A few weeks ago, I talked about the proper use of the thought balloon, with an eye toward rehabilitating that once ubiquitous but now mostly shunned narrative tool. One of the things I mentioned was the widespread, mostly inane, shifting of the traditional main use of the thought balloon – characters explicating their situation, like a shabby, self-Greek chorus – to the first person narrative caption as though that were an improvement. Either technique, regardless of hipness, has generally matched the other for sheer artlessness.

"Proper," of course, is a loaded word. It implies a natural order, specific categories of right and wrong. In creative fields that kind of thinking is death. What you're "allowed" to do pretty much depends (considerations like editorial fiat or "good taste" aside, but, as Pablo Picasso once wisely pointed out, good taste is the enemy of art) on your artistic goals. Deciphering possible uses of any given tool or technique is one thing, but bringing "should" and "shouldn't" into it stumbles toward manifesto, and manifestos are for idiots. Why worry about "the rules" where there are no rules?

That said, after the thought balloon discussion I had a few people asking about the "proper" use of captions. The caption is a touchy thing in comics, ripe for abuse. Always has been. The traditional (and still the most prevalent) caption type in comics is the same thing in two flavors: expositional via either first person or omniscient narrator. In comics first person has largely been a holdover from detective pulps, especially the theoretically more sophisticated stylings of Raymond Chandler:

"I was still staring at the hot black eyes when a door opened far back under the stairs. It wasn't the butler coming back. It was a girl." (Chandler, THE BIG SLEEP)

Not that most comics captions early on were written that well. First person was uncommon for a number of reasons, not the least because it tends to dilute suspense, since the psychological implication is that the story took place in the past and is being related by someone who survived it. While "how did he survive?" can generate suspense, it's rarely as suspenseful as "will he survive?" Though by the time horror comics were in full bloom, the gimmick was frequently perverted for effect, with narration moving from past tense to present by story's end ("They're out there. I know they can smell my blood. I hear them coming for me!"} or the narrator turning out, as a grim joke, to have been dead all along.

But it doesn't take long for that kind of thing to become a tedious cliché.

More often, captions in comics have served merely to set up stories

"Don Jose Seville was the greatest matador in all of Spain, famous for his quick, agile hands, which had slain 200 bulls... But when he met the beautiful Senorita Isabella Moreno, strange things began to happen... deadly things..." ("The Hands Of Don Jose," Adventures Into Darkness 1952, writer unknown)

or to fill in story gaps between panels

"Days later, in Don Jose's hotel room..." (Ibid)

Again, most uses in comics haven't been even that sophisticated. The Golden Age was littered with "caption as filler," to cover storytelling gaps or idiot proof the action, telling the reader what he's seeing in the art he's looking at:

"The power ring lashes out, and..." (Green Lantern, "Mystery Of The Emerald Necklace," All-American Comics 96, Robert Kanigher, writer)

Overall, captions have been used in a hodgepodge manner throughout comics history. It's not uncommon to cut from an omniscient narrator delivering florid exposition ala a radio announcer to one or more characters within the story shifting into first person narrator mode to clipped, terse, relatively meaningless place holders ("Seconds later...")

It's not that this can't be done – obviously, it has been, many times – or even that it shouldn't be done (like I said, what should be done depends on what you're trying to achieve), it's that many comics writers don't seem to understand the dynamic such things present.

It's not pretty.

And it's one of the reasons why comic books, rightly or otherwise, were popularly held to be unsophisticated. Admittedly, there's something to be said for having everything in a story baldly spelled out, and for a time that sort of thing was considered the pinnacle of craft and expected/demanded by editors. But the price of such utilitarian usage is style.

