Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Comics Can't Do (Or, What Can't Comics Do?)

Comic book fans and creators love to point out all the great things that can only be done in comics. And as the fan of many and the creator of at least one comic myself, I'm no different.

Mainstream comics, in particular (almost always what I mean by "comics"), are the blending of words and pictures, which discounts even the most able and ambitious novelist from this conversation--we're not talking about the gift to paint a picture for the reader's mind's eye. And even if we were to forgive that limitation, we'd also have to negate or water down decades-strong plotlines tangled up in more history, nostalgia, and continuity (for better or worse) than any one writer with a multi-book deal could capture without a struggle. And forget about Hollywood attempting to capture that big budget blending of art and story larger than any celluloid or CGI budget. Even if some studio found the money and the manpower, they'd never find the time to do more than scrape the surface. It would take an army of movie studios and the lifetime of any author to come even close to recreating what Marvel has done in 600 issues of any one of the titles that hit that milestone this year--Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk--or the ones that have passed or are approaching it. The same goes for DC with Batman, Superman, et al, and the complex web of continuity that runs through the family of spin-off titles associated with them, even just the ones from the past few years. You watch a superhero movie or TV series adapted from one of these comics and you're getting a filtered, neutered, altered beast. Even the best is only as good as can be crammed into 90 to 200 minutes, and that's usually including the mediocre junk they save for the DVD extras.

But then I go and watch all five seasons of HBO's The Wire over barely twice as many weeks, and I find myself thinking--comics can't do that.

Talk about a complex web! The sprawling epic about Baltimore's finest and foulest, and the shell game of who is which, from the cops to the crooks to the congressman with all the cash. The constantly unfolding, yet always growing, onion of an underworld of drugs and violence, corrupt politics, backroom and back alley dealings, and straight-up back-stabbings (symbolic or not). The struggling school system and floundering newspaper from seasons 4 and 5, respectively, that would look sternly upon me for this string of sentence fragments.

Each season is a tight, stand-alone tale that puts any and all prime time cop shows to shame. But then each season combined with the last becomes so much more, until you finally realize, toward the end of the series, that you're not watching a product of creator David Simon or a handful of writers or a few hundred crew hands or even a thousand+ actors and extras. You're watching the bruised-but-beating heart and desperate-for-salvation soul of Baltimore itself.

Sure, comics can make me think and care about fantasy worlds in the way I find myself caring about this fictionalized real city. Comics have the power to make me concern myself with the plight of impossible beings in unbelievable situations, so long as they're surrounded by optic blasts, hopping dimensions, and/or wrapped in ridiculous costumes and gadgetry that scream, "This is escapism!"

But even if you go hard boiled--give me that stack of all your favorite Frank Miller, Ed Brubaker, and Brian Azzarello crime comics--what of it that rings anywhere near as true will move at a snail's pace in the comic format, lose the life and energy of the beating city, and only amount to one or two good seasons. I know some people who might chime in and suggest David Lapham's Stray Bullets, but even when I knew it was good, that series couldn't hold my interest as a loyal reader. The comic book format is simply flawed for providing whatever it is that this show was to me.

It's not that comics can't do reality, because there's plenty of honest heart, humanity, and truth reflected in even the most fantastical escapist hero piece. But just like there are some stories that simply cannot be executed in any other medium the way they are in comics--be they 4-colors, black and white, floppy, hard back, serialized, or in trade--some stories just can't thrive on the comic page.

The Wire as a comic? That would suck, and it wouldn't sell for shit.

So tell me: What else can't comics do? And what else can only be done in comics?

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