I’m always interested in the new directions story-telling is taking. One never knows which storybook character might become the next Gulliver In Lilliput or Alice In Wonderland or Dorothy In Oz or Huck Finn in the Old South… We do not know which characters written today may become as well-known as the Three Musketeers… or as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson… or as Batman, or Gandalf, or Harry Potter. One of the best places to keep a finger in the new icon pie, so to speak, is the graphic novel.
It’s easy to forget that each now-classic character was once a nobody, someone made-up by a writer (whom the world may or may not have heard of at the time) who convinced a publisher to print his story. Even for Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, there was no way of knowing if their latest books would create long-remembered characters. (I almost said “eternal characters,” but over time, even the most famous and beloved characters can fade from the collective consciousness… For instance, many young people today would not know the story of Captain Nemo or of Anne Of Green Gables.
Skimming over some graphic novels titles recently, I saw Beautiful Creatures: The Manga, and recognizing the name, picked it up. Now, before I commit to checking-out a comic book, I always glance through some of the artwork contained within the covers. If I am not intrigued, then I’ll put it back down. There are simply too many books to read and too little time to read them in. Also, because the cover artwork is not always done by the same artist illustrating the book, it’s good to peek inside even if you like the cover… Before I figured-out this bait-and-switch tactic, I was disappointed by the contents of several comic books whose covers had wowed me.
I found the story of Beautiful Creatures so-so for a grown man. For a teen girl, I could imagine it could be quite enjoyable. However, I did feel that I got something valuable from the book… a nice overview of some of the modern conventions of visual storytelling. And I can see how American comics and Japanese manga continue to influence each other.
It’s intriguing to me that it seems that the progression of several art forms can be tracked through their increase in dynamism… Camera-work in movies today is much more mobile than it used to be, and individual shots are shorter in the extreme. Likewise, the energy in some of today’s pop songs makes someone like Frank Sinatra or Buddy Holly– even Elvis Presley– look sedate. And in photography, cameras have long been able to take pictures faster than the human brain can even process movement. Painting is a different story– it was one of the first arts to get jump-started into modernity… and its modernity-phase peaked early; what dynamism it held in the early 20th century has either evaporated or been diverted into the special effects permeating modern cinema.
I find comics much more dynamic today than in yesteryear. When characters raise their voices in Beautiful Creatures, their “speech balloons” stretch like tarpaulins under strain, or else distort in exploding stars. Thoughts which a character keeps to himself can appear here, there, or anywhere near the panel in a “thought box” …or not in a thought box. When someone is singing, the words of the song (along with some musical notation) can move across several panels in a squiggly stream. And when a character says something under his breath, the sentiment might be written very small at the bottom of the panel or along the edge of the speech balloon containing said-aloud words.
Another characteristically modern technique I found in Beautiful Creatures was that the storytellers sometimes related relevant physical data about a character simply by having descriptive words written into the panel. For instance, the number representing someone’s height is scribbled over his head. Or a building on the horizon is identified blatantly by the simple method of sticking a label on it. In another place, a fist is not only drawn obviously clenched tightly, but there are “energy marks” radiating from it– and in case you still don’t get the message, the word “clench” is written over it. Similar word-clues were written for things like “stare,” “smirk,” “snatch!,” and “huff!” I could cite many other examples of how text– following the lead of manga– is nowadays incorporated straight into the panel-drawings of comic books.
There is a danger, of course, that the artist could rely too much on these helper words and then– well, what’s the point of illustrating?
Beautiful Creatures also uses a technique that isn’t that widespread in U.S. comics yet. To show what a character is thinking, sometimes tiny, simplified drawings are used. Some people call these small, less-detailed characters “chibi.” By illustrating a thought or scene or memory with chibi, we readers get to see what the character is picturing in his head.
One contrivance I especially liked in Beautiful Creatures was the way extreme shock was represented by a completely colorless drawing—just the outlines of the characters and objects maintained.
Speaking of color (or lack there of), I was perplexed by the fact that only the first few pages of Beautiful Creatures were in color. I had guessed while reading the book that the color would return at the end to “book-end” the story, but it didn’t.
One of my favorite techniques utilized in Beautiful Creatures is when a full page is used to display the simultaneous “reaction shots” of several characters to the same event. On these pages, the event is drawn in the middle of– or else stretching over—all of the reaction shots. I contend that these “reaction shots” show just one way in which comics/manga have been influenced by movies. This whole area – western comics, Japanese manga, American movies—has become a great big melting pot of creative borrowings. I liiike it.