Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #8 by Drew Barth
The Royal Road of Comics
Last week was looking at the numbers and making some guesses about why some comics sell and potentially why others aren’t doing as well, but what makes those comics good? What makes them resonate with readers in such a way that they keep coming back, month after month, trade after trade, to see what’s going to happen?
There are reasons outside of the comic being good that keeps readers. Looking at what sold well last year shows characters like Batman, The Flash, Thanos, and Spider-Man selling well even if the stories aren’t the best. But what’s familiar still sells. Despite everything.
The nineties were a dark time for us all. But all of that isn’t to discount any of those characters, they still have wonderful stories connected to them that survive any and all retcons and reboots. What we want to look at more in-depth, though, is just what makes these stories good.
I’m borrowing from manga creator Hirohiko Araki when it comes to breaking down the main fundamentals of what makes a strong comic. In his book, Manga in Theory and Practice, Araki outlines what he refers to as “the royal road of manga” that consists of: characters, story, setting, and themes. The four principles are fairly straight-forward to the point where they can work in nearly any narrative medium. But what I wanted to do with those principles is to hold them up as a lens through which to look at some more of the items on that top-selling graphic novel list. We could see potentially why things sell so well due to market circumstances around them, but how do the principles of the “royal road” come more into play?
If we’re going to start anywhere, we’re starting at characters. And no other story works as well with characters as Paper Girls. The first and fourth volumes of this series ended up besting Batman and Watchmenlast year and it’s easy to see why. Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang created a group of four teenagers in the eighties delivering newspapers before the world basically ends around them. There’s time travel and tech wars. It’s fun. But at its heart are the four protagonists: Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany. The four of them together end up creating what’s akin to a perfect D&D party with lawful, law breaking, puzzling, and inquisitive characters that are dropped around the time stream and made to fend for themselves. Their four voices are distinct in a way that is both true to their time period and their ages and not a one sounds alike at any moment. You are reading about four people awash in dizzying adventure and it feels like wonderful genre-realism in each of their characters.
Story is the driving force of any comic. While a good character can help prop up a bad story, they can only go so far before it all collapses. When we go further down the list, we see a series that is defined both by its strong characters as well as an equally intriguing story into which those characters are dropped: Lumberjanes. Lumberjanes is a series about five friends in a summer camp for girls and summer doesn’t ever seem to end. The forest around them holds any number of magical and maniacal creatures and the counselors are tight-lipped on what happened in the camp’s past. It’s full-blown X-Files summer camp here and it’s some of the best comic storytelling I’ve seen since the series debuted in 2014. The fact that the first volume, from BOOM! Studios, is still selling this well is only a testament to the strength of its story.
Continuing down the royal road, we stop at setting and setting is something that, in comics, really is vital to how a story gets told. In Batman, we have Gotham City. In Star Wars, we have a galaxy. But in a series like The Wicked + The Divine, we have London. Just London. Although it’s London shaped by the existence of reincarnated gods that are, more or less, pop stars for two years until they die, but it’s still London. There’s only so much a city can change as a result of these reincarnated gods walking around, though. The real setting lies in the broader cultural contexts in which the world has changed. As these gods only reincarnate once a generation, a setting detail that’s brought up within the series is which generations deserve to have those gods? The last time the gods returned was in the 1920s, do they need to come back now? When so much of the story has to do with fandom and waiting, then it becomes vital that the gods exist in this specific moment. The world has created a culture around the gods returning and we see it constructed through the eyes of a fan. This isn’t a weird version of the world, it’s the one created for this specific purpose and it so perfectly balances the realism with the differences the story demands that it doesn’t even feel like an alternate world.
And the final stop on this royal road is theme and of course I’m going to talk about Saga here because I can’t stop talking about Saga. It’s because Saga has everything mentioned above and so much more. There is a reason it sells consistently well every year since its debut, that it out-sells most everything from DC and Marvel, that all nine volumes of the series are in the top thirty-five of this year’s best sellers list. Do you want to talk about loss? Got that. Grief and tragedy? In spades. How about redemption and unwavering morals in the face of horrendous death? Of course. But what Saga does so well compared to its fellows is how much these themes change and grow as the series progresses. Characters age and change as time goes on, but there’s always that thematic core of family and being together despite the universe ripping it all apart that it’s impossible not to be engrossed. It is Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughn’s masterpiece because it follows the ideas of the royal road so well. This is a series that bursts with imagination and humor and humanity at every opportunity. Saga begs to be read and its readers will beg non-readers to read it as well.
But there’s always more comics. There are graphic novels that don’t appear on the best selling list that likely do all of the above even better than anything I’ve talked about here. But that’s the fun with comics, like with all narrative mediums. The deep-dive to discover the new things that smack your brain around like a lemon-wrapped gold bar. There’s so much story out there to find and read still.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.