Style, Substance, and Art: An Argument for Better Language in Comics

You’ve heard it before. It’s a vastly typical point made in modern society. ‘Substance’ is, supposedly, the thing that matters—subject, story, the meat of the idea. Style is an afterthought, and not quite as important. Clumsily painted ideas are far more important than eloquence.

I’ve ruminated on matters of style vs. substance before, but it seems particularly relevant in the comic book world, mostly because instead of the classic division of style and substance, there are three divisions: style, substance, and art.

This can be a problem, as many writers assume that the presence of good art excuses bad writing. “As long as I hang a few plot twists in there, I’m good!”

No. No, you’re not.

Admittedly, I can’t draw or paint to save my life (see: ComicCon. An exercise in creativity.), so it’s quite possible that my source of indignation about bad writing in comics stems not from the writing itself, but from the superior attention that the art and action sequences seem to receive. I mean, reviews of single issues cover costume changes and panel numbers, not how gorgeous the alliteration is.

It’s partly the fault of the industry, of course. Most comic writing is centered around ‘the pitch’, and plot points have a tendency to turn into the be-all end-all. Actual prose construction becomes clunky—even awkward. Deaf to what makes words work in the first place.

Comics are a unique medium in that the art helps to tell the story. Yes, you have visual stories in your heart, and yes, you can use pictures to tell them, but such things shouldn’t relate word use to second fiddle. Sadly, it seems to—from looking at some recent comics, you’d think the authors haven’t read an actual literary book or proper poem in fifty years.

It goes without saying that trying to be a writer who doesn’t read is like trying to be a painter who doesn’t look at paintings. It’s totally stupid and anyone who thinks otherwise is kind of a moron. So the best writers of comics read a lot.

The problem with a lot of comic books is that their authors spend all their time reading comics. This is necessary, of course—know your genre—but it’s also only half the battle. You have to read inside your genre to know exactly what’s going on, then read outside of it to know what you can do differently. Comic writers should be reading comics, yes, but also poems, articles, essays, and the backs of cereal boxes. Moreso than almost any other medium, comics have a tendency to become cannibalistic—only feeding off each other and forgetting that the sources of food in the literary world extend well beyond a monthly 22-pager about kids blowing stuff up.

No wonder it’s impossible to get critics to include comics in their studies. If nobody in comics knows the difference between J.D. Salinger and James Patterson, how can we expect to be taken seriously? Superheroes are inherently silly. Elevanting them to star status takes damn good wit and an outside knowledge of what makes all stories tick.

Okay, so comics are entertainment. I hear you. Not all entertainment needs to be highbrow or complex. I hear that, too. But if that’s the case, why do I still hear people whining about comics being considered a ‘lower’ or ‘pulp’ art form? Maybe it’s because people still equate Marvel, DC, and even Image and Dark Horse titles with ‘bang’, ‘pow’, and ‘whack’—associations that are the fault of lazy writing, not bad artwork.

There are writers who have successfully bridged the gap between action-oriented storytelling and contemplative musing (if you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of them). After all, Aquaman kicking the crap out of a bunch of fish monsters does not require the lilt of Poe, nor the cadence of Shakespeare. This is where the writer steps back. But a writer must also know when to step forward.

Ever heard of talking head syndrome? That happens when the language isn’t fascinating enough to hold a reader’s interest past a couple of panels. An ideally written comic should never suffer from talking head syndrome—not because it relies entirely on action, but because the sentence structure and character philosophy should be enough for a reader to coast easily from splash page to splash page without wanting to skim.

Come on, people. Comics could be the most powerful form of art on the planet! Pairing timeless images with the hefty words of a poet? Holy shit, dude!

If only the writing didn’t let costumery and sound effects do all the work.

Picture this: a comic script, all 20 or 22 or 32 pages of it, stripped of everything but the story and words. Pretend that everyday business people run around in spandex and it’s nothing new. Pretend that all fonts have been annihilated and the only one left is Times New Roman. Pretend that you’ve never heard of these characters before and you don’t sleep in Batman pajamas. That script, that thing that’s left, should be worth reading by itself. It should bring you to tears, make you laugh, incite riots on the merit of story and language alone.

It can be done. The proof lies in the often rudimentary artwork found in ‘literary’ comics. Simply put, these ARE a bunch of talking heads, because the art is boring. So why, again, are the books worth reading?

Oh, that’s right. The words.

There will always be people obsessed with shiny things and spectacles. Why should comics strive so hard to accommodate them?

I don’t know. Maybe the modern comic movement is geared towards those who need snappy revelations to stay awake. Maybe literary ‘down time’ is a lost art, soon to be relegated to Shangri-La. Maybe I’ve proven this point by referencing a surrealist fantasy fiction novel from the 1930s.

But it needs to be said: an assumption that art will always ‘pick up the slack’ makes both plot and language in comics suffer. What I’ve always loved so much about graphic storytelling is the true multimedia experience—like seeing a band live in concert with a film playing in the background, or going to the ballet and witnessing both dance and music firsthand.

Comics are words and art. Words. And. Art. The combination should be unbeatable. Imagine William Faulkner meeting Claude Monet in the afterlife and deciding to collaborate. I think I would weep.

Art leaves nobody out, but it cannot condescend; we have to climb up if we want the extraordinary view.
–Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects.


3 thoughts on “Style, Substance, and Art: An Argument for Better Language in Comics

  1. My name is Ron and I am teaching a class this semester on Graphic Novels – and I will having them read your essay here. I love the blog, and hope to share more of your writing with them. I connected with your blog because we are in the same Japanese Lit group on GoodReads.


  2. I love it and have a lot to say on the subject but am too tired to type it out right now. Ill likely nerd-rant with you next time I hang out with you.

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