"Style" in comics is a tricky thing, because the written word in comics usually goes much deeper than what's seen on the printed page. For awhile some comics writers (rather pointlessly, I think) became obsessed with the written style of their scripts, despite almost no one ever seeing them. But the words that landed on the printed page usually betrayed no special difference from anything else published at the time, connoted no defining excellence. Scene descriptions, helpful as they may be to the artist, mean nothing to comics, as scene description is indirect writing. Comics writers have three direct modes of expression, three means of exposing our words directly to the reader, available to us: dialog (including thought balloons), sound effects and captions. Sound effects, while as open to possibilities as anything, are usually the most perfunctory of words in a comic book, so we'll leave them out of this discussion. While chosen by the writer and bearing directly on story's action, dialog is the characters' voices, not (hopefully) the writer's.

Captions are the only place in a comic story where the writer's voice goes to the reader unmediated. This isn't the only use of captions by a long shot, but worth considering is that in comics writing, voice is style. Voice is tone.

Whatever decisions we make regarding captions affects the "voice" of the story. Narration, regardless of the speaker, is always the writer's voice. The reader's appreciation of a story will always be influenced not only by the content of the narration, but by the voice, and that makes these thing worth thinking about.

Narrative captions have always been problematic in comics. As I said, historically most of the captions in comics have been of the "Later, in the harbor –" and "Meanwhile, at another part of the base, General Thunderbolt Ross has called an urgent meeting of his top security officers ---" type, but certainly as early as the 1950s, EC was pioneering more ambitious uses of captions, essentially viewing the overall comics story as an illustrated short story:

"Sleep came at once... and then the dream... the dread dream I've had for the past three nights comes again... and I am powerless to stop it" "Murder Dream," Al Feldstein, writer

Feldstein has sometimes been accused of overwriting, but there's no question that whatever his sins his stories were most often masterpieces of tone, with no extraneous insertions. His captions, whether first person or omniscient, always served voice and mood first, and he was expert at maintaining those over the course of a story.

Now EC stories all ran to the short side, and a strong narrative voice is often mandatory in stories where fairly complex concepts have to be gotten across in a minimum of room. As stories expanded in average length from the '60s on and the art began to shoulder more and more of the narrative burden, the traditional caption became something of a vestigial element, often simply unnecessary. Which is how many newer writers came to view it. Especially when American comics broke from the creative dominance of Marvel and DC, many writers experimented with different uses of captions or attempted to tell stories without captions of any kind. More than a few theories encouraged this: the tendency, on the rise from the mid-'70s on, to view comics as film storyboards and limit them (probably unwisely) to achieving only effects film can achieve, or considering captions (like sound effects) to be an artificial intrusion that could only draw the reader out of a sort of "total immersion" in the comic book, which is to say absorbing the story mainly through the pseudo-immediacy of the art. When Grant Morrison concocted his landmark ZENITH for 2000 AD, he decided, "if I did it without the prevailing captions and thought boxes the strip might stand up quite well on its own."

I confess to always having been somewhat ambivalent toward captions; reading comics growing up it wasn't long before I was aware they commonly presented redundant information already available via the pictures, and accomplished little else. When I first wrote for Marvel my preference was to use them as little as possible, usually for quick setup and then letting dialog or art lead the reader through transitions. (Transitions of any sort in comics have always been as problematic as captions; difficult to do well, very easy to do badly.) Writing WHISPER, I commonly tried to use captions as a second story (sometime peripherally connected, sometimes discontinuous in all ways but thematically) running parallel to and usually slightly overlapping the story told in the art and dialog, figuring placement on a strictly mechanical rather than purposeful level and letting the material find unusual textures via the random collisions of the two "stories." It was fitfully successful, and while some readers loved it I suspect many more just got confused as hell. When I switched from WHISPER to BADLANDS I decided to reduce the captions to essentially highway markers to quickly establish place and time and nothing else. I've experimented with captions elsewhere, as in Dark Horse's X, where the first issue presented another sort of parallel narrative running through a laundry list of urban legends about the character, without directly intersecting the story, and MANHUNTER, whose first issue featured an attempt to establish a narrative ambivalence about what constituted truth and fiction within the story, as pioneered in Margaret Atwood's work. (I remember an annoyance at the time – still have it, actually - with the way comics writers tend to lay down the law about how readers should react to the material, and wanted to see if I could remove those markers as much as possible while still providing something of a genuine reading experience.)

