Permanent Damage

Wed, December 2nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 3rd, 2009 at 6:59am

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

You likely wouldn't guess from most of my work, but the problem of narrative in comics has fascinated me for a long time. Or, rather, the challenge, since it's not exactly a problem and there's no solution and never will be. The only real problem with narrative is that almost no one producing comics ever thinks much about it.

As mentioned last week, narrative is how you interact with your reader in the course of your story. Maybe it's best to compare it to the interface of a computer program. Two competing programs may perform effectively the same function, but the design of each program affects how users respond to them. Your narrative – your interface – likewise affects how the reader responds to your work. Trouble is, there is no element of a comics story, including lettering and coloring, that isn't an element of the overall narrative, and the narrative is likewise affected by the interaction (or lack of) these elements.

The following, from an early Will Eisner SPIRIT story, is the basic way narrative in comics developed very early on:

And this from a guy who was fixated on narrative. Panels are relatively fixed and layouts static. Dialogue sets up the situations, both the immediate situation and the romantic situation between Ellen and The Spirit and later between the destroyer captain and the prisoners. But it's pretty much the extent of characterization. Most panels are medium or long shots, more interested in keeping the reader apprised of physical action than getting personal with the characters. Only in a handful of panels is there any sense of three dimensional physical space, and virtually nowhere is there any sense of emotional space. Once the U-boats sinks the passenger ship, effect and time are collapsed into captions intruding on the action to summarize subsequent events without wasting the space to depict them. The actual sinking and subsequent terror are softpedaled, the explosion given no special emphasis, Nothing breaks the story's relatively genial pace. The pacing, the style, the way Eisner uses dialogue, picture and caption, these things all combine to form his narrative, the way he steers audience appreciation of the work.

Eisner's early work, through his departure to World War II, can be seen as an effort to nail down a language of comics, to see how elements work together to control perception of the story (in this case involving the Spirit and Ellen's separate desires to help the war movement, one by nursing the troops, the other by destroying a threat to shipping). Throughout the later days of that period, his early Spirit work, Eisner constantly shows signs of chafing at the restrictions of his own language. Compare that last example to Eisner post-war:

An entirely different narrative style is now at work. The story's still mainly set up via dialogue, but the visuals integrate with dialogue in a way that they don't in the first example, to create psychological, not physical, space. The stretching and eventual destruction of the SPIRIT logo is a surrealistic, almost dream state element even by Eisner's standards. Everything in the page is geared toward tension: the stretching logo, the absence of physical context, the beads of sweat on characters' brows, Commissioner Dolan shoved right in the reader's face to infect them with his anxiety as faces and voices harp around him, the eventual "release" of the snapping logo that's no release at all. Even the dialogue, at first glance mechanically existing solely to set up the scenario, is specifically phrased to add tension, and where Eisner once would have broken the dialogue into several panels he combines the speakers into one large, much more effective panel.

The real difference between the two examples? The first is the work of someone who still views story mainly as plot, and is concerned with the most effective presentation of that plot. The second is the work of someone now comfortable with both plot and story, whose main concern is narrative, meaning how the story can be presented to the audience with the most impact. Eisner's post-war Spirit stories may still employ captions, but their function is completely different:

While they occasionally set time and place, Eisner employs them not as story bridges per the first example but as a conversation with the reader, presenting themes, concepts and poetic or dramatic constructs as though he were telling the story orally around a campfire. He had, in fact, transitioned from presenting stories, in a relatively dry, impersonal fashion, to narrating them, with all the shades of human inflection that suggests. (As the last panel here shows, his sense of whimsical irony was also in overdrive, punctuating a serious moment with a bit of throwaway humor.)

