Last Saturday I was in my car late in the afternoon, heading into town to pick up my week’s comic stash from the ever lovely Destination Venus, and as I pointed the car in the right direction I was half listening to the radio. Well I was half listening until I realised they were talking about comics and the presenter said something along the lines of “but don’t you really find that comics don’t demand a real attention span?”
The critical tone in her voice made it reasonably clear that this was not a medium she held in any esteem, and I was disappointed to hear her guest, who it turns out was talking about the legendary British comics The Eagle, more or less agree*. And I’m sorry, but I can’t help thinking that to take such a view is to misunderstand (and indeed miss out on) the way that comics work.
Superficially of course comics don’t take much reading. Compare the number of words in your average floppy with the number of words in the amount of regular prose it would take to fill the same amount of page space, and you don’t need to be a skilled mathematician to figure out that just scanning the words in the latter is going to take more time. So yes. If you have a really short attention span, it is true to say that you’re more likely to get through a twenty two page comic than twenty two pages of Tolstoy.
But come on. We all know there is so much more to it than that, isn’t there?
I mean, there are comics that I’ve just read through and then dumped, but that has usually been because they were bad comics which weren’t worth my attention. If you’re a comics reader, you really don’t just read the words, do you? There are the pictures to be studied – they’re not just mere background, they’re every bit as integral to the story as a paragraph of descriptive prose would be in a George Elliot novel. It takes time to take them in – the impatient are missing half the show.
Of course, the impatient amongst you might well be thinking “hang on – I bet loads of people do just skim through the words and don’t bother with the pictures!” and you’re probably right. But then rather a lot of people skim read novels too, and nobody blames the medium for that**. Comics are, actually rather a demanding read in cognitive terms. They take up an awful lot of brain processing, using both sides of the brain at the same time – something that novels don’t actually do.
Besides, there’s more to attention span than just how long it takes you to read a particular section of text. One of the things I love about reading a good novel**** is that you can curl up for an afternoon and lose yourself in it for hours. You can’t do that with a comic, because it’s only twenty two pages long and however much you need to study the pictures you’re just not taking a whole afternoon.
But then, if you sit down with a novel you can read it at your own pace, and finish the story in one go if you really want to. With a comic, you get to one of the most exciting points of the story, and then you have to wait for at least a week, and more usually thirty days before you get to find out what happened next. Now that’s attention span!
I remember as a teenager reading epic stories in 2000AD that ran for nearly a year, and American comics storylines have been known to run for more than a year across several titles at once! That requires not just a strong attention span, but pretty damn impressive organisation skills too. The amount of information your average mainstream completist fanboy has to carry in their head is jaw dropping. There’s a measure of brain exercise involved in all that which quite simply dwarfs the intellectual effort involved in dealing with the plot of the most difficult novel.
Over the longer term, plots in comics can also be astonishingly complicated. War and Peace might well be a long novel, but it does have a clear beginning, middle and end. The story of Batman has been running since 1939, and shows no signs of stopping*****. And before you say it, yes, I know that we disregard the vast bulk of the narrative that has gone before – especially all the stuff with aliens and the future and stuff, but if anything that makes it even more complicated. I mean, OK we disregarding almost all of the stories that were written more than fifteen years ago or so, but yet some of them (Year One, Death in the Family, etc) have become absolutely crucial to the whole mythos of the character.
Keeping the current version of authorised continuity in your head, and placing the narrative you’re reading in the context of that continuity makes keeping track of Doctor Zhivago seem like following the plot of The Big Hungry Caterpillar. Comics require a limited attention span?
I think not.
*I regret I have no idea what show I was listening to, or why they were talking about The Eagle. It was just that one exchange that caught my ear, then I had to negotiate some idiot kids standing in the road, and by the time I’d avoided them the programme had moved on.
**This, of course is a familiar story, and one which might well give me a bit of a complex were it not for the fact that I’m prepared to accept that the vast majority of people aren’t worth bothering with***. Nobody dismisses film as a medium for idiots just because they’ve seen a Jim Carey film, and yet the fact that a lot of comics are for kids seems to indicate that all comics are. I can’t imagine why comics get singled out for such dismissal…
***Not you though, obviously. I like you…
****Well, for good, read enjoyable – the DaVinci Code would fall into this category, and in no way can that be classified as good.
*****Although of course the legend does now have a beginning and an end, starting with Miller’s Year One, and ending with his Dark Knight Returns. The less said about DK2 the better – if there ever was a book that didn’t need a sequel, it’s that one.