It takes a lot of work to create an opera or musical: you need a cohesive plot that can be sung, you need actors, you need costumes, and you need musicians. Award-winning composer went a different way, sourcing the entire world and putting out her opera, Libertaria, virtually. (She talks about the process a bit more in a TedX Buffalo talk.)
But Young has also taken her opera one step further, converting the show into a novel, Libertaria: Genesis, and that’s what I’m going to talk about now.
The following is part two of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.
Now, let’s move on from action to emotional turmoil. While I will say that many artists are more than capable of giving us a character’s full emotional range via posture and facial expression, somehow I just don’t get the same emotional impact when I read it in a graphic novel as when I see it on TV or read it in a book. In fact, the only time I was truly moved by something I read in a graphic novel was in The Wake, the tenth and final collection of the original Vertigo run of Sandman. In it*, we hear Dream’s siblings pay tribute to him. Perhaps because I’ve always loved Death**, when she talked about Dream I actually was brought nearly to tears.
Compare that to other graphic novels I’ve read:
V for Vendetta — I wasn’t really moved by Valerie’s story. Maybe because I’d already seen it done in the film (which I saw first). But I know I was supposed to be touched by it, and even now when I see certain things on TV or read them in books I’m again touched by them. It just didn’t compute.
Watchmen — There’s a lot of sadness and betrayal in these books, and I think I was really supposed to feel for Dr. Manhattan when he retreats to Mars to figure out things between himself and Laurie. Didn’t happen.
Star Trek TNG: The Worst of Both Worlds — I’ll admit that I read this when I was young and stupid, but I totally missed out on all the painful subplots between Data and Geordi, and all the stuff that went on with O’Brien.
Star Trek: Mirror Universe — Published just after Star Trek III was released, these books are an alternate to the whole thing with the whales. I will say that I enjoyed the action sequences, and definitely felt the moment of triumph as Kirk takes the Excelsior from Styles, but the scene where Kirk reunites with Mirror-David just didn’t resonate.
That whole sequence is leading me up to what I really wanted to talk about, and here’s where the spoilers come in.
In issue 39 of Buffy Season 8, Angel kills Giles.
I remember reading about this — perhaps on IO9; I checked their archives but couldn’t find the original article — and I believe I saw some things about how unceremoniously it was done. Now, I know that Whedon is all about the killing of characters with no warning, but there’s a big difference between “I am a leaf on the wind” and Anya getting chopped in half and left for dead. I’m not saying that I disagree with the writing choice, or with Whedon for killing the character, but I have issue with the way it was done.
I already rewrote one of the scenes from Season 8 in text, and I’m not going to rewrite this one too, but let’s imagine if this had happened on screen. In fact, let’s contrast it with another famous Buffy death: Tara’s. With Tara’s death, we had reaction, we had plot movement (Willow becomes Dark Willow), we had a moment for them to be together, one last time. Very visual and visceral, very much a film thing. In the comic, Angel — possessed by the villain/universe spirit called Twilight — simply kills Giles. Now, right afterward, Buffy does kick him through a wall or something, but I just didn’t get the same emotional impact as I have with other big deaths — Data in Nemesis, Dax in Deep Space Nine, George in Grey’s Anatomy, Bobby in Supernatural***. To me it just didn’t seem real.
Some of that might come from what’s been hammered into my head about canon vs non-canon for so long: for years, stuff in comics and books hasn’t really been considered canon when held up alongside television or film properties. Star Trek specifically comes to mind. But Season 8 is canon, and this particular series of issues was written by Joss Whedon — the equivalent of Shonda Rhimes penning a 300-page Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice novel and releasing it in the summer between seasons. When Giles died, it counted.
But in my head, it wasn’t the same.
Lest you think I’m only about the Vampire Slayers****, I also recently read the first volume of Kick-Ass. Comparing the death scenes of Big Daddy in film and comic form, I have to side with the film yet again.
Now, let me say this: I have been moved by things happening in comics, but only in one medium. That medium is webcomics. Could it be because I only knew the characters in that format? Could I be so thrilled that Ozy’s dad and Millie’s mom finally got together because I’d spent years with these characters? Could I be so devastated by Faye’s death in Something Positive that even rereading the “Just Today” strips still makes me cry because, for years before, I’d gotten to know them as comic characters?
Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really know.
But I do know this: I have a problem with graphic novels. Especially ones that are alongside other forms of media, as tie-ins or sequels, but even if there isn’t a tie-in (when I first read Watchmen, the film wasn’t even in production) a lot of the emotional nuance still misses me completely. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to use my imagination as much (since there’s visual art to compensate for that). Maybe it’s because I expect to see the characters in a different light and it just doesn’t seem real to me when I experience them in graphic novel form. Or, hell, maybe I’m just one of those people who doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of comics that I do out of video, audio, or straight-up textual media.
I’m not saying “don’t read comics”; I think they have a lot to offer. But for someone like me, someone for whom the words are the most important thing, I’d rather skip them and wait until they’re novelized. I got so much more out of The Death and Life of Superman when it was novelized by Roger Stern than I ever would have out of reading it in serialized issue format, or even as a graphic novel. Comics just don’t engage my brain enough, because they give me too much information. They show me the pictures, instead of letting me create them myself.
And, really, that’s what I want.
*I haven’t read this one in a while, so I’m going on memory. Forgive my lapses.
**She sits on my desk. She’s always the last to be packed up and the first to be set out whenever I get a new job.Here she is.
***As awesome as Bobby’s final word was — “Idjits!” — do we have to see it in every single “Then” segment before the show starts? Talk about over-trading on your emotional moments…
****Okay, okay, I’ve been on a Buffy kick lately, I admit it. But it’s like a person who’s never bothered to try pork suddenly discovering the existence of bacon — even six months later, you’re still ecstatic over the awesomeness of its every aspect. Yeah, that’s right, I just compared Buffy the Vampire Slayer to bacon.Deal with it.
