The Gap between Panels / Strange New Worlds

I have a pet theory about why comics are so remarkably skewed towards the superhero genre (as opposed to the western, noir or romantic comedy). Comics can be quite a restrictive format, but they are also remarkably liberating. A creator starts off with a blank slate on which they can draw literally anything. They don’t have to operate within the confines of special effects budgets or movie star egos. They can put their imagination on the page without the need to filter it through other people or expensive technology.

That said, prose writers have exactly the same freedom, and they are unbound by the crazy demands of writing to 22 pages and five issue story arcs. But prose runs into difficulty when attempting to portray the unusual, unfamiliar or completely alien – you rub up against the limits of language when trying to evoke something completely unreal. A language can be described as a shared game in which you have to know the rules in order to participate. Flipping the rules on their head is liable to make what you’re saying meaningless to other people. In this respect, a picture really can be worth a thousand words.

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Until recently that has been comics’ big comparative advantage. Speculative fiction set in strange new worlds is much easier to dive into when it’s illustrated. The superhero genre, which combined the fantasy genre’s gods and heroes with science fiction’s sense of technological possibility, also thrives in visual formats in ways that would fall flat in prose. Imagine trying to describe the acrobatics of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers, or the travels of the Silver Surfer between planets, with words.

I say ‘until recently’ because the development of ever-cheaper CGI in the last 15 years has eroded the comparative advantage comics have had. So where do comics go next? Are they still able to capture that sense of awe and wonder now that you can have epic battles and space fighter dogfights on television, let alone feature films?

hell-itself

Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s Ody-C is one attempt to answer that question. It’s a retelling of the Odyssey set in space and with most of the genders reversed. In part it feels like Fraction’s attempt to channel the visual spectacle and operatic characters of The Metabarons by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Giménez. Its ambitions are knowingly overweening – most of the text is in captions and its curious syntax and regular metre tries to evoke a warped sense of the original epic poem. These distancing methods are used to underline how far removed we are from the values and society that shaped the original story. The past really is as strange as science fiction.

The confusion is encouraged by Christian Wards dense, hypersaturated art. Unlike Fiona Staples’s work on Saga, which is effortlessly clear and eye-popping, Ward’s artwork is very impressionistic. His layouts are highly stylized and showy, and he frequently uses exaggerated perspective to throw readers headfirst into the maelstrom of the story. If CGI is a way to bring the unreal into reality (uniting animation and live action), Ody-C’s painterly compositions and cod-poetic language places both feet firmly in the fantastic. It’s hard to imagine it being optioned for a TV show without it being radically re-imagined, which is an impressive feat, and shows that comics still have some comparative advantages worth exploring.

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