December 9th, 2005

Graphic Novels - the New Cinema?

I've been reading graphic novels lately, and I'm struck not only by the similarity between the comics format and film, but also by how much more sophisticated the graphic novel has become than the (American) film.

Both graphic novels/comics and movies use individual shots/frames to tell a story, with each shot/frame employing particular angles to convey emotional impact; both can choose to tell their stories in color or in black and white; both use casts, dialogue, and even CGI effects. But graphic novels - which used to be known under that most despised of epithets, the comic book - have continued to progress not just technically but also artistically; film hasn't. In fact, American film peaked in the 1970's, and it's interesting that the modern graphic novel was essentially born only a few years after, with the releases of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's astonishing Watchmen.

Look, for example, at the three graphic novels I've just read:

Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris - After failing at being the world's only true superhero, a former civil engineer becomes the mayor of New York, and must confront problems like protests over publicly-funded artwork, a combative female chief of police and a deputy mayor who's plainly smarter than he is. The storytelling is both witty and tense, topical and fanciful, and Harris' photorealistic art style freezes gestures and expressions better than any camera. I can't remember the last time I laughed this much at a movie.

The Forty-Niners by Alan Moore and Gene Ha - All of the world's post-World War II superheroes are rounded up and confined to their own city, where everyone from the janitor to the mayor is a former superhero/fantasy character; our female lead joins the police force, while our male lead deals with his own emerging homosexuality. I shouldn't have to say anything more than the name "Alan Moore" for you to know it's great, with more imagination and rich storytelling than a dozen Van Helsings or Star Wars movies.

Black Hole by Charles Burns - A sexually-transmitted disease that physically transforms its victims sweeps through a Pacific Northwest high school some time in the 70s, and this is still possibly the most realistic depiction of high school I've ever seen. Forget the movies' brat-packers or the post-Dawson's Creek spawn that litter our television screens; Burns's gorgeous, crisp, black lines bring these characters to such poignant life that you practically forget you're reading a book.

Now contrast to the last three or four films you've seen: I mean, crap, Aeon Flux compared to The Forty-Niners? Masters of Horror against Black Hole? No contest.

Our cinema keeps moving backwards, but at least there's still one visual storytelling medium that's consistently progressive, entertaining and moving. Now, how do I break into the graphic novel market?