Since the beginning of recorded history, people have had some form of illustrated stories, whether they were carved in stone by hand or printed on paper by a machine. While the essence hasn’t changed (still words and pictures) the technology used to create them has and this has brought about changes in the stories themselves. One of the best examples comes from the early twentieth century: Pulps vs. Comic Books.
Pulp Fiction refers to inexpensive magazines and books printed on cheap paper called pulp (hence the name) from 1896 thru the 1950s with their popularity (and sales) peaking in the1930s. They cost a dime (and are sometimes referred to as dime novels) and featured an exciting, full color cover, a quickly written story, and a few black and white illustrations. They were wildly popular and sold well even during the depression. Characters included Tarzan, Zorro, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider, Fu Manchu, and many others. They covered every genre from adventure to science fiction, action, romance, weird tales, exotic travels, and spicy fun.
Comic books began in the 1930s as reprints of the Sunday color comics section printed on cheap newsprint at a quarter the newspaper size. They quickly introduced new materials and a new genre: the superhero (who was originally called a costumed character or costumed hero) and included Superman, the Bat-man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel. They usually included several stories with each lasting anywhere from one page to 8 pages and sold for a dime.
These two forms shared a lot during the 1930s and 40s. Both were on cheap paper. Both sold for the same price on the same newsstands. Many of the same people were involved in both pulps and comics. Both used words and pictures to tell stories of adventure, action, romance, terror, heroism, vigilantism, and salaciousness. But technology changed the possibilities of form and, as an unforeseen result, the content of the stories.
When pulps started in the late 1900s, color illustrations were difficult and expensive to print. So the pulps were mostly text with a great cover and a few poorly reproduced black & white line drawings. The stories were novel length and featured characters with simple garbs. But by the late 1930s, color illustrations were commercially viable, so comics could be full color with more picture than words. This meant the simple trench coat of the Shadow or the bronze skin of Doc Savage wasn’t enough for pictures. Comic heroes needed bright costumes and colorful foes. Because the stories contained so much illustration, the stories become much shorter and much simpler with several in each issue.
A paradigm example is the comparison of the Doc Savage pulps of the 30s (one of the most popular and successful series) with the Doc Savage comic of the 40s. In the pulps he was strong, smart, and wore regular clothes and traveled in planes and boats. In the comics, he gained a costume and super powers and basically became a completely different character.
Technology also produced another unexpected result: the death of pulps. The four-color adventures proved too exciting for the text heavy pulps to compete with. When readers were faced with a choice between 64 full color pages of costumed clad heroes or 80+ pages of black and white text both for a dime, they chose the one more visually exciting.
You may be wondering what a 60-year-old example has to do with us today. Ah, here’s where the big question comes in. How will technology shape illustrated stories today? The eBook revolution (sorry big publishers, there is a revolution going on whether you like it or not) provides new opportunities and new limitations for stories. Here are just a few:
- Cost & Length – To make selling a story worthwhile (and to make the binding practical) stories have to be at least certain length, but can’t go over a certain length. Digital files don’t have this limitation. An author can sell a one-page story or a 4-million-page story. The usual limitations don’t apply. This opens up new possibilities for new forms. It also may be the salvation of comic books, which are pricing themselves out of existence due to high printing costs.
- Layout – eReaders offer flexible layouts and font sizes, which means you can’t guarantee how a page will display. The picture may be on its own screen, or you may have a two page layout showing several pictures and a healthy chunk of text. The play between images and pictures needs to be simpler and more flexible.
- Size – Comic books have had a hard time going digital, because the text is hard to read on a small screen. Many solutions have been tried such as breaking it into individual panels (which gives you odd shaped pages and loses the effect of one panel interacting with another) to cropping the page to just the essential elements (robbing you of beautiful artwork). In the 80s it was common for toys to include mini-comics. These mini-comics were meant for a small page and work well on eReaders and other small screens if only comic book producers could break from their current template.
Of course, eReaders and eBooks are new, so we have yet to see the real possibilities this new technology will open up and the effect it will have on illustrated stories. I, for one, am excited to see what will develop.
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