edited September 2011 in The Toolbox
I thought about calling this thread Narrative Technique, but I didn't think it should be confined to "note how the gutter mediates the transition between the objective and subjunctive in these two panels" ~and ~ "a string of head shots should be broken up by the occasional medium or long shot to avoid boring the reader" sort of commentary, although those are perfectly legitimate topics... I'll even add that I disagree with the second of these and have no idea what the first one might even mean.

And while I "banned" talking about our own work in the "Read Any Good Books Lately" thread because I wanted us to not feel constrained in our critiques, plus there are other threads to discuss our own work... but here I think its fair to point to the way in which some of our own work, ahh... works. Or maybe just biases we've noted.

F'rinstance, I've noticed that Max likes to use some creative and unusual layouts and visual framing devices... some that might be thought of as decorative. "Decorative" to my mind is not a negative here. Its an element of the graphic design of a work that can convey emotional response outside of the conventions of panel to panel content... non-narrative narrative if you like. And its something not that many artists consider outside of Will Eisner and a number of the more experimental artists of the underground comics of the late 60's. In a panel to panel sense, Max is usually fairly traditional and his comics are easy to read because of this familiarity. But he's willing to guide your eye around the page in ways that re-enforce feelings of delirium or freedom, and that's something that's difficult for a writer to add to a story in the planning, but for an artist, particularly one who functions as his own writer... its a wonderful add-on from someone with a strong grasp of narrative.

Or this is a place where I might point to a pet peeve; writers who insert a misplaced sense of scale into a single panel. My classic example is the scene I was asked to draw wherein I drew a long shot of a distant city covered in flies. Or more recently, a panel featuring both a pair of men standing on a porch having a conversation, and a specific car parked a quarter mile away. These are not unresolvable problems, but I have to make a decision about what is important to emphasize, and what is to be deprecated. These are ultimately narrative decisions that the writers had left unresolved probably without recognizing the implications of what they had asked for. And they were both good writers.

Or its a place to talk about the difference in "typical" art styles in superhero comics and indie-alt autobiographical comics and how these reflect the different nature of the stories told.

Or a place to address the way that color has replaced inking in turning form in most mainstream comics, and how that impacts the energy of the art... (to my mind the art is more "still" and that impacts narrative).

Or how to handle flashbacks.

Or silent comics...


  • "Or this is a place where I might point to a pet peeve; writers who insert a misplaced sense of scale into a single panel."

    I try very hard not to do that. While my panel descriptions tend to be lean (or possibly just vague), I do make sure that I have a clear picture in my head and that it's something that can be drawn.

    Heh, I was proofing both an actual comic and the script for another and noticed that I do have certain tics. For one thing I do a lot of starting a sentence in one panel and ending it in another.
  • @JustinJordan

    certainly that could be described as a narrative tic if you do it a lot. But it can work to provide a tie between panels. A sort of way of blurring the boundaries a little.
  • and in calling it a pet peeve, i probably overstated. Its more I'm amused and a little perplexed, but I get that it comes from not having to actually draw the thing and getting caught up in the narrative flow of writing, rather then drawing. I point it out to be helpful.
  • So.

    Silent Comics.

    Or perhaps more accurately, wordless comics. I have five on my shelf that are among my favorite comics:

    h day by Renee French

    Hundert Ansichten Der Speicherstadt by M. Tom Dieck

    Vie et Mort di heros Triomphante by Fredric Coche

    Chimera by Mattotti

    The Arrival by Shaun Tan

    How are they similar as narratives?

    First off, you should probably be a very good artist to pull one of these off. This isn’t a place for stick figure art, because the mood, clarity of action and the underlying intent must be carried by the art.

    Second, they are kind of the poetry of the comics world, because the narrative thrust is generally diffuse and has to be sussed out through close attention to the panels. Tone and description, trumps plot and philosophical rumination.

    Thirdly… yet they are ruminative in nature. One could simply look at these as a portfolio of illustrations and gain much through sheer aesthetic pleasure. The temptation is to just flip through them, but the contradiction is that one gains more by flipping through a comic with words, because the words can carry the narrative, while the pictures are just scanned. But with wordless comics, you have actually see the art and consider what its role is in the narrative… what is it telling you.

