While attending my first comics convention since well before my daughter Sara was born nineteen months ago, I had a thought about the mass media, of which comic books are a part. What's a mass medium? It's a means of communicating something to a wide audience. The way I figure it, there are now more mass media than ever before. My guess would be that hieroglyphics might be considered the first mass medium, though the audience for the pronoucements darved into tombstones and pyramids was limited to those who could actually get up and go visit the site of the various stone megaliths. The first revolution in media was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440, when it became possible to mass-produce virtually identical copies of printed manuscripts for wide distribution. The second revolution was caused by the near simultaneous invention of moving photography (motion pictures) and broadcast technology (at first radio, then television). While ancient man had no mass media, we have scads: books, newspapers, magazines, radio, broadcast television, cable television, records, compact discs, cassettes, videotapes, laser discs, and...there was one other, oh yeah-- comic books. What's great about the great variety of media available to us is that each medium has it own peculiar means of communicating to the audience in precisely the same way (though I'll admit it takes better ears than mine to distinguish between a phonograph and cassette recording). In accordance with each medium's peculiarities come its vocabulary and methodology of communication. How the medium expresses information determines to a certain extent what can be communicated. A landscape painting cannot be transmitted by radio, nor can a symphony be communicated by publication. There are other things that are technically possible (a silent radio show or a pictureless movie) but certainly not desireable. When it comes to the comics medium, I think there are certain things that are probably unsuited for the format-- for instance, sonatas, philisophical treatises, or courtroom transcripts. I believe the innovators in the comics field should always push at the very limits of the audience's expectations of what the medium can do, but they should nontheless recognize that limits do exist. To deny the inherant limitations of a medium is also to deny its inherant strengths. More ramblings about the media can be found in my other M's Rems this month.
In this month's WEST COAST AVENGERS, my Mark's Remarks featured some ramblings about comics as a medium of communication. Here are some more of the same only different. One of my contentions is that the nature of a given medium (be it radio, television, magazines or comics) determines to a real extent the nature of what one can express in that medium. For instance, while a radio play about a world where everyone was mute is possible, it certainly isn't desirable. Nor would a full-length film consisting of nothing but time-lapse photography of an inanimate object ever be much more than an oddity or an artfilm with pretentions.
There are certain things that by its very nature the comics medium does well, other things which it does not. (There is no such thing as the perfect medium which does everything well.) What comics do well is combine still pictures and printed words in a sequence in order to convey some sort of narrative, often a story or a work of fiction. If an author has an idea that is not particularly visual, does not require words, and does not tell some sort of coherant narrative, I question that idea being done in comics form. (I am aware that "silent" stories with virtually no words have been done, but such a self-imposed restriction severely limits the type of information a writer can express.) If an author has an idea that requires real movement in the pictures, long tracts of words to convey the idea, or tells a narrative that requires excessive length (for instance, the Bible), I would also question that idea being done in comics.
It's not that I believe certain subject matter cannot be done in comics (other than that which is proscribed by the Comics Code in Code-approved publications), it's that I believe certain subject matter cannot be done justice in comics. A story in comics form can be about a lot of things, including very serious and quite sophisticated subjects. In the superhero genre of the medium, of course, these serious or sophisticated subjects must relate in some way to the standards of that genre. But if that serious or sophisticated subject does not lend itself to being visually depicted, I feel it's inappropriate for comics, and the author should save the idea for a medium better suited to it. So while comics may indeed be capable of clearly depicting the forty-odd year quest among physicists to find the Grand Unified Theory of Physics, personally I'd rather not read about it in a comic book. The content of comics should fit not fight the format.