Narrative as a conscious endeavor has always been a bit scorned in the comics field. Even Alex Toth, as fixated on visual narrative as any artist ever was, and who was constantly adjusting his style and approach in endless pursuit of the most effective narrative a story suggested, consistently wrote off any departure from his own austere vision as pretentious. That word gets thrown around a lot when comics talent discusses storytelling, and much of the time when they discuss storytelling, they're really discussing narrative. Yet the history of comics is littered with the dissatisfied, those looking for a more effective way to connect a story to its audience. EC Comics, still the most beloved comics company ever to a huge number of fans, was largely the literary product of two men, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, who took different approaches to narrative but both pushed it beyond the common conception of what it should be:

Like Eisner, Feldstein's narrative approach addressed the reader directly, but in Feldstein's case it was in the terse style of men's fiction of the day. Feldstein, at first glance, would also seem to be simply filling in details made difficult to visualize by space limitations, but the terse prose style again creates a specific effect, his words not so much supplementing the visuals as amplifying them, in a jazz-like playing off of verbal and visual rhythms. Artist Bernie Krigstein brings his own narrative spin to the table, subdividing the panels as described by Feldstein into a jagged, staccato dance of shifting perspectives to heighten emotional states. But though the two key characters are mostly given distinct panels, bits of the other character intrude on their shots, as if they're not individual shots and Krigstein's "camera" rests outside the "ring" the two characters occupy, whirling around them to create both a dizzying claustrophobia and an oppressively tight sense of space. None of this is random; it's done to generate a specific reader response, to make the reader feel the story, not just read it.

On the other hand, Harvey Kurtzman's narration, and narrative, in his war comics is as close as anyone had come to that time to breaking the fourth wall. Besides an obsession with verisimilitude, making sure artists had uniforms, weaponry etc. exactly right whether the stories were set in the Korean War or the age of Napolean, regardless of the tense he used, Kurtzman commonly phrased his captions to speak directly to the reader, and in this instance used the tense - you dunk, your mind is quiet – to suck the reader directly into the action and put in the protagonist's shoes, for a personal experience of war, of killing, of the dreadful psychological aftermath of killing. The art may depict specific action, but the overall narrative, as in the second Eisner example, is designed to evoke a specific psychological state, but in Kurtzman's case it's also important that the reader experience the action. It's an approach almost no one (including Kurtzman) has done, or even tried, since.

If you read old comics carefully enough, you can see other talents chafing at narrative limitations, many of them editorially imposed. Even a flourish as tiny and seemingly silly as the hands Carmine Infantino adorned captions with in THE FLASH personalized things, helped create an identity for the book, separated the character a little from the (in story terms) more or less interchangeable superheroes that populated editor Julie Schwartz's books and gave the narrative a little memorable flair.

The trend toward first person narrative captions in the '70s and '80s resulted from general dissatisfaction with comics' standard narrative techniques, the thought balloon and omniscient but impersonal narrative voice of captions. True, most writers used captions as substitute thought balloons, in effectively the same manner, but the effect is nonetheless different. Despite its common usage as cheap exposition ("Mr. Villain holds a grenade! I must defuse it before he blows up those people entering the bank!) there's still an implied immediate connection between thought and thinker; the thought balloon is responsive. It represents an immediate reaction, in the moment. The first person caption is observational. Distanced and disconnected physically from the thinking, it implies distance from the action as well and reflection on it. Many comics writers seem to have difficulty grasping that it's not an omniscient voice – many don't even seem to grasp the concept of a focal character - and many try to use it for the same basic exposition thought balloons were long forced to serve. But it still represents a desire to leave behind the "surface" of most comics stories, the simple recitation of action/plot, and give the story some sort of internal life.

When Mike Zeck and I worked on THE PUNISHER, we hit on the idea of a hot/cold character, and juxtaposed "hot" art with "cool" first person captions in an attempt to evoke in the reader our perception of the character, all seething, dangerous emotion on the outside and efficiently, just as dangerously cool on the inside, "recording" and dissecting his experiences on the spot in a war journal of the mind. It was a specific psychological schism intended to evoke the same sort of dissonance in the reader and bring him, intellectually and emotionally, a little closer to understanding the character, to experiencing what it was like to be that character. (I don't, by the way, mean to imply my work should stand alongside that of Eisner, Kurtzman or anyone else cited here. I just have access to my work and know what I was trying to pull off in certain instances, so as illustrations they're hopefully helpful. But I don't claim to rank among the best writers in comics; hell, I'm not even the best writer in my own family.)

