I've been reading The Best American Comics, 2009 (last year's edition, guest edited by Charles Burns). I didn't pay much attention to Jessica Abel & Matt Madden's Preface until I was almost done.  Here's some of their opening argument, which I thought was worth discussing:

"Flipping through a novel in a bookstore, it's impossible to glean a real sense of the book's content, much less its style or attitude.  You'd really need to stand there and read at least a few complete pages.  Comics are different this way.  Many of us can remember an instance when we took a comic book off the shelf or out of a bin and knew the instant we opened to a random page that we were in love...However, comics are a narrative art form and to truly understand and appreciate them you have to read them--drawings, words, panel borders, and all.  Only then can you really judge the work fairly.  So the despairing cartoonist finds her saviors in the devoted and open-minded readers who overcome an initial dislike of the art to see what she has done with the art...When we overcome an initial reluctance to read a given comic only to find an unexpected power and richness to the work, then we know we are truly readers of comics."

I'm sympathetic to their view up to a point.  I certainly have gotten past my initial dislike of art to find a powerful story on occasion.  This happened most recently with Elk's Run, and I could trace the experience back to my first exposure to The Sandman, which finally became my favorite comic.  But as a practical matter, once you go down that road, where does it stop?  There will always be some drawing styles I like better than others.  That's personal taste, and it certainly affects my enjoyment of any given comic.  There are cartoonists in this volume that I have never cared for, and reading them again did not change my mind.  Peter Bagge and Gary Panter are two good examples.  Their styles are quite different--Panter's drawing is far cruder--but I don't like either of them.  I did read their stories all the way through, so maybe I just don't like their storytelling.  Or maybe I also don't like their storytelling: I already knew their art didn't appeal to me.  I think reading them and giving them a chance makes me a "devoted and open-minded reader."  Surely I am allowed to not like them!  But the statement above makes it sound like I should find some way.  It's like expecting someone to listen to opera over and over until they like it.  If there's no appeal, a listener could eventually develop an appreciation for the form, but they might never like it.

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  • I agree -- the art style is a part of the story, not simply a way to convey the story. Some stories and artists will transcend an initial distaste for the style, and some won't. And if I don't agree with their artistic choices, it doesn't make me any less of a comic reader. (This aside from other artists, who have trouble conveying the story effectively. Plenty of those around, too, but that's a whole different ball o' wax.)

    It's a little easier to see it in action in music, where there are cover tunes aplenty. Tom Waits is one of my favorite songwriters, but my wife can't stand listening to his gravelly voice for more than a couple songs at a time. Luckily, there are plenty of people who also sing his music, so she can appreciate the songwriting -- but Shawn Colvin singing a Tom Waits song still isn't quite the same as the full Waits experience. Dylan is the same way.
  • I've had the reverse experience with Osamu Tezuka's work. I very much like the look of his art, but the stories of his that I've read don't do so much for me.
  • Yeah theres definitely something to that,though through most of my comic reading years I never payed the slightest attention to who the artist was(or the writer for that matter) I do think a lot of my love for certain heroes was simply down to the initial visual look I saw in particular the costume.
    It's probably why as a kid I always loved the Earth 2 stories for some reason Ijust loved their costumes more.
    It happened with on the face of it the same or counterpart heroes as well
    For instance I liked Mon-el but not Superman and thought Power Girl was great but could never see the point of Supergirl.

    Now I'm older I take a bit more notice of the artists and though most of the time it still won't stop me picking up a favourite book there are certain types I know will disappoint me and so tend to avoid, Alex Ross being a prime example.
  • I think that bad art can ruin an otherwise story and that "ugly art" can make a story completely unreadable.

    In response to the initial quote, I would agree that comics are a narrative art form. However, I would counter they are also a visual form of story-telling. Comics are the combination of the two. That's what defines them. To say that you're not being fair to the writer and her narrative if you stop reading the story because of the art is to ignore the very nature of comics. Is it fair to the writer? Maybe not. But the blame belongs to the artist for not holding up his end, not to the audience.

    Of course, art is also subjective. The audience is likely to differ as to what constitutes good art and bad art, or beautiful art and ugly art. I lot of people around here despise Rob Liefeld's artistic style, but I love its dynamic energy. On the other hand, I could not read 30 Days of Night. I loved the concept but I could not get past Ben Templesmith's art. I wish Steve Niles had written a short story instead.
  • Art certainly is subjective. As someone who makes art myself, I find that fact both liberating and frightening. That's why I'm constantly looking for objective factors to anchor myself with, especially in discussions like this. I like Rob's cover song analogy: that's a place where the compositional aspect of the songwriting can be detached from the performance aspect. It would be like giving the 30 Days of Night script to another artist to illustrate, so there could be another version for people who don't like what Templesmith did with it. That would be really interesting, but probably completely impractical.
  • It's an interesting discussion. I love Templesmith on 30 Days and it was his art that, to me, elevated the script to something genuinely creepy. His work on Fell is also a favorite.
  • I am with Chris on Ben Templesmith's art. I will avoid any book he does simply, because I don't like it. Of course I feel the same way about Liefeld.

    Going to Mark's comment it was several years ago that Rich Johnston has on his site two pages of the same comic as drawn by two different artists (on of the had either been pulled or dropped from the project). I found it fascinating myself how they both tackled just that one page, and the differences they used to convey the same script.
  • I'm trying to think of examples of "ugly" artists whose work has kept me away from comics -- as opposed to artists whose panel-to-panel storytelling skills or difficulty with conveying emotion have kept me at arms length or worse (like Benes, Liefeld, or hundreds of other lesser-known names). Ted McKeever comes to mind, since his Extremist minisreies was just reprinted by Vertigo. Man, his art is ugly to me. But he still conveys the action well, and his work has a tremendous amount of mood and atmosphere. From what I remember, it works with the piece, not against it.

    It took me a while to enjoy Pete Bagge's work on Hate, too, because of his cartoonish, rubbery style. But once I got over that, I really enjoyed this issues I read. And grew to appreciate the art, as well.

    Carmine Infantino comes to mind as someone whose art style I originally thought was ugly (at least his looser 1980s work), but whom I later came to love. Jack Kirby, too, come to think of it.
  • While it's certainly not ugly, I greatly disliked Curt Swan's work when I was a kid. It seemed so boring. It took Alan Moore's words and George Perez inks to force me to look again and appreciate it.

    But...it's still kinda boring...
  • On the other side of the coin, Nicola Scott being the artist on Teen Titans got me to pick it up when I had nothing but bad feelings about the writer's other works.
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