CREATING COMICS STEP BY STEP: The First Word On Dialogue
ENERGY DRAIN: what can be done about the mushrooming energy crisis, and why it won’t be done
BYRNE, BABY, BYRNE: race relations and the comics artist
This is a down and dirty series on making comics step by step, from conception to post-publication.
In theory, the purest comics are those done without use of any words at all, where the pictures alone carry the entire narrative weight of the story. Comics like that have been done. Very few have been done successfully. Likewise, there have been comics that depended almost entirely on dialogue with virtually no reliance on the pictures, and few of those have been done successfully either. For better or worse, we as a species are creatures of language, and written/spoken language is our primary means of communication. Language can be used to confuse, conceal and befuddle, but, used properly, it can also produce the most immediate clarity of expression. Language can even connect us after death, as anyone who has ever appreciated the work of a dead author knows.
Language is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.
Dialogue is language in action. As I said last week, it’s an integral element of characterization: what we say, the words we use and the rhythms we filter them through all expose our psychologies, our prejudices, our backgrounds. Those are all elements of character. Two characters, speaking to each other, are unlikely to speak with exactly the same words, phrases and phrasing unless the intent is parodic exaggeration.
Dialogue serves several functions in a story:
– to convey information
– to connote character
– to create rhythm
– to alter mood and tone
In most media, dialogue is specifically that: speech. For the most part, language (at least the part the audience is aware of) is restricted in TV, film and radio to characters talking to characters. Even most voiceovers occur either in the context of one character explaining something, usually a flashback or visualized speculation, to another character, or as monologue, which is really a one-sided dialogue between character and audience to answer unspoken questions about plot or behavior.
Comics are a special case in that there are three variations on dialogue in most comic books:
– character speech
– sound effects
Each has been dismissed by one faction or another over the history of comics, but each usually serves different, if sometimes overlapping, functions in a story. On the most basic level, captions provide exposition that answers reader questions (“Who is Johnny Thunder, the fighting plainsman? No one knows where the western whirlwind comes from or where he goes after his blazing guns and pounding fists teach badmen than law and order must rule the west!”*) or points their attention in the desired direction (“But as the stage reaches Vulture Pass…”*), while dialogue expresses character interaction and sound effects (SFX) are onomatopoeic visual representations of aural stimuli that pretend toward giving the story a richer quasi-synethestetic reality for a reader, as when the reader “hears” a gunshot by reading CRACK! In the midst of the action. Dialogue is often turned to exposition too, though. (“The sound of gunfire got me here too late to help the holdup victims! But I’ve got to corral those killing rattlers!”*)
Bearing in mind that infinite creative variations are possible and “perfect” can only be defined in the context of specific stories, in a perfect world the narrative weight of a story will be carried in roughly equal proportion by art and dialogue. Traditionally this hasn’t been the case, resulting in redundancies like having a panel showing a man sliding down a hillside, with a caption that reads “Bob slides down the hillside!” If it’s really redundant Bob might have a thought balloon that says, “I’ll slide down the hill!” This practice was born from necessity, from the days where an artist might not draw a necessary story element, such as Bob sliding down a hill. The writer would idiot proof his script by including a caption or a thought/word balloon describing what the reader was supposed to see in the panel had the artist actually drawn it, in order to keep the story flowing somewhat smoothly. The result was many stories top-heavy with dialogue and exposition, which is basically the presentation of information to introduce, to give background, to push the story forward. The problem has been that with character speech also bearing much of the burden of exposition, many of the other functions of speech get lost.
So the challenge is to achieve a balance between art and dialogue, because, with comics providing space restrictions far more severe than most media, if art carries the brunt of exposition (i.e., having story elements drawn clearly enough and with enough impact that discussing them in caption or speech is unnecessary and redundant) dialogue can be turned to other, better purposes, such as enriching our understanding and appreciation of the characters and responding to them less as story constructs and more as human beings, to add new depths of perception, or to generate more and richer levels of information.
Next: Dialogue in practice.
* From “The Real Johnny Thunder,” by Robert Kanigher, Alex Toth & Sy Barry, ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #122, 1951.
