Comic Book Curious


June 19, 2021

By Nate Lombardi & John Campbell  | 

One of the things that we are trying to do with this website is create an open space for hard-core nerds to dive deeper into human interest stories and for beginners like me to explore this culture. A big part of nerd culture is animation. This is a great place to start this type of dialogue. 

Cartoons... Either you get them or you don’t. I am going to talk about why I don’t get them, but not because I don’t think that they are awesome and valuable. I’ll be talking to John who’s someone that loves them in order to try to understand what is missing for me, and maybe he can open up my world a little bit… Or maybe not… But it will be an interesting dialogue and things will be learned  for sure.

How does one watch cartoons as an adult? So, like most Gen Xers I grew up loving Saturday morning and before school cartoons. They were awesome. If you woke up early enough you could go through a whole range of different types of shows from Gummy Bears and Care Bears to GoBots and Transformers... and then they would get even cooler towards the afternoon...  Dungeons & Dragons, Super Friends, WWE cartoons, He-Man, ThunderCats and G.I. Joe (which I wasn’t allowed to watch because of, well, “GUNS!”, -thanks hippy mom)  Anyway- all of these cartoons lit me up.

Multiple members of the G.I. Joes running, holding weapons

Now as a grown ass man I haven’t watched animated films or series. In fact I am one of those dudes who has been very dismissive of animation as an adult. I don’t know where the snobbery came from. Maybe because I was an immature young man for most of my life and I didn’t want that reflected in my entertainment? Maybe it’s because there’s so much magic in seeing good acting, and I love watching performances. Maybe it’s my ADHD?  After some thought I think it takes more “work” to watch a cartoon then watching a live action film or show? Hmm, am I getting deep here? That’s actually a good question and I’m proud of myself for asking it. Anyway, I just heard that Netflix is investing heavily in animation.  

Does Netflix want to beat Disney? Netflix doesn’t release ratings, so who knows, right? The questions for me are “What’s your problem dude? What’s the beef?” 

So WHAT IS my holdup?  I decided to watch a few series and movies. And I’m tapping into one of our nerd specialists on animated films to get the other side of the coin- so here we go… 

Nerd vs. Newbies Take One:

NATE: Invincible. So I guess the creator of Invincible is a huge deal. He created The Walking Dead which to those of you who don’t know, is one of the most successful comic books of all time. I saw a documentary that said this famous and talented dude grew up loving image comics from Todd McFarlane and was determined to get with Image, and he lied his way into production which is a really funny story that I’ll let someone better tell. Something about adding a part with aliens that he never did… John? 

JOHN: The creator you’re talking about is the legendary Robert Kirkman. No question The Walking Dead has made him one of the biggest names in comics. But yes, like you say he started out as a humble fan just like any of us. When he first pitched his beloved zombie series to Image Comics they were not so hot on the idea because there was already a plethora of zombie titles around. Kirkman said that he was planning a reveal that the zombies were actually aliens (something he had no intention of actually doing) but by the time the book was released it was a huge hit and a new zombie phenomenon was born. 

Robert Kirkman

NATE: So, I watched the first three episodes of Invincible and I have to admit I’m still on the fence. I’m not trying to be a jerk about it. I’m just sharing my journey. I am the kind of person who watches a lot of action movies and am well aware that they come in all different calibers. I am the dude who will turn off the movie within the first 10 minutes if the dialogue is crap or the direction seems stiff or sloppy. Mind you, I have NO film degree, I haven’t studied direction and I’m not a AFI film buff… but seriously…. “No one‘s got time for that!  Nothing personal, I know it takes millions of dollars of love and dedication to make anything so I don’t want to diss anybody that is actually doing the damn thing, because it is so hard.  So hats off to everyone that is a finisher. This leads me to animated comic book content. Let’s start with Invincible, the first episode I thought was OK. But again it’s hard for me to really fall for these characters because I thought to myself: Is the animation like this on purpose? They are able to do such incredible and detailed work now with UNITY and other 3-D softwares. Why did they choose to go old-school with the animation? Is that my hold up? Is it harder to write a script for cartoons?. Is that it? No, I say to myself, “South Park is awesome.” I love Pixar and Disney Animation films.  This old school animation demands so much from the actors. A human actor can literally show their whole world in their eyes with just one look, whether it be a blink, a half glance to the side or the corner of the mouth smirking. Does old school animation demand so much of the audience, writers, animators and voice actors?

