Having recently drawn a graphic novella about a silent film director, I’ve become interested in the parallels between comics and early films. The similarities are real: sometimes, eerily so. Both are mediums that grew out of the enthusiastic efforts of creative amateurs working under the close watch of barely-regulated, morally dubious big businesses. Early comics and films are both in love with “big-ness” and express broad, appealing themes with very little shame or hesitation (power fantasies, various triumphs of plucky, decent little guys, pretty girls as decoration, etc.) Film connoisseurs and comic snobs will both wax eloquent on the various subtleties of their favorite medium, but neither form can really escape a legacy of cheesiness and populism. I think that this is an essential part of what makes them “work”, and is something to be explored, not avoided.
Comic books rely heavily on exaggeration for the sake of clarity. Even in the “best” (dramatic) comic books, there is a level of pathos that would be laughable in any of the other storytelling artforms. Consider the risible films that have been based great cartoonists’ works: judging by the movies they inspired, one would think that Frank Miller and Alan Moore share the dramatic sensibility of an airport thriller writer. But this isn’t just a result of scriptwriter meddling. Allow me to use a panel from Watchmen, presenting the dialogue without the accompanying image, to illustrate:
Laurie and Dan kneel together by their nemesis’ luxurious heated pool, surrounded by Greek-style pillars.
“Laurie? Wh-what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to love me. I want you to love me because we’re not dead.”
This kind of ridiculous melodrama simply cannot work outside of its original media. Within that media, it is magical (think back to the first time you read Watchmen, and remember how you felt during that scene). When people called the book unfilmable back in the 1980s, it wasn’t because it was just “too good”; it was because comics (as a medium) actually rewards many of the things that modern film punishes. The Sin City movie at best was a clever homage to a great series: despite being an almost panel-for-panel translation, it could never recreate the dramatic appeal of the original.
Silent films also used exaggeration as a matter of necessity. When characters were surprised or scared, they couldn’t communicate this by slightly shifting their eyes or jumping a little. They had to throw their arms in front of their faces and literally leap backwards. There was no Sofia Coppola of early film, and what nuances there were, were not the reason people attended these movies. They went for big, broad, fantastical stories that could serve as escapism for a very broad range of consumers. While academics have filled volumes with their analyses of what Winsor McCay or Fritz Lang really “meant”, it is difficult to escape the feeling that they were just good storytellers who subconsciously put “easter eggs” into their works. Both mediums can absorb their audience utterly, creating the illusion of a magical world where all the things that should exist, do (right around the corner, in fact). And both are also rather silly in a way that they cannot escape.
It is estimated that roughly 90 percent of early twentieth-century silent films have been degraded or destroyed due to the cheap film stock used at the time. Stories of parents throwing away their children’s comic books in the first half of the century are a cliche, and a true one. They were not printed to last. The physical “product” of a comic book was made for one individual consumer, unlike movies, where the products were reels of film, duplicated for each theater involved. But in both cases, their throwaway nature gave them a freedom that is difficult for “real” artforms to attain.
The quirks and failings of individual artists are not removed from these smaller, low-budget works. Georges Melies made whimsical little film-poems that are most valuable as glimpses of a very creative person’s mind. They do not have big, important things to tell us about life, and if they do they are incidental (and more than a little cheesy). They are primarily “about” the joy of creativity. I would submit that the same is true of Action Comics #1, Dream of the Rare-Bit Fiend, Mutts, and the Scott Pilgrim books. Many of the “new comics” are trying to escape from the exaggerated, whimsical and slightly corny nature of the medium, and I think they lose something important in the process. The illusion of reality is overrated, and attempts to recreate it don’t give enough credit to the emotional power of art.