Speaking of spectacles, the big promise of THE OFFICE, American-style, sure burned out in a hurry, didn’t it? Weighed down by lead Steve Carell, who seemed to think his job in the slice-of-life mockumentary series was to elevate cluelessness and self-absorption to the level of caricature, the series was further strapped by NBC throwing it into the Tuesday 9-10P minefield behind a fading SCRUBS, and the ratings, top-notch on its Thursday night debut, hemorrhaged every week thereafter. Not that it was quite the abortion the Americanized COUPLING was, but while there were often funny bits in it, the pacing on the show was odd, a sort of slackened fun house mirror reflection of the naturalism of the British version, slightly out of sync; it just seemed to get slower and slower, not helped by Carell bringing every scene he was in to a crawl. Oh well. Gone, gone, the damage done.
It is funny how NBC, for more than a decade the king of prime time, has, with the latest sweeps season, sunk to network #4 in a field of six. They can’t seem to debut anything anymore, can they? Even the LAW AND ORDER franchise is petering out with the new TRIAL BY JURY, despite the usually dependable Bebe Neuwirth and the excellent Kirk Acevedo (of OZ). I’ve seen lists of their pilots in development and they all sound pedestrian and mechanical. The good news for fans of marginal NBC shows like SCRUBS is they’re likelier to bear what ills they have than flee to those they know not of. But what happened to these guys? It’s not like most of what the other networks are airing is terribly spectacular. Why can’t NBC sell a show anymore?
Finally, caught five minutes of MAN-THING on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday night. That was as much as I could take of the Marvel movie so shambling (appropriate considering the lead character, I guess) its own distributor yanked it from theatrical release last year due to the response from test audiences. But the first sequence was inadvertently hilarious: a hot babe in cutoffs and cowboy boots lures a sweaty ruffian out into the deep, dark bayou where they make it on one of those long gnarled tree trunks that always seem to be everywhere in swamp-based movies and TV shows, and as the grunting stops and he pulls away, he exclaims, “So what’d yuh think uh this, baby?” And she seems to look down him, her eyes lingering for a second before they puff in revulsion, and her face contorts with Samuel Z. Arkoff intensity and she lets out a shrill horror movie scream –
And they go to title: MAN-THING.
Best unintentional sex joke on TV in years.
And I really have to wonder: did anyone even at the production company even watch the film? Didn’t those juxtapositions add up a little weirdly to anyone else?
Except the main reason gas is costing so much more at the pump these days is the unprecedented weakness of the dollar in world markets, a result of Hand Puppet economic policies as the Euro gains ground, which has mainly resulted in rapidly rising inflation domestically that the admin refuses to acknowledge (and, in any case, there’s only one real “cure” for inflation, isn’t there?: cut taxes! Because there’s no economic crisis that making sure there’s no money in the treasury can’t cure…), meaning only a fraction of the oil a dollar bought a year ago can be bought with a dollar today. (Blair’s abrupt declaration last week that “evidence” shows the Euro isn’t right for Britain, despite the absence of any evidence, can be seen not only as an election year sop to a British public unhappy with the Euro but as protection for the dollar, which gets weaker and weaker as the Euro becomes more widely accepted.) That’s the real result of the Hand Puppet’s tax cuts and the war in Iraq: instead of giving your money to the Feds for roads and education and luxuries like that, you can give it directly to Texaco now, and a lot more of it. Meanwhile, if you still want an SUV, you’ll be able to get one for rock bottom prices now, because the mad selloff has begun, with owners trying to dump theirs as fast as their Chevron bill arrives. Except no one’s buying, including used car dealers because they don’t want the inventory sitting inert on their lots.
If I appear to have no sympathy for this, it’s because I don’t. For a minimum of 30 years, we’ve known the energy crisis was the coming state of things, not just a brief blip during the Carter years.
This is also why I have no sympathy for tobacco companies or tobacco growers. There’s an 1888 medical textbook that directly links tobacco to cancer, specifically lung cancer so the terminal health risks of the weed were known long before the ’50s. Did tobacco companies expand into other areas and divest themselves of tobacco? No. Did tobacco farmers phase out tobacco crops in favor of other cash crops? No. If you have decades to deal with a problem, and you don’t, when someone comes along and says “Take care of it right now!” do you have the right to bitch there’s not enough time? Of course not.
