Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Emo Narrative Captions: The Second Deadly Sin of Modern Comics

The Trend: The comic is told by caption boxes containing the protagonist's thoughts. These are not inherently better or worse than most storytelling tools, but the trend refers to when the captions have the character going into long internal monologues about their personal problems, talking about their tragic past/present relationship problems/fears about the future/whathaveyou in very elaborate prose. It's bad when it sounds so melodramatic and over-the-top it could have come from a high school English class, it's worse when these caption boxes are used so often that they crowd out the art in the panels, and it's worst when the information in the captions is something we could have easily figured out on our own ( like a character being punched in the face, grimacing, then having the narrative caption, " This punch to the face hurts worse than when my uncle used to beat me! " ).

The Culprits: Pretty much any solo superhero comic will do this to some extent, so I'll list the most egregious examples from the past ten years;

-- Geoff Johns' Green Lantern ( see above cartoon )
-- J. Michael Stracynski's Spider-Man ( especially the purple prose in the 9/11 tribute issue )
--Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman ( for a particularly homo-erotic example, Clark and Bruce talking about how awesome the other is )
--Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America ( similar to Superman/Batman, except pulled across the entire ensemble cast, with each character getting their own narrative caption color )
--Chuck Austen's Uncanny X-Men ( Particularly the issues with Nightcrawler's thoughts on religion; " More people die of religion than cancer. And we try to cure cancer. " )

The Problem: In previous years, comics used thought balloons in the same excess, having the characters go on endless internal soliloquies. With thought balloons, anyone could go off on a long whine to themselves ( and to a lesser and more unfortunate extent, the audience ), even characters less important to the main plot. The gradual shift over to narrative captions over thought balloons seems to have been motivated by a need to focus the narration more by only giving us one character's thoughts. However, this didn't do anything to help or hurt the contents of the character's thoughts. A good writer would still give characters good internal dialogue, and a less-good writer would give them the same whiny, drawn-out nonsense. The fact that the thoughts were restricted to one or even a few characters only served to exacerbate the feeling that the heroes are gazing longingly into their own navels, making whatever problems they face irritating and contrived instead of dramatic and sympathetic. Horse carcass, meet spiked club, repeat.

( And for the sake of fairness, I should note that I've been guilty of this too.Since then, I've tried to ease up on internal narrations. )

The Solution: Don't make the contents narrative boxes so literal. The problem that thought balloons were accused of was that they didn't sound like something a person would actually think during a tense moment-- writers like Chris Claremont had a tendency to use them for obvious plot purposes, like telling us about a bit of character backstory informing the current scene, or giving us characterization in a very artificial context that treated it like an essay requirement ( " You have to tell us how Nightcrawler feels about this! " ). The latter can be communicated much more eloquently by the way the artist draws the character's facial expressions, and the former is rendered moot by recap pages. Instead, we should see things in the character's head that give us information we don't know. Just read any Ed Brubaker comic with a first person narrator*-- his characters only sound completely articulate and intentionally poignant when they're actually in a scene where they're alone with their thoughts. In the midst of an action scene, their thoughts will sound choppy and incoherent as befitting of someone busy, y'know, trying not to die.

Alternately, a simple framing device can do wonders to make melodramatic writing work. As obnoxious as Hal Jordan's green-boxed whining can get, his narrative in Secret Origin was much easier to tolerate, because he was recounting events from the past and talking about how he felt THEN. Grant Morrison gave us Xorn's narrative in an issue of X-Men as a letter to Professor X, which was pretty good then, but was later elevated to brilliant when we learned that Xorn was Magneto in disguise all along**. And one of Neil Gaiman's Death stories ( " The High Cost of Living " ) used internal narration to express what good writers tend to avoid-- that the character was LITERALLY a whiny, navel-gazing teenager with no serious problems.

And then there's Alan Moore, who does write caption boxes full of purple prose, but gets away with it because he's Alan Moore and he's that damned good. But unless you are Alan Moore, it's best to err on the side of caution.

* I'd recommend his and artist Sean Phillips' Sleeper for a particularly good example of this.
** I'm not going any further than that. You can't make me.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Temporary Deaths: The First Deadly Sin of Modern Comics

( The first part of a seven-part series examining cliches of the last decade of American comics. Illustrations are all by yours truly. )

The Trend: A major superhero is killed off in front of the audience. The truth, however, is that they didn't actually die, and will later come back in some really contrived supernatural manner-- writers have stopped pretending that dead means dead, and will kill off a character to do stories about their absence. But the cast all believes the hero is dead, so we're subjected to long, often angsty mourning scenes before they return.

