of visual and verbal nuance. Doing so would add significantly to the impression of worth in the eyes of the public.

At the end of the day, it's all about worth. If a graphic novel intends to sell, it's supposed to be seen a worthy by the people who flip through it in a bookstore.

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