(or just one reason why video games will always be more popular than comics)
A few months back, I spent an inordinate amount of time ingesting an unhealthy diet of heavily caramelized brain popcorn. This included not only viewings of Avatar and the most recent iteration of Sherlock Holmes but also a video game for the PS3 produced by Naughty Dog called, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (link to gameplay video)
Playing the game in particular served only to remind me that among the visual art forms which have focused at various points of their histories on the depiction of action and movement, comics must be accounted the poor cousin of both movies and games.
Uncharted 2 is a wisecracking, male version of Tomb Raider with a plot not significantly better than either of the Lara Croft movies (which, for the uninitiated, gave new meaning to the word “dumb”). This really isn’t a problem though since no one buys an action-adventure game for its elevated storyline. I feel pretty ambivalent about the extremely derivative plot of Avatar for much the same reason.
The second iteration of Uncharted is an exponential improvement over the first entry in the series and is among finest action games of the current generation of consoles. Apart from the usual fare of frontal assaults and defending fixed positions, there are sniper battles, a bit of stealth action, scripted chase scenes where you are deprived of your carefully acquired weapons and platforming sequences where apart from traditional obstacle avoidance you get a souped up version of the truck chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (a sequence which captured my imagination when I first watched it as a teenager but which has grown slightly musty with the years).
I can’t remember a single comic which has set my pulse racing to the same extent as Uncharted 2. Video games are aimed at reproducing the sweaty immediacy of real life conflict employing disorienting visual information and sounds and, as with the case of the Wii, more realistic muscle cues. All this in an effort to replicate the adrenaline rush so addictive to the young male demographic which used to be comic’s captive audience. The holy grail for video games is the recreation of a safe but exciting “reality” which engages as many of the senses as fiscally and technologically possible.
These roads are blocked to comics. There is very little which can be produced in comics as far as realistic action or movement are concerned which cannot be better captured on film or a video game. It’s a creative dead end as far as sequential art is concerned. Artists who use extensive photo reference may disagree but even here the focus is not so much on immersion but on a grounding of the story elements in a more easily recognizable world.
Action, movement and violence in comics is more effectively conveyed through stylistic exaggeration or a high degree of refinement. Comic artists working in genres focusing on action have naturally shied away from scenes of extended kineticism preferring sharp depictions of power and awe. Comic readers have learned to do without the faux reality of games and movies, choosing to dwell very consciously and purposefully in the artist’s and writer’s imagination and skills first and foremost; drifting away from the more congenial and addictive mixture of instinct, muscle memory and passive immersion.
When faced with pivotal scenes of action in comics, I’m more often than not less excited by the moment in question than the draftsmanship of the artist: the line or brush work; the manner in which the artist charts the flow of action within and between panels, freezing moments of brutality or horror in time. This is somewhat similar to the feeling one might get while gawking at a brilliant strip of traditional cel (or other hand drawn) animation and is something which has appealed to movie and game producers increasingly over the last few decades, with pivotal scenes captured in slow motion or freeze frames whether it is the bullet time of The Matrix or its offspring in the form of the Max Payne games (just to name two early examples).
In other words, this is yet another aspect of the depiction of action in comics which has been subsumed by films and games – the ability to dwell at length on the drama and composition of various captured moments of action now fully accessible to the general public in the form of high definition home video. The only difference may lie in the fact that comics invite us to consider at length their carefully chosen moments of dynamism. As with the more traditional art forms of literature and painting, comics deal most effectively with more quiet and complex visual realities. If there is a dissonance between action-oriented comics and their film adaptations it may lie in the neglect of this area of the narrative.
It is also in these areas that the medium which holds the greatest promise for the recreation of a certain “reality” falls furthest from the mean of acceptable storytelling. This is true whether we consider games from generations past or those from the current era which have been most lauded for their plots, characterization or moral quandaries (Bioshock, Fallout, Fable 2, Mass Effect 2 etc.). While this says more about the dictates of the market than the form itself, there can be little doubt that complex and interesting narratives are at best a distant reality as far as computer and console games are concerned; a fact which will have little or no impact on their upward trajectories in the public consciousness.
I chanced upon a link (via The Comics Reporter) to Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso manga called “The Age of the Flying Boat”. Miyazaki’s most important manga-related work is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind but he had this to say on the final page of this short story:
“If this were an animation, I might be able to convey the grandeur of this life-or-death battle. But this is a comic. I have no choice but to rely on your powers of imagination.”