Storytelling from 1978 — The Rule of Action

Detective Comics #475 and #476 — “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker” — are considered some of the most essential Batman reading of all time. And for good reasons! These tales inspired the look and feel of the Batman we know today. They influenced Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. They are legendary hallmarks in the portrayal of Batman’s most feared villain, the Joker!

But by far the best reason to peruse the pages of these masterful issues is because the storytelling is absolutely superb. The creators, writer Steve Englehart, penciler Marshall Rogers, and inker Terry Austin, were able to concoct two of the most meaty comic issues I have ever had the pleasure of devouring. So much stuff happens in these two tales, and it’s only in 44 pages!

In “Sign of the Joker” alone, 12 separate and distinguished events happen. The average modern comic falls somewhere between six to eight major story beats per issue. That puts “Sign of the Joker” at nearly double the content of your average modern issue. Getting your money’s worth is not at all a problem here.

And yet, despite the clear directive to cram as much possible story into 22 pages as possible, neither issue feels crowded or rushed – the content is appropriately paced, and the reader is given ample time to absorb and feel the story. How did the creators manage this? How did they manage to put so much in without sacrificing any narrative power?

1. Economic Storytelling

The answer is judicious storytelling. The creators tell the reader exactly what he needs to know — no more and no less, and then they get on with the story. No time is wasted re-establishing ideas the reader is already sure of, and no space is wasted on pointless money shots that could be using their real estate to tell a story.

The most basic form of closure

Of course, the next logical question is how this wonderful storytelling is accomplished. Well, it stands to reason that if the creators planned to squeeze as many events into the story as possible, they would strictly follow the old screenwriter’s adage for scene writing: start the scene as late as possible, and leave it as early possible. This they do. It would also be logical to conclude that Englehart, Rogers, and Austin are all masters at manipulating the element of closure, or the brain’s capacity to generate images between panels to “connect” them. This is also true, and they are able to use this principle from its most basic applications to its most complex.

But what really sets “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker” apart in terms of economic storytelling is the ability of their creators to manipulate the stories told between image and text. The image to text relationships in each panel are all highly sophisticated, and as we will see, produce a highly gripping narrative.

There are two main methods which the creators employ to compress space without sacrificing narrative – sound effects and implied movement. We’ll tackle each in turn.

2. Sound Effects

Sound effects have had something of a tenuous use throughout comics history — in the older times such as the golden and silver ages, they were a staple of the medium. They appeared frequently in just about every comic you picked up. Recently, in the modern age of comics, their use has declined, and in some cases even dropped off altogether.

This is a real shame.

Sound effects are awesome — not because the writer is given license to write things like “SPLUT!” in their script (although if you’re the writer, it’s a nice perk), but because when used properly, they are actually highly effective storytelling devices. A panel from “The Laughing Fish” will show how:

First, notice where the sound effects are placed on the page — they are not intruding upon the focal point of the image. The man busting through the doorway with the gun is free from any textual interference. In fact, the sound effects support him — they lead the eye around the character, punctuate the slamming door, and frame the panel’s dialogue. This placement is important because it makes sure that the sound effects do not distract from the story at hand — they enhance it.

The sound effects are also very much a part of the artwork — the “KRRR” of the door opening follows the line of the doorframe, the “BAM” is emblazoned onto the door itself, and the “EEEEE” of the alarm emanates from the action of the slamming door. The words are quite literally a part of the art.

But wait a second. We have sound effects for the door opening, the door slamming, and the subsequent alarm. All that’s in the image is the door slamming! It’s like we’re missing a couple of images!

Of course, that’s what our brains are for. By adding those sound effects, the creators intentionally added an audio element to the story — and any audio element is understood to be occurring over a period of time. The door creaks open, it slams, the alarm goes off, and the man speaks. This does not all happen at once. Therefore, the sound effects give the panel some implied time frame. In short, due to the “KRRRBAMEEEEE” decorating the page, our brains conjure up images of the man opening the door, lowering his gun into the room, the alarm going off, the party entering, and likely the reaction of the stunned staff.

