I saw a movie the other week that intrigued me enough to want to pick up the book upon which it was based. (The movie and the book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, not that it has any specific bearing on the subject I’m going to get into.) After reading the book I was struck with two things: first, that the movie was such a faithful recounting of the incidents in the book, and second, that seeing the movie and reading the book were such different experiences that I could not have predicted from seeing the movie what the book would be like. What this means is even given the same subject matter, movies and books communicate different things. The movie had a largely linear narrative, contained arresting visual images, and presented characters whose motives seemed interestingly obscure. The book had a non-linear narrative, contained interesting mental images, and presented characters whose motives were fastidiously delineated.
Okay, comic fans. How does this apply to our favorite medium? Well…comics writers can approach the tales they craft cinematically (with minimal narrative captions, letting the pictures and dialog carry the story and explain character motivations) or novelistically (with copious narrative captions that expand upon what is in the pictures and delineate motivations and things that cannot be gotten across in a still picture), or somewhere in between (call it wishy-washy or stylistic fusion). A best-selling example of the former is G.I. JOE writer Larry Hama who uses captions to name places and times only and carries the rest of the non-visual story information in dialog (Larry’s characters never even have thought balloons!) A best-selling example of the latter is X-MEN writer Chris Claremont who establishes a personable, omniscient narrator who explains things about characters’ motivations and powers enhances mood, and comments upon the action (this is in addition to dialog and thought balloons). Two divergent approaches for the marriage of printed words and sequential still pictures to tell stories, both equally valid and successful.
In my opinion, comics are a bit closer to movies than books in their capacity for conveying information. As any writer who’s had to cut some brilliant passage of text because it would have covered up too much artwork can tell you, there’s a limit to the amount of information one can place within a single comics panel. While depth of motivation or profundity of idea can be suggested in just a few well-chosen words (ask a poet), it generally takes more than just a few words to do any more than suggest them. Comics, I believe, are primarily a director’s medium), and writers should tailor their creative contribution in light of this.