But like I said, I've always had something of a fascination with narrative, though publishers tend to be a bit hostile toward narrative experiments. In one of my earliest published works, about two opposing warriors unwillingly merging minds on the battlefield, before I began writing professionally and certainly before I had any genuine clue to what I was doing, I envisioned a page of panels that could be read in any order, to give a sense of the psychic reshuffling the characters were undergoing. I couldn't pull it off. Later, in my first official creation WHISPER, I took a page from the randomization experiments of artists like William Burroughs and John Cage, and developed what I called a "foldover" narrative to compensate for what I felt was inadequate room to get in all the story material I wanted. I'd first write all the action and dialogue, then add captions as an overlay, not as captions are usually used, to add expository or contextual elements to the panels they attach to, but written separately to tell an extended story, sometimes connecting to the story contained in the art, sometimes tangential to it, sometimes only indirectly related, and laid in irrelevant to the action in specific panels, with concern only for how much other text (word balloons) panels already contained.

It was a strange sort of narrative, but I liked the randomness and the resultant unanticipated juxtapositions of action and information, the unpredictability and the sense, hopefully, of a wider world in which the character operated. The foldovers could consist of anything: first person narration, news reports, diaries, X-mas carols, anything. My little stab at a new narrative technique, but I suspect it was only good for that book. Later, in BADLANDS, I dumped all that and stripped all narrative back to the bare minimum, leaving the main character, a patsy being set up for the Kennedy assassination, wandering a puzzling, paranoid world where fragments of information flit by and make no real sense until enough context slowly accrues to fit them against, but even at the end it's still all a jigsaw puzzle where the pattern has emerged but half the pieces are missing. Seen through the eyes of "hero" Connie Bremen, the objective wasn't to have the reader identify with him but to witness that world through his eyes and experience it as Connie did. In that instance, the absence of narrative – captions are road markers, establishing time and place and nothing else - was the narrative.

Modern times have seen interesting experiments with narrative. Alan Moore has been more concerned with narrative than most, controlling his via scripts thicker than screenplays and filled with intensive detail for the artist's benefit. (Legends of descriptions of whole libraries with every book and its place on the shelves named abound.) While Alan's standard mode is "invisible narrative," almost indistinguishable on the surface from the average superhero comic (few captions, no thought balloons, etc.) he frequently forces narrative (often symbolically) in the visuals, as in these pages from PROMETHEA...

...where various story threads dovetail in a psychic pool whose ripples overlap ripples from other threads and merge into a single tableau. Again, the technique isn't just thematic, it's psychological, intended a specific response from the reader. Grant Morrison likewise has dabbled in numerous narrative tricks that swerve, sometimes violently, from the vanilla narratives usually surrounding his work, as with FINAL CRISIS, which often reads like a novel with every other page ripped out, inviting/seducing/daring the reader to fill in the blanks himself.

These are all comic books, but by the time we get to late Alan Moore, narrative, even in average comics, is far removed from the early Will Eisner narrative above. The graphic novel – the real graphic novel (in a very real sense it hasn't been born yet) – promises to take us as far from PROMETHEA as PROMETHEA is from the early SPIRIT. But while there's no prescription for "the graphic novel narrative," it's fairly easy to determine beneficial directions.

To start with, we have to recognize that writing and art in the comics form represent two different forms of narrative. Hopefully writer and artist both begin with the same narrative intent, or with the intent of juxtaposing both narratives into a third, inclusive narrative. We have to understand that narrative is the mechanism through which the audience experiences the story to the extent they do, and to the extent they do, the story becomes more real and theoretically a more satisfying experience. It's helpful to think of a story as layered: plot/story, visuals, dialogue and captions. Exposition is problematic in any medium, but a general rule of thumb for ours should be to first let the art carry the burden of whatever exposition it's comfortable with. Then let dialogue (artfully) carry as much as it can of what's left. Leaving what's possible to the art frees up dialogue, leaving what art and dialogue can't handle up to captions frees up captions to be used for other things, and it's those other things - and finding ways to do the familiar tasks of comics better, like better incorporation of sound effects and lettering as visual, not just textual, elements – that will turn the graphic novel into something more than a disposable expansion of the comic book. Above all, we have to start thinking of the graphic novel's purpose as creating an experience, one readers can't find elsewhere, and that means richer content, more compelling narratives and unique experiences that take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium.

