FACE FRONT, TRUE BELIEVERS: FIVE THOUGHTS ON NARRATIVE VOICE
If you’ve been listening to the Splash Page podcast, then you have probably heard me dip into the waters of narrative voice and how it relates to comics. And I mentioned in whatever recent episode it was in which I mentioned narrative voice, “I’ll have to write a column about it at some point.” Looks like that point has arrived already!
I don’t really have a finely-tuned argument to put forth here — merely some observations that eventually build to something resembling a perspective. This is my not-quite-grand-unified theory of narrative voice in American mainstream comic books.
THOUGHT #1: BACK TO BASICS
Here’s an oversimplification that’s useful to develop parameters for what we’re talking about here, and it comes from grade school classifications of narrative: there’s tone, and there’s point of view. Let’s start with point of view.
Point of view, in prose narrative, breaks down into First Person, Second Person, Third Person, and the latter breaks down further into Limited, Limited Omniscient, and Omniscient. Let’s tackle each mode one by one.
First Person doesn’t work too well in comics. Because comics are the “[something something] juxtapositon of [something something words and images]” or whatever it is that Scott McCloud says, the narrative doesn’t come though the words alone. So a caption box in First Person (Punisher’s war journal, “I thirst for the blood of criminals today. I am full of rage and vengeance. I am also sad, but I won’t admit it.”) isn’t really a First Person point of view when it’s juxtaposed with images of Frank Castle running around and driving vans full of weapons. It’s First Person narration (the caption) mixed with Third Person narration (we see this person who is narrating from an outside perspective). It’s both and it’s neither, and I’ll define what it is a bit later.
Some creators have played with true First Person in comics — there’s a Dave Gibbons/Ted McKeever story from some anthology (“Taboo”?) that gives us a Superman-like point of view, where we see things as he sees things, life a first-person shooter video game. Then there’s that “Double Shot” #2 Punisher story, where we are inside the mouth of a character looking out. Those kind of experiments with true First Person are rare, because they end up looking like gimmicks, and they end up as too limiting to sustain a story.
Then again, Gaspar Noe did it with “Enter the Void,” and cinema and comics share that first-person-voice-over-isn’t-first-person-narrative problem, so maybe we’ll see more comics trying to experiment with longer-form true First Person. But it’s not likely to work very well.
Second Person rarely works in prose, and has even more problems in comics. Ultimately, it’s a matter of the reader feeling, “stop telling me what I’m doing!” with all the “You find yourself in a mysterious room” kind of Choose Your Own Adventure hijinx that Second Person requires. No, comics and Second Person point of view have all the problems of true First Person with the added handicap that by declaring “you” do what it is that you’re not really doing, the narrative distance increases and the effectiveness decreases.
So it’s Third Person, then, 99.99999% percent of the time in comics. And what we’ve seen over the years is a shift from Omniscient to Limited, as thought bubbles have been replaced by first-person captions, and as even first-person captions have become less and less popular in mainstream comics. Ultimately, most comics are now Third Person Limited, or Limited Omniscient at best, with just a single character getting a chance to express what’s on his or her mind.
THOUGHT #2: ART IS IMPORTANT, RIGHT?
Because of the reliance on Third Person Limited (with maybe a hint of Limited Omniscience, in a half-dozen narrative captions sprinkled throughout a story), the burden of the Point of View rests almost entirely on the artist. Sure, the writer can, in his or her script, include such “directorial” details as background descriptions, camera angles, points of emphasis, overall mood of the panel, etc., but in the translation of those concepts into physical actuality on the comic book page, the artist has massive amounts of control.
Unless the writer is Alan Moore, most comic book scripts are relatively sparse — it’s the preferred format in today’s industry — with only a sentence or two of panel description before going into the dialogue. Obviously some panels get big blocks of description from the writer, but most of them don’t. I’m not judging that practice at all, and if I were to do so, I’d say it makes a lot of sense. It helps the writer express the basics of the story more efficiently, it helps the editors see the essence of the story more clearly, and it gives the people with the best visualization skills (the artists) a chance to use those skills creatively, without feeling confined by the words of a writer who may not understand how best to express a story visually.
