Realism in Comics

If I had to name the number one factor responsible for lapses in storytelling skill in today’s comics, I’d say it was the attitude most comics creators have towards realism.

I think the mere mention of the word causes a lot of artists (not to mention fans) to reach for the ‘off’ switch. Fans of escapist literature associate the term with everything that is boring and mundane. On the other hand, post-modernists in the arts community reject realism as being too linear and old-fashioned.

Worst of all, the defenders of realism can be its own worst enemy. They praise the realistic approach because it‘s searching for truth, and will make you a better citizen. Fairly or unfairly, most comics readers think that smacks of elitism. It’s like saying, ‘Read this comic book because it’s GOOD for you’ – YECH!!

I think of realism differently. To me, it’s the basis of good, solid entertainment. I’d even say it’s ESSENTIAL to escapist literature, because you can escape into a far-fetched adventure far better when it has some realism to encourage you to suspend your disbelief.

Take JURASSIC PARK for instance. Sure, they used state-of-the-art CGI for dinosaur animation.. But it was the entire realistic context which made those dinosaurs ‘live.’ They were authentic representations of the species based on current scientific knowledge; their presence was explained by a plausible scientific means and with a plausible motive for cloning them. The characters in the story were credible representations of mankind. All of these efforts towards authenticity helped to ‘sell’ the dinosaurs as real, right down to the fog left on windows by dino-breath.

Of course realism is good for other things besides making the fantastic seem real. Here are some of the reasons why it is important to good storytelling:

It provides a familiar context that allows the story to take shortcuts. For example, in Jaime Hernandez’s PENNY CENTURY #1, we learn that Hopey has gotten a job working for a toy store. All we see is her splayed out among boxes in the store room. But with our knowledge of the real world, we can easily anticipate what else she’ll encounter—customers, time clocks, bosses. If the story took place in a fantasy world, everything about the context would have to be explained.

Realism is a constant source of variety in the story. Realistic writers build their stories from personal experience, or from research; a story written this way takes on the richness of real life—truth is after all stranger than fiction. A fantasy writer, on the other hand, has to invent everything that happens from scratch. And for any new element that they introduce, they must lay the groundwork for the reader to understand it, since they can’t count on the familiarity referred to above.

Any good plot situation requires limitations to be imposed on the characters; if the characters could simply accomplish everything they wanted without difficulties, then why would we be interested in them? A realistic context inherently limits the character’s options. In fantasy, on the other hand, the hero often has incredible powers (and if not, there’s probably a magic ring or helpful space alien around the corner). Because of the nature of the SF and fantasy genres, it’s difficult to convince the reader that the characters are ever in any real danger. And when a character accomplishes something remarkable in a realistic context, it makes a much stronger impression on the reader than it would in a fantasy. Of course the escape from limitations is the whole charm of fantasy—its comforting to know that your hero has nothing to worry about besides Kryptonite.

One value of realism that is often overlooked is that many readers look to fiction to inform them about the world. Motion pictures like THE GODFATHER and TITANIC are valued because of their authenticity. The first third of John Grisham’s THE FIRM is a detailed description of a young lawyer’s first few months in the profession, with hardly any allusions to the thriller plot. Best-selling techno-thrillers like Michael Crichton’s AIRFRAME hardly have a plot or characters at all in the midst of all the raw data they’re trying to download to the reader. Authors who can provide an insider’s perspective on the Pentagon, Wall Street, Hollywood, or the Hamptons have a competitive advantage in the bookstores. In a fantasy or SF story, though, any information that might be gleaned from the text is suspect.

Realism is especially valuable in the area of thematics. Most readers are not drawn to a story because of its theme, the ‘moral of the story’; but I think the average reader does respond to a powerful theme; that’s the difference between a story you forget the moment you finish reading it, and one you remember for years to come. The more realistic the situation of the story is, the more relevant its theme is going to seem to the reader. Reading about religious persecution on a distant planet rarely has the same impact as it does when it’s taking place in your own back yard.

The greatest value of realism is in the portrayal of character. The creation of a character who seems to be alive is, after all, a delicate thing. The author can give his character a name and an appearance and a list of traits, but without that spark of life, it’s just a robot walking around. Putting the character in a familiar context is important so that the reader can identify with him. In the exotic settings of fantasy and SF, though, the reader doesn’t as easily develop that familiarity with the characters; all the weird stuff may even create distractions so the reader IGNORES the characters!

A favorite technique for writers is to base their characters closely on people they actually have known in real life; but this approach runs into problems when you try to transport that character into another reality, where the forces that helped shape his personality don’t exist. If you take a ‘streetwise’ kid and put him in outer space, well, there ARE no streets in outer space, he has to settle for being a ‘corridor-wise’ kid.

I hope this doesn’t seem like an attack on fantasy and science fiction; that’s not my intent. In fact I personally enjoy these genres quite a lot, and realize that the best writers know how to counteract the problems described above. For example, in the Star Trek series, the writers often introduce anachronisms to provide a reference point, so readers can identify better with the characters; it seems like every alien race has some form of alcoholic beverage so the humans and the bumpy-forehead types can get drunk together.

My concern, though, is for the comic book medium, where SF and fantasy so completely dominant, without any counterpoint of reality-based storytelling. I think a lot of artists and readers have forgotten that a comic book can inform, or have characters that are more than 2-dimensional clichés. A lot of comic book writers don’t even know how to write a story in which a character solves a problem in a credible, realistic way—it’s so much easier just to pull another gadget from the old utility belt. For many of them, the only ‘research’ is to read other comic books.

That’s why its so important that other artists, who’ve made different choices and taken other paths, are represented in the comic book medium. What’s at stake is nothing less than the vitality of comics as a storytelling medium.