    And because plot is inherently diffuse, what it’s REALLY about, quite possibly is contained within the panels rather than between them.

    And finally, they all mine a vein of surrealism.

    How do they differ?

    Well, the art styles differ as you would expect. Mattotti and Dieck have highly expressionistic, line oriented, black and white styles… actually, all of these are B&W. What could that mean?

    Cloche seems to have produced etchings, but the work has an underlying naturalism that Dieck eschews.

    Both French and Tan use meticulously drawn grey tone art… but Tan is carefully naturalistic even when drawing unreal objects, while French illuminates a landscape that has little to do with ours, except in the play of light and dark.

    Overall, with The Arrival, Tan has produced the most clearly story-driven narrative, one that is well served by his visually naturalistic style. He simply has chosen to tell his story in pantomime. The fantastic objects he inserts into his landscapes are simply metaphorical exaggerations of the strangeness an immigrant finds in his new world. As a narrative device, he provides many series of close up snapshots of people and activities, broken up by large scale scenes of landscapes and environments. This serves to bring the story into a very close focus… mostly watching the trees with an occasional vista of the forest. The effect is a kind of hyper-reality that recalls a kind of daliesque surrealism.

    In h day, Renee French weaves two stories against each other (much as Scott Morse did with the Barefoot Serpent)… except that Morse’s stories followed each other, while French’s alternate pages. Do these facing pages comment on each other? Hard to say. But the events, a depiction of migraine headaches, and an invasion of argentine ants strike me as having some consonance. While the art styles of the two sides differ, both sides of the book speak of a kind of smothering, suffocating experience, and there is an endurance required to work through the book page by page with attention. While this may not sound like a chipper good time, it is artistically coherent.

    Mattotti’s Chimera seems to be more of an overtly stream of consciousness style of comic, and events unfold and transmute by a logic that is visual as much as plot driven.

    Coche’s The Hero’s Life and Death Triumphant is long and complex dreamscape that is
    frankly beyond my powers to explain… but the drawing is so marvelous that it works simply as an art portfolio however obtuse the storyline is. Like a Terrance Malik film, it is to be experienced.

    With Dieck’s Hundert Anischten… the story is a straight forward Odessay through and amazing landscape, but again, as much about art as story… but then not all of literature is story. Think of this as a kind of tone poem, and after all, why shouldn’t comics as an art form, function as tone poems…?
  • You're on a roll today, Marv!! I respect and appreciate how much thought you put into this stuff, though it makes me feel inadequate, because I'm pretty loose and informal with everything I do, unconcerned with thinking much about it or studying influences and just kind of tossing "whatever" out there.

    I'm a simple guy with simple tastes, though, and I think that's reflected in the straightforward, crystal clear storytelling style I tend to use.

    Or I'm just lazy. HMM
  • Oh, and this? "a panel featuring both a pair of men standing on a porch having a conversation, and a specific car parked a quarter mile away" - Top thing I have to ask writers to change whenever I'm editing scripts before they go to the art stage. Too many writers who have no visual experience or skills make the mistake of writing comics like film, including multiple actions/movements within a single panel, such as writing a person entering a room AND sitting down in the same panel, which obviously is impossible to convey.

    Again, this is why I keep the descriptions in my scripts to a bare minimum and let much better-versed people like Marv just do their thing in creating the visual narrative.
  • Requesting Multiple actions in one panel was one of the first things I learned NOT to do in a script, thanks to denny Oneil's great scriptwriting book.
  • These things do pop up from time to time, and as I say, I think its just writers in the flow of writing, and not drawing. I don't always spot them on a first read through and only catch it later when I sit down to draw.

    The thing is, that is the sort of compression that does work with words, and narratively, if you want that sort of juxtaposition, it might be handled in dialogue, or captions. It could be more efficient than drawing two panels that otherwise do little.
  • Much as I think that words are enormously powerful in comics and should be used to provide a richness and density, I am intrigued by these silent comics and have done a few. In Some New Kind of Slaughter (which, BTW is going to be used in a university classroom setting to teach writing) the Sharon Boatwright story is wordless in its second half, precisely because I wanted it to take on a dreamlike quality. It in turn, was derived from a silent retelling of the basic flood myth, also in a modern setting that I had titled Utnapishtim. That was written and started but never finished, so I raided it.

