THE INTRODUCTION TO THIS WEEK'S COLUMN
I think I've figured it out, although it may be too late.
Larry Hama is not a bad Batman writer. He's just a godawful scripter. But that doesn't matter, because he's now off the book.
BATMAN #576 was a cool issue. It's a full-length action sequence, with a really nice moment or two amongst the adrenaline pumps. Scott McDaniel and Karl Story do an excellent job in orchestrating the fast-paced hijinks.
The story falls completely flat in its dialogue, though. Maybe this is a stylistic choice. There are people who would go for this style of writing. It's the kind that explains everything you're looking at as you read the book. For those just learning to read comics, that can be very helpful. For the rest of us, it's completely unnecessary to have a bad guy shout, "Batman just shot some sort of grappling line at us!" in a panel that shows the grappling line affixing itself to the helicopter one panel after we see Batman fire the line. When Batman is climbing into the helicopter and the guy opens fire on him, does he need to spout, "I think this caped freak is way overrated! I mean, he can't dodge bullets, can he?" When the kid stabs Anton on-panel, does the other bad guy have to say to himself, "Whu? The kid just stabbed Anton!" ?!? Can't we see that?
It's very similar to some of the annoyances of the Duck comics. As much as I love Carl Barks' work, there are times I wish he'd just shut the ducks up and let the story flow.
You want details? OK, lets do this a bit more formally:
PIPELINE WRITING LESSON: DIALOGUE
There is one major reason to put dialogue in any comic - to explain to the reader what is going on. It comes in different forms, but that's the point. Dialogue can show us mental or moral conflict. The type of conflict found in an action scene doesn't really need dialogue - after all, you can see the conflict unfolding before your eyes. In the case of interpersonal conflict not of a physical variety, you need the dialogue or the captions to explain what's going on - but no more. That's tight scripting.
Yes, I'm the same guy who loved Claremont's writing on UNCANNY X-MEN. Different book, different style. Claremont loves to set the scene with prose. He loves to use certain catch phrases to help identify the characters. Most of all, his dialogue is stylistic. It's consistent and it reads well in my ears. X-MEN has always been a series with stories told in angst-ridden monologues. Every book is someone's first and the large cast has to be constantly re-introduced.
Yes, I'm the same guy who drools over Brian Bendis' talking heads books. But you'll notice that when the action scenes come up in Bendis' books, Bendis knows to get out of the way and let the action tell the story. The rambling dialogue often found in Bendis' stories are part and parcel of his style, as well. The stuttering and stopping, the nonsensical fragments, the pointlessly repetitive balloons - it's all part of what makes Bendis' books so much fun to read. It's not the forced natural style of dialogue we're used to reading. This is dialogue that could actually have come out of real people's mouths.
Larry Hama, however, suffers not from style, but just poor dialogue. I can say this, in part, because it's inconsistent. One page may work fine, while another won't. Some characters can get out a decent sentence, while others have dialogue so stilted and forced, it makes you grind your teeth.
BATMAN #576, specifically, is an action issue. It's like an action movie in 22 pages. That's all. There's some fabulous stunt work, a thin plotline, and a big brooding hero. You get vague hints of international political intrigue and a new recurring Batman villain. That's the book's style and that's what it should read like.
What Larry Hama scripts in BATMAN is far from the action book he plotted. You need look no further than the first page of the book. The first panel is a shot inside a helicopter of four bad guys and a child with his hands tied up, a worried look on his face. The second panel shows Batman leaning out of the Batmobile, firing his grappling hook upwards. You can see the helicopter reflected in the windshield of his car. In the third panel, the grappling hook wraps around the helicopter, as two of the terrorists look out of the 'copter.
From those three panels, you have a pretty good idea of what's going on, thanks to Scott McDaniel's layout talents. There are bad guys in a helicopter flying through or over the city. Batman is giving chase. He's catching up and attaching the grappling hook to the helicopter. Pretty smooth.
The first panel has four word balloons. They give us the name of our kidnapper, "Cipher"; the fact that this is, indeed, a kidnapping; and that the helicopter is flying low over the city because they're trying to avoid radar. (The only thing that could really help that panel is if McDaniel drew a view out a window somewhere so that you could see how low the copter is flying. You really can't tell until the second panel that it's flying directly over the city, and not in some desert area.)
