A few hours before I prepared this article, I ended up reading an actual honest-to-god paper comic (since it was included with a music magazine as a free gift). Not a trade paperback or a manga paperback or a webcomic, but an actual comic book (issue one of “Legacy Of The Beast” to be precise).
The surprising thing was that, although the premise of the comic is really really cool (it’s a comic from 2017 featuring Iron Maiden‘s mascot Eddie), my first thought was something along the lines of “this is a standard modern comic“. Since Iron Maiden are my favourite heavy metal band, I really, really wanted to love the comic but my reaction was just a muted “this is a good, but standard, comic“.
Yes, some elements of the comic’s premise were absolutely brilliant (eg: the hilariously subversive decision to make the comic’s devil-like villain use bland, conservative mainstream conformity as a weapon), there are some cool song references and some of the art looks really cool. But, so much of the comic just seemed… well… generic.
This is something that I’ve noticed often in what few modern print comics (from the past 15 years or so) I’ve read. So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why modern print comics can sometimes be a little bit on the generic side of things.
1) Lettering: This is a really small thing, but it makes a big difference. Simply put, it often seems like lettering in modern comics is a little bit too “perfect” – almost like it has been done using a computer font rather than by hand.
With lettering, the handwritten imperfections are what really gives it character. The occasional illegibility or “non-standard” characteristics of “imperfect” handwritten lettering show the audience that someone actually wrote the dialogue.
To show you what I mean, here’s a comparison of the “imperfect” lettering from a ‘Tank Girl‘ trade paperback from 1996 and the lettering in part of the “Legacy Of The Beast” comic I mentioned earlier.
When lettering is too good, it often just looks like it has been typed quickly on a computer rather than written by hand. Yes, it’s possible that the lettering has been painstakingly written by someone who has spent years honing their craft, but lettering that is too good will often look like a standard computer font of some kind.
2) Humour/Attitude: What few modern comics I’ve read seem to have a fairly similar “attitude” to them. It’s kind of like they’re trying to be “cool” or “edgy”, but not too much. It’s like a sort of “PG-13” edginess. It adds a bit of attitude to the comics, but it often means that the emotional tone of many comics is at least mildly similar.
I understand why mainstream western comics do this. They need to be suitable for a general audience, not to mention that the legacy of the American comics code probably also plays a role too. Likewise, as similar as the sarcastic humour can often be, it does at least stop the comics from becoming too “grim” or “depressing” or anything like that.
But, at the same time, it also means that mainstream episodic print comics don’t really get as much of a chance to express their own personality in the way that things like webcomics do.
For example, take a look at a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. The writing style and emotional tone of this comic are fairly unique – Rowntree writes dialogue in a way that seems both realistic and novelistic at the same time, with the dialogue often being slightly more slow-paced and conversational than the average mainstream comic:
The comic’s emotional tone is also a strange mixture of serious introspective drama, quirky eccentricity and occasionally hilariously subversive rapid-fire sarcasm.
Even a more “PG-13” version of Rowntree’s narrative style would still stand out from the crowd. Just because a comic has to be suitable for a general audience without being blandly inoffensive doesn’t mean that personality has to go out of the window too!
3) Tools and style: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with digital art. It’s an art form like any other. I mean, most of my own art includes digital elements. Digital tools are quick, versatile and practical. There is nothing wrong with digital art.
But, if it isn’t combined with a highly distinctive and unique art style, digital art can look a little bit too “perfect”. A lot of what makes traditional art so distinctive and unique are the small imperfections inherent in things like paints, inks etc..
When comics feature digital art that doesn’t really contain imperfections, then this has to be compensated for by adding uniqueness and personality in other ways.
This brings me on to the fact that a lot of the (relatively few) modern mainstream comics I’ve seen often use a vaguely similar “realistic” art style.
Yes, this allows for movie-style “immersion” and it allows for visual consistency in comics that may feature several artists. But, one of the things that really makes a comic stand out from the crowd is a more unique (and stylised and/or “unrealistic”) art style.
4) Heroic characters: I think that one of the reasons why I had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the Iron Maiden comic was because it was basically a superhero comic in disguise. Yes, the comic contained a lot of fantasy elements and a few mild horror elements…. but it was still a comic about one powerful character fighting villains.
This style of story is popular because it’s relatively easy to write. Likewise, if you buy a comic in this genre, then you know what you’re going to see. So, there’s a certain level of reassuring standardisation. But, at the same time, this gets boring.
Many of the best comics I’ve read aren’t about one powerful hero saving the world or anything like that. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics may revolve around seven ancient deities – but they’re often background characters who appear in more novelistic stories about an assortment of other characters. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics may focus on one character (and his assistants) trying to stop a corrupt politician, but he’s a hilarious drug-addled cyberpunk gonzo journalist who is at least slightly more likely to use words, gadgets or ingenuity than generic mindless violence to solve problems.
So, yes “heroic character fights the bad guys” storylines are probably one reason why many modern comics can seem a little bit generic.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