What makes for a "good comic"?

"Reading Comics" reminded me of another book, recommended by Brian Michael Bendis as an essential reference for his comics class at Portland State University.  Although it's not specifically about comics, David Mamet's book "On Directing" explores the requirements that a visual medium puts on a story.  In one lecture Mamet builds a story based solely on the essential image of each scene, cutting away the dialogue to the bare essentials.

Incidentally, I recently started reading some older Golden Age comics. I found some of these comics, such as Will Eisner's The Spirit, or Captain Marvel Adventures interesting, regardless of nostalgia.

But other comics, while interesting, just weren't as engaging.  For example, "Invisible Scarlet O'Neill" always seemed like a comic that should have been better than it was. I mean: here's an experienced, competent artist writing a story about a sexy detective who can turn invisible, fights crime, and occasionally gets her dress ripped.  The story should be pretty good. As an experiment, I decided to take a part of a page of the story and examine some potential problems.

The first panel shows Sandy describing his predicament, despite the gag.
His speech is surprisingly coherent considering the beating he just received -- it probably should've been a thought balloon.  Perhaps the oddest thing about this panel is the placement of the narrator's caption, which seems like it should be at the top of the panel:  "And downstairs..."

In the second panel the thug considerately explains why he's torturing Sandy.

The third panel is most egregious.  The boss Malignant explains the drama, while the stooge partakes in some maid & butler dialogue.
This thug must really like explaining his actions, since he's talking to himself in the fourth panel.

Sandy, meanwhile, despite his concussion, is surprisingly astute at identifying the sound of someone shoveling mixing cement.

And finally in the lower right we see Malignant returning to his "date" with Scarlet O'Neill and some classic 50's noir dialogue.

So, while I wouldn't say that "Invisible Scarlett O'Neil" is poorly done, it shows that more could have been done to bring out a purely visual style in the comic. It seems like the modern ethic is to drop thought balloons, captions, and anything that distracts from the imagery on the page.


"Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth Volume 1" by Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, et al.

In the distant future, a brutal war is waged between the Nort and the Southers on a strategically located planet called Nu Earth. Once it was a habitable planet, but after years of war the air is poisonous, the seas corrosive, and the only population are those engaged in combat. The Southers create a regiment of genetically engineered infantry (GIs) who can can survive on Nu Earth without protection, and have special features that make them better soldiers, but during one of the GI offensive a traitor exposes their location, and all of them are wiped out except the lone Rogue Trooper. He quest is to find the traitor and the generals that lead the attack and to avenge his fellow GIs. As part of his equipment he has the bio-chips of three fallen comrades embedded in his rifle, his helmet and his backpack. The bio-chips were a way for the military to save on training: if a soldier dies in combat they could download the soldier's persona into the chip and then later upload it to a clone for a ready-made soldier.

Alan Moore's name is on the cover, but in this volume he has contributed only two stories. Most of the stories are by Gerry Finley-Day, who also created the Rogue Trooper character and is apparently a real "idea man" for 2000 AD comics. The ongoing premise is of the Rogue Trooper searching for the traitor who betrayed the GIs, but Finley-Day does a good job of making each story personal, much like the war stories in DC's "G.I. Combat" comics. The Rogue Trooper stories ran in 2000AD comics, which isn't like US comics. It came out weekly, didn't have a glossy cover, and contained serialized anthologies. That meant that each issue devoted only three or four pages per character. Finley-Day does a good job of summarizing the past, jumping into the scenario, and then bringing it down to earth in only a few pages.

Of the longer multi-part stories, "Fort Neuro" was the least interesting. In that story, for some reason the Franks, Li-mees, and Roms have all assumed affectations which play out as ridiculous stereotypes (Napoleonic balls, Edwardian hunts, and disco parties). Only thanks to Rogue, and a couple of loyal robots, do the Southers break away from the trap and defend themselves against the Norters. I much rather preferred the stories that advanced the mission of Rogue in finding his traitor.

This volume is all in black & white, which fits the topic, but I also especially like the art work of Dave Gibbons (pre-"Watchmen"), who has some amazing imagination for composition. The black & white gives the stories a stark feeling, and mentions to the color of Rogue's skin (blue) or the acid yellow fog of chemicals are enough for me to add my own colors. Of the other artists, I found that Colin Wilson also had a fine line. Cam Kennedy and Brett Ewins do nice jobs, but they tend more toward darker, heavier lines.

For the sheer bulk, at $19.99 this book is worth the price. Given that the stories have great characters, clever jokes and insights, and tonnes of great art, it's even a better value.

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 1 Stories by Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Moore. Art by Dave Gibbons, Colin Wilson, Brett Ewins and Cam Kennedy.
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