JOHN: No question it is a huge demand on everyone involved. The actors are forced to portray everything you’re talking about with just their voice. Physicality, emotion, character moments, all you have is the sound coming out of your mouth. That takes an extreme amount of talent and training and not everyone is cut out for it even if you are an amazing actor otherwise. As for the animators, they have to draw this entire world, it’s not as easy as taking a camera outside and pointing it at buildings and streets that already exist. Everything you see on screen in Invincible was drawn by someone. Every building, street, vehicle, character, and background was rendered by someone. It’s a massively time consuming and intensive process that takes years and huge teams of people to complete. As for the hand-drawn 2D animation style, I think one of the reasons Invincible chose this is because it better reflects the art in the comic book they are adapting. They can actually make the pages of the book come alive on screen while maintaining the art style readers have grown to love. 

NATE: I did love the big ending of the first episode which was kind of cool and Game of Thrones like. I’m not going to spoil it because I want you to tell me as an audience what you think of it. I like how they had a big bang at the end. If I read the comic and knew more about the world and characters would I care more? We should talk about that.

Invincible with the supporting cast behind him

Credit: Skybound Entertainment

JOHN: One of the great things about Invincible is it is an extremely faithful adaptation of the comic book. That feeling you had when the twist happens at the end of episode one was exactly the same for me when I read it in the comic. I’m not sure you would care more, as much as you would enter the series already invested instead of taking the ride to come to love these characters and this world. Either way, we arrive at the same place as the audience just in separate mediums. If anything I envy your shock and surprise of seeing that ending because I already knew it was coming. 

NATE: This Comic Book Curious community is for beginners as well as hard-core fans. It brings us to a larger question of the actual experience of comic books. In my limited knowledge, comic books are a series of snapshots that force you to do work while reading. You fill in the battles and the action, play the voices, and create the music and sound effects in your head. Now that’s really amazing and imaginative, and I can’t for the life of me understand why people love doing that extra work. 

JOHN: One of the amazing things about reading a comic is it is a participatory experience. You have all the images and dialogue in front of you but you choose at what pace to consume them. It’s like you’re editing a movie, controlling the pace of the story. You also get to be a bit of a writer. The space between panels is called “the gutter” and this is where the creators of the comic ask the reader to use their imagination to figure how a character gets from one panel to another. Comics are ever engaging the mind as opposed to being a passive experience. 

A diagram explaining the various aspects of a comic book page. Gutters: The space between the panels of the comic. The gutter on this page is white.

A diagram explaining the various aspects of a comic book page.

NATE: Anyway back to Invincible, it’s a classic story about a late bloomer, a nice kid that 's just a little off. The cast around him is very diverse and he is in a cool 2021 setting of high school. No more white washing and phobia riddled stuff. Now that actually brings up a good question for you life long nerds: X-Men and other comics have been very diverse and inclusive since the 50s and 60s, right? So maybe it’s not that big a deal that his world is very diverse and rich. 

JOHN: You’re right that the Invincible series is very diverse, but that’s actually something that happened during the jump from comic book to TV show. In the comic, the vast majority of characters are white and the creators of the show looked to find ways to create more diversity without changing the thrust of the story. This is something a lot of modern comic book adaptations do. You have to keep in mind that a lot of these comic book characters were created in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, so we get a metric ton of straight, white, heterosexual, cisgender white men as heroes. Even something like X-Men that was created in the turbulent social change of the 60’s with incredibly progressive politics on its mind still featured an all white cast when it initially started. It wasn’t until the 70s that diversity started to creep into the book thanks to creators like Len Wein and Chris Claremont and even still it came in bits and pieces. Comics have not always had the greatest track record when it comes to diversity but it is a huge goal of modern creators to introduce more and more all the time. It’s given rise to hugely popular characters like Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, Harley Quinn, and Batwoman, just to name a few. 

