'NUFF SAID MONTH AT MARVEL
Now that Marvel's 'Nuff Said month of silent stories is over (except for the straggling AMAZING SPIDER-MAN), this would be a good time to take a look back at what worked and what didn't. Marvel took a chance in December, and the results are an interesting mix. Let's see what we can learn from it all.
When this event was first announced, I said that stories with an excuse for their silence were cheating. Stories that take place because a character loses her voice or because the setting is a library completely miss the point. The point is that this is sequential art, and as much as we love the unique mix of words and pictures that comics represent, I think you can still have a comic book that is only pictures. In theory, it's the most pure comic book form. The words are superfluous because the art does such a perfect job in conveying a narrative. The trick the artist has to pull of is in maintaining a narrative that can be followed.
"'Nuff Said" had its share of problems. It happened too often that there were issues with stories that felt like they were the usual month's script with just the word balloons yanked out. (I'm not accusing any writers of actually doing this, mind you. I just think some failed to take full advantage of what a "silent comic" can do.) X-TREME X-MEN was such a case, as was UNCANNY X-MEN. BLACK PANTHER outright cheated. Caught up in the middle of a somewhat convoluted plot, Christopher Priest fell to excessive signage and a character scribbling cheat sheets on the pages of a book to tell the story. Sure, there weren't any word balloons, but my idea of a pure silent story is one without any words whatsoever.
THE MIGHTY THOR walked a fine line. Dan Jurgens' story could have used words, but it didn't. That didn't make it a bad story, nor did it make it incomprehensible. The story was perfectly understandable (with Stuart Immonen's smooth art helping out) and the silence added to its mood and emotion. Some words and dialogue might have clarified some points and strong dialogue could have enhanced the story, but it was still an emotional story without words. I won't take points away from the issue just because words could have been there. They didn't need to be, and that's all that counts.
Before I get too deep into the titles offered last month, here are my thoughts on what makes for a strong silent story:
Keep it simple. Team books are going to have a harder time with this, but I think it can be worked around. Tell one major story. Don't get caught up in subplots. Don't try to advance an on-going storyline in the background. Silent issues demand attention from readers. Asking a reader to keep track of multiple threads of a silent story is pushing the envelope past its ripping point. This is the point where X-TREME X-MEN fell the flattest. The problem with it is that it's a typical Claremont plot (which is not something I hate, by definition) stripped of its words. The little advancements in story that happen over the course of the issue are done in fits and starts and aren't worth the pages that are devoted to them.
Peter David and Leonard Kirk's CAPTAIN MARVEL story, on the other hand, was straightforward. I haven't read the series in far more than a year, but it was easy for me to get the gist of the characters and their situations quickly and follow it from there. (Kirk's art is always easy on the eye, and carried the story with flair.)
Another problem with a team book is that the multiple perspectives cause less page time to be given to each scene. Silent stories require more pages to tell the same amount of story because there is no cheating with caption boxes like, "5 minutes later…"
Speaking of that, the next tip is for the artists:
Use more panels. This is a must for artists. It is very difficult to pull off a silent story with another stylistic diversion added on top of it, such as using all splash pages. Silent sequential storytelling is art in its rawest form. The mind works best when helped with the extra in between stages you don't usually need since the dialogue and exposition will cover it. DAREDEVIL used lots of extra panels for storytelling purposes, but it's hard to tell. Bendis' comics usually have tons of panels in them just to carry the dialogue. Less happens in the issue, though, as the art takes all the space available to carry the narrative.
It's a lot like animation. The less movement you show, the more explaining you'll have do in dialogue to cover it.