Which is not to suggest any of that's worthy of special note. I'm just saying it seems to me the narrative caption's capable of much more than virtually anyone has so far put it to. Scanning a host of recent comics, from some of the current top lights of American comics like Brian Bendis (MIGHTY AVENGERS), Grant Morrison (SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY), Alan Moore (PROMETHEA #32), and Warren Ellis (GRAVEL #1), caption use is perfunctory, familiar (straightforward first person narrative) or non-existent. That's not a condemnation of any of those projects – there's certainly not grounds for that – but where's the adventurism, the creativity?

Gil Kane use to postulate that captions could be creatively used to generate a richer reading experience. I didn't especially agree with his approach – Gil was always hung up on the purple if bloodpumping prose of the pulps, which were admittedly a step up from the tepid caption prose common in '60s comics but already too dated for an audience of the '70s and later – but I agree with the general thesis. As with thought balloons, we have new possibilities we're overlooking in our general disdain for the caption. Where once the common length of stories made captions pretty much a bare necessity, as a means to gloss over rough storytelling spots and smooth out reader perception if nothing else (and usually it was nothing else), the increased story length that pretty much allowed us to eliminate captions also frees them for other, new uses. No longer a requisite vehicle for the basic story, the caption has new potential as a vehicle for creative storytelling and authorial voice, and an expansion of the tool set available to the comics writer. At this point the only real limitations are writer imagination and editorial/reader acceptance.

Which is one of the challenges for comics writers today: to imagine and develop those new tools, and create a new, expansive language for the future comic book.

Oh, what the hell. Here, have a comic story:

This is one of those things I can't recall ever putting on my computer, but there it was: a little known Charlton western (I forget what book it came from, probably BILLY THE KID) by artist Pat Boyette and writing legend Denny O'Neil, writing as Sergius O'Shaugnessy, before either of them or editor Dick Giordano ended up at DC Comics. If I remember correctly, it spawned a short-lived backup strip. Not the last time Denny mined his Irish heritage either, bucko. (I love it when characters say "bucko." Has the word ever been seriously used outside of fiction?)

Paranoid moment of the week: was off getting this week's supply of Pepsi Max (the writer's friend) when I passed a table of fresh faced young women at the supermarket front door. On my way in, I'd assumed they were selling Girl Scout Cookies (not that I have anything against the Girl Scouts, but spare me) but it turned out it was one of these services to fingerprint your kids.

The "fingerprinting your kids" thing always struck me as one of those "peace of mind" gimmicks meant more for insufficiently attentive parents than for the kids. We're now a nation of potential sexual predators, apparently, to the point where application of the term is so broad it's threatened with losing any practical meaning except as a smear word (a photographer friend was accused of being a sexual predator a few months back just for taking photographs, not even of kids; fortunately, the accusation didn't stick) and the threat of child molestation and abuse seems to hang in the air everywhere, though statistically the odds on your kid getting abused or molested at all is pretty slight, and odds are even greater against a stranger being involved; most molestation and abuse is at the hands of a family member, family friend or trusted authority figure. When I was a kid the term "sexual predator" didn't exist and it wasn't discussed, though we were certainly taught to be wary of adults we didn't know and it was generally assumed we weren't criminally gullible (pretty much true, I think, even if those were considered more "innocent" days), and as divorce wasn't socially acceptable then there weren't many instances of one parent stealing a child from the other. At least that I was aware of. I know of a few girls I went to school with regularly molested by their fathers, no boys (not that the subject was likely to come up) and none kidnapped or otherwise vanished. I suspect anything that happens now happened then in roughly the same proportion. There just weren't 3000 TV shows inflaming hysteria about it.