Englehart, Rogers, and Austin know all this. They allow the reader to imagine half of the story – to be a participant in creating the events.

3. Implied Movement

This second method of relating text and image follows a similar principle — and to the same effect. Consider the panel at left, from “The Laughing Fish”:

We have a single image, zoomed out far away from the characters in the scene, with a bird in the foreground. There’s a slew of dialogue scattered across the panel – way more dialogue than could conceivably happen within this single instant of time. So just like with the series of sound effects, our brains will come up with new images to stand in.

And once again, the creators facilitate this by implying time — but rather than doing so through a series of words inside in the picture, they do it through implying movement. There is a bird prominently featured in this panel and it is clearly flying. Flying requires motion. Our brains then connect this image of the flying bird, the static image of the men talking, and the time necessary for the dialogue to occur. There is a discrepancy — we’re missing images of the talking men! Our brains are only too happy to oblige, however, and create images of what the men must look like during this exchange. It’s no mistake that the men are covered by the fishnet scaffolding — the creators are allowing the readers to imagine them!

For an even more powerful example, take this panel from “Sign of the Joker”:

Once again, we see dialogue that could not take place within the image’s static length of time. And once again, we also see an aspect of implied movement — the motion of the door handles. With just that bit of information, plus Batman’s posture, we imagine him standing, looking out of the doorway, turning, shutting it, and removing his hands. We know that the action of shutting the door requires all those steps — the creators simply imply one of them and the movement required, and we create the rest.

The dialogue within the panel is subsequently imagined as occurring during that entire sequence in time. It’s worth noting that with the ‘click’ sound effect, this panel actually uses both approaches — sound effects and implied movement, in order to create a myriad of images through just one panel.

4. The Rule of Action

When one stops to consider, this is all really just basic stuff. These principles have been defined many times, by Eisner, McCloud, and others. And yet surprisingly few comics seem to grasp the potential of these principles for storytelling.

It gets even more surprising when one realizes that the latter principle, that of implied movement, really applies to all panels. Any time movement is successfully implied, so too is time.  Consider the panel at right from “The Laughing Fish” – the Copyright Official says something off panel, the Joker responds, and the Joker “pluts” down a fish. Now imagine if he weren’t plutting down his fish. Just cover up that part of the panel with your hand.

Looks weird, doesn’t it?

It looks weird because comics are built on action. Drawing that action of Joker dropping the fish, along with the motion lines it entails, implies so many more images. The reader knows that in order for this to have happened, the Joker must have gotten the fish from somewhere — presumably, his jacket pocket. He must have reached in, grabbed it, and then thrown it down. That’s three more images right there, and we haven’t even considered the subsequent images that may arise from the panels that both precede and follow the Joker’s fish drop.

Without that action, the image stalls, becomes static, and doesn’t mesh with the time required for the dialogue to play out. The reader has trouble concocting extra images. In essence, they have trouble engaging with the story, and when the reader has trouble engaging with the story, they will care less about what is happening in it.

But if in every panel, a character is doing something, rather than sitting and talking, it gives the readers a cue, an opening in which to insert their own half of the story. Likewise, it gives the creators a chance to add more text into that panel, to add more story, and to lop off everything else they don’t need. Everyone wins.

To come full circle, take this full page from “The Laughing Fish” as an example. In panel one, we see Batman landing on the dock, and the fishermen running up to him. The creators’ choice to show Batman landing on just one foot with other poised to the ground implies that the other foot will soon reach said ground, and he will begin walking to keep his balance. Similarly, the running fisherman implies that he came from the boat in the background, and he’s running forward to talk to Batman.

The next panel fulfills that expectation — but it focuses on the Joker fish, with Batman’s shadow cast over them to remind us of his spatial orientation. It’s a reveal shot, meant to be surprising, and it actually has very little action or implied movement. Because of this, it only has one word in it — if it had any more, it would seem unnatural. The presence of this panel is important — it breaks up the scene in terms of pacing, allowing the image to carry most of the storytelling weight.

Batman’s reaction to the Joker Fish follows in panel three. We see both characters looking on in shock, but once again, the characters are rather static. To remedy this, the artist adds gulls in the background — flapping and cawing about rather violently. Yet they are arranged in order to frame the basket and Batman, so as not to become a distraction. They are both unobtrusive and useful — they provide an aspect of motion so that the dialogue can play out.

We’ve already had a look at panel four, but having seen the birds in panel three gives it a new context — the birds become a point of reference. First they were near the characters, now they have swooped away. Considering their manic behavior in the presence of the fish, the reader would be apt to imagine their continued flapping and convulsing, allowing time for all the dialogue, and conjuring new images of the men speaking as the gulls circle the dock.

Panel five shows some intense gestures from the characters — the fisherman pleads with Batman, and Batman clenches his fist, just as stumped as the civilian. Once again, there are silhouettes of flapping gulls around Batman’s head, continuing our sense of place and atmosphere, and providing implied movement for the time of the dialogue to pass.

Now, look what’s been established on the page! Batman is clearly a friend of the people, the Joker has somehow tainted the city’s fishing supply, the fishermen are intimidated, the Joker is insane, irrational, and egotistical, and Batman feels both perplexed and enraged at this new turn of events. You can rest assured, citizens…  He’s on the case!

Damn. That’s a lot of stuff.

5. Conclusion

Truthfully, the real reason Englehart, Rogers, and Austin are able to tell so much with so little is because they know how to imply things and leave the reader fill in the rest. They’re confident enough in their skill to omit what they don’t need — and it results in a more involving experience than most comics can offer, whether produced in 1978 or 2011.

In this case, the old adage proves to be true. In comics, less is quite literally more.

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David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at

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  1. What a joy to read — and what cogent analysis of the mechanics behind these two classic issues’ storytelling. It also demonstrates the power of economy in carrying a story forward.

    It is strange to think how far we’ve come from this sort of concision in comics storytelling. And while I don’t think we’ll ever go back to some of the dialogue-heavy panels here, the visual economy you demonstrate would be a very nice addition to the current comic storytelling arsenal. After all, these stories represent a tremendous amount of time and work, on the part of their artists in particular, and it would be nice to see an artist (especially one of the talent of a Rogers or Austin) spend his or her time as economically as possible, rather than to take a page to show the Joker putting down a fish.

    • David Balan says:

      Yeah, the stories tend to have a bit of an overwrought presence of the textual element – some of the dialogue and captions could be trimmed. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Englehart is never actually redundant with his text, he just uses a few too many adjectives. In particular, I think the use of the thought balloon is very effective in these stories – another narrative technique that has fallen out of favor in today’s comics.

      It’s not at all that “These were the glory days!” and now comics suck – though I know you weren’t implying that I said that. It’s more that this particular use of form is something which a lot of comics could learn from – it’s amazing how much you can do with very little space.

      It’s funny because an adage about comic book scripting is “Try not to go over 25 words in any given panel.” – some of these panels (the door closing one, for instance) contain at least twice that! Now, I think that panels which ALWAYS contain lots of text become very quickly a massive bore (this was the problem with a lot of silver age comics, and it particularly made one of my favorite artist’s run on Conan – Barry Smith – a complete slog, for example.) which is why panels such as the Joker Fish reveal shot need to exist. But I think it’s rather ridiculous to draw things out simply for the sake of drawing them out – that loses reader interest rather than improving it.

      • You’re right that the text is not redundant, which is an excellent point. You’re rapidly becoming the “comics mechanics” guy!

      • David Balan says:

        Haha, thanks for the compliments – here and in your previous comments. I really appreciate it!

      • You’re welcome, and they’re well-deserved.

