Sunday, August 1, 2010

Captioned For The Writing Impaired

You know what I really really really really REALLY hate? This:

I'm not exactly sure when (or why) thought balloons became verboten. But the advent of the color-coded, mini-icon-bearing caption may be the worst thing to hit comic books since belts with lots of pouches.

This caption nonsense (did it start with Superman/Batman?) isn't inherently stupid. But in practical effect, it has become the most annoying thing ever. And not just because we've replaced thoughts with sludgy self-narration (what, is everyone in a noir now??).

Maybe it's partly because I'm old-school, and don't like to see the 70+ year tradition of thought balloons completely tossed out for the fad of the month. But mainly it's because the practice is so brutally executed.

Take the example above--really? Do we need a flash of every single characters' self-narration in that panel, no matter how trite or lame? Especially when it's so glaringly non-helpful--none of the captions advance plot or characterization in any meaningful way. But James Robinson is like a kid who just got a label maker for Christmas, and has to put a label on everything--everyone's going to get a damned caption, necessary or not!

But there are other crimes of captioning. For example, should I really need to refer to a chart or have to guess who is "thinking" at us now? Take the splash page:

Oh, hell, let's blow it up:

Now, maybe, as an astute comics fan, I should have intuited that the red/black color scheme with the stylized T was supposed to represent Mr. Terrific. Maybe...although I'd wager that 90% of the people who read this story didn't suss out that it was Mr. T until he was revealed to be the "narrator"--in the very last panel of page 3!!

That's right, 3 pages of narrating the actions of various other people, by a person who's not even there...and the creators didn't feel the need to identify that narrator, apparently because this lazy brilliant color/icon scheme is supposed to tell you who's "talking." Which, conveniently, relieves the author of any responsibility to make the "dialogue" particularly character specific. In the hands of a writer who can't handle the convention, it's the equivalent of "tell, don't show" characterization...why bother to write the caption so we know who it is by the way they "speak," when the reader can just look at the pretty colors?? Hey, it's the readers' fault now if they didn't know it was Mr. Terrific!

The other big sin? Doing everything possible to take the focus away from the art and the action.

Again, blown up:

You know, you could do characterization for Jade and Donna Troy when they're, you know, in the panel. But where's the fun of that? When you should be enjoying Mr. Miracle's hijinks, why not shift the focus to other people who apparently are not even watching what's going on, and whom the reader can't even identify (I defy anyone to explain how that odd little sigil is supposed to represent Donna Troy)? Why the heck would I want to know what Shiloh Norman is thinking about his ordeal, or what others think of it? No, let's focus on what people off-panel are thinking about something else entirely!!

It's the equivalent of people talking loudly about their day while at the theater when the movie's playing...and they're not even talking about the damned movie!! GRRRR....

Again, I'm not sure why such a massive groupthink took over the entire industry simultaneously. And captions aren't inherently worse than thought balloons...after all, there have been some pretty terrible thought balloons over the decades. But, in unskilled hands, this turn to captions has created a lot of bad habits and poor storytelling (not to mention tons of turgid, solopsistic and extremely-poorly written self-monologue).

So, somebody out there--free the thought balloon!!

Panels taken from last week's JLA #47.


Kandou Erik said...

I couldn't agree with you more. James Robinson seems to have taken the multi-narration concept much, much too far. It's ok if you're maybe dealing with 2 characters - but taking both the JSA and JLA membership into account?!?

I recall this being annoying when JLA Rebooted under Brad Meltzer. They used a similar color coded thing - leavings me confused wether it was Superman or Batman talking -- or maybe even Wonder Woman butting in.

The diologue boxes simply have to be lessened, and more clear identified as that particular character. Instead of that "T" for Mr Terrific, but state his name right above the fight diologe box, to firmly establish that it's him talking. Or show his face -- SOMETHING. What's even worse if when there is a big reveal of who is narrating until the very end of the book. That results in me guessing, and ending up having imagined a man of woman's voice the whole time, until proved wrong.

OH - and let us not forget the color-blind, who should just pass on these issues to begin with.

And it's such a shame. Despite the over-diologue/boxing, James Robinson is still a fine writer. He just needs to be reigned in by the editor a little bit.

snell said...

Well, Kandou, Robinson is only one example (albeit the most egregious and clumsy lately). So let's not heap all of our scorn on him. Geoff Johns, for example, has taken to giving the Rogues their own caption/icons in Flash (really, Geoff--that's supposed to be a top???)

Mark Engblom said...

Halleluia! Snell nails it again! Yeah, you'd hate to have those corny old thought balloons within all of that otherwise sophisticated stuff like talking gorillas and green-skinned girls. That's what's so annoying about the modern comics biz...everyone's trying so hard to be the coolest kid in class, they've lost their ability to tell a clear, coherent story. For all the talk of "reaching out to new readers", the logo-tagged thought balloons are incredibly non-intuitive, very the point where even seasoned fans like us have a tough time figuring out who's talking.

As for when it started, Jeph Loeb (of Superman/Batman) is as good a guess as any. Back in my internet/message board youth (circa 2000-2002), I routinely bashed Loeb for this practice, such as when he stuck quotes from great historical speeches over the "Our Worlds at War" utterly non-sensical ways that had nothing to do with what the panels were showing.

I fear Loeb's "screw it...let THEM figure it out" attitude has now become the norm.

The Mutt said...

I think it started with The Dark Knight Returns.

Anonymous said...

Let me add my voice to the chorus.

This nonsense has to stop. And to think these very same creators criticize the "old" thought balloons...

notintheface said...

One of my favorite scenes in modern comics was during an ASTONISHING X-MEN scene where Joss Whedon gives Colossus and Kitty Pride these long internal monologues, and then follows up with Wolverine's internal monologue consisting of "I like beer."

Unfortunately, many comic writers lack Whedon's wit. Hence lazy shortcuts like this.

Menshevik said...

The first time I remember seeing colour-coded captions was in "Kraven's Last Hunt", where J. M. DeMatteis used four narrators - Spider-Man, Kraven, Mary Jane and Vermin - but you only had one narrator for panel. The only time when you had multiple-coloured captions in one panel was in the first episode, where Peter's thoughts were two-layered, with the more rational reflections in yellow boxes and the semi-subconscious gut reactions in red ones. That is something that is a bit harder to do with thought-bubbles.

On the other hand, colour-coded and otherwise individualized speech-balloons and thought-bubbles go back a bit longer...

MOCK! said...

When it came out, I shared the "I likle beer" with everyone....HILARIOUS!

I am not keen on a return of the "cabbage head" type of thought bubbles from years past, but would welcome their return in some capacity...

Siskoid said...

I am equally annoyed with the fancy icon captions. It's just as bad when there's just one star/narrator. We know who it is, why do we need the little "W" or bat in every one?

Fight the power.