The Culprits: Batman ( Batman RIP and Final Crisis ), Captain America ( Captain America: Reborn ), an arseload of DC heroes in Blackest Night ( such as Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and others who will be starring in Brightest Day ), Hawkeye ( twice in Bendis' run on Avengers ), Phoenix ( Planet X and Phoenix: Endsong ), Thor ( Thor Disassembled, though that was a case of taking the Odinson off the board until they got a creative team with a good hook for him ). The ur-example is, of course, Superman's Death in the 1990's.

The Problem: Reading superhero comics, we already have to suspend a lot of disbelief. And this isn't even counting the ability to accept a world full of gods, aliens, robots, demons, and other polygenre supernaturals. Unless you're reading a creator-owned superhero comic like Dynamo 5 or Invincible ( both of which I strongly recommend, BTW ), you're dealing with characters who are frozen in place in the interests of the franchise. Peter Parker is never going to see his thirtieth birthday, Tony Stark's origin story is going to be retconned to take place in wherever America last fought an unpopular war*, and no super-battle is going to end with the hero getting capped in the head and stuffed in a box. This isn't to say that franchise superheroes are inherently stifling to innovation, just that there are restraints that writers have to work around creatively.

Having a character get killed off with no intention of having them stay dead isn't working around the restraints, it's calling attention to them. It's reminding us that nothing that happens has consequence because everything gets reset, and in doing so, it makes the stories told during the hero's dirt cat-nap seem like a waste of time.

Take the death of Captain America. If I were to actually believe that Steve Rogers could stay dead, I would absolutely love Brubaker's stories since, because Bucky Barnes is a more interesting Captain than his Patriotic Super-Jesus predecessor. But when you stop treating these as a coming of age story about Bucky overcoming his trauma to take up his brother-in-arms' duties, and realize that said brother-in-arms was just sent off on a really contrived Groundhog D-Day scenario, it becomes less engaging because it's just Bucky as the substitute. Even though I love Ed Brubaker's writing and appreciate him keeping Bucky around as Cap, I just know that when Steve Rogers said he wanted Bucky to stay as Cap or else he'd die, that Steve was breaking the fourth wall. The whole exercise was enjoyable, but it required a lot of disbelief to be actively suspended.

Worse than that is the current situation with Batman, which follows a very similar structure, but is even more ridiculous and difficult to accept. The fact that we learn from the start that Bruce isn't dead makes it seem like all the heroes mourning him are fools, since they live in the DC Universe and are even more familiar than us with means to bring a character killed by unusual means back. And unlike with Steve and Bucky, Dick Grayson is not a more interesting character than Bruce Wayne-- he's had his sidekick inferiority complex for many moons now, and the fact that he's actually been forced to replace his mentor makes the whining super-obnoxious ( though to at least Grant Morrison's credit, the whining's been abbreviated in the main book ). We know that Dick isn't going to get the chance to step up and become the Batman, so as entertaining as the stories are, it's hard to ignore the fact that they're killing time until the main event of Bruce's return. Again, if I believed that Dick would stay as Batman ( and since Batman is a character who exists across so many different media and adaptations, it'd be easy for DC to do alt-continuity stories with the original Caped Crusader while allowing DickBat to continue and develop ), I might not have this problem.

I'm not even going to approach the blanket resurrection of Blackest Night, since I haven't actually read the final issue, but I stopped reading that series early because calling textual attention to the endless cycles of death and resurrection on superhero comics didn't make them any easier to tolerate.

The Solution: Find more unique means to take a major player off the board, ones that don't involve rigor mortis. Tony Stark has been removed from the Marvel Universe three times without killing him; once in a drinking binge, again when dying of nerve damage and faking his death to undergo surgery, and most recently when he became a fugitive bent on destroying the data in his brain. When Chris Claremont wanted to shake up the X-Men way back inthe Mutant Massacre, he didn't kill Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Shadowcat-- he just sidelined them with serious injuries, severe enough to take them off the team and shake the X-Men's confidence, but certainly not a death sentence. And Professor Xavier is the undisputed master of finding ways to disappear when a writer feels like the X-Men don't need adult supervision ( he was stranded in space during the Mutant Massacre, for example ).

With these solutions, you can do stories about a major character's absence without needing a super-silly resurrection story.