NATE: So we can agree upon the fact that Invincible is formulaic, and that’s not a bad thing. This formula exists for a reason there are only 12 stories told in the history of humankind, and this is the hero’s journey. Invincible opens with a massive fight scene at the White House in a world where superheroes and supervillains are plentiful. The ones in this show are actually so super similar to DC superheroes that it was confusing to me. For more than a second I wondered how Darkwing, a Batman knock off, and the Red Speedster character were legally approved. Obviously they were because they are on TV, but I thought “dang.” 

JOHN: Invincible is playing on the public’s knowledge of superhero tropes. Similar to there only being 12 stories ever told, there are really only so many powers you can give a superhero. Kirkman is very consciously creating a mirror version of the Justice League because it's shorthand for the types of characters you’d see in a superhero team. The more familiar something starts out as, the easier it is to warp into something else as the story moves forward. 

NATE: Speaking of fight scenes. Things haven’t changed that much since I’ve been a kid with cartoon fight scenes. Because I’m an action movie enthusiast I recognized that the same type of fighting that I loved as an eight year old, I am not feeling now as someone who has watched The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or any major blockbuster action film in the last 10 years. Mission Impossible, Jason Statham movies, James Bond, Batman, all of these action scenes literally blow your socks off… well, not literally- that would be weird. 

Omni-Man catches a punch from Invincible with his hand

Credit: Amazon Prime Video

JOHN: At the end of the day there are just some things that live action can do that animation can’t and vice versa. Physics can be denied all day in animation, but that does disconnect you from the same feeling you get watching Matt Damon leap through a window or Tom Cruise hang off the side of a plane (though I think he might be a cartoon character that has crossed over into our world somehow). On the other hand, animation can bring a spectacle that live action isn’t capable of since you need to actually build sets, cast extras and employ special effects. The imagination in an animated show is limited only by what someone can draw and that’s near infinite. 

NATE: Anyway getting back to the Coming-of-age story. There’s a disconnected father, a mom that is trying to relate to her superhero son, a crush and a bullying situation. I thought it was kind of weird that these aliens would come in every couple minutes. They explained it well enough about their time continuum versus ours, it seemed a little bit too easy for me. But that was just my gut reaction and I don’t want to give too much more away about what happens to them and what happens in the story, but what I am trying to communicate is what it’s like for a non-cartoon fan adult to watch a cartoon and what goes through our heads (or at least in my head) because I am highly interested in this and motivated to watch these cartoons to feel this experience and study it. If I were not on this journey to connect nerdom and casual Avengers fans, I don’t think I would have the same type of patience or at least the desire to break down the psychology of it all, I would probably just turn it off and rewatch the Bourne series. 

JOHN: I think some of the plot convenience and pacing of events is not really a cartoon thing. It’s a TV pilot thing. There is a certain vibe to a pilot episode of a show, it has to lay the groundwork for the entire series. All the character dynamics and plot threads for the series have to be laid out in one episode. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for an hour of TV to do. So often scenes can feel like giant info dumps and it moves rather quickly. This is a necessary sacrifice so the rest of the show can cruise through the story at a normal pace. I do concur that the Bourne series rules though. 

NATE: So I am going to keep an open mind and see what happens. I saw a trailer for Castlevania and it looked awesome but I’m sure the same problems/questions will be there about acting, fight scenes, etc. Castlevania seemed tremendously creative and complex which is what I lean into with action movies. I love surprises and twists. I will continue watching Invincible so we can continue this conversation and I can grow and learn.  

Various characters from Castlevania

Credit: Netflix

JOHN: I’m glad to hear you are committed to continue wading into the animated world. There’s a lot of amazing stories being told there. Castlevania is a very unique and cool series full of fascinating characters and clever riffs on horror tropes. I would also point you to the superhero cartoons of the early 90s, in particular Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. These are shows with very complex plotting and deep character moments that were made for Saturday mornings but aimed at an adult audience. Maybe we can check in with your journey down the road sometime in another Nerd vs. Newbie article.

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