You don't need a gimmick. You don't need to set a story in a library or have characters walking through soft fields or have massive cases of laryngitis. You can tell a silent story about normal events. Just follow good storytelling techniques, take some chances, use a gifted artist, and tell the story. Don't apologize for the way you tell it. I like the concept behind THE MIGHTY THOR where the silence is a nice way to add reverence to Odin in the story and show the dour mood of the characters. Having characters known for their sonic screams falling silent for the sake of a THUNDERBOLTS story strikes me as cheesy. A wink and a nod can be be done in a humorous manner. Look at PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN. Spider-Man fights mimes, but isn't grim and gritty in doing so. (More on this book in a bit.)
Get in late and get out early. It's a maxim of short story writing, but it fits nicely with silent comics. If you decompress the time during which a story occurs over a larger number of pages, you'll be able to follow it in smaller increments, which should make the story easier to follow.
THE DEFENDERS was a rare silent team book that worked in part because it took place over the course of just a few minutes of time, depending on your interpretation of it. The team flashes out of their day-to-day existence. Confronts a problem. Squashes it. Goes back on their merry separate ways. Typical DEFENDERS storyline, but the villain was simple, the story relied on character traits (such as Hulk's lack of intelligence, so excellently laid out by Erik Larsen in the art), and everything was done with a strong layout. The book didn't suffer due to lack of verbiage. It wasn't necessary.
A quick story also saves you the trouble of figuring out ways to visually show the passage of time. John Byrne talked about this in his Dark Horse one shot of nearly ten years ago, CRITICAL ERROR. He had the added problem of a story set on a world without clocks. He could only show the passage of time by the rising and setting sun. Don't underestimate the little things.
Don't cheat. It was the downfall of the DEADPOOL silent story from a year ago. If you see the character writing notes to himself and reading signs constantly, then the writer, in my opinion, is cheating. There are too many words necessary to communicate the story and it shouldn't be told in a silent fashion.
For me, the best title of the month is PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN #38. It follows all the rules I laid out above and knows when to break them. This is the first time I can think of where the maxim about knowing the rules before breaking them truly has a concrete application. For example, the story involves Spidey chasing after a group of mimes. Jenkins can pull this off because the tone of the whole story is light. It's a funny book. Spidey chasing after some mimes in a silent story doesn't come off as a cheap excuse. It works in the context of the story. Jenkins does cheat in using a couple of newspaper headlines early on, and one big one with a factory sign near the end. The former is used to great effect as a newspaper headline prop. The headline isn't necessarily important. It's the picture that carries the panel, anyway. The latter is crucial to understanding the endgame of the plot. I'm sure it could have been done in a slightly more subtle way, but it works to keep the reader moving through the pages. Plus, Jenkins was running out of pages in the story.
Mark Buckingham's artwork is carefully trained to tell the story in the most clear way possible. It's done mostly in a three-tiered grid format, with simple panel-to-panel storytelling. The characters don't crowd the panels, nor are backgrounds needlessly dropped to save time. It's a beautiful book.
The whole issue reminds me a lot of "Harlequinade," an episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. If I remember correctly there, though, it was Harley Quinn driving the tank through the center of town.
Brian Bendis also – and by his own admission – uses a cheat in DAREDEVIL. It's effective, though, as it works to kickstart the plot and set everything else in the issue in motion. It was a message that would have been impossible to convey without words, short of going to sign language or semaphore.
The best example of a broken rule (as I've outlined them here) is in NEW X-MEN, where Grant Morrison lets slip a couple of lines of dialogue on the last page and it makes the whole story. The rest of the issue is a tour through the astral plane, as drawn by Frank Quitely. It's very high concept (including a failed attempt at a symbol-based language) and might have otherwise fallen flat on its face. That little bit of dialogue was properly timed for maximum impact. It summed up the whole issue without making it feel gratuitous, and it also was a punchy line of dialogue in and of itself.
Let's break down the Nuff Said books this month into three categories: The Good, The Eh, and The Ugly.
Defenders: Simple story. Art carries it, as it should be.
Peter Parker: Spider-Man: Best issue of the month.
Captain Marvel: Single story thread, clearly told, without too many needless complications. Leonard Kirk's guest pencils are as beautiful as ever.
