Comics and Freedom Go Hand in Hand

imgres-1Maybe it’s the fact that it’s 4th of July weekend or perhaps simply that I heard Bobby McGee on the Starbucks sound system the other day when I was getting my daily java, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of freedom. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the idea of creative freedom as it relates to comics. As someone who spends time on creative pursuits as a career, I’m constantly faced with the reality that what I do (writing for TV) has a unique set of limitations, most of which limit if not stifle creativity. Sure, I can write a script about anything I want to, but the odds of seeing it ever come to fruition decrease the further I push a concept away from mainstream expectations. There are simply things you’re never going to see on television because it’s cost prohibitive for the companies making shows to experiment with the absurd, the offbeat and the over-the-top. Try pitching the idea of cop who is also a dragon to the networks and I can guarantee you’ll be met with blank stares. Comics as an art form are different. Comics offer freedom.

Comics as a visual storytelling platform offer creators the chance to tell stories about really anything they can conjure up. That’s unique. If you can visualize it and you have a pencil and a piece of paper, you can make comics. That’s all you need. You don’t need a crew of people or expensive equipment. You don’t need network approval of your ideas or suggestions from producers on how to make something more realistic or more “cost effective.” One need not spend a lot of time casting actors or exploring directorial options to bring a comic to life. Grandly ridiculous ideas can be brought to life with the stroke of the pen or pencil. Whether anyone sees said comic is another issue, of course, but if you can think it up, it can become a comic.

There’s a little shelf at my comic shop that’s dedicated to what are essentially handmade indie comics by local folks. Nowimages-1 I don’t know if those books sell at all. They probably don’t. They don’t look particularly flashy, nor do they have much going for them in the way of production value. Some are little more than barely bound books of drawn images. But I hold a special place in my heart for the books on that shelf. They represent people who took the time to put the visual stories in their heads onto paper. That’s a kind of creative freedom in action. And while maybe just two or three people will ever read them, there’s something to be said for an art form that puts all potential creators on such equal footing. You want to make comics? Do it. Have a strange idea about a strange guy who does strange things? Draw it up. That’s the beauty of comics.

There’s a part of me that’s excited about the fact that we’ll be seeing an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show in the near future. Any time comics make the transition to TV or film, I’m at least somewhat intrigued. But I’m also wary. Simply stated, an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comic can take the characters anywhere or make them face any sort of larger than life threat. Want to have our heroes face a villain on the moon? Not a problem in comics. The only limits are imagination. Unfortunately, the limitations inherent to TV production are numerous, so Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. will have to conform (give up its freedom, in essence) to fit the constraining parameters of a different medium. In this case, I suspect the show is going to be essentially a crime procedural that just happens to use Marvel characters. The final product may very well be a good one (Whedon’s track record is pretty darn solid), but if you think it’s going to be a “comic book come to life” experience, my sense is that you’re likely to be disappointed. The limitless medium that spawned Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. will take a backseat to a medium where the big ideas are likely to be met with talk of budget and scheduling concerns. Shooting for the moon isn’t likely to happen too often.

imgresI hear a lot of people talking about how the technology of moviemaking has finally reached a place where we can do comic book movies right. And I’d agree with that for the most part. Simply put, bringing to life the dynamism and inventiveness of comics was previously limited by cost and technology. And with computer-generated images, you can bring the grand imagination of comics to reality like never before. Spider-Man can swing freely through the streets of New York and it looks right. A very realistic Hulk can smash with abandon; no painted bodybuilder necessary. One only has to look back a couple of decades to previous comic book movie efforts (I’m thinking Howard the Duck and Corman’s Fantastic Four here) to realize we’ve come a long way. And yet with comics (and videogames) bringing our beloved comic books to life in ways we never thought possible, there’s still that pesky little issue of cost. Bringing Spidey to life in a realistic way ain’t cheap, people. I’d like to think it’s not true, but I still have the sneaking suspicion that for each and every tent-pole comic book movie being made, there’s a suited studio executive whose main job is to say “No, that’ll cost too much” or “That idea didn’t test well.”