    And some years ago I did a mini-comic called Almost Silent that had only one piece of dialogue at the very end... rather like Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, wherein the great Marcel Marceau had the only bit of dialogue, the word, "No."

    One of the bits floating through the back of my mind to do as a silent comic would be Jonah in the Belly of the Whale, which like Chimera, would be an excuse for a stream of metamorphoses... to just draw to the best of my ability.
  • Do you believe that a silent or near-silent (one word/sentenceof dialogue) has to be certain things as noted in your fourth post describing them or would direct but pointed work aswell as ruminative? (Vested interest admission; I have one of these almost on the launchpad so curious on your thoughts)
  • A story that has no words but for on or two is engaged in a bit of a gimmick. Not necessarily a bad thing... Mel Brooks used it as a kind of joke in Silent Movie, the only performer who spoke is the one who doesn't speak. Whatever the one bit a dialogue is, it gets emphasized because of its solo nature.

    I think my point about "rumination" with wordless comics, is that you have to give careful attention to the art to follow the thrust of the story, because there are no words to carry it. But its real easy to simply flip through and scan the pictures.
  • Frank miller's silent SIN CITY one shot is my favorite of the entire series. No words are needed visually, they're all there if you can "hear" them.

    My DADDY'S GIRL with marv has no dialogue until the last page, just narration, because I wanted those very important words to really mean something to the reader. Did it work, marv?
  • @marvinmann, every writer fucks up some time, but that is definitely a rookie mistake.

    I like silent comics and I'm a big fan of having extended sections of silence even in conventional books. The Sixsmiths starts and ends in silence, and so does Bucket of Glass. Even the odd silent panel, for pacing.

    @RussellLissau Sure did, if the reviews are anything to go by.

    A lot of times, if you're writing short stories there's just no room for silence--you have to pack as much information into every panel as you can (without redundancy) and that often means resorting to words. There's an art to balancing it and for short stories it's a much more precarious situation.

    Words are the cheap in comics production terms; they don't take up much space and the artist doesn't have to draw them. Talk is cheap, narration is cheaper.
  • DADDY's GIRL? Well it worked as storytelling, for sure.

    I am a big advocate of narrative captions, but they are almost diametrically the opposite of wordless comics; being that aspect of comics most like prose narrative. One could probably read the narrative captions alone and get the story... dialogue and images are the enrichment. I don't hold this to be a bad thing. But its a different type of comic.

    "if you're writing short stories there's just no room for silence--you have to pack as much information into every panel as you can"

    and that's precisely the virtue of narrative captions. you can really compress storyflow, and only illustrate the key moments.
  • Anybody else use thought balloons? I love them and use them all the time. They're not the same thing as narrative captions, and having the internal dialogue coming in a balloon from a character (I feel) personalizes it a lot more than using floating captions.

    Apparently thought balloons are not cool these days, which seems a great pity.
  • Great question, @Jay_Latimer.

    I have used thought balloons occasionally, but I typically do not. The main difference between using thought balloons and captions is one of tense, I think: a thought balloon has to be present tense, a caption is usually past tense if it contains narration (as opposed to exposition about, for example, time and place). A thought balloon is a subvocalized thought expressed in realtime.

    I don't typically give a characters thoughts in that way when I'm writing prose, either (although it is common, especially in the SF and fantasy genres). I don't have a problem with them, if they are conveying necessary information, but I think the reasont hey're out of favour is that 9 times out of 10 the information is redundant. I'm not just talking Stan and Jack, here ("My very strength--waning like the tide on the shores of the clost continents of the Moons of Ixthmus Prime"). There are plenty of indie and alt comix that make heavy use of thought balloons and they are just as guilty of ladling on exposition in the most ungraceful way possible. ("Oh I'm so depressed and lonely and poor. God, I hate myself.")