But it does mean that artists carry the majority of the burden of Point of View. For an example, see something like CBR’s Comic Book Idol competitions, in which artists submit pages based on the same scripts. The meaning of each version differs radically, precisely because the Point of View (and tone, which I’ll get to later, as promised) depends so much on the what and how of the penciled page. Or look at the first volume of the “Rawhide Kid” Marvel Masterworks — in there, Jack Kirby draws the same Stan Lee script twice, months apart, probably not realizing that he’d drawn the same story twice. Each version has a different visual Point of View, even though he based the pages on the same Stan Lee words.
None of this may be surprising at all. Perhaps you’re thinking, “yeah, no kidding! Artists are the main storytellers in comics.” But then why do writers get most of the credit (or blame) when a comic book comes out? If Point of View is such an essential part of narrative, and it is, and we would probably think that a famous novel written from a completely different point of view (think “Moby Dick” from Ahab’s point of view, or from a Third Person Limited point of view, for example) would be a fundamentally different story in every meaningful way, even if the plot and characters were the same, then how much of the “writing” is done in the script, and how much is done in the translation of script to art?
In other words, was “Hulk” #20 a Jeph Loeb comic with art by Ed McGuinness or an Ed McGuinness comic based on a Jeph Loeb script? I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that it’s a collaboration between the two, though there’s certainly some merit in thinking, as Kieron Gillen has pointed out in the past, that it’s almost impossible to parse the contributions of the creative team to the point where you can identify who is responsible for which parts of the comic, and so we might be better served to think of comics as being the creation of an amalgamated creator, a composite writer/artist, let’s say Loeb-McGuinness.
(I know I’m leaving out the inker and colorist in this example, but for “Hulk” #20, that would be Dexter Vines and Dave Stewart, and since they are the best inker and the best colorist in the business, I hope they will forgive the omission.)
But I would go farther than Gillen, when it comes to comics. I would, if I thought clearly about it, which I’m trying to do today, give the majority of the credit for EVERY aspect of the story to the artist.
THOUGHT #3: EVEN DIALOGUE? SERIOUSLY?
What about dialogue, then? Surely, even if we concede the Point of View to the domain of the artist, and if we assume that the visuals are based more on the “writing” that happens in the mind of the artist while translating a script to a penciled page, then we can still keep dialogue in the province of the writer. I mean, maybe the letterer could impact the writing, with some fancy fonts or something, but how can the artist, who merely draws the pictures, impact the words that appear in the word balloons?
Doesn’t Brian Michael Bendis at least get the credit for what his characters say to each other?
Sure, but not as much as we tend to assume.
Let’s step aside from comics for a minute and think about cinema again. A movie’s dialogue is judged almost entirely on the performances of the actors. We might say, “Aaron Sorkin writes good dialogue” and “Paul Haggis writes bad dialogue,” but in both cases, the quality of the dialogue is almost completely dependent on the skill of the actor to make the dialogue “believable” and the skill of the director to make the dialogue fit the tone of the movie appropriately.
Or take George Lucas. Is his dialogue in “Attack of the Clones” substantially worse than the dialogue in “A New Hope”? It sure seems like it is. Yet, on the page, the dialogue reads practically as stilted and atonal in either script. But in the movies, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford and James Earl Jones (and to a far lesser extent Mark Hammill) can pull off the dialogue and make it work. It’s not just bearable, it is successful. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor make the same kinds of lines unbearable. And whether that’s because they are less skilled or because George Lucas directed them substantially differently, well, it doesn’t matter.
Because in a comic book, the artist is the actor and and the person who directs the performance of the actor.
This is where tone comes in as well. And since narrative voice is as dependent on tone as it is dependent on point of view, it seems like a crippling blow to the supremacy of the comic book writer to say that tone is almost entirely dependent on the artist, but it’s true.
Think of “Justice League International,” from the Keith Giffen/J. M. DeMatteis days. It had some dark moments, but it was a funny comic, right? Well, it was, but how much funnier was it when Kevin Maguire was drawing it compared to, say, Ty Templeton or Mike McKone or Linda Medley? The scripts may have been basically identical in tone, and yet a Maguire would certainly push the comedy farther than a Medley ever would, even though all the artists mentioned in this paragraph are strong comic book artists.
