Monday, July 30, 2007

What Makes a Comic, you know, Actually Good?

After spending a couple weeks discussing ideas like "bad readers," "bad cartoonists," and "what should a good comic have," everywhere from Barbelith, to the Image message boards, to, I thought I had moved on to other concerns, but as I read Brian Cronin's recent post at Comics Should Be Good, I realized that I had discussed the topic but I hadn't actually reached a workable conclusion to the critical question: What Makes a Comic Good?

Here's what Brian posted:

After I recently named a CBR thread “Seven Standards,” everyone’s pal, Alex, posted what he felt (off the top of his head) were the


Alex’s seven were:

1. art that has an evident level of craft.
2. stories that move in meaningful arcs, linear or not.
3. characterizations that are not contrived (unless that is part of the characterization itself!)
4. a sense of design that amplifies the themes of the content
5. thematic depth, so the comic works on many levels
6. thoughtful use of the medium itself to communicate
7. Cohesion of the above

I’d really like to hear what you folks (and any of you comic bloggers out there) would pick as your seven standards for comic.

Here's my response (slightly edited from what I posted at Comics Should Be Good to provide a bit more clarity):

I think Alex’s list is a noble starting point to start the conversation about what makes a good comic, objectively speaking.

I don’t think my feelings or the question of “how much I liked or disliked it” is as interesting as trying to evaluate the qualty of a comic from an objective position. I think it is important (and interesting) to evaluate a work against a set of criteria, and see how it stacks up, but, then again, as I said in a Sequart column, I don’t think a work of art (comic books included) has any obligation to “be” anything.

So any attempt to come up with an absolute list of “standards” is an attempt to slap your expectations onto someone else’s work. In a way, any single “demand” of a comic is as silly as saying, “to be a good comic, it must have at least one fight scene.” (Which was surely an in-house criteria used by mainstream publishers for years, but it’s not a criteria that necessarily helped make good comics. It just helped make comics with fight scenes in every issue.)

Yet, even though I believe the idea of placing expectations on what a work of art should be is severly flawed, I’d rather base an aesthetic judgment on some set of criteria rather than just say, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” If your entire evaluation is based on thinking like that, then you might as well not say anything, because the automatic reply is, “well, that’s just your opinion.” And that doesn’t lead to much interesting discussion.

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that I don’t believe that you can come up with Seven Objective Standards, but I’m going to list Seven Standards anyway, inspired by what Alex came up with, but reflecting my own aesthetic (not emotional) expectations:

To be good, a comic (and by comic, I mean the finished form of the work, which could be a single issue, but it could also be a trade paperback collection) should have:

1. Art which helps to tell the story (and does not detract from it or cause unwanted confusion)
2. Art which amplifies and accentuates the themes through visual symbolism
3. Stories which resolve in some way
4. Main characters who have more than one facet to their personality
5. Something to say about one or more of the Essential Human Ideas (aka themes)
6. Narrative consistency (in character, plot, setting, and theme–jumps from one setting to another, for example, should be explained or alluded to)
7. Something new to say (about the medium, the genre, the characters, or the world)

To me, it’s #7 that divides the good comics from the average ones.

That's where I stand on the topic as of today. Those are my Seven Standards. This week, I'll apply those standards to a few comics, and see what happens.

Readers, what do you think of those Seven Standards and which ones do you think need to be changed?

P.S. I also think those Seven Standards apply to prose literature as well, except I would substitute the word "Language" for "Art" in that case.


Anonymous said...

Here are my off-the-cuff Seven Standards for a good comic (I'm referring mainly to narrative or story comics rather than gag comics, essay comics, or other experimental forms). They actually grow less necessary (or at least more conceptual) as the list goes on.

1. Dramatic Expectation
An opening sequence that sets up expectation(s) in the reader's mind (e.g., What will happen next? How is this going to turn out?)

2. Dramatic Closure
A concluding sequence that satisfies, in some measure, the expectation(s) of the opening

3. Legibility of Design
A sense that the sequence of panels and pages (and the images therein) can be "read" in a progressive manner, start to finish, even if multiple "directions" are possible)

4. Character Identification
The presence of at least one character with whom the reader can "identify with" or experience the story through (not necessarily the protagonist) [see McCloud's Understanding Comics]

5. Dynamics
As in music, the establishment of a dominant "reading rhythm" within which the artist exhibits modulations or variations in pace (tempo), volume, and tone

6. Subtext
The bulk of the story existing in the gap between panels and between pages, nested within the dialogue and action, and in the friction between elements within panels (i.e., in the reader's response to, and interaction with, the surface words and images)

7. Narrative Mystique
An inherent oddness or incalculableness that arrests the attention (even for the slightest of moments) and imprints even a single image on the reader's memory (might be called frisson or psychic resonance)

-- Steven Withrow

Timothy Callahan said...

I think those line up well with my Seven. They are more specific in some cases, though, especially #1, which seems too limiting on first glance (but I can't think of any good comic that violates that Standard, so it seems to fit).

I particularly like #5 on your list, especially after my close look at The Golden Age and New Frontier, because both Smith and Cooke use reading rhythm quite differently (and perhaps I might argue that Cooke's approach is more dynamic and therefore more "good.")

Scott Cederlund said...

My only concern when people try to say does the art help tell the story is are we making the art secondary to the overall narrative? We're a story-based society so it's easy to say that images (whether in comics, tv or movies) need to support the story but why can't the text help support the artwork? We see this happening in some more non-mainstream books, though the only one I can think of right now are some Chris Ware works.

Timothy Callahan said...

But if we are going to assume that comics are a narrative medium, and for my purposes they are, then art IS secondary to the story. Not secondary to the words, but secondary to the story. Essential, but secondary.

Words would be tertiary to the story.