Tuesday, March 15, 2011

License this.

If comic companies want viewers of semi-beloved television shows to follow the adventures of their favourite characters onto the comic page, they should stop making their books look so goddamned ugly.

There have never been more licensed books based on television shows than are available right now. Defunct shows, cult oddities and televisual blockbusters from decades ago all have continuing adventures in comic books, as companies hope that they can pull in some occasionally vocal fanbases.

Licensed comics are nothing new, dating back to the very earliest days of the industry. Remarkably, there have even been some that were actually quite good over the decades, although most have been treated as disposable throwaways.

But now it feels like every second comic published by the smaller comic companies is based on a television show. Racks full of alternative comics that once offered new work by Dan Clowes or Peter Bagge are now choked with these things – Buffy spin-offs, innumerable versions of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, dozens of issues of True Blood with dozens of different and dull covers, continuations of dead series like Jericho.

It’s not a bad idea – even a show with the most mediocre ratings still enjoys an audience far greater than the most successful comic series, and you can’t blame anybody for trying to tap into that.

But the chances of gaining a fraction of that audience is severely hampered when the resulting comics tend to be so fucking ugly.

It’s mainly an art and design thing. The art on these books ranges from the okay to the shockingly amateur. So much time is spent on getting the likeness of an actor right, that other details like storytelling, style and decent backgrounds go right out the window. Some of these comics are based on television shows that ended years ago, but they still look like they were knocked up in half a week, all rushed and half-assed.

There is also a weird kind of style that has crept into these kind of comics. It’s a third-generation copy of the kind of things Jim Lee was doing 20 years ago, filtered through a thousand imitators and put through the wringer in an attempt to look fresh.

It’s a style that isn’t a style, the most blandest comics possible, covered up with vague scratchings. While I always thought comics like 52 and Countdown had the ultimate in bland art, as all style is leached out in favour of a dull readability, flicking through some of these licensed books is a lesson in mediocrity.

And it puts people off: my wife is the biggest True Blood fan I know, but she actually burst out laughing when she saw the cover to a recent issue of the comic adaption, because it looked so bad. She devours the show and the original novels they are based on (and some of those have the worst covers I've ever seen on a book), but if she can’t even get past those comic covers, there is no chance she’ll ever be that enamored by the comic.

It’s not just an art issue. Leaving aside the design issues, or the hideous variant covers that confuse the hell out of anybody who might be interested, the stories invariably turn out to be total pants.

In comics based on series still running, writers are constrained by the inability to make any real changes, and are blocked from really major revelations for characters. Some of the early comics produced when the latest version of Battlestar Galactica first came out have become spectacularly irrelevant, as the comic's plot points are rendered nonsensical by on-screen movements.

Editors are often hamstrung by budgetary constraints, with companies obviously spending so much money on getting the copyright, that there isn’t much left to spend on professional creators who can create a competent comic.

These creators – who may even have had a hand in the original TV series – also seem to forget there is a major difference between writing dialogue for the printed page and writing dialogue designed to be said out loud. Joss Whedon’s lines sing on screen, given the right inflection by the right actor, but are curiously uninvolving in his comics, often come across as a bit too arch and smug, and way too static.

But the success of Buffy season eight, despite a big loss of momentum as the series dragged on and became increasingly improbable, is the inspiration for many of the series still coming out. Companies work closely with a show’s writers and producers, and any series that gathered any kind of cult following is targeted for adaption.

They don’t have to be awful, (and I certainly have a fondness for things like DC’s Star Trek comics from the 1980s), but if they’re not done right, they might do harm to the medium by putting people off comics altogether.

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