Recently, one of the elementary school kids that I teach found out that I “drew comics” after she mentioned that she wanted to be an artist. What intrigued me (besides a 10 year old girl’s exuberance that drawing comics was “cool”) was her first response: “Have you made up any characters?”
Its rather striking that the defining feature of comics to kids is characters, as opposed to say, drawing one’s own book or writing a story. Though, this shouldn’t be too strange, since much of the industry of comics is permeated by a recurring theme of characters – in strips, in books, etc. Unlike stories, characters provide a foundation for merchandising, which is where the real money is. Marvel’s website directly totes them as “one of the world’s most prominent character-based entertainment companies.”
Characters versus story also becomes one of the defining differences, I think, between “comics” and “graphic novels.” As a form of literature, graphic novels are more plot/story based in contrast to the characters of comics. This difference underscores the business side of things too. Whereas publishers put out stories by authors, companies put out characters as corporate properties.
While these characters may undergo storylines, the characters are always the primary draw. No one reads X-Men or Batman because the character-titled books have a specific story that someone finds appealing. Rather, they read the books continuously because they like the characters, and seeing what various “creative teams” subject them to. And this is never ending, so the product can be pushed endlessly.
In contrast, the characters in graphic novels take a backseat to the stories. They exist solely as pieces in the greater whole of the conveyed narrative. And, it’s a narrative that will have a conclusion at some point.
The web scene seems to balance both of these. Strips by and large remain character driven, while experimental and “artsy” graphic novel-esque works (like Derek Kirk Kim) remain story driven.
Japan meanwhile seems to have the best of both worlds. While they do feature very strong (and marketable) characters, there is almost always a specific story path that they traverse. No matter how much of a character oriented juggernaut Pokémon is, the outline of a story dominates those characters. The characters exist because of the story and don’t stray from its constraints.
This is different from say, X-Men, which merely creates a premise for having characters. The X-Men aren’t moving along some grand storyline, they just interact based on a theme that “mutants exist in the world as a superpowered minority” (and can thereby also cameo in other off-theme books).
Personally, I’d think that this can be added to the list of reasons why manga have seen success in recent years amongst American audiences. Its easier to get readers hooked onto good stories with interesting characters than by character driven soap operas where the plot is auxiliary.