You may not hear anything out of me for the next couple of days as I grapple with a book introduction and a panel proposal, not to mention the resumption of classes after a luxuriously schedule-free spring break. In the meanwhile, my friend Chris Maka has sent me a thought-provoking post that he has graciously allowed me to share, in part, with you.
Chris talks about erroneous but faddish and widespread conventional wisdom - what he calls "pseudo-memes" - in comics and comics fandom:
Some that immediately spring to mind are "superheroes are dead/meaningless" (in the wake of Watchmen), "only someone who had severe emotional/sexual problems would really become a superhero" (in the wake of Watchmen), "Superman and Batman would never really be friends" (in the wake of DKR), and my all-time least favorite, "thought balloons and narrative captions are juvenile comic book writing techniques and comics have grown past the need for them" (in the wake of numerous Frank Miller interviews).
That last one is a huge pet peeve of mine, and unfortunately, one that seems to have gone nearly unchallenged in recent years. The lack of thought balloons and narrative captions in recent comics that I’ve flipped through or read in TPB format is staggering. I think you can tell sophisticated comics of a certain style without them, but I also think that you can tell sophisticated comics while using them. Unfortunately, I also think it’s true that they can become a crutch. It’s not completely unfair that those two techniques are associated with juvenile 50s/60s style comics or the overwrought soap opera of Claremont and his imitators.
But I can’t imagine writing a good ol’ fashioned Lee/Kirby-style Fantastic Four story without using them. I can’t imagine using Miller’s detective noir style (which is what the first-person caption boxes invariably read like to me) or just dialogue. I mean, I could see doing that for effect for an issue here or there, but I couldn’t imagine doing a Galactus story that way.
But I can!
"The dame walked into my office wearing a skintight blue catsuit and gams that just wouldn't quit. She had long blonde hair and an ice-queen complexion but the frost melted the second she hit me with her megawatt smile. Or at least, it might have. I couldn't tell on account of she was invisible.
"She threw herself across my desk and pleaded for me not to send the report back to my client. Hit me with the usual tearful-wife routine, but I'd done more than catch her playing hide-the-minnow with some lost prince of Atlantis. My pictures said it all: the surging oceans, the lava flows, the biosphere teeming with life - pretty sexy stuff. It was going back to the client and there was nothing she could say to stop me. I'm not proud of my job, but when a man takes a case he's supposed to finish it.
"My name's Surfer. I pimp worlds."
I also think that this aversion to thought balloons and third-person narrative captions [...] is also somehow related to the trend that has developed of padding everything out a la Bendis. It takes so much more space to play some of these scenes or series of scenes out than to just use some narrative caption shorthand to get to the good stuff.
I have little left to do but nod my head in agreement; I particularly like the idea that the lack of captions has contributed to decompression. There are certainly other motivating factors, like the companies' desire to pad every story, no matter how slim, into a six-part trade paperback, or the incentive for creators to get paid for more work by taking on more comics and writing them all in about twenty minutes each. (Of course, Kirby reportedly did the same thing - hence all those splashes and double-page spreads starting in the late 60s - but I think we can all agree that Bendis and Warren Ellis ain't Kirby.) But he's right, if you take away the ability to narrate events because it's not "mature" enough, all you have left is a much slower process of dramatization.
I also miss those narrative captions - at least, the well-done ones. Alan Moore might have made captions unnecessary in V for Vendetta, but just imagine Swamp Thing without his revolutionary narration. Sometimes it is first-person, as with Jason Woodrue's beautifully cold-blooded commentary in "The Anatomy Lesson." Sometimes it's focalized through a particular chararcter, like Abby, but still third-person. But often it's bodiless and completely omniscient, like the sinister narration that accompanies Jason Blood's arrival in Houma, or those few captions that utterly reenvision the Justice League, or the passage that ends with the Burma Shave sign. The third-person voice often gives Moore's narration a clinical detachment that makes the horror stand out even more.
Of course, it's easy to say that narrative captions work when you're using Alan Moore as an example, or even Stan Lee or Chris Claremont. Cliched as all three of those voices became, at least each one had a distinctive voice that improved their comics. Most comics writers today (or in any day) probably can't approach that level of polish, but ruling out captions entirely only robs talented creators of yet another storytelling technique.