Or think a Bernie Wrightson “Swamp Thing” comic vs. a Tom Yates issue vs. a Steve Bissette issue. Excellent artists, all. All good at illustrating “horror,” yet the tone of their “Swamp Thing” issues are distinctive. Even when working with Alan Moore, a writer who fills pages with all-caps panel descriptions, someone like Rick Veitch produces a comic with a different tone than someone like John Totleben.
And tone is central to the meaning of dialogue.
And artists control the tone.
THOUGHT #4: IT’S FREE, INDIRECTLY
I mentioned I would get back to the idea of most comic book narration being “both” and “neither” Third Person and/or First Person. So here goes.
Most comic book narration slides into what might be called, in literary circles, Free Indirect Discourse. It’s not a perfect fit. Free Indirect Discourse is, basically, third person narration that slips into phrasing and tonality that matches first person narration. It’s like the protagonist’s personality starts to exert more control over the supposedly objective third person narrator. It happens in Jane Austen novels, and it can sometimes be confused with stream-of-consciousness, but its bound in a third person narrative shell, so it’s not quite that.
And even though Free Indirect Discourse isn’t a perfect fit for comics, it’s pretty close. It’s what happens when the objective narration of the images tells the bulk of the story, but a first person point of view creeps in with some captions. A Batman story is mostly third person, but when we see excerpts of the Morrisonian Black Casebook or we get his Frank Miller-esque thoughts, we see that the narrative is actually a fluid form where third person dominates but first person surfaces at selected intervals.
Because Free Indirect Discourse is a writerly technique, in that it’s a chance for the comic book scripter to exert some narrative control by determining when and where the character’s thoughts come to the fore, it’s one of the few chances in contemporary comics where we can say, “yes, this is something the artist doesn’t control.”
THOUGHT #5: BUT WHAT ABOUT?
Yet, I’ve long thought of myself as someone who follows writers instead of artists. And we’re now knee-deep in the age of the writer in mainstream comics, where artists bounce from series to series, but a writer can stick around and make an impact over several years on a single series.
So what do we mean, then, when we say we like a comic book writer? That we follow a comic book writer no matter where he or she goes?
What exactly are we latching onto, if so much of the writing in comics is in the hands of the artist?
I suppose what we’re left with is “a writer’s sensibility.” The way a writer emphasizes certain types of stories, or returns to a particular set of themes. The way a writer structures a story of the long term, regardless of who may or may not draw individual issues.
Gene Colan may have drawn plenty of Stan Lee and Roy Thomas “Daredevil” comics, but the Stan Lee-written ones have a different sensibility than the Roy Thomas ones, even when the approach to pacing and dialogue and single-issue plotting may have been similar in many superficial respects. And maybe it’s just that Kieron Gillen’s right, and the Lee-Colan creator is a different amalgamated beast than the Thomas-Colan creator. But that wouldn’t explain why Stan Lee’s writerly sensibility is so dominant across so many different comic book serials of the 1960s. Or why Roy Thomas’s authorial voice is so consistent, even if it’s not as showy as so many others.
Regardless of the artist, you’re probably not likely to confuse a Brian Michael Bendis comic with a Grant Morrison comic. Or a Jason Aaron comic with a J. Michael Straczynski comic.
Their authorial voice echoes through, even if their artistic collaborators dominate most of what we consider the major aspects of writing, when we compare it to prose.
Ultimately, though, comics aren’t prose. They are visual. Explicitly so, in the way that prose can never be. When we read a novel, we will all picture different details — the characters and setting may look radically different, depending on our own context, our own histories — but with comics, it’s all there, shining right back up at us. Literalized by the artists, in a way that controls the narrative.
I suppose, if I have a final thought on this topic, it would be this: when you’re talking about comics, writing about comics, or generally thinking about comics, consider that the writer may steer the ship, but the artist has built every single inch of the ship, and it’s a damn enormous, imposing, multi-faceted, wondrous vessel. Made out of pencil and ink.
And all the comic book writers I know would tend to agree.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan