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Tue, October 27th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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ON LANGUAGE

Over at the "Comics Should Be Good" blog, Brian Conin highlighted a panel from a recent Batman comic that he thought had a cute gag. Immediately, the comment thread that followed it (57 comments and still going, as I write this) derailed into a grammatical discussion. Once again, I found myself alternately cringing and banging my head against the wall at some of the reactions.

The problem is, Batman has a dialogue balloon where he says, "Damian, is Barbara and Gordon okay?!?"

There's a little subject-verb disagreement going on there. What follows in the discussion thread is a conversation that volleys back and forth from those deriding Peter J. Tomasi for being a bad writer to those who have no problem with any grammatical faux pas.

The old "English is a living language and so we must excuse anyone's misuse of it" argument is one that sets my teeth on edge. I am, however, a more mature and wisened writer and person than I was ten years ago, when no doubt I would have jumped into the thread and thrown fireballs left and right. Let's instead use this as a discussion of what might have happened in this panel and when grammatical errors are not so bad.

First of all, yes, this is an error. It's a bad one. It stops a literate reader dead in his tracks when reading the issue. I don't think Tomasi thought it was a correct line. I think it's an honest error, the kind that happens from time to time. As "Comic Book Legends Revealed" reminded us last week, even early issues of "The Amazing Spider-Man" got Peter Parker's name wrong and called the title character "Super-Man." Accidents do happen, whether at the writer's level or the letterer's.

In today's comic creation process, the letterer is often completing a lettering job of 22 pages in one day, leaving little time for proofreading. That's not his or her job, anyway. That should be the editor's and the writer's. Cutting-and-pasting scripts into dialogue balloons and caption boxes it the norm and, as with any computerized process, it's easy to make simple mistakes and not catch them. Perhaps the letterer was working off an earlier version of the script that had the error uncorrected. Perhaps the deadline was tight and the cut-and-paste went unread. Perhaps a last-minute word change mixed up the subject/verb agreement and nobody caught it.

Mistakes happen. We're all human, even comic book creators. I see errors like this make it through comics all the time. It's unfortunate, but it's reality. I've learned mostly to let it go, though I do have my hang-ups.

When I see "must of" or "should of," I scream a little. It may sound phonetically right, but it's the wrong word. Those "of"s are actually "have"s. That's an error that I see a lot. The other one is the phrase "could care less" in lieu of "couldn't care less." Think about it; it makes no sense. I've heard your arguments that it does, but you're wrong. The phrase is wrong. Sadly, lots of people use it, and they always sound about 10 IQ points dumber for it when they do.

Recently, "The Darkness/Pitt" #2 had a caption box on the title page that read, "Jackie was enjoying a quiet Italian dinner in his neighborhood when a mass of infected, human beings turned into zombie-like beings, began killing people around him."

The sentence construction is a little clumsy. I'm guessing most of you read "turned" as being a more active verb than it is meant to be. The thing that tripped me up the most, though, is the completely unnecessary comma after "infected." You don't need to offset the adjective from the noun it's describing when they happen next to each other like that. That's right up there with the rise in use of the unnecessary quotation marks. For tons of good examples of that, check out "the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks." It cracks me up to see where people think quotation marks are necessary.

"(It's also been pointed out to me that the aforementioned "The Darknes/Pitt" comma-offset phrase may be the definition for the noun version of "infected."  I would hope they'd italicize or capitalize "infected" in such a case.  I'd use dashes instead of commas to offset the definition to make it more clear.  In either case, what is on the page is still wrong, just in a different way.  The mind boggles.)"

On the other hand, I don't get as worked up about the typography behind the quotation marks as some people do with apostrophes. I prefer a simpler 256 character ASCII world to proper old school typography sometimes. I'm a bit nutty that way, yes.

There are times when it's OK to purposefully toy with language, of course. If you're trying to write for a character who isn't well educated, or has an ignorance of the English language, or who often uses poor grammar to grate on their teammate's last nerve, then go nuts. In that case, it's a nice quirky character trait. If they're teenagers, then there's no explaining them, anyway. If they're having a mental condition that causes Spoonerisms or slurred speech or signs of brain malfunctions, use what you need to use.

Do not confuse this argument with conversational writing. Obviously, the formal written word is different from conversational writing. This column, for example, leans more towards a conversational tone, which is why I will occasionally begin a sentence with an "and" or a "but," for example. It doesn't mean I give up on the basic tenets of the English language and its grammar. I'm not writing "lolcats" here. I'm writing a friendly conversation, or at least one half of it.

Of course, this all leads to the worst kind of internet argument: Semantics. Eventually, any argument on the 'net will devolve into comparisons to Hitler or become circles of people arguing the same tedious points ad infinitum out of semantics. I bail out of those in a hurry, even if it means people think I ran away with my tail between my legs. For example, I don't care who invented the phrase "graphic novel" or did the first example of one. I don't want to argue the differences between a graphic novel and a novella and a collected edition or a trade paperback or what have you. It's a tedious semantics argument that ultimately adds up to nothing. Just give me the comics.

The other rule of internet arguments is that anyone who corrects someone else's spelling or grammar will end up committing their own act of atrocity against the English language in the same post. I'm sure people who would rather nit-pick than argue the merits of my argument here will be thrilled to find a typo somewhere in this column. Have fun. I'll be over here reading comics and enjoying them instead.

While it's unfortunate that the error in that Tomasi-penned panel got through the writer and editor in, I'm guessing, multiple drafts, that's life. It happens in a world of over-worked editorial offices. We note it, we make our little complaint, we move on. If there's no pattern, why can't we chalk it up as human error and keep going? There are bigger issues to be dealt with. Let's not get caught up in meaningless long-winded arguments when we can all enjoy five minutes more with our comics.

(That said, Mike Sterling points out a couple of other recent comic book groan-inducing misspellings.)

TIME FOR A TANGENT!

There's a favorite sit-com of mine that's become forgotten already, I fear, despite doing well for its network. It featured improve episodes years before "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It had musical episodes annually, years before "Glee," though I suppose you could argue it came years after the funniest musical show on network television, "Cop Rock." It had a main character who clearly was a UPS employee, years before "King of Queens" did it. And it gave us Craig Ferguson, a decade before he become late night television's new "Conan O'Brien."

It's "The Drew Carey Show," an inventive, creative, and laugh-out-loud funny sit-com that ABC renewed in season 7 for another two years before canceling it mid-way through its final contract, only to burn off its episodes the following summer.

That's why when I watched "Batman: Brave and the Bold" this weekend, it took me a long while to knock "Oswald' out of my mind every time Batman spoke. It's just too weird. That said, I loved the episode as much as everyone else did. I can't even remember the last time I watched a superhero cartoon. . .

Sadly, it appears that only the first season of "The Drew Carey Show" ever made it to DVD. Wow, how quickly they forget.

Just to help place this firmly in the world of comics, let's go back to Entertainment Weekly's original review of "The Drew Carey Show:"

The Drew Carey Show has a real sense of place and atmosphere; Drew's house looks lived in, and when he's sprawled on a couch reading a comic book (Harvey Pekar's marvelous Cleveland-based comic American Splendor), he looks utterly at ease.

You can follow Drew Carey on Twitter and help the fight against cancer atTwitter.com/DrewFromTV.

HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED

Looking back at a Pipeline column from five years ago, I had to excerpt this section. Back then, I had neither a wife nor a child. Crazy as it sounds, I don't think I had met my wife yet. Today, the "Great Comics Purge of 2009" is very slowly unfolding, and my DVR is usually half empty because I don't watch much TV anymore.

But at the end of October, 2004, life went more like this:

Last Wednesday night, I sat down with my new weekly stack of comics. I had a half hour, and what better way to spend that time than with newly acquired treasures? I watch lots of TV. I know the joys of mindless entertainment.

I finished five single issues in a half hour.

I've been reading comics for 15 years, so I imagine that I read through them fairly quickly by now. I know the rhythms and the patterns to it all. My mind has been fine-tuned to take in dialogue at a rate of up to 32 words per panel or some similar figure.

But still. Is six minutes a comic too little? As much as I hate to admit it, I almost hate getting stuck on the same comic for much longer anymore. The last comics I'm likely to read each week are the ones that require the most reading. Books like "Uncle Scrooge" or "Queen and Country" are likely to get placed in the back of the line, just because I don't want to get bogged down in them. When I read them, of course, I enjoy the heck out of them and have a more satisfying experience. Getting there, though, can be a grueling process.

Am I turning into an MTV generation slacker demanding instant gratification without any work put into it at all? No, that can't be it. I still read the occasional novel.

Obviously, part of the problem lies with the trend of decompression, but aren't we all sick to death of talking about that by now? Decompression almost inevitably leads to trades, which are more satisfying than the bite-sized monthly installments. So why read the monthly books? Instant gratification? The desire to be teased and strung along from month to month?

In the end, I'm not dropping any of the titles, so I must be happy with them somehow. Have my expectations lowered that much? Or am I just rolling with the industry's punches?

I don't have any answers this week. The questions are much too bothersome.

Today, the only time I'll read five comics in one sitting is if I can do it while riding the exercise bike, or because I'm on deadline and need to finish something. Decompression makes breezing through five books in one sitting a little easier, so it's almost a friend more than anything. And I think the last novel I read was a Greg Rucka one on my honeymoon.

The important thing here is that I haven't stopped reading or loving comics. It's just not as big a part of my life anymore. It's not going away -- I have a column, a podcast, reviews I edit, and a full stack of RSS feeds to peruse on any given day. I just find it funny that so much has changed around that in the last five years. Finding this nugget was a real eye opener.


Next week: Sometimes, we buy comics strictly out of nostalgia. Next week, I'll be talking about one of those fond memories, and how a recent reprinting holds up.

I'm on Twitter again at AugieShoots, commenting on the breaking comic news of the moment, pop culture factoids, lots of photography, and so much more.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com, has a couple of iPhone pics on it this week, as well as the beginnings of fall foliage imagery.

The Various and Sundry blog has a couple of updates going on today. Is this the sign of life returning to the blog? Maybe.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items. It's the best of my daily feed reading, sometimes with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than twelve years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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