Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Human Element in Comics

Today I wanted to write on a topic that I've thought often about and I've tried my best to implement. It's the importance of the human element in comics.

We as humans are so complex; there is so much about ourselves that we don't understand. Case in point: for anyone who's ever attempted dating, there's a lot to figure out and work through. Does that girl like me? What is it about myself that I can change so she will? Should I even try to improve myself, or am I okay the way I am? And when I do get the courage to ask her out, how do I proceed? I've had so many times where things just haven't worked out for one reason or another. I'll like a girl a lot, then after we go out, my feelings for her fade. Why? Am I non-committal? Is it just not right? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Why can't I just find someone who I like, who likes me the same way? And how to make it last? Those of you who have had long-term relationships (I regret to say I'm not really in that category yet) know that there's a whole new slew of challenges to deal with once you have committed to someone. And all this is just on the subject of love.

Just like songs, poetry, paintings, movies, etc., comics are a great way to look at ourselves and our fellow human beings and attempt to explore why we are the way we are, and to learn these lessons in a safe medium (i.e. when the story's over, we shut it and don't have the repurcussions inherent in real life). We also have the luxury of theorizing on the human condition in fantastic scenarios we'd most likely not encounter in real life. This opens the door for some truly rich journeys of creativity.

Some examples: As a lifelong fan of the Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic series, several stories touched on this. In Vol. 1, Issue 28, the Turtles come up against a dying race of Fish-men. The fight ends when the last remaining female member of this race dies from exposure to a nearby nuclear power plant. As the survivors solemnly take the body of their kin back to the waters, the thought hits April (who is narrating) that just like the fish-men, the Turtles are the last of their race, and one day, they will die and be gone. In a very solemn and touching ending, April takes Casey Jones in an embrace saying, "Just hold me, Casey."

In Issue 9 from Vol. 2 of the Tales of the TMNT series, Michelangelo has to come to grips with the death of his beloved cat Klunk. When offered a chance by a mysterious stranger to sacrifice the life of a local alleycat in place of Klunk, Mikey hesitates, then realizes no matter how much he loves Klunk, he can't make the sacrifice of an innocent soul, even a mangy, flea-bitten one. As the story ends, Mikey finds out that the alleycat is the mother of Klunk's kittens, and hope softens the bitterness as life goes on.

Another fine example is the graphic novel Creature Tech by Doug TenNapel (from Top Shelf). Within the framework of a goofy, action-packed science-fiction adventure involving alien symbiotes, a mantis-man bodyguard, a malevolent ghost and a resurrected space eel, there is the story of a scientist coming to grips with his religious beliefs and convictions -- taking a look at what he really believes and knows for himself, and how that will change his life.

A final example is Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. In the story, an exiled Batman in his sixties must come to grips with a world that claims they don't need superheroes to save the day, even as their society is torn apart by sadistic criminals who don't believe in retirement. He decides to take up the cape once again, dishing out his own brand of harsh justice despite a media-controlled society that brands him as no better than the criminals he's hunting. It's a bleak and dark look at the character that forces us to ask ourselves the questions: When does one let politicians and popular opinion determine our inner convictions? And when do our inner convictions mirror the darkness we are trying to fight?

Now you may have noticed that I've focused on super-hero themed books. There are many, many genres of comics out there, several of which are focused specifically on this human element I've been discussing; some not based in fiction at all (Blankets by Craig Thompson (from Top Shelf) is a shining example of this--recommended reading, as far as I'm concerned). But the reason I have talked specifically about the super-hero genre is because it's what I prefer to write (i.e. Elders of the RuneStone). In this mindset, I've realized that there are two main ways to implement the human element: There are comics that are about super-heroes who happen to be people, and there are comics that are about people who happen to be super-heroes. Personally, I prefer the latter. And in the past several years, mainstream comics have definitely moved in that direction. Thank goodness!

I think there's a place for the "popcorn comic". Sometimes we just feel like having a good time. For people who want non-stop action without having to think much, I would recommend the early 90's Image Comics. Big muscles, big boobs, big guns, crap gets blown up and everyone goes home happy. Back in the day they sold like crazy. But for my part, it makes me feel empty after a while. Case in point: the movie Blade (I know, it's a movie, but it's based on a comic :) ) was full of cool fights and great action. But it was hard for me to care about a hero that had so little personality. I didn't see myself in him at all, so how can I care if he dies? Whereas what has made the Spider-man comics and films so successful is their blend of action with a deep look at Peter Parker's life as a normal human being: trying to juggle his fantastic powers with holding a job, dating Mary Jane, and paying the rent.

Those who know me will see that the plights of the heroes in Elders of the RuneStone to be very auto-biographical. Some are taken directly from my life: Scott's mother dying of leukemia, his father being remarried, and the subsequent introduction of new brothers and sisters, etc. Another is Jenny's trying to keep her chin up in a school that doesn't easily accept new ways of thinking.

My hope is that as I write these stories I can better understand myself and always be moving forward in my life. If I can somehow help shed some light and help those who read my work do the same, then all the better. And if comics can transcend their sticky label as mindless, childish entertainment and truly help us become better people, well then, I guess it's art after all, isn't it?



Jim Barlow said...

I really like your point. Sometimes when I see an episode of a sitcom where they have some funny behavior to make a joke work, it saddens me when they bend what a 'normal' person would do to create an artificial personality that... I just can't identify with.

It's more interesting when character flaws and strengths mapped out, and the story evolves around them. No one gets forced a new flaw or strength temporarily just to make a storyline go the way the author wants it.

I'm really eager to read the things that you're writing because I
like the angle you're taking with it. Just like my favorite Superman comics aren't when he's beating the biggest bad guy in the universe, but when he's trying to make Lois happy and contemplating his responsibilities at the daily planet.

Kory Baldwin said...

I loved your blog.

100 years from now, college students will still be studying Shakespeare. They will not, however, be studying "Balde." Why the differance in study choice? Because Shakespeare created characters that felt like real people. Blade was testosterone in half human half vampire form. Nobody relates to that, but anyone can relate to real people.

It is my hope that RuneStone will be filled with characters who struggle with their personal lives even more than they struggle with supervillians. Are not all the greatest battles internal? Isn't victory over the self the only true form of victory?

Your work has tremendous potential and is already quite impressive. Keep up the good work and never forget what makes a truly great comic: heart.

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