Master Of The Obvious: Issue #71

Wed, December 6th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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One dark and stormy night a man comes home from the office late, and his wife demands to know where he's been. "I couldn't face you," he says, "I was fired today."

"Why?" says his wife.

"Someone's embezzling from the firm, and they accused me. I'll lose my pension, tomorrow they're canceling all my insurance, they're talking about putting me in jail."

His wife sits at the kitchen table, stunned. She thinks of how they won't be able to pay their debts and they'll lose their house, they'll lose everything. They sit silently at the table, trying to think of a way out, but there's nothing. The man starts sobbing softly when the doorbell rings. His wife answers the door.

At the door is another man, dressed head to toe in black. He carries under his arm a small black box. "Who are you?" the wife asks.

"I know of your husband's troubles," the man in black says. "This may be the solution." He hands her the black box, and says, "All you need do is make a wish, and that wish will be granted."

"Wait a minute," says the wife. "I've read this story. If my wish is granted, someone I know will die, right?"

The man in black reluctantly admits, "Yes, someone will die. But it won't be anyone you know. So you don't need to feel guilty because you'll never be able to tell if anyone died because of you or not. I'll tell you what, I'll leave the box with you and you can use it or not. I'll be back to pick it up later."

The man in black goes away, and the woman takes the box inside, sets it on the coffee table, then sits on the sofa and just stares and stares and stares. From somewhere she can hear her husband's sobs, and she feels bad that she can't comfort him. "He's right," she tells herself. "I'll never know if anyone died because of me or not." She picks up the box, and fervidly wishes for enough money to get them out of their problems for good.

All of a sudden, the phone rings. Her husband answers it, and she can't quite hear what he's saying, but she can hear him getting excited. He hangs up the phone and runs past her to grab his coat.

"You won't believe what happened," he said. "They've found the real embezzler, and they're not only hiring me back, they're promoting me to his job, giving me a big raise, and they'll pay me a bonus if I don't sue them for wrongful dismissal. We're going to come out of this better off than we ever dreamed possible, but I have to get down to their lawyer's office right away to sign papers. They don't even want to wait until morning." He runs out the front door and a few seconds later his car peels out. She stands at the window, watching until his tail lights vanish into the distance, and she tries to feel happy but all she feels is dread.

She sits alone for two hours, waiting for her husband to return. He doesn't. She waits another hour. No sign of him. Just before the fourth hour ends, the phone rings again.

"Hello," says the voice on the other end. "I'm sorry tell you this, but your husband's dead."

She can hardly speak. "What happened?" she croaks.

"A truck driver lost control of his rig in the rain and hit your car. Your husband was killed instantly. On the other hand, it turns out his company had him insured for $5,000,000, with a double jeopardy clause. You're the beneficiary. That's ten million. You'll never have to worry about money again."

The woman tries to hang up the phone, but it slips from her numb fingers. In a daze, she staggers back to the living room and is about to sit down when the doorbell rings again. She opens it and there is the man in black. "Can I have the black box back please?"

She hurls herself into him, beating on his chest with her fists. "You bastard! You bastard! You said no one I know would die and now my husband's dead, and it's all your fault!"

"Huh," says the man in black, puzzled. "Well," he continues with a shrug, "I guess you never really knew your husband."

After 70 years, narrative continues to be one of the big problems in comics. As with lettering, it's generally held among the major companies, though people rarely say it, that "invisible" narrative is the best; the more a reader's aware of the narrative, the worse a comic is generally considered to be. (Except for works of genius; see below.)

This goes back to the birth of American comics, and, like much in the business, it hasn't really changed since. Back then, page length was short, panels were many and small, and design was by necessity straightforward. The audience was generally perceived to be kids, servicemen (who filled their dull free time with the distractions of comics and cigarettes) and imbeciles: not an audience that enjoyed challenges. (Which isn't the case today: servicemen no longer figure into the equation.) The work was done fast and cheap and printed fast and cheap, and, as in the earliest Hollywood silent movies, the entire function of narrative was to get from point A to point B as quickly as humanly possible, without anyone losing track. This is really the essence of pop culture: the perfect empty capsule, sound and fury signifying nothing. A few - Will Eisner, for example (and we call him genius for it) - started talking in terms of the "language" of comics, and some still do, but, by and large, comics still follow the plodding narrative structure of newspaper comic strips.

Part of the problem is the bipolar nature of comics: the weight of narrative is distributed across both script and art, causing an understandable confusion as to where the narrative lies, exacerbated by the insistence of some readers and editors (and the acquiescence of many writers to the notion) that art's the dominant element in comics, which is to say the visible element. (Remember, narrative is supposed to be invisible.)

That art is supposed to carry narrative is actually a relatively late idea. Some comic strips, such as Hal Foster's PRINCE VALIANT (one of the more influential strips), developed an illustrated story format in which the art consisted of showpieces for the narrative, which was contained almost exclusively in captions. Captions, not dialogue or art, were the standard carriers of narrative (meaning exposition) in most comics for many decades. Some narrative devices became, unfortunately, standard. Mort Weisinger enforced the dominance of the mid-shot, as if all moments in the story were taking place on a stage always the same distance from the seated reader. Every Robert Kanigher story required a three-panel "zoom" sequence where the camera moved from long shot in the first panel to mid-shot in the second to close-up in the third, in an effort to emphasize emotional tension. But the most common narrative technique was no technique at all, the latter day comic strip style running through everything. As late as 1973, some comics writers advised newbies to write full scripts in the following manner:

PANEL 1
SCENE: Superman uses his heat vision to melt the tires on the getaway car.
CAPTION: Superman uses his heat vision to melt the tires on the getaway car!