Since the holiday gift giving season is on the way, it's time we pointed out some excellent books that would make great presents for comics fans, whether you're giving or receiving.

Chief among new works I'd have to put Robert Crumb's THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED (WW Norton, $24.95), his controversially unrevisionist transliteration of the first book of the Bible and Dr. Bryan Talbot's inventive GRANDVILLE (Dark Horse Books; $17.95) where anthropomorphic animal characters in a parallel world steampunk Europe pursue a dark conspiracy under the hostile eye of France. Bryan's been turning out fantastic work after fantastic work for decades; GRANDVILLE is sort of the missing link between THE ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT and THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT. (Catch a preview of it on Dark Horse's site if you need convincing.) For unadorned genre material, nothing this year beats WEST COAST BLUES (Fantagraphics Books, $18.99), French wunderkind Jacques Tardi's excellent, unflinching adaptation of a brutal hardboiled crime novel by Jean-Patrick Marchette. Had 2009 been like any other year, that distinction would've gone to adaptation Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's THE HUNTER (IDW, ) but Tardi edges it out.

In comics reprints, STRANGE SUSPENSE: THE STEVE DITKO ARCHIVES VOL 1 (Fantagraphics Books, $39.99), collecting his earliest work from small '50s publishers. It's fascinating to see his nascent style coalescing as he tackles a variety of material, already starting to work out the design genius that would mark much of his work, including – especially! – Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, for the next 20 years. Fantagraphics also produced the other two best collections of 2009: BLAZING COMBAT ($22.99), bringing all the issues of Warren magazine's short-lived war comic under one cover, written (mostly) by Archie Goodwin and drawn by some of the finest artists of the '60s including Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, John Severin & Gene Colan, and controversial in its day not because it was anti war, but because it refrained from glamorizing war; and LOCAS II ($39.99), collecting a huge batch of Jaime Hernandez's pivotal and influential "Maggie & Hoppy" stories from the equally pivotal and influential LOVE & ROCKETS. Don't mean to be a shill for Fantagraphics, but they really do produce splendid looking books, gift-worthy in appearance as well as content.

We're currently experiencing a cornucopia of great newspaper strip reprint volumes, and several stood out this year: IDW's DICK TRACY Vol. 7, 8 and reportedly 9 ($39.99@), scheduled for release in a couple of weeks, covering between them Chester Gould's strips glory run from 1939-1944 and the work is still fresher and edgier than most work done today. Prince Valiant fans will find Fantagraphics' THE DEFINITIVE PRINCE VALIANT COMPANION ($39.99), filled with essays, appreciations and tons of great Hal Foster art, sheer indispensible pleasure. And for the James Bond fan who has everything, Titan Books has produced a tasty little collection of stories from the '50s/'60s James Bond comic strip that adapted author Ian Fleming's novels into comics form, THE JAMES BOND OMNIBUS VOL. 001 ($16.95).

Finally, if you're just looking for random cool stuff to fit particular (especially mainstream) tastes, it's hard to go wrong with TwoMorrows Publishing's catalog of books and magazines, including how-to books, artist biographies and historical monographs like MARVEL COMICS IN THE 1960s: AN ISSUE BY ISSUE FIELD GUIDE TO A POP CULTURE PHENOMENON ($27.95).

Notes from under the floorboards:

I want to thank everyone who helped me clear out some room in last week's eBay auction. I'll likely hold another one in January or February, but I suspect right now a lot more people are concerned about getting presents under the tree than about loading up their library shelves...

If Gail Simone ever calls it a day on WONDER WOMAN, I strongly recommend DC offer Kate Beaton the gig. Best. Wonder. Woman. Ever!

Maybe they should start teaching DC Comics in science classes now: astronomers are finding indications of a parallel universe beyond ours. Maybe. Can Superboy Prime, or would it be Arioch, be far behind?

Uganda is apparently considering a bill not only outlawing homosexuality but making it a capital crime. I'd originally heard it was a hamfisted (no pun intended) attempt to deal with AIDS, but it now seems to be strictly an attempt to "protect" the traditional family from the moral ravages of homosexuals. (According to current Ugandan political mythology, homosexuals created Nazism – that certainly explains the Nazi purges of homosexuals (?) – and I've heard that meme pop up from right wing circles once or twice in this country recently too.) Features of the bill: imprisonment, fines and/or execution for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts, plus a four year prison term for anyone who learns of someone else's homosexual proclivities and doesn't notify the government within 24 hours of the learning, plus, should the measure become law, prison terms for anyone criticizing the law. Reportedly it has a good shot at passing, and is being egged on, perhaps initiated, by a small army of American ultra-right Christians... implying Uganda is an intended first front in a new holy war against The Gay Menace...

Seems executives at Goldman-Sachs, the brokerage firm whose fingers run to so many corrupt and self-serving enterprise (including a legit conspiracy among banks, brokerages and oil companies to artificially jack up oil futures – and thus the price of oil and gasoline – for their own profit at the expense of the rest of us, a collusion that is still ongoing and completely ignored by the US government) have taken to arming themselves, in anticipation of a violent public uprising against them. Well, nobody ever accused them of being stupid...

More British stupidity: a group of "safety experts" is now is now going after bowling alleys as too dangerous for families. Why? Because if they wanted to children could reach the pin resetters and get caught (presumably maimed or worse) in the machinery. That this has never happened tempers their vision of doom not at all. Then again, when they were given roughly half a million dollars to study "the problem," for that kind of money you expect a good dose of dire prediction, but I'm starting to get the idea that all these clowns are frustrated horror novelists...

The Church Of Scientology is being sued by an alleged former victim who claims he was forced to work as a child in what, from the description, sounds like a concentration camp run by a CoS subsidiary. Allegedly. I'm curious what this whole "human trafficking" allegation is about, and doubtless the official spin will be the lawsuit is just another attempt to smear the Church, but that's what the Catholic Church said when lawsuits by former altar boys started popping up...

Wow. NexTel gave law enforcement officers the GPS locations of its cell phone holding customers eight million times between 09-08 and 10-09. Eight million? Million?! (Seems cops can just load up a special webpage to get access to the information.) I'd recommend switching to a different carrier if there were any guarantee every other phone company isn't doing the same thing...

In the digital rights arena, Rupert Murdoch dropped by an FTC journalism workshop (wait... Federal Trade Commission? What've they got to do with journalism) to insist the government should keep its stinking nose out of the journalism business... except to outlaw the practice of Internet sites, like Google, linking to news stories. Or, rather, specific Internet sites, since his own sites eagerly pursue the practice. He seems not to have mentioned bloggers, but it seems only a matter of time before he decides it's an outrage that bloggers are allowed to interpret news reported elsewhere, or give contrarian spins on it. (Sarah Palin opened the door to that movement when she testily criticized journalists for fact-checking her... well... I guess in some quarters it passes for a book...) Meanwhile, more details of the ultra-hush-hush secret Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement have leaked out, which basically require everyone in the world to be a media rights cop, or else. I knew the New World Order was coming, I never thought it'd be the RIAA...

Congratulations to Eric Henry, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "degrees." Eric sends you once again to the home of all things Zelazny and the RPG his work spawned. Check it out. (By the way, a previous link took you to the wrong place. Try this Existentialman link instead.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in this column, but don't expect it to be a walkthrough. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  permanent damage, will eisner, harvey kurtzman

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