Thirty years ago, the push was on for: developing alternative energy sources; switching from monster gas guzzlers to small, fuel efficient cars; energy conservation; and various other practices. The overall term was appropriate technology, which somehow got confused with the Luddite notion of abandoning technology and going back to dirt farming. It was known then that known oil supplies would likely last no more than 100 years; today they’re saying 50, and that’s without factoring in the industrial designs of the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, which recently entered an alliance to challenge the West’s technological dominance. (Specifically, China intends to dominate computer hardware and India software.) If two billion people – and, admittedly, that’s assuming every one of those countries’ citizens, so that’s likely to be a little high but even if a quarter that many – suddenly consume energy at the same level that the US population consumes energy, that drastically cuts the time frame. One of the arguments against appropriate technology was that new oil fields would be found and opened, but in the last 30 years that hasn’t been the case. None have been found, no significant fields have been opened. All that’s happened is improvements in getting the stuff out of the ground from existing fields, which won’t significantly extend the life of the fields.
Since we knew all this was going to happen, what did we do? Come the Reagan era, when the first surge of the radical religious right spread the concept that since the Second Coming was imminent it was wasteful to not use up the resources God gave us before that event (and I’m not being facetious: Reagan Secretary of the Interior James Watt said exactly that on at least one occasion), all that “austerity” stuff became a thing of the past. Republican science declared there was no energy crisis. Oil conservation was declared no longer an issue; auto manufacturers decided small was bad and (not coincidentally more expensive) big cars were where America wanted to do. (Because, hey, it’s the public that drives the market, and they want to feel positive about America again!)
Next stop, lots of SUVs.
And here we are. Interestingly, the Hand Puppet even acknowledged the need to wean ourselves off oil. Sort of. Among his pack of half-assed energy schemes, a – wait for it – tax rebate for people who buy electric or hybrid cars. Which is fine with me, I’m all for electric or hybrid cars. But most people aren’t going to buy them in the first place, for two reasons: 1) they’re too expensive for most people, and 2) there aren’t a significant amount of filling stations set up to allow recharging, which significantly limits their applicability, at least as we use cars today.
Obviously, if we intend to maintain our standard of living for any stretch into the future ($4/gallon by next summer at the latest!) we’re going to have to limit our dependence on oil, aside from the political situation of not wanting to be held hostage from the foreign nations whence the bulk of our oil flows. Electric cars, hybrid cars, hydrogen cars, all good. The problem is less autos than infrastructure; gasoline has kept its grip on us because the infrastructure’s set up for it. I can pick from a dozen filling stations within a mile of my home and fill up the tank. Gasoline is easy and familiar. What good is an electric car if I have to bring it back to my own garage for a recharge every twelve hours? What if I have to go to Los Angeles for five days? Car makers are touting the future of hydrogen cars, but where do I get usable hydrogen from? Inhale deeply then exhale through a hose into my fuel tank?
For any new technology to take hold there has to be a critical mass is availability of fuel for that technology. There wouldn’t be a computer in every household today if there weren’t electric sockets in every household today. There won’t be mass acceptance of electric cars or hydrogen cars until recharging or hydrogen fuel is widely available, despite the relative environmental benefits of those technologies over gasoline. (Still, between vehicles and factory use, the single greatest threat to air quality we have.) Until the support infrastructure is there. For a country this size, that’s quite an investment. Car manufacturers don’t fund infrastructure, while to the extent gas companies sponsor alternative technologies over the sale of increasingly expensive gasoline, they’re cutting their own throats. If you’re a businessman you don’t want to make your product obsolete while there’s still the potential to profit from it. If we want an infrastructure capable of supporting electric or hydrogen cars, that leaves the government.