    I also think that the tense is a problem, too. Present tense is rare in prose; frowned upon by editors due to the volume of pretentious wank that is delivered in that way. Doesn't make it an invalid tool, it just means that you have to prove your case for using it in ways that you wouldn't ordinarily have to.
  • BATMAN YEAR ONE effectively killed the though balloon... And few want it back.
  • edited September 2011
    I don't particularly care what's fashionable in a particular genre; I use thought balloons when they suit my storytelling purposes. For example, a story I just lettered has the protagonist waking up in a strange bed with someone. The scene has him remembering where he is, who he's in bed with, then discovering that in his drunkenness the night before he'd misjudged the person's age. (In the preceding pages, I played the "unreliable narrator" card by depicting the character as the protagonist perceived him, and distorting the art to tip the reader off that the art was... off.)

    I can convey some of that thought process through the art, but not enough to give his realization the necessary impact. In particular, he doesn't figure it out until a panel after it's revealed to the reader, and he doesn't formulate a reaction until the panel after that. It requires an internal monolog of "Where...?" and "Is that...?" to show what's going thru his head as it sinks in (and to spell it out in case the reader doesn't pick it up). This can't be done with a speech balloon: too loud (and if there's anything dorkier than a character thinking exposition, it's speaking it). Captions wouldn't work: too detached, and they'd have to be wordy ("he struggles to remember where he is") to convey the same info. The thought balloon is the appropriate tool, so I used it.
  • First, I want to thank @marvinmann for inviting me to join the thread.

    Second, I've had multiple thoughts over the past four years regarding this, not precisely a conflict, more of a breakdown and choice-opportunity between image, thought, and dialogue as storytelling modes. (I hate reducing the discussion to three terms, but otherwise I'd be writing really long and convoluted sentences, the opposite of our job.)

    I don't know how unusual this is, but as a graphic narrative creator who writes but does not draw, I love using silence as much as possible. I sometimes see my role as producing the most intelligent, creative, and above all thematic framework possible for an artist to tell a story in pictures, not so much as me telling the story myself. One of the main principles I have for narrative is to leave the artist room to maneuver...I have learned after much trial and error to stick to Marvin's "one action per panel" rule, as well as his "even number of panels per page rule" discussed elsewhere. I include only details which I think are important, though I specify what goes in the background and foreground. In short, I revere the artist in a way a soldier should revere a top-notch general.

    This brings me back to silence. I think the silent page is one of the best ways to give such creative power to an artist working on a story not their own...a well-drawn look or action conveys as much as a hundred, heck, thousand words. In "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson" I was telling a story which already depended greatly on visuals, and inserted as many silent pages as possible into the text. Those gave me a lot more trouble than my dialogue: the original drafts have characters who all sound like variations of me. In my new book, I'm trying something different with the first draft: writing the story panel by panel, with notes on what information will be conveyed in the dialogue, then refining each character's voice into something individual before going back and writing actual dialogue.

    The other lesson "Amelia" taught me about dialogue was that exposition and elliptical qualities are equal sins. I had to rewrite several pages after my editor told me that the characters needed to spell out what they were talking about. In real life, true, we don't necessarily do this, and I can think of some graphic novels where the obvious exposition annoys me, but for me, especially if it's late in the story, being straightforward can be necessary. It's not insulting to the reader's intelligence, indeed it helps them, to accurately document both action and feeling. Near the end of "Amelia," the characters Henry and Matthew have a conversation which was originally written with nothing explicitly stated and worked purely on inference. The rewrite made it lose none of its power, as the factual statements combined with the illustrations very well. In retrospect, my editor's charge reminds me of David Lean telling my hero Robert Bolt, while Bolt was writing "Lawrence of Arabia," to actually have Lawrence say he enjoyed killing people instead of dancing around the subject. And the clearer you are in your storytelling, the more the artist can work with.

    Right now, I have two books I wish to complete first drafts for by the end of December. One is a sort of apotheosis of graphic narrative, mixing realism and fantasy in equal doses, and the other is an autobiographical piece which I intend to tell mostly with a narrator. Not exactly thought balloons, but a continuous narrative only occasionally broken by dialogue. This will be another balance-striking story.

    Two questions on my mind right now relating to these issues. First, another device I use a lot is what I named in my new book the "captioned dialogue," people talking who aren't in the panel. For instance, I have two characters talking in one panel, cut to a new scene in the next panel, but have the end of their dialogue carry over. How often do people use this, and is it something you see as a worthwhile tool or more a measure to avoid if it can be helped?

