On detective stories in comics

Marionette, insightful as always, recently touched on something that is near and dear to me — story quality in comics, detective stories in particular.

“[..] what we find here are stories that are dull to look at, feature a succession of drab, forgetable villains, and the “detective” elements are either so supremely obvious it hardly counts as detection to spot them or so ridiculously convoluted that it’s hard to believe anyone would have either got them or set them up in the first place.”

I love good mysteries and detective stories. I’m the type of guy that figured out Sixth Sense and The Village before the half-way marks, and ruins episodes of Monk and Psych. But I hate, hate, hate detective stories in comics for the same reason I hate CSI: the absurd amounts of inane exposition.

Comic books are horrible media for exposition. If you want the art to play second fiddle to the story, why are you bothering with comics? Alice in Wonderland makes for beatiful imagery which would look great in comic form, but even 100 years ago Lewis Carroll knew that what really made it a great story was the exposition. So, it’s a picture book instead. I love Alan Moore, but he could learn a lot from Carroll. (Um, Promethea, anyone?)

I am not saying that all comics should be Superman-esque in their simplistic dialogue, and wow does that particular comic have some really horrific dialogue, just that some types of stories don’t work well in comic form. As much as many people hated the Grant Morrison run on JLA, I thought it was excellently written. Sharp, witty dialogue, but without a swamp-slogging level of exposition.

I don’t claim to be Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle, but it seems to me that a good detective story is less about the prattling on and more about the paying attention to detail, and the journey taken. Rambling on because your plot is incoherent and it’s the only way to tie everything together is the absolute wrong way to write a good detective story or mystery.

I’ve seen a few really great detective stories in Batman, but the vast majority of the intentional “we’re going to write a detective story” stories in Batman have been novellas squeezed into comic form. They just don’t work. They might work as novellas, but they don’t work as comics.

If I want to read and peruse a detective story, I’ll go buy a book, not a comic.

Published by

Rick Osborne

I am a web geek who has been doing this sort of thing entirely too long. I rant, I muse, I whine. That is, I am not at all atypical for my breed.