Which I’m sure already has some of you screaming about big government, which is a reason it’s not going to happen under this administration. Despite creating the biggest government in American history and appropriating more powers to it than any other administration before, it’s an administration that makes a big show out of not being “big government.” I can’t imagine they’d undertake a very expensive project that would benefit the vast majority of American citizens but not their biggest corporate patrons. (The car companies might love them, though.) I can’t imagine it because the money isn’t there. It has either been given away by the Hand Puppet’s largesse to the rich and powerful, or spent on the Iraqi invasion or occupation where things get worse by the day. (Despite all our troops in Iraq, most of the roads leading into Baghdad are controlled by “insurgents,” while most western reporters are afraid to leave their hotels anymore for fear of being kidnapped and the bulk of their “reports” result from daily briefings from the military instead of any kind of observation, investigation and reporting; as desertions among Iraqi recruits, already skyrocketing, reach epidemic proportions, look for lots of pundits to insist our evacuation from Iraq – Washington’s talking December now – isn’t like the evacuation from Vietnam 30 years ago at all.) The only other real way to finance, or underwrite, a drastic infrastructure overhaul would be to raise taxes, either personal or corporate, and that’s not going to happen. So it falls to the gas companies, and even if the problems I discussed above were out of the way, they wouldn’t rush into it until there were a significant number of alternative energy vehicles on the road, which won’t happen until car companies can manufacture and sell enough of them to bring the prices down, which won’t happen until the support infrastructure’s in place.
Hand in hand with all this, of course, is the current administration’s gutting, a couple years ago, of money and tax credits for alternative energy development to put more government money in the hands of Big Oil. (For instance, they put a government sponsored successful wind farm – used for generating electricity – out of business here a couple years ago because the White House didn’t want to spend money on alternative energy.) Makes it hard to take what the Hand Puppet says about energy now seriously. Me, I’m not sure why no one’s making a solar powered/electric hybrid car for desert driving; with no gasoline to worry about and solar charging a constant, whoever built one could sell a few million here in Las Vegas alone.
The most recent Byrne brushfire arose from a conversation on his chat board about whether the things on comics pages that hold the dialogue and point to the speakers are word balloons or word bubbles (John’s right on that one; it’s balloons, and I’ve never heard anyone in the business ever call them “word bubbles,” so let’s not bother reinventing the wheel, okay?) and John, for some reason, brought up the n word. Not calling anyone that, just as a comparative suggesting calling an African-American the N word is somehow the equivalent of calling a word balloon a bubble, both being “improper” usage. When correspondents suggested use of the N word went a bit beyond “improper” to flat out racist, in his defense John claimed
“in point of fact there are plenty of people who use the word [the n word] because that is the word they use, not because they imagine it has any negative racial connotations. That’s precisely why I chose that word as my illustration.”
You have to remember that John was raised in Canada, and has only lived in the United States for, oh, 25 years or so, so he can be forgiven for not realizing:
There is no one man, woman or child in the United States who has been awake at any time since the 1960s (and probably considerably before that) who is not aware of the racist meaning and intent of the n word. The Unabomber knows it. While I’m sure there are those who use it quaintly, at absolute best it can only be used condescendingly, as in “that ________ sure does a good job at the store,” the same way that many men like to condescendingly refer to women as “lovely and surprisingly intelligent,” as if the latter is a rare and shocking quality absent in the vast majority of the genre and unanticipated in the specific representative, though with the N word it’s much worse because the word specifically indicates an inferior who at best is fit only for service (the word does derive from slave days, after all) and is more commonly used to indicate something intrinsically subhuman, and therefore reflexively paints the speaker as the innately more worthy superior. Everyone knows this. Everyone. If people John knows “use the word… because it’s the word they use, not because they imagine it has any negative racial connotations,” it’s only because they don’t imagine the racial connotations to be negative, not because they don’t know what the racial connotations are. They know. If they’ve been living in this country, they know. Which means… they’re racists.
Glad I could clear that up for all our Canadian imports out there…
More old school fanzine fun, this time focused on western comics, including write-ups of John Severin’s fabulous ’50s Indian hero American Eagle, the ’60s pseudo-superhero Marvel westerns like GHOST RIDER, classic Zorro stories, the early adventures Jonah Hex, and reviews of a smattering of more recent westerns. Not the deepest reading by a long shot, but these guys sure show their love for comics, and since I’ve always been a sucker for westerns, this was the most fun I’ve had reading about comics in some time.
SQUA TRONT #11 edited by John Benson, 64 pg. squarebound magazine (Fantagraphics;$10.95)
John Severin, one of the greatest artists ever to grace the field, also figured prominently in this issue of one of the first great EC Comics fanzines, including Severin appreciations, checklists, interviews (including a fascinating one with ’50s writer/collaborator Colin Dawkins) and a lot of terrific Severin art. There are a couple other EC-themed pieces, but Severin’s the ticket. Benson’s always been among the best fan-/semi-pro-zine editors in the field and he knocks this one out of the park. It’s overused hyperbole to say things like “if you love comics, DON’T MISS THIS!” but in this case it’s a perfectly accurate assessment. Fabulous.