In order to "bulletproof" the story against artists who don't draw what they're told, especially since in many cases the writer had no idea who the artist would be. Sure enough, on the page, the artist would draw a picture of Superman using heat vision to melt getaway car tires, and there would be the caption. No doubt it made sure 10 year olds who had never seen Superman's heat vision in action before knew what was happening, but It's no wonder full scripts went out of fashion in the face of the sloppier but more energetic "Marvel method," in which narrative became the job of the artist as the writer abdicated as guide and took over as after-the-fact fixit man.

But it's often been artists, or artists who became their own de facto writers in the face of bad scripts or sheer frustration, who've advanced narrative techniques in comics. Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT, being reprinted in hardcover by DC, is a virtual textbook of experimentation, particularly from 1947-1950 when the series surpassed almost everything done before or since, though what credit properly goes to Eisner's collaborators (among them writer Jules Feiffer and artist Jerry Grandinetti) is still subject to debate. As editor, writer and artist, Harvey Kurtzman focused on an almost documentary authenticity in his work, and developed new styles of narrative virtually from scratch to achieve it. Particularly in the EC short story "Master Race," artist Bernie Krigstein diced the standard script format into multitudes of panels to daringly simulate movement and time and force narrative from a hidden intellectual exercise to a imposing visceral sensation. Neal Adams, though not a particularly strong storyteller, became the most influential artist of the 70s by forcing perspective and updating visual techniques to give stories a new immediacy for the reader, drawing them into the narrative that way, while Jim Steranko went for the same response by brilliantly synthesizing the experiments of Eisner, Krigstein and Kurtzman with Kirby's dynamism, modern art and his own pop culture sensibilities.

In their own work, pushing the concept of art as the focus of narrative in comics turned out some great results, but in general it hasn't worked out so well. Freed of the full onus of narrative, comics writing has not generally improved. Gil Kane, fed on blood-'n'-guts pulps, once suggested the writing be used to augment the art, not with straight repetitions of the action but with amplifications of the emotional content: in essence an improved return to the Prince Valiant style: "He felt the shock of impact wrench his arm from wrist to shoulder, snapping sensation back into the dead arm. But it was a good pain, a declaration that his time had not passed, that he was alive, and age had not dimmed his strength." An interesting technique, but ultimately impractical, in an age when art became dominant. It's no wonder that a certain breed of fans influenced by film criticism (many of them going on to be editors) seized on a supposed natural superiority of the writer-artist as creator, and while there have been many good writer-artists, there have been enough who had no clue of what they were doing that it blows that theory all to hell. Most one-time writer-artists have taken solely to writing, letting others handle the "hard" part, eroding their fan base by laying bare the deficiencies of their writing that their art hid.

Narrative technique in comics hasn't made any real strides since the early 70s. Techniques have been refined, certainly, but little new experimentation has taken place. (The main "new" narrative technique has been the first person voiceover caption… but it's rarely used to any person other than straight narration of the action of the story, which used to be the function of the thought balloon - "I've got to use my heat vision to melt that car's tires" - or the expository caption - "Superman uses his heat vision to melt the getaway car's tires." Only the style has changed; nothing is improved, and far too often writers who use first person captions don't seem to distinguish the first person from the omniscient voice. Other concerns are secondary to the need to establish plot.) While many writers have tried to tell more ambitious stories, they've largely stuck to old techniques rather than seek out or invent techniques more appropriate to their work. There is the question as to whether it's necessary; many clearly feel it isn't. It's a catch-22: as shown by the modern writers of the 60s and 70s, new narrative technique tends to increase complexity. Complex and commercial are considered antithetical in this business. Complexity is viewed as synonymous with pretension.

It may just be my problem. I've had a fixation of narrative since I started in the business, mainly because I always want to put more story in than I have room for. I've done my share of experimentation. I developed what I called "foldover narrative" in WHISPER, using captions to tell a second story that either paralleled, intersected or illuminated the story being told in the art and dialogue, in order to fit 40 pages of story into 26 pages. (Virtually all comics now are 22 pages.) It was iffy, demanding the reader do some puzzle work themselves. In order to express what we felt was the character's emotional schism, on THE PUNISHER Mike Zeck and I intentionally contrasted his "hot" art with my "cool" dialogue and internal monologues. I played with caption as psychoanalysis in both X and MANHUNTER. I can't say any of these really amounted to much in the long run.

But we're in a precarious era. These are make-or-break days for the business, which means we have to start telling stories that will draw an audience. We live in a world far more sophisticated than the one most of us grew up in; the incredible is so woven into our lives that it's become mundane, and even imbeciles are no longer awed by it. In order to keep up, the medium needs to become more sophisticated, to develop more tools. The companies won't encourage this; they want simple, even as the complexity of their artificial worlds grows cancerous, and they cling to the view as their sales disintegrate that tried-and-true is best. But I'm not talking about continuity, which many readers now consider tedious anyway. More sophisticated narrative techniques doesn't necessarily mean more complex reading. (It might, it might not. It depends on the particular story.) We need better stories, and this also means we need better ways to tell them. The companies won't push for this; the talent has to do it themselves. It's not good enough to know what made stories tick five years ago or ten or fifty, and how they did it back then; we urgently have to figure out what will make them tick now, because it's what you don't know that will kill you.

It's a big week for cats here, as I'm shifting from helping Brian Pulido at Chaos with the BAD KITTY series to doing a Catwoman story for Matt Idelson at DC. Look for Charlie Adlard (ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE) to do a story with me for an X-book soon (no, not X-MAN, but close). If you haven't seen Charlie's work lately, check out ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE. His stuff's hot and getting hotter. Then it's back to the WHISPER graphic novel, and a host of other projects… details to come…

Question Of The Week: What graphic novel that you don't already have would you most like to see in your Xmas stocking this year? (Hint: answer, then get whoever buys your presents to come online for a look.)

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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