We need to find our own style.

Yep, you read right. Our local industry needs to find its own style? I don’t really think that’s the accurate word to describe the point I’m trying to convey but it’s my hope that by the time you finish reading this article, any misunderstanding with what the message being put across is alleviated.

In order to achieve this, I’m going to just compile some brief and quick analysis of the storytelling, art and release schedule techniques of 3 very successful comic industries overseas so as to help give a clear illustration as to what I mean when I saw we need to find our own voice.

This isn’t going to delve into the companies that produce these books, it’s a look at the themes and storytelling approach, production methods and attention to quality in terms of story, art and release schedules.

The first and probably most famous is the superhero centric American comic book industry. I feel that a discussion on this is wholly unnecessary because if you’re reading this, you probably got into comics because of superheroes. But for the sake of making my point, let’s pull a Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear and dive into the deep waters that is this market.

I categorize the American comic book industry into two main parts, namely the big two, marvel and dc, and a host of indie companies that produce creator owned titles (books where the creators own all the rights to the characters)  or comics for already existing Intellectual properties (IP’s) that are usually from a different medium.

Books are released on a monthly schedule with issue numbering to give a fair idea the length of the book run (some are released bi-weekly due to popularity) and consists of story-lines spread across several months. Some of these books have been going on for years and have along with the characters of the book have passed through various writers who have taken liberties (extreme in some cases) with the characters.

The same goes for artists who have always tried to also put a spin of some sort on famous characters, e.g. the way Todd McFarlane would draw Spider-man’s webbing. This creates a situation of inconsistencies and additions or “retcons” to character origins, achievements and power levels. Panel arrangements in American comics tend to range from simple panel placements

An example of a simple grid panel arrangement in invincible illustrating the hero spending the day with his daughter.

to more dynamic and exciting arrangements in order in order to properly convey the excitement, create a kind of cinematic feeling or to just creatively show what exactly is happening on the page.

A page from house of X showing an assassin taking out various targets from a single family. Instead of creating several panels the assassin and each kill, the artist just creatively has the assassin on one side with the panel arrangement following the direction of the sniper rifle to create emphasis on her mission of killing her targets.

The art, which ranges from realistic to stylized often relies on dynamic angles and often exaggerated poses and proportions in order to be visually appealing with stories being standard superhero fare with a shared universe, time travel stories, alternate universe stories, continuity reboots and all the standard stuff you’ll find in superhero comics.

This makes for fun, interesting and really good stories but it tends to make it very difficult for new comers to get into books, particularly the ones that have been around longer than they have. Decompressed storytelling is also a very common feature in the industry. Because of the “industrial line” nature of this industry, the overall quality in terms of story, art, release schedules and even the physical product tend to vary between excellent and poor.

Another industry I would like to briefly describe is the Japanese comic book industry or manga industry (before I get crucified by some weebs). This is also equally popular and I also feel discussing this industry is slightly unnecessary but again, for the sake of my point, it will briefly be talked about.

There are several companies that publish manga with the most popular one being Shōnen Jump, which is an anthology of manga stories by various creators releasing on a weekly schedule. Storytelling is heavily decompressed in this market with arcs being ridiculously stretched out in some cases.

Some of the series storylines are often collected into single books called Tankōbon. Stories tend to strongly rely on themes of friendship, honour, honesty, hard work, growth, love, loss, growing up and any other subject aimed at guiding and teaching growing youths how to become better people. The art tends to have varying degrees of the “Japanese drawing style” and the level of detail basically depends on the artist.

The focus on dynamism, fluidity and extreme perspective views in poses and movement (particularly during a fights) is very strong here and the artists utilize excessive amounts of motion lines and increasingly extreme angels in order to attain this. Perhaps this is as a result of the stories being published in black and white and so the artists have to skilfully craft the excitement they wish to convey with the page.

A page from the Kimetsu no Yaiba mange. Notice the use of several motion and action lines to convey a sense of constant motion in the fight.

The problem with this is that yes, the page is exciting to look at, but following the action is sometimes difficult and in some cases impossible. But to be honest, this is somewhat cancelled out by how cool the pages look. Panel arrangements tend to be the simple normal comic book arrangements and lacks the extremely flamboyant placements found in some panels in the American comic book industry but with the utilization of several splash

A page from the BLAME! Manga. This is the introduction of the Level 6 safeguard Sanakan. Notice the exaggerated perspective angle used to give her a more intimidating and menacing look.

pages in order to further create emphasis for certain aspects like character intros or awesome new techniques. Perhaps for me, the main advantage this industry has over their American counterparts is that there tends to be consistencies in power levels of characters as well as character traits and origins since the writing and art duties are in most cases carried out by the same creative. Also they have endings.