I dunno… a lot of people think McGruder’s humor is acerbic and one-sidedly opinionate and… do you people also complain about Beethoven symphonies having string arrangements too? BOONDOCKS is consistently one of the funniest new newspaper strips of the last five years (making it one of the funniest currently running, since most aren’t very funny), and McGruder boldly takes on the foibles of race, religion, politics, manners and culture with equal panache and great comic timing. McGruder, who’s certainly in the running as most important newspaper strip cartoonist working today, has really come into his own in the past couple years, as the strips reprinted here prove; he’s a terrific social critic who’s not afraid to let hero Huey get hoist on his own petard as often as not. Terrific.
PROCESS RECESS by James Jean, 220 pg. hardcover (Adhouse Books;$25)
I generally have little use for sketchbooks, and I was surprised to find out this little red book was one, but Jean’s work (he’s best known for comics covers like those on FABLES is phenomenal. He works in a plethora of styles and techniques here – line art, paintings, surrealism, naturalism, realistic, cartoony – just page after page of fascinating design and technique. I’d love to see him draw whole comics in pen and ink. This isn’t the doodling of most sketchbooks, most of these pieces could be framed, and there’s no way to walk away from PROCESS RECESS without believing Jean is an incredible talent. Another excellent book this week, even if it is a sketchbook.
RANDOM ENCOUNTER #1 con exclusive by Nicc Balce, 32 pg. b&w comic (Viper Comics; no price given)
Three geeks working at a convenience store are have their cultural banter cut short by the sudden arrival of a dead girl and some sort of deadly shadow creature hunting her. The animation style art is open and pleasant, but the story, which owes more than a little to Kevin Smith and various manga, is a little too open, not really getting anywhere besides the obvious. It’s not compelling, but it’s okay.
FRONTIER PUBLISHING PRESENTS… #1 edited by Michael Exner III, 32 pg b&w comic (Frontier Publishing;$2.50)
A little anthology of potential series, from the looks of things. They’re smart to start with their best foot, an adventure story by Derrick Ferguson & Russ Anderson, with art by Alex Kosakowski & Andrew Magnum that’s only slightly shy of professional quality, though the story’s a bit too tongue in cheek for its own good. Unfortunately, the rest of the book features a couple competent but unmemorable text stories, and a pretty badly drawn story about a couple of hitmen trying to get rid of a body. Worst is the cover, which puts its worst foot forward with silly putty figures stretched out of proportion; it looks very unappealing. New publishers just have to start demanding more, I think; it’s hard enough to stake a claim in the business without sabotaging yourself.
Somehow Hernandez manages to pack more story into 24 pages than most comics manage to get into six issues. This final issue of LUBA, the sequel/continuation of his incredible graphic novel PALOMAR doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of that work, but it’s a fine culmination of the seemingly dozens of storylines Hernandez has built in the course of the series, as heroine Luba’s extended family disintegrates around her in fits of violence, personal revolution and self-discovery, with more than a few surprises, and he remains an excellent writer whose already terrific art continues to sharpen and improve. The lack of a truly conclusive ending suggests he may harbor more Luba adventures for some distant future, but this is satisfying enough for now, with a subtle but really killer last page. Get it, but if you don’t want to come in late, don’t miss the likely forthcoming collection.
Out of time. A ton more reviewed next week, including Spears & G’s FILLER, the latest issue of TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN, and COMICS JOURNAL SPECIAL EDITION 5: MANGA MASTERS. Be there.
Having a couple minor design problems with the collection of political writing, but look for it in the next week or so, available, like TOTALLY OBVIOUS, at Paper Movies. For those who came in late, TOTALLY OBVIOUS is a pdf e-book collection of all the essays on comics, creativity, culture and the freelance life from my previous column Master Of The Obvious. (You can read a sample while you’re over there, if you’re undecided.) 300 pages for only $5.95 – now that’s reading!
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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.
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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.
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