Recently comic book artist Sean Gordon Murphy (Chrononauts; Punk Rock Jesus) tweeted a simple, yet thought-provoking question, “Do you need to read comics consistently to be good at creating them?”
Although the results were close, of the 331 responses, the majority of voters veered to “No.” This surprised me as my gut instinct was to hit the “Yes” button. But I couldn’t. I froze because I struggled to come up with a strong argument in favour of reading comics consistently.
In the discussion, some of the arguments for not reading comics consistently were that you have fresher ideas when you are not over-saturated in comic books and that inspiration should come from other mediums. The “No” camp also argue that the vast amount of your previously read comic books should have taught you everything you need to know.
I always encourage people to look outside of their medium for inspiration (that is, after all, the driving force behind the Illustrator’s Lounge) but the question is not if we should look outside of comic books for inspiration: of course we should. The question is can reading comics consistently, make you a better artist? Well, now that my head has caught up with my gut, I say “Yes!”
Firstly for the sake of clarity, let’s define “consistently” as always having a comic book (or graphic novel) on the go. Sitting down and reading, at least, weekly.
I started collecting comics seriously at around 11-years-old, buying roughly six single titles every two weeks. By 17-years-old, I slowed down buying singles and started to buy more trades. That was until recently when a wave of talent and new titles enticed me back into singles. I have read easily an excess of a thousand comics, and I’m sure there are others who are much more prolific readers than I.
The idea that having a history of comic book reading in your toolbox means you don’t have to keep reading them is naive. Our tastes and opinions are in a constant state of change. No matter how wonderful or awful something was, I guarantee if you read it again you will look at it from a different perspective and get something new from it. By not consistently reading comic books you are limiting your opportunities to challenge your current perspective.
Just like any industry, the majority of comic books published each year are throwaway. So of the thousands of comic books you have read, it is likely only a handful of them really had an affect on you. There is definitely an argument for reading bad work; you quickly discover what not to do. But, without a doubt, you gain more from exposing yourself to good work.
The medium of comics had a shaky start (to say the least), but throughout the years, pioneering artists have developed a solid foundation. By slowly building rules they have enhanced the storytelling experience. Rules you simply cannot understand without immersing yourself in comics. They are constantly evolving and being challenged.
Artist including Chris Ware (Building Stories; Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth), Dave McKean (Arkham Asylum; Mr. Punch), and David Aja (Hawkeye) are pushing the boundaries of comics.
The comic book medium is unique, with theories unto itself. Many of which are not interchangeable with other mediums. It’s easy to see the influence of other mediums on comic artists such as Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns; Sin City) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy), who took the strong contrast and heavy shadows of Film Noir to inform their work. But films did not teach either of them how to position panels, word balloons nor captions. Artists should use other mediums as influences only, and not as a justification to set comics aside. Reading comics will not make you a good filmmaker; just as watching films will not make you a good comic artist.
With the last few years a welcome wave of talent breathing new life into the industry and producing exciting work, rules are being re-written. If you’re not consistently reading you’re missing out on Chris Samnee (Daredevil), Francesco Francavilla (Afterlife with Archie; The Black Beetle), and Phil Noto (Black Widow). These artists (and many, many others) are proudly inspired by the comics that came before them, aware of their past failings, and mindful of today’s readers.
Without consistently reading comics, new and back issues, you limit your exposure to what others in the industry are doing and have done. You cannot hope that tools you picked up in the past stay sharp. Comic books are an evolving medium and their audience with it. As an artist you need to know the history of comics and keep an eye on its future, otherwise you’re destined to get rusty.