As in they end. As in the characters tend to achieve the goal they set out for when the story began. In terms of quality of the finished product, this the……cheapest of the three industries. The paper used here is often cheap and as such, can have upwards of 200 pages but at a very affordable price.

Finally we’re here, we’re about to talk about my favourite industry of the three, the Franco Belgian industry. Originating from France, these books are created initially for readers in France and Belgium.  

These books are usually referred to as Bande Dessinée (BD). Many people don’t really know how much this market has contributed to comic culture but just to give you a scale, titles that have come from this industry include The Adventures of Tintin, Asterix and The Smurfs. Stories in this market tend to be compressed as the books are usually meant to contain a whole storyline in the case of original stories or be divided into parts in the case of adaptations.

Even in character books like Tintin, a storyline is always in one complete book. The art ranges from realistic to caricature drawings but tend to maintain a certain level of quality not seen in the aforementioned markets. Book release schedules aren’t really in a monthly basis but rather the creators usually have ample time complete the story, enabling the art quality to remain consistent.

Due to this, a creator will probably release at most two books a year with over 100pages and high quality art. The panelling consists of simple, very clear and easy to follow arrangements with regards to storytelling. Clarity is more of the goal here so pages don’t rely too much on full page layouts unless it is absolutely necessary and the use of excessive dynamic movement, as well as motion lines is very limited.

A page from Elric, the Ruby Throne. This fight scene lasts for only this page is as you can see, is somewhat easy to follow and lacks the pizzazz of the American and Japanese comic industries.

This creates pages that are easy to follow but lack the excitement found in the American and Japanese industries. They however make up for this with incredibly well drawn and detailed art.

A double page spread a showing a sea battle. The angle is set to give the reader an idea of the scale of the battle and the environment. This is very common in this Industry’s books.

If I were to describe BD’s, I’d say they are boutique brand of comic books with most of the books being released in Hardcover with the highest quality in all areas of production. Art is top notch, writing is top notch even the paper the books are printed on as well as the way they are bound is top notch. Which for me is often surprising because most of their books, looking at the quality, aren’t that expensive.

Now that we have all that out of the way, on to why I first described these industries. One thing I’ve noticed is that most creators here craft their stories in one style or another. Some creators lean towards the American style whereas some lean towards the Japanese style. One could even make a joke that all creators here rely on the Franco-Belgian style looking at how infrequent the releases of some of these books are. Looking at the 3 industries that I have mentioned, and even from interactions with fans, you’ll realize at the core that what has made each of these industries successful is the basic traits that separate them.

This is not me trying to tell local creators to stop creating in the styles they like. In fact I personally feel that no one should dictate to anyone how to make comics. Majority of the people who get into comics do so out of passion for the medium and as such imposing “style rules” can be very counter-productive. People like American comics because of the superheroes, the varying art styles, the shared universes and the style of storytelling. People like manga because of the cool fights, cool abilities, the basic morals the stories aim to push, the flow of action on the pages and the extremely decompressed story arcs.

People like Bande Dessinée because of the quality art, quality and compressed storytelling, easy to follow action and prestige nature of the books themselves. Looking at this in relation to local creators, I think having an identifiable style in addition to excellent, honest, sincere and well-crafted storytelling will greatly help in putting them on the map. Many of those who make comics here, whether knowingly or not tend to either veer towards the American style of comics or the Japanese style of comics.

My main issue with this is that you are using styles that are already available to your market, by people who have been doing this for years, with titles that are worldwide phenomenon’s in their own right, and in such a case, you’re going to as I mentioned in my previous article, bring an above A-game just to get noticed.

In such a situation a style that can be identified as ours can really help in giving notice to local creators. It can be in the art style, the nature of storytelling or the way books are released. Hell, it can even be a combination of the creative paneling of American comics with the exciting and dynamic art of manga coupled with the tight and compressed storytelling nature of Bande Dessinée books. Anything is possible with the dearth of talent we have here and I hope eventually, one day there will books in a style that people see and identify as African.

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