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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.


  1. Well, JMS - it's hardly surprising from the writer of Babylon 5. Don't get me wrong, I love B5 - but the man has a mouth full of cliches. He's gonna translate that to boxes full of cliches in Spidey. One comic where I really enjoyed the use of caption boxes was the Faith comics in Buffy S8, where she was quoting from Dr Seuss's 'Oh the places you'll go!' as she kicks the asses of various demons. I thought it was a neat use of the caption box, nice juxtaposition of the children's story and the violence, and just loved it coz it's my favourite Dr Seuss story.
    Once again, nice cartoon.

  2. I think you skipped a big one on your list of culprits: Bendis' early work on Ultimate Spider-Man was the first time I'd seen the technique used so extensively, and it's on full-tilt through the first several volumes of that title. It got better over time, but I think his use of it there predates the others on your list. (And early Ultimate Peter was nothing if not emo.)

  3. Overall I agree with your points. That said, I do greatly prefer narrative captions to thought balloons, that shift is one of the better things to come out of the past decade or so of comics. As you pointed out, thoughts just sound a lot more realistic in narrative context, and thought balloons tended to crowd out art much worse than caption boxes do, especially when we were shown the mundane and often pointless thoughts of every single character on screen.

    But I have to take issue with any aspect of the "Xorn was Magneto all along!" twist being referred to as brilliant.

  4. Mand01-- Agree about the use of captioning effectively in BKV's Buffy comics. I also remember a scene in Season Eight's very first issue, where Joss had Buffy whining in inner monologue by herself for less than a page, then had her realize she was just being self-pitying and stop. As much as I don't like post-S6 Military Buffy, I did appreciate that scene.

    E.-- I was tempted to use Bendis' early Ultimate Spider-Man, but since he was writing a 15-year-old social outcast who'd just gained powers and lost his father figure in about a week, I was willing to accept it. Also, Bendis' distinctly conversational dialogue makes even his whining characters sound like they're thinking what a human being ( even an emo one ) would actually think.

    Anonymous-- Pick your poison :)

  5. I think the good thing about Buffy is they recognize genre conventions and use them to turn them on their head - it is after all the reason Buffy exists in the first place. So it stands to reason they would do that when they moved to comics.