Hama gets it half right in the fourth balloon, wherein the co-pilot says, "If I go too fast, I can clip a skyscraper and lemme tell ya, that'll hurt." The first part establishes how Batman is able to catch up to the helicopter - the helicopter has a handicap working through the city. The second half comes off a bit clumsy, though. If Hama were trying to characterize the co-pilot as a jokester, it's a waste of time. It never really pays off anywhere in the rest of the issue. And the character isn't all that necessary to the plot. When you're trying to run a taut thriller of a comic, you have to shed all the extras and get to the bare bones of it.
The second panel has Batman talking to the car, putting it in voice mode. While my first reaction was that, wow, Hama was just looking for an excuse to have more dialogue in the issue, it's a fine idea. It establishes what the Batmobile in the new Gotham is capable of doing. It does pay off later on in the story in that the car can be voice controlled. And it helps put the reader's mind at ease that the car isn't going to crash into some building after Batman climbs out of it and up to the helicopter.
In other words, I have no problem with the second panel.
The third panel is terse, but what little dialogue is there is completely hokey. Terrorist #1 looks out the window and says, "Hey! That's the Batmobile down there!" Terrorist #2 looks down and says, "Batman just shot some sort of grappling line at us!"
Well, duh! That was all established in the second panel, and shown quite clearly in this one! Why do we need to have that spelled out for us?
(Aside: Isaac Asimov would never have used "Hey!" He didn't believe in using any such exclamation. His characters didn't start sentences with "Damn," "Oh," "Well," or any such thing. He was as economical in his prose as I wish more comic writers could be.)
One could make the argument that they're updating the copter's pilots about the situation. OK. But can we do it in some other way? Sure. All you need is one character to shout, "Cipher - the Batman is on us!" Something like that. You don't need to establish who the Batman is. And you don't need to establish what the batarang is. The art does that just fine.
Pages two and three establish just how low the helicopter is flying and look really neat. The only problem I had with the dialogue is that I think the final balloon could have been placed in a caption box on the first panel of page four. It would have acted as a better segue, and saved a caption box.
It isn't all quite that bad. The sequence of Batman and the boy in the sewers is done pretty well, actually. But there's a lot of villain speak in there that hurts to read.
Any questions? Do you want a full analysis of the entire issue?
The funny thing is that I still enjoyed the issue. McDaniels pulls off some really neat shots, such as the one with Batman underwater being fired at. (It looks vaguely familiar. I probably saw it in an action movie trailer somewhere along the line.) Batman and the kid share a great moment underground. The action is spectacular. If worse comes to worse, I can always credit the issue with giving me enough to talk about to fill up this column. =)
ELSEWHERE AT THE DC COMICS
They sure do know how to tug at the heartstrings over at DC Comics, don't they?
ACTION COMICS #764 is a heart-breaking look into the strained relationship between Clark and Lois. I'm still hoping the Superman writers provide us with a logical explanation when all this is done, because right now it looks a lot like meaningless melodrama, or creative teams afraid of writing a happy couple.
Clark gets lots of advice from Ma and Pa Kent, and does some good deeds while in Smallville at the same time. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor plots evil stuff in Metropolis.
I can't detail why your heart will leap at this issue without spoiling it, so go ahead and read it for yourself. The new penciller, Kano, is doing a good job illustrating this. It's a very different style from anything anyone has ever drawn Superman in, but it's quite catchy. (It's also a step cartoonier than German Garcia's in many ways.)
THE FLASH #159 makes the whole last year's worth of story worth the trip. I may be one of the few, but I did enjoy the long-lasting storyline in THE FLASH, even though the absence of Linda Park as a regular member of the cast of characters was deeply felt. This is Waid and Augustyn writing at their most emotional, without feeling manipulative or melodramatic. It's just high drama, and extremely well done. You get a great counterpoint between Wally with Linda and Walter with Angela.
On the art side, just as Paul Pelletier's artwork looks dead on, he's moving to TITANS. ::sigh::
Warren Ellis wraps up his run on THE AUTHORITY, with a grand conclusion in the twelfth issue. While well done - this can easily be considered one of those comics dream teams we talked about a few weeks back - I don't think it quite reaches the emotional impact of THE FLASH or ACTION. It's a great story that knows to go "inside" when all the previous storylines have focused on "the outside." The characters control the story, Jenny Sparks gives it her all, and the threat is demolished. Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary are one of the best art teams in comics. Laura DePuy's colors have always been perfect for this book, defining its look as much as anything else. And Warren Ellis, in contrast to Larry Hama, knows when to shut up and let the art shine.
COMING SOON TO PIPELINE
Last Friday's column focused on your list, and now it's my turn. Stop back here on Friday for my personal list of the best writer/artists of the past decade or so.