Lately I’ve been catching up on some contemporary titles, some of which are produced by my favorite writers in the field, and I’m actually finding plenty of things not to enjoy about them, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure that their concepts are nice and well-fleshed out enough to justify making a series out of them, and the talent on the book is reliable and proven. But that doesn’t mean that the books are fun to read.
So I started to wonder why, and several things started to pop out at me. I’ll be covering all of these topics in a number of subsequent essays, but let’s focus on the one that bugs me the most. Keep in mind, this isn’t intended to slam anybody’s work, it’s just my notes on things that detract from my personal reading experiences with these titles.
So yeah, first thing’s first. Caption boxes suck. I’m just going to come out and say it. I love comics. I love reading them. I love reading good writing within them. But Caption boxes are for the damn birds.
They are almost guaranteed to pull me out of a story and out of the page. It reminds me that I’m not on the same plane of existence as these characters. If I see a beautiful two-page spread and it’s littered with captions, I have to struggle to stay on those boxes.
For instance, over in ODY-C, the latest project from comic book rock star Matt Fraction, nearly everything is in a caption box, even the dialogue! I have the hardest time trying to push through these pages, I just keep giving up. I don’t know why, I’m not say it’s the comics’ fault or that the creators involved don’t know what they’re doing, I just think it’s hard as hell to keep my eye on these pages.
And that’s what comics is all about. Keeping your eye moving. When you map out a comic book page, you are using panel selection, composition and text to trick a person’s brain into thinking that time is moving forward within the context of what they’re looking at. And to trick their brain, you trick their eye. You keep it moving along the page and along the text and the reader soon forgets that she’s reading over a static image. You manipulate when and how the information is received so that it creates time, the same way dragging a needle over a groove creates sound.
When you put obstacles across the eye’s path, the illusion stops. One of those obstacles, a big one, at least for me, is this ugly little quadrilateral blemish, the caption box. It’s ugly. It’s rigid. I’m just going to say it, it looks ugly placed over art.
But there’s more to it than that. For me, the caption box has become synonymous with information, which means it’s become synonymous with exposition and info-dumps. That’s not what this dance is about. This is “show, don’t tell.” So my brain associates these little right-angled warts with being yanked out of the story and to be filled in on all the things the creative team didn’t know how to show in the panel. This isn’t necessarily cheating, but it’s not masterful storytelling, either.
Like voice-over narration in a film, it breaks the momentum of the story in order to bombard the viewer with information the writer or director thinks they need. In a comic, as in a film, things can be expressed subtly. You can have visual cues like facial expressions and body language and choices, as well as typographic cues, to indicate what’s going on in a character’s head. You don’t need a window into their mind. At least, I don’t think such a thing does anything other than remind the reader that they exist on a different plane from the character they’re watching.
Now, I know exceptions do exist. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Alan Moore have proven that you can do some really good writing within the confines of those silly little boxes, and books like “Watchmen” use them strategically to overlap and juxtapose two different scenes, which is a pretty cool technique.
These guys and their peers are fantastic writers. They know how to write elegant and/or pulpy prose that sizzles and it’s fun to read. But not every writer can do that. Most writers can’t, I’d say. And that’s not even your job as a comic writer, in my opinion. It’s to tell a story with pictures, not to use pictures to accentuate words. There’s a subtle difference, but it’s there, and it’s what separates comic book writers from illustrated fiction writers.
Furthermore, writers need to just give the art room to breathe, goshdarnit! I can imagine that, as a writer, looking at a double-page spread with no written information on it might seem like you’re taking a shortcut, but for the reader it’s such a more pleasant experience. It gives me the time to let my eye wander and soak in every little line and brush stroke on the page.
These artists are already working hours on end to render the story that came from your head, like a poor, little, meat-made outboard printer. Don’t stand in the way of it when they’re done thinking you have to cloud the view with your attempts at being a novelist. Leave it alone. Let the eye move around the page, let me react to it, don’t explain to me what Thor or whoever is thinking, let me form my own analysis.
In conclusion, while some writers have found ways to use it to some degree of success, it seems to me that for the most part, the caption box does nothing positive for the comic book reading experience. It is an out-moded tool, and it must die. Writers need to become more confident in their visual storytelling abilities of themselves and their artists, and think of ways to keep the flow of a page moving above all else. None of the continuity or backstory or self-reflection in the world matters a bit if it means I have to be reminded that time is a trick that I’m letting myself fall for.
Up next… Thought Balloons!