By Matt Hume, October 3 2017 —
Superheroes are often the first thing that come to mind when people think about comic books. Rightfully so, considering the first popular comic book character was Superman in 1938 and Marvel and DC currently hold over 50 per cent of the comic book market share in North America. But since comic books have been a popular medium for over half a century, they have greater value than scripting the next blockbuster.
Comic books are a valuable medium for short stories. Local writer Rob Gruszecki recognizes the unique storytelling ability that comic books have to offer — a necessity for his new mini-series, Stan.
“Stan is a mini-series that I’ve written and that my sister-in-law Nicole is illustrating. It’s basically a story about job satisfaction and about a small voice amounting to something of value,” he says. “[It’s about the] anxiety and angst that comes with a career and it just happens to take place in the seventh layer of Hell.”
Gruszecki’s titular character is a janitor on the “Hell floor” of a corporate imagining of the afterlife. Among other janitorial duties, he is tasked with cleaning windows and picking up garbage in Hell’s torture chambers — the worst job in the world.
Gruszecki takes inspiration from the widely relatable struggle of supporting a life in the arts.
“When you’re trying to aspire to be someone who works in the arts, whether it be playing music or writing comics or writing stories or whatever, the only way to really achieve that is to have a day job,” Gruszecki says. “So, I decided to write a story about someone who wants to do something different but is stuck.”
Two issues of Stan are currently available with four more planned. Gruszecki says that the story needs to be contained within these six issues because it builds to a planned ending. He adds that comic books are the ideal platform to tell stories in a concise and meaningful way.
“Comics are also able to deliver the short story narrative. What I mean by that is if you have a novel, you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of pages and dozens of hours to consume this one story because of the amount of development,” he says. “A comic book is really brilliant at being able to convey a short story in a very concise way. There’s an aspect of dialogue and of character that I think are better expressed for this story, or for many stories, in comic book form than they could be in any other medium.”
To express this idea more clearly, Gruszecki uses the touchstone of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen.
“[Watchmen] is the beginning and the end of what comic books are capable of doing. So here is this final exam, this brilliant work of art that can only exist in comics. Any other format and it gets diluted,” Gruszecki says.
Gruszecki believes this was best expressed by one of his favourite comic writers, Ed Brubaker.
“When you read comic balloons out loud — and this is all Ed Brubaker talking — when you read the sentences that superheroes are saying out loud, you sound like a maniac because people don’t talk like that,” he says. “The reason for that is it’s this beautiful, subtle artistry that a lot of writers use in comics where you have to really condense everything that you’re saying.”
Dialogue in comic books needs to be concise in order to maintain the visual aspect of the medium. Gruszecki compares the comic writer to a screenwriter and the artist to a director.
“If you have a word balloon, that’s something that gets added in post and slapped onto the front of a panel. It interrupts the director’s vision,” he says. “You don’t want to interrupt the director’s vision, so what you have to say and what every character has to say is exactly what they need to in the limited amount of space that they have.”
Despite the limitations of dialogue granted by a visual medium, Gruszecki maintains that comic books have the same artistery as a short story. He uses Stephen King and Harlan Ellison as different ends of the spectrum.
“One of my favorite books of all time is IT. That’s a huge book. It’s gigantic. Ellison takes the ideas that are conveyed in IT in all of his short stories and is able to turn that into 20 pages and go, ‘That’s that,’ ” Gruszecki says. “This is an entire world and here are a bunch of characters. They exist, they’re perfectly realized, vibrant, memorable, beautiful in their own construction and here it is in 20 pages.”
For Gruszecki, the ability to tell a brief story while maintaining a powerful narrative is what makes comic books magical.
“There’s a lost art to a short story and I think a lot of comic books capture that,” Gruszecki says.
Stan is available at Alpha Comics in Calgary and brokenkeycomics.com.