The following is part one of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.
I have a problem with graphic novels.
When I was a kid, I read a lot of comics — some superhero stuff, some Archie stuff, whatever looked cool at the comic shop, and of course a bit of Star Trek because, you know, it’s me. Later, as comics started to cost more and more*, I got out of the habit of reading them. I’d pick up an occasional collection, such as the Star Trek Mirror Universe saga, or I’d get a multi-issue run such as “The Worst of Both Worlds”, but for the most part… no more comics for me. I was too busy spending my pocket money on books.
I preferred books. Books were $6 (for a mass-market paperback), and they had hundreds of pages, and if there were no pictures… well… that was fine with me, because I could use my imagination. I could fill in the visual blanks using cover images and my own experiences**. And books took longer to read, too — a 350-page novel would last me a week or two, whereas a 32-page comic book took all of fifteen minutes to read.
Now, a lot of my friends who are comic readers say it’s not just about the story. They tell me the art is important. And yeah, they’re right, the art is important. But not to me.
Let me explain.
When I read a graphic novel, I rarely notice the nuances of the artwork. I’m far more interested in reading the story and finding out what happens next. Often that does happen via artwork, especially in sequences void of dialogue or narration. But for the most part, there’s text. As a short-story/novella writer, what I care about is the storyline. While I totally appreciate great artwork, if it’s just there as a reaction shot, I’m less appreciative.
Let’s take a panel from “Twilight, Part 1”***, issue 32 of Buffy Season 8, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, and Michelle Madsen****. Specifically, the panel that references the iconic scene in Superman where Lois says “You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” At this point in the story, Buffy has gained superpowers and she and Xander are trying to figure out just how powerful she is. At the bottom of a cliff in Tibet, Buffy throws Xander into the air as he calls back to that line, then zips to the top of the cliff to catch him. The panel itself depicts the cliff, a temple at the top where Oz lives, and Xander in the sky with “YOOOOOOoooooooooou?!” breaking vertically out of his word bubble.
Maybe that sort of thing works for some people, but for me it was just silly. For me, I might have better appreciated something like this:
Without warning, Xander jumped into Buffy’s arms. He recognized the mischievous look in her eye and, honestly, it worried him a little bit.
More than a little bit.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, smiling.
Xander didn’t really like the smile — he had a sinking feeling she was going to do something Slayer-like. But he’d committed to the part, and he had to say the line now. “You’ve got me?” he quoted. “Then who’s got you–!”
The last word was a howl as Buffy flung him into the air. He watched the cliff go past, then Oz’s temple — was someone waving at him? — then the treetops, and then he was more stories up than he’d care to count.
As his ascent slowed, something from Geometry class popped into the back of Xander’s mind. Something about parabolas.
He stopped rising.
He started falling.
Well, he thought, at this point, screaming will do me absolutely no good.
He screamed anyway.
The ground was looking awfully close.
And so was Buffy. Who caught him easily in her arms, bounced a little, and smiled. “Hat trick,” she said.
Now, to me that’s got far more impact than actually seeing it happen on the page. Maybe if Season 8 had been televised, and they’d done this on screen, I would’ve appreciated the visual impact, but to my mind action sequences really don’t work in comic form. Plus they have all those Adam West-era Batman sound effects. Like my personal favorite, KPOK!, which some Klingon somewhere will someday read and be pretty ticked off about the misuse of his name.
Admittedly, writing action sequences can be tough; I’ve struggled with fight scenes from time to time — I recently wrote one about two martial artists trying to see who’s better, and I inevitably found myself getting sucked into the witty dialogue at the expense of the ass-kicking — but they can be done well. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita novel, Hit List (click the link for my review), I mentioned that the action sequences were well-written and well-paced. Sean McMullen pulls it off admirably in the battle sequences in his Moonworlds saga. And of course we’ve heard it on the various Escape Artists casts — anyone remember the squid combat of Ferrett Steinmetz’s “As Below, So Above”? But when you’re writing an action sequence, you only have to concentrate on transcribing what you see in your mind. When you’re writing the action sequence in a graphic novel (or comic), you have to pick specific points in the action to depict.
I don’t want to see specific points. I want to see the whole thing. And, for me, comics just can’t pull it off.
Plus, action sequences in comics are sometimes… well… boring. Who needs to see two or three pages of your main characters fighting each other? There’s no story there. There’s no real advancement of the plot. Maybe there’s some “scuffling for the superweapon-of-doom” that you might also see on TV when the good guy kicks the bad guy’s gun away but then has to get to it in order to kill the bad guy… but otherwise, to me it’s just meh. If I’m watching a fight scene on TV or in a movie, it’s maybe two minutes of moves before the plot moves along and someone wins. Occasionally it goes longer — especially if it’s a Boss Fight, or we’re seeing a space battle. But jeez… compared to the video version of a space battle, even if you’re only watching it on a four-inch phone screen, a comic just can’t stand up to that kind of action. You can just do so much more.
I realize it’s a limitation of the medium, one that the artists and writers work valiantly to overcome, but really… there’s a lot more to Kirk blasting the Reliant than a bright orange line and the words ZZZZZAP!!! in bold, colorful letters somewhere on the panel.
In the second part of this article, I will move from action sequences and general discussion about art to the way comics make me feel… or don’t.
*I picked up some older comics to read on my iPad, and all the covers say $2.99. That’s for a 32-page book. My friend Chrome, who reads a lot more comics than I do, says prices these days are still the same, but that some books go up to $4.99. Too rich for my blood.
**Someone remind me later to write an article about how we perceive fictional characters we’ve never seen before. I’m on a roll right now and can’t stop to make notes.