Thoughts on Old and New Styles in Comics

I’ve been unhappy with superhero comics for a number of years. Part of it is due to a lack of a browse-able comic book store in the area. As titles I liked came to an end, I wasn’t able to find new things to like. Every now and then, I’d pick up the odd issue of something or other, and feel disappointed when I was done reading it. Surely the “good stuff” in superheroes couldn’t have been all used up before the mid-90s?

So, I subscribed to Marvel’s online digital comics site. For $10/month, you can read as many comics as you want. They don’t have everything they ever published online, but they do have hundreds (maybe thousands) of issues. It’s only a few days, and the little poking around I’ve done has shed some light on why I’ve been disappointed all this time.

I read Uncanny X-men #136-137 (climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga) from 1980 and Captain America #1-14 from 2005. Wow, what a difference!

Pacing

Modern comics are really written with the graphic novel in mind. They take a slow, cinematic style to build up mood, and put in a mystery that isn’t addressed for a half-dozen issues. A mystery at the heart of the plot, mind you! I mean, I’d say that 6 issues of a modern comic equal the plot of 2 or 3 of the comics I grew up with. It’s strange. There are fewer costumed goons knocking over banks and jewelery stores, but somehow there’s more meaningless fights.

Thought Balloons

And the thought balloons are almost entirely missing. I know that they’re usually rendered as captions these days, and I don’t mind that. But there are so very few of them! They’re almost entirely contained in quiet, introspective scenes where the hero is reflecting on the battle to come, or the villain is plotting.

I suppose the idea of more modern style is that the pictures are supposed to give context of what’s happening in the fight scene, and we’re supposed to understand the hero’s predicament from that. In the older comics, the thought balloons and word balloons would often reiterate what was going on in the panel. They often illustrate that inner self-talk that everyone does everyday.

A modern comic might show a villain punching the hero through a wall. It might take several panels, possibly an entire page for the attempted dodge, punch catching the gut, hero flying through air, going through wall, wall collapsing, hero pulling himself from rubble. The older style might show the same thing in a single panel, with a thought balloon like: “He’s so quick! Caught me nappin’ and this wall’s paid the price! Gotta keep on my toes.”

Coloring

Modern coloring techniques have completely redefined the look of comic pages. The strong, clear black lines of the flat-color era are gone. Since computerized coloring allows so many shades and textures, it seems like the colorist does much of the job that the penciller and inker used to do. The colors are so muted, but uses a lot more single-color saturation, where a dozen different shades and tints of one color are used, often to convey mood. The older style had a more limited pallette of colors, and had to use contrast to make things stand out from their background.

Detail

The new coloring techniques have opened up the way for greater “realism” in illustration styles, as well. Captain America has pretty much always worn an armored shirt as part of his costume. In the older comics, this would be show by a few half-circles scattered here and there on his torso. The actual outline of his chest and arms remained that of a naked human body, colored red, white, and blue to differentiate it from all the other characters with the same sillouette. Now, Cap’s scale mail shirt is illustrated in each and every panel, with every single scale deliniated. The outline of his upper body shows the ridges that the scales make. His cowl has two seams that run down the back, where it used to be illustrated as smooth. Seams on a superhero costume!

And the facial expressions! With the subtleties of modern coloring and the larger panels, newer comics can show greater subtlety of facial expression then the older line drawings. I guess this is also a reason for the demise of the thought balloon.

There are fewer panels per page, but each panel is rendered in greater detail. Part of it is probably due to a greater availability of reference images to artists via the Internet. Part of the Captain America storyline was set in Philadelphia, a city I’m familiar with. I was expecting that the only thing that would let us know it was Philly was a caption, some dialog, and maybe a sketch of Independence Hall in the background. Boy, was I wrong! The sequence starts out with a jet coming in low over the Philly skyline, and it’s actually the Philly skyline! The buildings whose names I don’t know, but whose outline I’ve seen every time I head into the city are right there, drawn in every detail.

Conclusions

It’s kind of strange that as most other types of media are speeding up (compare a fight scene in an action movie from 1980 to 2010), comics are slowing down. I can see how the change in technology has made this possible. At this point it’s primarily an interesting observation, and a warning to myself. Don’t expect as much from a single issue. The trade paperback is the unit of story these days, not the issue. I wonder if telling the same story within a larger page count is a symptom of the influence of manga upon American mainstream comics?

Of course, my sample size is extremely limited. I’m going to be reading more. Are there other comics I’m missing that buck this trend?

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Old and New Styles in Comics

    • Thanks, Jesse. I’ll keep an eye out for Scott Pilgrim. The movie trailer looks like a lot of fun, so I ought to pick up the comic before the movie comes out, anyway.

  1. Comics are slowing down? The lower density of information in them means you read them faster. A golden-age supers comic you could chew on for half an hour at least; these new ones are over in ten to fifteen minutes.

    • You’re right that they take less time to read in real time. By “slowing down” I meant that each panel is conveying less time in the fiction. I think we’re saying the same thing in different words.

      This is a good point. Nowadays, it’s the six-issue trade paperback that takes you a half hour to read through. Individual issues have become like chapters in a serialized novel, like they used to publish in the 19th century.

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