Not that it's not worth being wary if you're a parent. It's always worth being wary. Probably worth talking frankly to your kids about the matter too, whatever counts as acceptably frank for their age group. It's worth letting kids know that adults lie; screw innocence, there's no age too young to start weaning a kid off gullibility. It's worth teaching your kids early to be little rebels-in-waiting, to know when and how to question authority (and it's perfectly acceptable to exempt yourself, as long as you're honest and consistent with your kid). The sooner your kids learn how to think for themselves, the sooner they'll be able to ward off trouble even when you're not there to interfere. But the best way for parents to keep their kids safe is don't do stupid or lazy things.

Anyway, occurred to me as I saw this opportunity laid out before me to have my kids fingerprinted "for their protection," so that should the worst happen and a child vanish into the night, their fingerprints will be on record. So that when, say, a man with a small child is stopped at some truckstop in Wyoming, the police can quickly determine whether that child was kidnapped. But – here's the paranoid part – it seems to me that fingerprinted children eventually grow up to be fingerprinted adults. The FBI has wanted all American adults fingerprinted for decades (and they're not the only government agency supporting that), and for some reason, walking past that booth of freshly scrubbed young child safety advocates, this struck me as their back door into that. Is there a downside to the FBI having everyone's fingerprints on file? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it was a long-held tenet of American philosophy that until you've committed a crime the FBI, cops, etc. have no valid need for your fingerprints, and it's up to them to prove they do. Since 9/11 the government's general philosophy has been that liberty is a necessary casualty where security is at stake. This is just one more little way that's coming true.

Over on the campaign scene, things continue to be entertaining. The Clinton forces have been sounding increasingly hysterical the past couple days: hurling anti-Obama accusations right and left, claiming that if Obama doesn't win every one of yesterday's primaries it signifies America is turning away from his message, threatening to sue Texas over its weird primary/caucus system if Hillary doesn't get the lion's share of delegates. (By the way, has anyone else noticed Bill seems to have abruptly dropped out of public sight, about as soon as he told voters that if they don't get out there and give Hillary victories in Ohio and Texas she'd be forced out of the race?) At the moment, CNN predicts Obama gets Vermont and probably Texas and Clinton gets Ohio, while John McCain's making mincemeat of Mike Huckabee's reputed plan to "turn this thing around." Huckabee "jokingly" suggested to his followers the other day that they should tell anyone planning to vote for McCain that the primary date or polling place has been moved, or let the air out of their tires, etc. Big laughs all around, but considering those aren't exactly unusual tactics anymore. Meanwhile, as the good will engendered by the New York Times attack was dimmed by McCain's repudiation of slurs by an Ohio radio host on Obama while introducing the candidate at a rally, McCain moved to firm up the right by accepting the endorsement of Texas televangelist John Hagee, a nutball evangelical (no, I'm not suggesting evangelical=nutball, I'm saying Hagee=nutball, and he's also an evangelical) who believes the Catholic Church is the work of the devil and wants a strong Israel so that country can host the battle of Armageddon and usher in the Second Coming. Hagee and McCain had a good time calling each other men of principle, while McCain (let's assume he hadn't been adequately briefed) stated he and Hagee shared common ideals. McCain's campaign argued that whatever crazy crap Hagee has said, he didn't say it as the McCain rally, and that makes him okay with them. Finally, a candidate Louis Farrakhan can endorse without fear of rejection or denunciation!