People sometimes ask me: Why comics? And I’ve often found it hard to offer a coherent answer. Maybe it is that comics offer a special kind of freedom that affords the writer/creator a chance to dream big. But it’s also that the medium affords creators the ability to think smaller, too. Sure, comics are great when it comes to depicting a couple of dudes battling it out on the surface of the sun. But for the creator who wants to tell the story of a working stiff from Cleveland, the art form accommodates that pretty well too. Where should I take these characters today? Beyond the stars…or Cleveland? Now that’s creative freedom.

Gabe Roth is free to do what he wants any ol’ time. @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. Huh. You have a pretty straightforward premise, but I’d never thought of it quite in that way. Thanks.

  2. As a creator and as a fan, this — along with the space between the panels & everything that entails/implies — is why I love comics as a grown-up human being.

    Great sentiment & article, Gabe.

  3. I have a similar feeling about comics. When people ask me why I pretty much use DMZ as my go to example. That’s a story that is too expansive and deep to constitute a traditional move format, it’s too expensive to be an ongoing TV series and while it could be a written book the art that accompanies it make’s the product so much better. Comics can do things that most other mediums can’t and it is an appreciation of both visual art and written story telling. With that said I think we as comic fans can do a better job of supporting the more ambitious and creative titles out there to help the medium grow. I would say we’ve made a lot of advancements with the modern version of Image Comics but I think there is still a lot more we can do.

  4. At the shop I go to there’s a section like the one Gabe mentions in the article where the comics seem to be hand made and a totally independent creation. Its a nice thought to think someone or some people went to the trouble of making [this thing] on their own.

    I’m happy to see American Splendor get a mention here since the book is a perfect example of the freedom of creativity through comics.

  5. Superb article with a lot to ponder. I too have often considered comics the medium where not only are there no limits to what type of story you can tell, but you have more freedom to completely surprise your audience. You could start a story as a character drama, only to switch gears entirely and turn everything cosmic when the reader is least expecting it. You could never get away with that in a movie, as every trailer would need to be over-satiated with the CGI work, even if none of it occurred until the last third of the movie. Yes, I know there’s that whole advanced solicitations thing, but an obliquely written plot teaser can get around that problem. Either way, I agree that the creative process of comics is limited only by the imagination.

    Then again, so is prose, yet, the odds of being a successful novelist are more than ever stacked against me. I could write the perfect short story tomorrow (all I need is a pen and paper for that as well), but still need to find someone to publish it. Mention is made of homemade comics on the racks in stores, which is great, but does anyone buy them? We shiver at imagining the focus group process of green-lighting a superhero movie, but do Marvel or DC function much differently? When was the last time that Marvel launched a brand new character in their series without testing it out somewhere else first? I honestly can’t remember. They used to do it, think of Nova or Darkhawk. I believe this is one of the reasons readers are increasingly picking up Image and other indie books, that’s where new characters and concepts are emerging. That is where we can experience something new from the ground floor. I know that it is part of the attraction for me.

    So, yes, imagination is boundless, but, it also needs a way to find its audience as well.

  6. Good article, I’m working on an idea for an idie book right now. So far my 2 big concerns are copyright infirngment, and self publishing costs. Along the way there’s also research, time, art supplies, etc. It’s exciting in a way though. I can have laser eye focus and determination if something holds my interest enough.

    I think you should have mentioned animation though in the article. My older brothers criticize me for still watching cartoons (I’m in college right now) without ever asking why. 1) Cartoons are not exclusively for kids now (Archer, South Park, Bob’s Burgers) and 2) Animation is less limited to me. Live action, things have to look good and real; which is usually expensive. Cartoons, anything’s on the board pretty much because its all animated anyway, why would a 12 story monsters that breaths fire not look like it fits in a semi-realistic New York? I just like watching shows where they can do anything because they don’t have to worry about the budget for explosions, lighting, building a set. Not to mention a ton of great comic-tv adaptations have been cartoons (recently its hard to list as many as waht’s in the past).

    But comics are different from cartoons, it that a comic won’t get canceled for not selling enough toys, or not pumping enough commercials into our eyeballs. Guess thats one of the edges comics have over cartoons.

  7. Great article. I agree with everything you said. It seems like any time I hear a truly original story idea, it is something moving out in a comic.

    Also, now I really want to see a show about a cop who is also a dragon.