The Mighty Thor: Moody storytelling with gorgeous Stuart Immonen art and poignant script from Dan Jurgens.
New X-Men: Grant Morrison's story has his usual doses of high concepts and gross-outs. But it starts as late as possible, finishes very quickly, and concentrates on the fewest number of characters possible. Great issue, and drawn by the reclusive Frank Quitely, to boot.
Punisher: Steve Dillon goes solo and shows how it can be done. There's also a scene set in a bar. What Dillon-drawn tale wouldn't include that? The plot summary in the book is precious.
Hulk: Bruce Jones' winning streak continues with the best superhero revamp in the past few months. The story fits in nicely with the on-going story arcs, sits well on its own, and is easy to follow. John Romita Jr. handles art duties like the pro he is.
Daredevil: It's a well done issue, but there isn't much story going on.
Exiles: A silent story because it took place in dreamtime. It got dropped down from "Good" to "Eh" because it wasn't that entertaining and was confusing in one or two spots as to whether the story occurred in real time or dreamtime.
Thunderbolts: I can't even remember it anymore, but I remember not hating it. It does have the extra bonus of including Fabian Nicieza's layout sketches for the issue alongside his typed up script. It's interesting to see where the artist (the reunited-and-it-feels-so-good Mark Bagley) makes changes to the suggestions and where he sticks to it.
Spider-Girl: Easy enough to follow with some nice art and only a couple of minor cheats, mostly to help new readers follow along.
X-Force: Reminds me a lot of the movie version of David Mamet's AMERICAN BUFFALO. It's an interesting exercise with some nice acting and good execution, but seems pointless.
Captain America: Dan Jurgens breaks out every Christmas story cliché in the book. However, I'm a sucker for such Christmas stories and Jurgens (both writing and drawing the story) does an excellent job in telling the story. As it's part of the title's 50th issue, it's a secondary story in a book filled with guest-creators.
X-Treme X-Men: Claremont did his best to tell a team book without words. He didn't simplify anything at all. The problem is that so much was happening that the reader was left filling in too much stuff on his or her own. Larroca could have filled in some more gaps, too.
The Uncanny X-Men: Took the problems that X-TREME X-MEN had and magnified them.
Black Panther: Too much cheating with words scrawled across paper to justify it. Plus, Priest's strength is Ross' internal monologue. The book is measurably weakened by its absence.
Fantastic Four: A confusing mess by the otherwise reliable Carlos Pacheco.
Cable: As it was the title's 100th issue and the finale of a multi-part storyline, the silent story was relegated to a backup tale. The story is completely impenetrable without the aid of Tischman's original proposal reprinted in the back.
TO SUM IT ALL UP
Marvel took a chance and went with something that was immediately branded a gimmick. I won't get into semantics, but there is a number of things they did right in the execution of this event. The first is that they gave their writers and artists plenty of time to think about it and follow through on the script and art. The event was nearly a year in the making. The second big thing is that all the plots are available on the Marvel web site, and samples of each script were printed in the back of the books for no additional charge.
On the other hand, one has to wonder if the event wouldn't have come off better with a little more editorial control. It's never a good idea to lay down a set of rules for writers to stick by in crafting a story. And I don't mean to say that it's my way or the highway. But the suggestions for "rules" I listed above probably could have saved a few of the issues in December from the "Ugly" list. Some of them seem to be such common sense issues that you'd think the editorial staffs might point out some of the flaws in the plots as they were handed in.
In any case, I'm glad to have spent the month reading these books. I hope Marvel would consider doing another month like this with all comics reading sideways. I would love to see Marvelscope on a grand scale for a month. The annuals are nice, but there's a lot more trial and error still needed to grasp the format. If that proved too costly, I'd settle for the old-fashioned sideways comic.
Coming up next week: More reviews and previews, plus a look at some of the best single issues of the past year.
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