Saturday, August 11, 2007

What Makes a Good Comic Book?

In deciding what books to read and what books to drop and why I like a comic or why I don’t like a comic, I have come up with various elements that I believe determine whether a comic is good or not. What makes this so difficult is that there is no clear cut guide to make that determination as comics are a collaborative medium (for the most part) and most books do not exist in a vacuum. Finally it all comes down to personal preference in addition to everything else. I can simply not like a book (usually because of subject matter) and a second person can love a book. Boys is a perfect example of this, I could no longer discern that Ennis had any story here and certain fans absolutely love this book because it is a bash the super hero book. So in an attempt to strip it down to its bare essentials here is what I think makes or breaks a comic book.

Art. First and foremost this is a visual medium. Art is a huge selling point or none of us would be comic book fans and we would all be reading prose books. Most of us are literate enough to want to read, but enjoy the visceral experience of seeing the pictures. Now art has a wide range of styles and we can go from Neal Adams to Darwyn Cooke to Steve Ditko to Don Heck. All fans have styles that we enjoy or dislike. I also believe that the more we read the more we can appreciate different artist's capabilities. Some artists are not master draftsmen, but they can layout a story like no one else. Others are consummate penciller’s but are afraid to touch an inker’s brush. Still if the comic has piss poor art it can kill even the best of stories. Recently Awakening was such a book for me, the story was compelling enough (even though it was going to Zombies) but the art was on par with a third grader who had broken their drawing hand.

Story. As I stated most of us are literate enough that we want to read, so having a good story is key to making a comic work. Over the years I have noted various things can make a story good or not. One element that has been surfacing lately is the long story format. Many writers seem to want to write their version of Iliad and Odyssey as a comic. The problem is that within the 22 pages of the story something needs to be happening in each chapter. JMS has been a abuser of this type of story telling with Squadron Supreme and now Thor. If reading 12 issues of this book in a row, the story seems to move and generate a decent read, reading this as a monthly is like waiting for your wife to get ready to go out to dinner. Garth Ennis is his Punisher series generates an overall story every six issues, but usually makes each chapter a compelling read on its own.
Also I believe that it is important that the characters in a story at least contain some element that you can relate to or be able to put yourself in their role. Un-Men had no characters that were relatable to me, so regardless of decent artwork and well written story I dropped it after one issue. Left on Mission is a great book where it is fun to imagine that you are the central character of the story, a spy pulled back into the game and tracking after your former love interest. What guy doesn’t think he could be James Bond?

Characters – In a shared universe type book having characters that you already like or dislike is a huge element in whether a comic is good or not. I like the Martian Manhunter and I’m predisposed to enjoy stories about him. A friend of mine loves Thor and thinks this new series is great, while I have called it Snore as nothing is happening. The caveat to this is that if you use a character that you also have to remain true to the character and who they have been established to be. If you use Oracle and she shots someone with a gun, the entire story becomes unbelievable and you lose you audience. If you have a reason for making the character act out of character, then you may have the basis for telling a great story. Devin Grayson writing Nightwing was an object lesson in how not to write a comic book character. She imposed her own version of the character over a long term established character and really made the book unreadable. Another wrong way to do characters is to have a story to tell and then cast characters in the roles like they are movie stars. Mark Millar is guilty of that a lot of times and just doesn’t care that a character never acted that way before, they fill the story’s need for a character and he cast them into that role.

Premise – All important for a limited series from a publisher, especially one that does not have any history. Two series that I’m enjoying (have enjoyed) are Alien Pig Farm 3000 and Left on Mission. Without a good premise I would have never picked these books up. The premise has to be short enough as to not scare people off, yet compelling enough to make people want to at least try out issue #1. Occasionally I have seen books that are launching and the hype laying out the premise is so long that I feel like I have read the entire series already. This can be a very hard element to define with a comic as I personally have a hard time conveying why Midnight Crossing is so good in a few lines.

Design – This is more important in the growing trade market. Most comics have a standard design. Trades are coming in all sizes and shapes. The Spider-Man Omnibus is really too big to even be a feasible book to easily read. It almost becomes just a show piece to keep on your book case as opposed to something you pick up and read. EC Archives have a sleek format that combines slight over sizing of artwork with collecting six issues of the classic EC books. DC Archives usually does eight issues in a more comic book size format. Other books are going to smaller formats, black and white reproductions of old comics that were in color and more. Picking the right format is important, because you want to stand out, but not put off people. For my taste books that are short in height but way to long in length annoy me because they don’t fit right on my bookcase. It seems to be a silly reason to avoid a book, but I do not have a hard cover version of Frank Miller’s 300 because of the design of that book.

Marketing / Price Point /On Time Publishing - These elements I group together as they are important but are ancillary to the actual idea of whether a comic is good or not. I believe that these elements enhance or detract from the success of a comic, but really don’t determine if a comic is good or not.

Finally it really comes down to individual taste, but I believe we are look for these elements in the comics we read, whether it is a conscious thought or not.


  1. I think your right on a lot of these, though I , myself..Don't necessarily agree with theold 22 page maxim..I think this was correct back in the day, efore Benis, befor Milalr, before we got rid of, without 32 thought ballons telling us the history of the character and how they feel...I think it's okay to let the story breathe..I think 30 pages is fine for some stories...your thoughts?

  2. I would agree the story should determine the length of the comic. If the story needs a few more pages, most companies seem to be willing to do away with house ads / letters pages. Still there are commercial considerations to keep the price point at $3 to stay in the 20-25 page count. Still I would prefer for the story to end halfway through the book and use the extra pages for a short story spotlighting a supporting character or some other thing.

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  4. You forgot pacing. Without it, even good stories could become overwhelmingly confusing.