Writing under the restriction of a post-New Year's hangover, Ninth Art's resident curmudgeon looks at how limitations can push creators to do their very best - and notes how rarely comic creators push themselves at all.
02 January 2004

Everyone enjoy their holidays? Good. Welcome to 2004.

It's New Year's Day, and my hangover forces me to write this thing from my bed, where I lie watching the second season of THE WEST WING, consuming toast and tea like my life depended on it, which, in a very real sense, it does.

Comics, I'm happy to say, played almost no part in my Christmas, apart from the fact that my boss got me Joe Sacco's NOTES FROM A DEFEATIST as a Christmas present. This was perhaps the most positive thing related to comics that happened all year, obviously, as it suggests to me that even the least geek-media savvy person in our office can single out an appropriate comic as a gift for me. I admit, he's somewhat helped by his simple attitude of, "I went and looked for one from a proper publisher, because I figured that it was least likely to be shit". But still, the one comic I got for Christmas was entirely appropriate for me.

I gave no comics as gifts this year, which I know some people might regard as letting the side down, and failing to use the season as an excuse to evangelise for the medium, but fuck 'em. I refuse to evangelise for comics in the same way I don't evangelise for film or TV, and besides, I'd rather give people gifts that they stand a chance of actually wanting, rather than just sticking them with a gift that I think they should read.

But back to THE WEST WING, because I actually like that.

I'm watching the episode "17 People", which is one of those rare examples of a near perfect piece of drama, and one of the things you might not realise while watching it is that it's a novelty episode, especially in light of the fact that it's one of the lynchpins of the plot for the season, or hell, for the series in general.

'Occasionally people come up with a clever device to prevent a series running late.' The novelty in the episode, incidentally, is that it features no actors that are not regularly recurring cast members, and no locations that are not part of the standard set for the series. It is, essentially, a play for television. They hadn't actually planned to do this, but apparently the studio came to them and said, "Look, you're running over budget, and mostly we'll live with it, but you're going to have to try and get at least one episode in on the cheap, please..."

So series creator Aaron Sorkin worked within the restrictions, and produced a standout script in a season of generally excellent writing, and the actors bettered their generally high standards, and the whole thing came together as something very special.

This is not the sort of thing that plagues comics very often, and I think that's a shame. It costs a similar sum to produce a comic that features cities being levelled by hundreds of bit parts as it does to produce a comic about two guys talking in a bar, so coming in under budget really isn't a concern on that level.

Occasionally, you'll find that people come up with a clever device to prevent a series running late or skipping a month - I seem to recall that TRANSMETROPOLITAN came up with conceits that allowed fill in artists, or issues to be produced quite quickly, partly in response to Darick Robertson becoming a father during the run, in order that he could have the spare time that new parenthood demands.

'In working to get around a restriction, people can produce their best work.' But for the most part, since they're not generally creator owned, mainstream comics don't need to jump through those hoops - they either just get a fill in creative team, or run late. So it's unusual to find a comic that works under any strictures other than editorially mandated plotting, and the need to be a certain number of pages long each month, which really isn't any more that a TV show has to worry about. I'm aware that other media don't do it by their own will often either, but they probably do it a bit more often than comics - even EASTENDERS does the occasional ambitious episode, for god's sake.

And the few occasions where you find comics doing this tend to be editorially mandated across a line - Marvel's mostly laughable silent month for example. And I think that's a shame, because it's generally in working to get around some kind of restriction that you find people producing the best work.

Alan Moore does it quite a bit, to the point where it's become more or less part of his style to work with the nine-panel grid (WATCHMEN and FROM HELL are the most obvious examples) or to work largely without narrative captions or sound effects (V FOR VENDATTA). You find it in Frank Miller's work, whether it be the two tone of SIN CITY, or the way that that same series moves any non-spoken text outside the panel, or the 16 panel grid in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

But even outside of the things that are unique to the medium of comics, you don't often see (for instance) an entire story told strictly from the point of view of one character, so that there's no scene that they're not in, or the sorts of tricks with multiple, seemingly unconnected narratives that Iain Banks pulls out of his hat occasionally.

I can understand why adding extra limitations or rules onto what you'll write can seem like making a rod for one's own back, but given the number of classics of the medium I named above where people have done exactly that, you have to wonder if it's not worth the extra effort to experiment a little.

Of course, it's all very easy for me to say it, and I'm sure it's a bit harder when you're being pushed to produce script month in month out, but it's not like I'm suggesting that every issue of every storyline of every comic must start thinking of some storytelling conceit with which to burden itself. All I'm suggesting is that it might improve the general standard of some comics if people did make more of an effort to go out on a limb once in a while, just for the sake of it.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents