One Fan's Opinion: Issue #16

Thu, November 24th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Just how smart are you?

I was kicking things around the other day with some fellow funnybook creators. Years back, whenever there would be a scene change in a comic book it would be accompanied by an establishing shot of some sort (the outside of a building or some such thing) and a caption flat out telling you where you are and who's there. Years later, captions are all but extinct and things aren't quite so obvious.

But just how perceptive are you?

If Captain America is on one page and then he's on the next page, but it's supposed to take place a day or two later, how easily can you pick up on the visual and verbal clues that time has passed? Do these scene changes baffle the hell out of you or do you get it? If you turn the page and, say, Cap is on the phone-is that enough? Do you go, "Well, we didn't see the phone ring on the previous page. Clearly some time has passed. I wonder how much?" Or do you simply assume it's an extension of the previous scene from the page before? It's still Cap, all right-he's still in his room-it must be more of the same scene.

Many of the changes, I think, came from film of some sort. It may be from TV or the movies, but viewers seem to be able to follow things relatively well when scenes change and years pass in a matter of seconds so comic book creators figure that readers should be able to do the same with their comics.

"Savage Dragon" #122
Oh, wait-- Cap has his shield on his back, his sleeve is ripped and he's bandaging his hand-- something must have happened, that's for sure.

The reason I'm giving this any thought at all is that I recently sent off a set of jpegs of the upcoming "Savage Dragon" #122 to a fellow funnybook creator and he asked me, "Are these even in the right order?"

They were.

But it occurred to me that the books we put out aren't necessarily all that accessible to those not intimately familiar with what has gone on before. My goal has been, in years past, to make my book intriguingly incomprehensible. The idea being that, while new readers wouldn't necessarily know who all the characters were or what was going on with each and every one of them, they would find the book intriguing enough to compel them to purchase the next issue in an attempt to get caught up to speed.

When you watch any TV show that you've never seen before, there are often things that the people making the show assume viewers know. They'll make an attempt to mention things in passing, but it's up to the viewer to fill in much of the missing blanks. A few episodes in and you don't feel so lost.

Same with comics.

You might "get" which character is the Dragon (or "Savage Dragon" as he's called on the cover) but you might not immediately know who that little red dude is (Mr. Glum, or "Ba-Goom" as he's known in Dimension-X where he hails from) or who that towering girl is (Angel Dragon-our hero's adopted kid, his wife's daughter, who was transformed into a giant in issue #121) or a number of other characters. There's a killer robot on his way over from Iraq and no long-winded explanation given about him accompanies his arrival.

The fellow to whom I had sent the jpegs hadn't seen the book in ages and he found it (without reading it) visually baffling. I'll check in and see if it made any sense to him after having read it. I suspect he won't be quite as baffled.

But the question becomes how much information is too much information?

Back in "the day," Jim Shooter used to impress on the writers at Marvel on a regular basis that every issue is some reader's first issue. And that's largely true. At the time that lead to characters restating incessantly that they had "razor-sharp adamantium claws" or other such bits that clued in new readers who these guys were, how they came to be and what they did. And older readers found that sort of thing incredibly monotonous.

At some point, somebody mentioned, in print, that they had stopped reading captions entirely because all they ever did was tell them things that they already knew or could plainly see by looking at the pictures.

See that little red guy on the bottom left of "Savage Dragon" #115? That's Mr. Glum AKA "Ba-Goom."
The knowledge that there were readers out there avoiding all captions helped prompt some writers to go the route of movies and TV shows and eliminate captions entirely. In addition, they often took to including expository dialogue. Dialogue that served no purpose other than to inform readers about what had gone on before. This clumsy, ham-fisted dialogue was bemoaned every bit as much as captions, however.

Somewhere along the line, thought balloons were jettisoned as well. And, as often, sound effects. Captions, thought balloons and sound effects were all deemed "too comic book-y" and were avoided like the plague.

Which is, I think, a bit of a shame.

You see, there are a lot of things we can't do in comics. We don't have sound. We don't have real movement. We can't do a lot of things that film can do and yet we're dumping things we can do and imposing the limitations of another medium onto ours in an effort to seem "more adult."

I dunno, guys.

I'm not convinced it's all "for the better."

An odd thing I ran across recently was an article that went on at some length about the number of words used in various comic books. The writer of the piece clearly equated the number of words used in telling a story with value. A comic with more words, in his eyes, was a better value than one with fewer words.

That's just weird.

I mean, I use the number of words I feel is necessary to best tell my story-- no more, no less. The notion that some nitwit is out there keeping track of that and might feel shortchanged if I didn't overwrite my story is mind-boggling. What if writers responded to that? What if they all felt obliged to turn scenes that required few words into a wall of words? How fucked up would that be?

But then again (and here I am, yet again, talking in circles) what if adding captions and thought balloons helped make these books more accessible to new readers and that lead to increased readership?

A friend of mine was talking at a school recently and asked the kids assembled if any of them read comic books. None of them raised their hand. He asked why they didn't read comic books and one of them stood up and explained that he didn't feel as though they were written for him. He tried reading them but gave up.

"Green Lantern vs. Aliens" #1
I don't know if this one kid represents the feelings of a lot of kids or not but I found it somewhat enlightening.

But just how smart is the average kid? Just how smart is the average reader? Just how smart are you?

Reading through the Complete Calvin and Hobbes collection I noted that at no point is it explained, in so many words, that Calvin sees Hobbes as a real Tiger and nobody else does. It's left up to the readers to figure that out and many, it seems, did just that. It's left something of a mystery as to which version of reality really was reality. When Calvin flew on a hall rug and observed his father at work at his desk it wasn't clear which of these characters were to be believed.

But the situations in Calvin and Hobbes are relatively simple. In an ongoing superhero comic book with an extensive supporting cast you could have dozens of characters involved with dozens of plots. Over the course of a book you could have literally hundreds of villains out for revenge and a myriad of subplots bubbling away. How much does a reader need to know? How much is too much? And at what point does more information make things more confusing rather than less confusing?

Ron Marz wrote a "Green Lantern/Aliens" crossover. In it, we drop in on the old Hal Jordan Green Lantern as he encounters an Alien. Before that, however, we get to see him interact with Green Arrow and Black Canary. No real information about them is given. We see what we need to know. We can tell by their interaction that they know each other and are friends and in the context of the story, that's plenty. Would it have been a better story if the characters had referred to events that were taking place in their own book at the time so that fans could place the story in its proper context? In all likelihood, no. Would it have been better if the characters' origins had been recapped so that we knew how they got to be the way they are? In all likelihood, no. Would it have been a better story if the characters had talked about their private lives and what they did when they were out of costume? In all likelihood, no. Would it have been better if we found out how they knew each other and how they first met? In all likelihood, no. The precise amount of information, which was necessary to enjoy the story, was included in the story. No more, no less.

Sometimes more is less.

A friend tried reading the Avengers a while back. One adventure had wrapped up, another was getting going and the writer felt it was necessary to include a lot of information to catch readers up to speed on the adventure which had just concluded-- and he was baffled beyond belief. The explanation had made it worse. All he really needed to know was that the previous battle was over-- but instead, he was treated with a mountain of expository dialogue, which left him completely lost.

So, what's a guy to do?

How much is too much? How much is not enough? How much do you need to know in order to enjoy a story? Just how smart are you?

It's hard to know.

At the end of the day, the best we can do is the best we can do. Write the kind of stories that we want to tell in the way we want to tell them and hope that somebody out there finds them interesting enough and compelling enough to come back for more.

I'm hoping intriguingly incomprehensible works for me.

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