By John Flynn-York
I keep thinking about a Vulture article I read a few weeks ago that tracks the evolution of visual style in comic books through one hundred single pages. If you haven’t read it, it’s here, and it’s long and in-depth and very much worth checking out, even if you don’t read or even care all that much about comics.
The usual suspects are there, of course—Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (Superman), Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman), Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby (Marvel), R. Crumb (a variety of underground comix), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home)—but there are also plenty of less-recognizable names who’ve had an impact on the way we draw our dreams and our nightmares.
Though comics are not exclusively about superheroes and never have been, super-powered do-gooders are the medium’s bread and butter, and they show up near the beginning of the form, not long after the conclusion of World War I. (Action Comics #1, in which Superman first appeared, was published in 1938.) It’s not hard to see the appeal of superheroes in a world coming to grips with the extensive devastation of that war, which conclusively proved how destructive technology could be to the average human body. Mustard gas, tanks, artillery—these were new kinds of weapons, weapons that made individual bravery, heroism, and skill moot.
And it’s even easier to imagine how a superhero might appeal to people worried about the seemingly unstoppable rise of Hitler and the renewal of Germany’s bellicosity. In this context, who wouldn’t want to indulge, at least for a moment, in the possibility of a punch-throwing, cape-wearing savior who could single-handedly solve the world’s problems?
In the 1960s, with the world in a different kind of upheaval, comic books once again are a mirror. They explode with mind-bending images: R. Crumb’s big-footed characters truck across the page; Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby’s superheroes enter otherworldly dimensions.
What makes this all so fascinating—even for those of us who traffic in words rather than images—is how clear it becomes, through these pages, that the art is always in some way a distorted mirror of the context in which it is created: the images themselves change with the times. The lines bend, warp, fracture. The colors intensify, multiply, disappear. The panels expand, collapse, explode.
But what can fiction writers take away from this? For me, at least, there’s a sense of possibility in the comic book page. Fiction writers have written about comics, have written as if their books were comics, and have of course written the comics themselves, but that’s not what I mean. Instead, it’s the idea of finding inspiration for new styles and forms in the look of the pages. So check out the article, and see one of those comics sparks something new in your writing.