Notes from under the floorboards:

Short column this week, sorry about that; I spent this morning writing my forthcoming Odysseus The Rebel webcomic instead. For various reasons, all of which are very good but none really qualify as justification, I haven't been putting the time in on Odysseus that I should – one of the big problems of the freelance life is that the longer you're at it the more the world conspires to hurl obstacles to kill your momentum, especially on long projects – but it has turned into a very entertaining, cathartic series to write. I originally intended to do a more or less straight reading of the Odyssey, reinterpreting aspects of it for thematic effect. But once I started writing it, I realized the mechanisms were in place to manipulate the story – what Eric Shanower once told me was the final story in all Greek mythology, which I knew but hadn't quite codified at that point – into a sort of meditation on the nature of story itself. Also realized I had the leeway to write it less as a full script, as I started out doing, and more as a long play, since I could trust my artist to manipulate the visuals/dialog balance for me. Very liberating and very different from anything else I've done. (If you're looking for Thor-esque pseudo-Shakespearean blather from characters, look elsewhere.) Tried to finish up the current scene – Odysseus' son Telemachus reaches Sparta in search of news of him – last night but needed sleep, and this morning I just didn't feel like breaking momentum. Again, sorry about that, but it should work out in the long run.

Also under pressure to finish up Odysseus because I just signed the contract on that Original Graphic Novel project I mentioned a few weeks ago (when I can talk about it I will) so I'll have to get started on that imminently. Plus, oddly, got several gig offers from various companies within the space of a couple days last week. Don't know how much of that will ultimately come to pass, but it's weird how these things comes in small tidal waves. Last year was pretty much a dead zone of new work – about half my doing and about half the industry's – but this year's already starting to look very interesting. I gather my new graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE is being solicited by Image Comics right about now...

For some reason I got a bunch of emails in the last week from people wanting to know how they can get ahold of my gonzo Avatar action mini-series of a couple years ago, MY FLESH IS COOL. I'd love to know why this is suddenly an issue, but those who are interested can easily order all three issues by clicking on this link, then doing a title search in the appropriate Avatar Store box in the upper right of the page. The order form should pop right up.

Ended up spending much of last week catching up on films newly released on DVD:

3:10 TO YUMA: I generally enjoy James Mangold's movies even when they're not all that good, and having both Christian Bale and a pleasantly restrained Russell Crowe together doesn't hurt. Never saw the '50s original, but the remake has a '50s western vibe that was sometimes charming and sometimes disconcerting. Bale's performance as a nobody farmer determined to do one noteworthy thing makes the film, but there are a number of other good jobs, especially from Crowe, Ben Foster and Peter Fonda. Too bad it falls apart in the final reel, with Crowe's final actions inadequately explained and an ending too abrupt to be satisfying. Good while it lasts, though.

AMERICAN GANGSTER: Russell Crowe again, and both he and Denzel Washington are fine in this story of Vietnam era drug trafficking and police corruption. But, based on a true story aside, I felt like I'd seen Ridley Scott's film dozens of times before: this bit from THE FRENCH CONNECTION, that bit from PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, that from BLACK CAESAR, etc. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but here it's no less derivative, and while the nearly three hour length is meant to indicate an operatic epic, it mostly plays as just sluggish. Watchable but unmemorable.

SHOOT-'EM'-UP: the exact opposite of AMERICAN GANGSTER, wasting both Clive Owen as a man-with-no-name one-man army coincidentally arising from nowhere to save a newborn babe from an army of cannon-fodder gunmen, and Paul Giamatti, sporting one of the strangest accents known to man (know how Brit actors always do "American" as a hyperflattened Iowa accent? This is Giamatti doing an American doing a Brit doing that American accent...), leading that army. And by "opposite," I mean memorable but unwatchable. Nobody digs action films more than me but this was just awful.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH: You're kidding, right? A ponderous, inane "murder mystery" hinging vaguely on post-traumatic stress over a roadside incident involving American soldiers in Iraq, redeemed slightly by another Charlize Theron attempt to render herself unrecognizable. (It almost works, and she plays her investigating cop role well.) The filmmakers confuse tediously slow with weighty as characters stare glumly off into space for seemingly hours at a time, though Tommy Lee Jones, whose work I generally love, spends the film looking like he pissed his pants but is determined not to let on regardless of growing discomfort, as the ex-MP father of the murdered soldier. (For some reason, he got an Oscar nom for it.) Director Paul Haggis (CRASH) loves waving the flag of "deep issues" over his films, but the mystery even when solved remains inexplicable, and the movie ends up pretty much silence and lethargy, and still signifies nothing.