    Second, my creative partner and I just traded e-mails on the beginning of our book and had a conversation about pacing, specifically how much room should be given to establish characters, story, and relationships thereof. She quite correctly told me I was packing too much information into every panel in the early scenes, and I went back to rewrite and add pages, though keeping the total page count to a reasonable number. Are there any rules of thumb for how to pace a story so the quieter, more character-focus moments get as much weight as the action? This sounds like a loaded question as I write it, but I'm just curious what people do to write scenes which focus on the characters slightly more than the plot.
  • Widespread Use of captioned dialogue is a technique I first saw azzarello use in 100 Bullets. He has a lot of neat tricks in that series, including captioned dialog that refers both to off panel and on panel action... And sometimes a third scene entirely. I use it as a transition, when I remember to. Batman speaks in a balloon at the end of page one, and at the start of page two he finishes his sentence in a caption, because the scene has changed. That was an Azz technique, too.
  • I tend to be a little hinky about word balloons from folk who are off panel. It can work, but I'm cautious. Similarly, captioned dialogue from someone who on the previous page had a word balloon always feels a little bit odd to me. Again, it can work, and I can see how it works as a solution to a scene change and mimes what movies do sometimes in carrying dialogue past the end of a scene. For me the shift in mode seems a little forced, but that's really just a minor personal preference. Anything that works is fair game to use.
  • I do think that short periods of silence in an otherwise well worded comic can be very effective, but its different from a totally wordless comic. The relatively few wordless panels provide a shift in the texture of the storytelling, but normally do not have to carry the entire weight of the narrative... although what they do carry can be very important.

    A book conceived of as entirely wordless generally carries a story that is probably, in plot terms, much simpler than a traditional comic. The richness and subtext comes within the art of the panels and the reader has to soak it in to make it worthwhile.
  • Does a panel with a caption but no dialogue count as 'silent'?

    I think some captions count as 'silent' and others do not.
  • Not to my mind. As I suggested above, narrative captions come closest to prose. A third person omniscient narrator can directly tell you anything from action to motivation to mood.

    For the books I reviewed above, you have to really take in the art to follow them, while with most comics that use words, one can often just scan the art to get the gist (although not always)... like the difference between hearing and listening, only, y'know, visual :)

    But if you disagree, make a case. What would be an example of a silent caption?
  • When Bivens and I did Rumors of War for Zuda, the first six of our eight pages were completely silent. No dialogue, no sound effects, no captions. This was partly because there wasn't anything to say, and partly because I wanted to create a certain mood - in my mind, the openining scenes did have a sound, the empty sound of wind passing over a dead landscape, but that would be difficult to convery in a comic.

    What was interesting was the responses in the comments, which were mixed. About half the people really dug it, and thought that the silence was cool. The other half, more or less, seemed to think that I had forgetton to put the captions and stuff in, judging from what they said. They just could accept that there weren't captions and dialogue spoon feeding them what was going on, which was clear enough for the people who got it.

    I don't do a lot of silent sequences, although I probably do have somewhat more dialogue free panels than is common today.
  • A location caption is silent. It's not part of any kind of narration or dialogue. You often see location given in movies as a subtitle over a silent image, or with just some music.

    I guess what I'm saying is that, in a literal way, in comics every image is silent. There's no sound in comics and there's no music. A location caption isn't really the same as a location subtitle; it's its own beast. My own comics are quite cinematic, I think, but they're absolutely not cinema.

    Cinema does have an equivalent of thought bubbles--present tense, realtime VO narration that is meant to represent a character's thoughts, at that moment. It's quite rare: The Beguiled is the only example I can think of, off the top of my head.

    Has anybody here read Joe Ollmann's comics? I find them remarkable for the fact that the piles on so much narration with such elegance. It never bogs the story down with irrelevant detail, it's crucial to the storytelling process but it never feels like he's cheating on the sequential art. I think of it as the Eddie Campbell school of realist comics writing.
  • I hadn't heard of him, so I googled and I'll have to look for more. Eddie Campbell is as accomplished a cartoonist as anybody you care to name.
  • Eddie is the best realist creator in Anglophone comics, I reckon.
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