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October 20, 2009

Do Comics and Graphic Artists Reflect Life?


Quite often in the creating comics workshops that I teach, my students will hear me proclaim, “An artist reflects what they experience, see, or learn in life.” In other words, our views and feelings are what we bring to the table on any project.

This is pretty significant when you consider the age-old belief that there are only seven original plots in the world.
Seven basic themes to a story, utilized over countless centuries of storytelling in poetry, prose, lyrics, and…comics. So our phrasing, taste, belief system, etc. affect how we approach any tale we tell and give us the more imaginative variations we have enjoyed throughout time.
This might explain why I like certain graphic novels such as the 2002 noir Batman tale Nine Lives: Who Killed Selina Kyle? (by Dean Motter and Michael Lark). Take the world of Batman, pop it into the 1940s hardboiled detective genre. Then make Dick Grayson a solo, 10-bucks-a-day private eye, with Barbara Gordon as his secretary and Commissioner Gordon as not one of Dick’s fans. Scramble up the backgrounds of some of the better-known villains, and you have a nice take on a story told a million times before. Oh, did I mention that Dick doesn’t like Bruce Wayne and does not know he is the Batman? Guess I didn’t.
Whatever else Motter and Lark are into as artists, they certainly delivered a great story told in that Raymond Chandler style that Hollywood and others have harkened back to so many times. And as I said, their interest (however inspired) gave us a different view of a very familiar plot.
Another example of this influence theory is a graphic novel called The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, by Anne Sibley O’Brien. No, Ms. O’Brien did not transplant the rebel of Sherwood Forest, England, to the countryside of Korea. She actually came upon the legend of someone who acted in a similar manner to the Lockley heir, in an effort to right certain injustices of his time. To give the story a more visual reflection of its cultural origin, O’Brien painted the works in a brush style and coloring that shows the strong influence of that world. She certainly brought what she saw, experienced, and learned to the table.
Two completely different genres, art styles, and stories, but both influenced by works that had come before them. Unique and yet familiar.
Allow me one more example. A few years back, I wrote an article for the Comics Buyer’s Guide. I had asked a number of comic-book writers what they read in their spare time. Just before the article saw publication, a few comic fans and pros heard about it and offered up what they expected to hear from these well-known creators. They expected titles of other comics and magazines…and nothing more. So it was a bit of a shock when they saw the categories ranged from philosophical volumes to esoteric poetry to text books about quantum physics…to cookbooks.
Why were they shocked? You already know the answer to that.
As with food and drink, we are what we take in—and our artistic offerings to the world reflect that. I tell this to my own children, to students, educators, and parents because I want them to fill themselves with as much information and experience as possible.
Some of my students have proven me quite right as they cast aside regurgitated versions of splatter and slasher tales in favor of everything from soul-searching poems to eight-page adaptations of Animal Farm.
It leaves me thrilled to continue doing what I do—what many of us do. It also leaves me asking other artists, “What are you putting in your tank?”