I see the CW has renewed both SMALLVILLE and SUPERNATURAL for another season. (Don't know about SMALLVILLE but SUPERNATURAL's ratings continue to rise.) So I guess we'll be seeing more of SMALLVILLE's variant JLA and other DC superstars materialize next year. Given how generally strong the show has been for so long, I'm kind of surprised DC has never created a little splinter "universe" of books to tie in with it. Still time, I guess...

Interestingly, our Iraq occupation seems to be having some effect on the country after all. Recent reports indicate it may turn into a triumph - for atheism! Seems many of the young there just don't see God as a likelihood anymore... if you believe the New York Times. Somehow I don't think this is what our divinely inspired great leaders (following the start of the occupation, our state department authorized several right wing Christian groups to head in country to start converting them heathen Muslims to the one true religion, but I haven't heard any progress reports on that in years) had in mind, but in a world where fundamentalists of all stripes seem to be hungry for holy war atheism is as likely a path to lasting peace as any.

The latest holy war, by the way: seems the Vatican is getting ready to name its first Indian (sub-continent variety) saint, a woman who mutilated herself to get out of marriage so she could serve Jesus instead. Not that that's anything special; read a Lives Of The Saints and you'll see stories like that running back to the first century. The interesting part is that the Vatican apparently sees this as necessary to show support for Indian Christians, reportedly persecuted by Hindus. But what do the Hindus have against them? Forced conversions, for one thing, like clients at Catholic-run medical centers being told they have to convert to Catholicism before they're granted treatment...

By the way, in case you hadn't heard, we're now bombing Somalia.

Seems the Internet's not all that dangerous for kids, after all. Damn, another perfectly good hysteria shot...

Here's a good one: the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition recently imposed on New York's Hunter College class – a professor with no knowledge or experience of the subject matter was dragooned to run it – to create a fake blog by a nonexistent student to put out the message that piracy and counterfeiting are wrong. Interestingly, this was a for-credit course being paid for by the IACC, and the course objective was basically to lobby for the organization. Inherent message: fakes good, counterfeits bad. Okay. I expect we'll see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, since many college administrators don't seem to have the brains they theoretically were born with.

I'm really ticked off at HBO (which has taken to putting some programming online free, in a desperate bid to draw viewers back to its lamer original shows). Since the excellent final season of THE WIRE began a couple months ago, they've been showing it on On Demand six days in advance of its "network debut" each Sunday night. This week, though, the 1.5 hour series finale that looks from the previews to be the climax to end all climaxes isn't being shown until the regular Sunday timeslot. Presumably to jack up those ratings, since everyone who's anyone is dying to see this one. Not that I really mind all that much, but it's cheesy to not have given us faithful fans a little warning. HBO used to be a primal entertainment source, but all the good stuff - OZ, DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, EXTRAS, even THE SOPRANOS (even though it coasted its whole run off the first brilliant season) – has slipped away, leaving only tripe like the thankfully cancelled JOHN FROM CINCINNATI and appalling therapy crap like IN TREATMENT, while their movie offerings have grown more and more irrelevant. I like ENTOURAGE, but it's not something that can buttress a whole network-for-pay. HBO is showing its age and increasing gutlessness and lack of imagination, and I'm starting to think maybe it's time to cut it loose.

Congratulations to Chris Sequeira, the first to figure out last week's Comics Cover Challenge solution was "high heels." (Quite a few respondents said "Red." But I'd likely have included a cover from Warren Ellis & Cully Hamner's RED if that were the case; odds are I wouldn't get that chance again.) Chris points you to Pulp Faction, the online Australian comics community replete with news, interviews, profiles and virtually everything there is to know about comics Australian. Dig it!

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. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet's answer to a water tower.) As in most week, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column, if you can figure out how to read the signs. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

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