Storytelling Elements - and Comics
Conflicts arise everywhere. They are results from confrontations where the preference of one individual is violated by other individuals or collective boundaries. In a civilized society much of this violence works on a psychological level. One way to cope with this frustration is the consumption of various forms of fiction where one can escape from or live through conflicts in dramatic form without getting harmed from it.
When it comes to drama there are four different types of reader mechanisms in play.
When well-established forms of expression such as literature, theater and film generally has a higher cultural status than comics, I think it is due to more frequent occurrence of the first two types of reader mechanisms. It is typical of media where people are mainly presented as real people, at least the creators try to get as close as possible to a convincing description of reality. Although it is not always the case, the mere fact that we have characters like that as our entrance point to the fiction put limits on how far the fiction creator can freak out.
If we look at comics there is certainly a predominant use of the last two reading mechanisms.
It must be admitted that some creators are trying to draw photographically or illustrate stories intended to be perceived as realistic, but then the question arises whether or not literature, TV or film, in essence, would have been better media for the purpose?
It is possible that media products with a high degree of projection or therapy might come to convey a simplistic or naive attitude, but not necessarily. Looking at the superhero comics in the United States produced for boys and youngsters, the mechanism of escapism is quite obvious. It plays on emotions as superiority versus inferiority, the need of powerful leaders and a trust in a simple strong authority. There seems to be a particular need for such stories in a society with a larger degree of class distinction and paternalism. In Scandinavia there is fortunately lesser patronizing and class differences or common threats, so attempts to market this kind of fiction here has not been a substantial success.
Here is also in part projection and therapy in circulation, but it is not as dominating, and identification and information play an important role. And it is precisely when all four mechanisms interact to varying degrees in the storytelling that the highest appeal arises. A larger number of readers will be able to find something that meets their demands and wishes.
If we compare with literature, comics fail short in areas dealing with depiction of nuanced feelings. In a book you can write page after page about people's thoughts and feelings. In fact this is actually where literature is at its best, but there's no room for that in comics. When applied, a negative expression on that is ‘talking heads’.
In comics it's different. We have no control over the timing. You cannot be sure the reader experiences the comics at the pace the comics creator wishes. Therefore one must use a more general timing and cutting so that variation in reading speed is not critical to the outcome of the experience.
One must also tell the story, so the atmosphere is not gone, if the reader jumps back to recap. All in all it is difficult to capture the more subtle moods and emotions in comics. Moreover one does not accept long explanations or detailed arguments for or against a certain issue. You have to simplify things.
Compared to that, there's something absolutely charming that comics are not complete illusions. The reader may even be active to get the full benefit of the experience, and one must decide pace, sound effects and tone of dialogue. What could be thought as a communicative weakness may well turn out to be a perceptual advantage. The reader also has to guess what lies between the panels for an experience of continuity to appear. This can be made easier or more difficult for the reader depending on the comics creator's abilities and intentions, but the reader is active to create his personal experience because he decides upon the depiction of parts of the storytelling elements.
Society has created an unfortunate obstacle on the use of comics as a more widespread way of expression. If we compare with literature, it is in fact a very abstract expression, but everyone has a theoretical possibility of resorting to the media, if you want to convey something, because you learn to master the written language in school. This provides an advantage for literature as a medium. Not so with comics or sequential storytelling as it is sometimes referred to.
In practical terms it becomes difficult to express yourself through comics, because you do not learn to the same degree as literature to master the comics medium. Many of those with difficulty in doing so are later on are so busy coping with the problem to learn how to master it, graphically, that it risks being an end measure in itself. You experiment with the mere form instead of using it to tell something that can have real interest to others. And it's actually a shame, because there are certainly some people that could have filled the comics medium with some interesting story substance, if only they had been given the opportunity to learn how to use it in a natural way at an early age. As a comics creator you often work alone, and it is seldom one person master all the elements of creation. In film and theatre the management is always a group effort.
This was a series of theoretical principles regarding the use of comics. Moreover we have the practical and traditional elements and they are closely related. It concerns the reduction of the scope of subject matters, which has had a negative effect on the perception of comics and it has given publishers and audiences a narrow view of what comics can be used for. These elements have been annotated in many other contexts, so I will not dwell on them here. But one matter I want to mention is the principle of using the same characters over and over again, which is probably what gave name to the medium in the first place.
American comics are often built around a single individual. The audience's attention completely becomes concentrated on him and everything is seen and judged from his perception. Other occurring characters will mostly in the viewer’s perception be seen and judged through the eyes of the protagonist.
Here I think the comics have a fine opportunity to reflect a society which readers can identify with. Comics creators must take in subject matter related to what today's readers encounter in their everyday lives and immediately recognize. If the performing characters react to the situation in the fictional society the way that people would do in "our" world, identification is immediately present, and you do not have to spend extra time on explanations.