A very good acquaintance of mine works in the fashion industry, so I’ve had access to material describing the inner workings of that multi-billion dollar business. I was astounded to learn that there meets once a year somewhere in Europe, a group informally known as the Color Council, and it’s their responsibility to determine all the acceptable colors for the next year’s fashion line from all the major manufacturers (and probably most of the minor ones as well.) This answered one of life’s minor mysteries to me – why it was possible to find new clothes that match and complement each other so well. But it shocked me, too. Here was a group of individuals who had taken it upon themselves to control what the rest of our “free” society would be allowed to buy! What if, for example, I hated mauve and this year mauve was one of my only options!?! Perhaps you can appreciate my Orwellian concern.
So what does this have to do with the price of comic books in Antarctica? Glad your asked…Sometimes, looking at the fashions in the contemporary comics medium – I’m talking about fashions in writing and art style not clothing, I wonder if there is not a secret council I’m not aware of determining what the fashion is. This is not popularly determined – determined by the people, the fans, the readers – let’s not kid ourselves. Fellow writers are the biggest influence on other writers, artists on other artists. And for all I know they hold a secret meeting to decide the style of the year – a meeting I’m never invited to!
What style of drawing? What style of writing? What is the current fashion? The current fashion in artwork features central pin-up pose panels on almost every page instead of clear linear panel-to-panel storytelling, an exaggerated almost baroque approach to the human figure (what the previous fashion called “realistic” comic artists would term “cartoony”), and an emphasis on intricate rendering and linework. I am certain you can think of several popular artists whose work sports there characteristics, so I need not name them here. Those whose style doesn’t fit the above are just not as popular as those whose style does, regardless of the quality of their work. That’s just the way it is with fashion.
Okay, now writing. The current fashion in comic book writing can be summed up in a single phrase…first person narrative captions. First person, as anyone who’s taken a lit class can tell you is written as if a character in the story is narrating it and uses the first person pronoun, “I” a lot. Furthermore in the particular style, what was once the province of the thought balloon is now put in captions to different effect.
Thought balloons have immediacy. They are transcriptions of a character’s inner monologue as it goes on. First person captions – even ones written in present tense – are less immediate, and connote narrative distance from the event portrayed. In a caption, there is the sense of an audience that is listening in, an audience to whom certain things are being explained. For instance, were Wolverine to think, “I’m the best there is at what I do,” in a thought balloon, it would seem a bit ludicrous, like he felt the need to give himself a pep talk or something. Yet, when the same sentence is placed in a caption, it’s no longer ludicrous, it’s Wolverine telling the audience something he feels like explaining.
Occasionally today’s stylistically fashionable writers will try variations on first person narration. One such variation is multiple first person narration, where different characters take turns narrating portions of the same story. This can be a trifle confusing for the reader who has to identify “whose head am I in this time.” A variation is shifting stream-of-consciousness multiple first person narration, where various captions have various points of view and it’s not that important who is expressing a certain sentiment or idea, only that that sentiment or idea come across at that particular juncture.
What was in fashion before today’s writers fell in love with first person? Omniscient third person narration, written as if there was an all-seeing, all-knowing person observing the story that’s unfolding whose job it is to tell the reader what he or she cannot see in the pictures or read in the dialog. Some writers take their omniscient narration matter-of-factly, others embellish it by trying to wax poetically whenever possible, and still others adopt a hip, trendy, smart alecky tone so that the off-panel narrator almost becomes a character unto him or herself.
In the ’70’s there was yet another writing style in fashion, the second person narration, a style characterized by the second person pronoun “you.” In this style, writers were constantly addressing the character (“Your name is Iron Fist and you have sweaty palms”) in a way that was supposed to make the readers identify with the character being addressed. Were I a character in a book written that way, I would have found it pretty annoying to have someone describing my actions and passing judgement on same all the time.
So, being a comic writer myself, what do I think of the current fashion in comic writing? I think all comic book writing styles are derived from writing styles for other media. A novel, for instance, is purely verbal; for the most part there is no actual illustration of images. Comic writers who share novelists’ sensibilities write captions. A play is partly verbal (dialog) and partly visual (actors’ performances). Comic writers who believe they share play wrights’ sensibilities write dialog and avoid captions. A movie is primarily visual, with comparatively little dialog and usually no narration. Comic writers who believe they share screenwriters’ sensibilities write action and avoid captions and dialog except where necessary.
The fashion in comic writing today is writing in the style of the novelist. My preference in writing comics is writing in the style of the playwright or screenwriter. I avoid captions whenever possible. I believe the ideal comic story should be told through a character’s actions and not through the narrator’s commentary on those actions. I’m hardly the originator of this approach. Some writers I know have been using it for years no matter what the fashion is.
I’m not saying my style is better than anyone else’s, I’m just letting you know the philosophy behind it. When it comes to comic writing, my friends, I’m afraid I cannot abide by the standards of the fashion council. Am I fated to be a fashion rebel for life? I don’t think so. I think cinematic traditions will eventually overtake novelistic traditions in the comics medium, and more writers will adopt my philosophy. Till then, I’m just going to do my own thing – at least until the fashion council catches us with me.