POW! ZAP! AARGH! WHACK! TATTARRATTAT!
In comics' very early days (at least since the Katzenjammer Kids), they threw slam-bang bim-bam-boom thrills, spills, and chills right at their readers' eyes. Today's online comics are not so visceral. They affect the heart and mind more than the guts. And many would call that progress. But the progress has had its price.
Nothing captures attention more quickly than action. I was walking to the DC Comics offices one day, samples in hand, when a scuffle broke out in the middle of the street. Like other pedestrians, I should have walked the other way, quickly. That would have been the safe, smart thing to do. Instead, we all stopped to watch, mesmerized. Action stimulates a deep, instinctive response within each of us. It triggers the "reptile brain," the place where we keep our deepest feelings.
However, "action" goes hand in hand with its less reputable cousin, "violence." Early comics, especially EC's crime and horror comics, were criticized for targeting nothing but the reptile brain. The Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency once concluded that EC Comics was warping young minds. In the 1980s, TV shows like He-Man and Bugs Bunny took heat for offering up "sanitized violence" â€“ no matter how often He-Man hit Skeletor, or how many anvils were dropped on Wile E., none of them really got hurt. Today, comic books feature both sanitized violence (Superman), glorified violence (Punisher), and simply brutal violence (Spawn).
Internet film reviewers like Joe Kirkish and Harvey O'Brien sniff disdainfully about "comic-book morality." No one has written an official guide to the precepts of that morality. If someone did, it would probably say that the world is made up of good guys and bad guys, and the supposedly "complex" moral problems only cloud one's understanding of this simple truth. If it looks wrong, it is wrong. If you see someone else doing something wrong, punch them to make things right.
Alternative comics' current vogue for true crime (100 Bullets, Whiteout, Jinx, and to some degree, Strangers in Paradise and Fade From Blue) has led many of them to become as action-packed â€“ as violent â€“ as superhero books.
Not so, today's comic strip. Since the 1950s, when Terry and the Pirates gave way to Peanuts, comic strips have been more amusing than exciting. Today, only a handful of adventure strips remain, coasting on long-established brands: Prince Valiant, Dick Tracy, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Why is the action comic strip nearly extinct? Like many nearly extinct species, it's lost its natural habitat. Since the 1940s, strip size has shrunk by as much as 75%. Action does not "reduce" as well as comedy; tiny mice can be funny, but a drawing needs size for its action to have power.
Newspaper audiences have changed as well. The Newspaper Association of America admits that readership has been in decline for the last generation, and the readers who remain are older, more conservative, and inclined to protect "impressionable young minds." Strips like Funky Winkerbean or Luann show occasional violence in a far more mature and realistic manner than Fantastic Four ever has, but when they do so, older readers write in not to praise but to complain.
Webcomics do not have the problems of newspapers. Their audience is younger and possesses higher levels of 'high cultural' literacy. Yet webcomic depictions of action cut closer to the comic strip's than the comic book's. Some of my own experiences suggest that online readers don't have the patience for action.
In the CRFH/FANS crossover, Maritza Campos and I co-wrote a fight scene between our respective casts. It went on for eleven pages, and I figured it would be the highlight of the story, fondly recalling the action-packed comic-book crossovers of my youth. To my surprise, readers were bored.
When a story is told in bite-sized pieces, as both webcomic and comic strip stories generally are, every moment becomes important. A battle loses a lot of energy and its sense of immediacy when broken up into eleven slices presented over eleven days. "Huh, in Thursday's strip… oh, he hits him again. Just like on Monday. Yawn."
Comic books, which are presented as 22-page booklets and often re-presented as trade paperbacks, have much more "room" to let action unfold. The Crossovers #4 fits four fight scenes into a single month's installment. The result feels fast-paced, but not rushed, and certainly not boring. Its goal is to keep the pages turning, whereas the first goal in webcomics is usually to keep the readers coming back.
Only a few webcomics try action sequences of more than seven episodes, without building anticipation for them well in advance (as in the showdown in GPF's "Surreptitious Machinations"), or breaking them up with humor (as in the current "Wizard's Coming to See Us" storyline in Sluggy Freelance), or both.
Perhaps we could accept that webcomics aren't meant to give us the same joys as roller coasters. Toned-down action isn't always a drawbackâ€”it's made webcomics more engaging on a day-to-day basis, and a bit more philosophical… but it has also cost us artistic opportunities.
Even philosophy has its drawbacks. Too much philosophy without the adrenaline rush of the everyday can become distant and removed. Consider the way that webcomics have responded to the most action-packed event of 2003, the war on Iraq.
The most articulate and focused response has come from Colin Upton, a Canadian illustrator with a long career in printed comics, who has published "Colin's Gulf War Diary" for the last month. Russ Williams did a smart, scathing parody of recent government iconography when the conflict began. Bob the Angry Flower mocked the claims of "weapons of mass destruction"â€”claims that do seem exaggerated, if not fabricated, now that the war is over. Bruno, Diesel Sweeties, Gluemeat, Whimville, Fetus-X and others all weighed in on the issue. But only Bob reflected the reckless action of war, and only Upton even speculated about life on the front for Iraqis and Americans alike.
The Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency was curiously silent about EC's war comics, which were far more random in their bloody killings than crime or horror comics. It's easy to see why. Most EC Comics used violence for no purpose other than entertainment. However, EC war comics' unsanitized violence had the highest possible purpose: that of teaching. Unlike other war comics of the time, it showed the horrors of war to young minds and prepared them to protest Vietnam.
Today's war-related comics (Palestine, Fax from Sarajevo) take their cues from EC. So do a handful of other comic books– Hepcats with child abuse, Captain Awareness with rape, and New X-Men with allegorical holocausts, all of them treating their respective issues with the gravity they deserve.
Webcomics have occasionally married the Kirbyesque energy of comic-book fights with the more enlightened, collegiate perspective that is their native culture. In CRFH, a bad misunderstanding led one character to a near-psychotic episode with lasting consequences. Everything Jake's violence is tense and never fetishized, adding to its faint aura of mystery and danger. The various strips at AdventureStrips.com use action to recall some of the excitement of comic strips' youth.
There are other exceptions, but they remain exceptions rather than an identifiable genre of webcomics. As the medium develops, it's up to us, the creators, to build such genres. It's time to take some action.