        I do love the panels you’ve chosen above, because they really do illustrate the economy you speak of.

        I do wonder how you square this with what you said in your look at Action Comics #1 (at ), with how only one thing should be happening in a single panel. I think that’s a good rule of thumb, and you’re right that it’s sort of accepted wisdom today. Further, the key thing should be to avoid confusion, and I suppose you could claim that only one thing is happening in each of the panels you described above.

        But I’m working on some French comics right now, and they perfectly illustrate the kind of visual concision you’re talking about here. (In many ways, continental Europe hasn’t followed the trends in U.S. comics since the 1980s, such as decompression, getting rid of thought balloons, etc.) And there’s a lovely panel in which a character is walking, head down, showing his mood. There’s narration, continuing the story. But there’s also some guards, showing how the city is on alert, and a street preacher with dialogue, showing how the city is reacting religiously to what’s going on. There’s at least three things going on it that panel, yet it’s concise and wonderful, and they’re all related.

        Just thinking out loud. No need to reply, but it’s evidence of how you’ve got me thinking.

      • David Balan says:

        Good catch! I think I’ve expanded my understanding since my Action Comics review, so I hope this will put it more clearly:

        The problem with Action Comics was that the didn’t have any of those aspects of implied movement, sound effects, or action, and then they STILL put loads of dialogue into the one panel.

        Another issue is that they actually evidenced changing emotional states in one panel, which is always problematic. Even in the door closing panel from “Sign of the Joker” – the emotions remain relatively constant. The Commissioner is worried as hell, and the officer is trying to reassure him, yet his verboseness indicates he’s just as concerned. The little emotional face we do see of the officer, colored green on the left, would actually fit each and every one of those lines of dialogue – the movement of the door and Batman simply creates more nuanced imagery.

        Actually, on the second to last page of Action Comics, Morrison and Morales inadvertently use the same principle – a panel where Lex slaps General Lane’s hand away from his shoulder. They both exhibit specific emotions, and that aspect of movement conjures more images. Lane lunging, Lane grabbing, Lex bringing his hand up, Lex swatting it.

        In that panel also, as I noted in our conversation there, the emotional states remain constant.

        Essentially, you can’t change the emotional states (and I might argue, the target of their speech) of a character within one panel. It doesn’t make sense, it confuses the reader, and it clashes with the art. I think that’s the ‘thing’ I was trying to define.

      • That’s a good point about changing emotional states. I agree that’s usually best not cluttered.

        It is strange how one panel can do so much, yet feel completely whole, yet another can feel cluttered or confusing. Because as you point out, there’s nothing confusing about “Sign of the Joker” (at least in its panel compositions).

        It’s fascinating to think about this.

  2. Miguel Rosa says:

    Eh, Popeye is there in the background!

    I loved reading your article. I lament the disappearance of motion lines and sound effects. When I read older comics, I always pay attention to how they’re used. Thought balloons have also gotten a bad rap but they weren’t as redundant as some claim. Often they were used to let the heroes think about things that hadn’t happened or how they’d act in the future, just like we do. They moved the story forward. Captions don’t work for that because they always sound like they’re being narrated from distant points in time. It’s like I’m reading something that already happened.

    It’s a disgrace that motion lines are gone. Characters like Plastic Man and The Elongated Man don’t work without them. I remember reading a story once when Sue Dibny told Ralph his nose was twitching; in the old days, they’d have drawn motion lines to show that. But this was a modern comic so it didn’t have them, and it made no sense. There was this confusing disparity between the static art and the text. It’s poor storytelling.

    I also love to see sound effects being intregrated into the art. I recently analysed a short-story by Alberto Breccia that has an amazing example of how sound effects can be used to tell stories. If you care to give it a look, I’d be thrilled:

    • Great analysis of the Breccia adaptation of Poe. It’s intriguing.

    • David Balan says:

      Absolutely with you on the use of motion lines, sound effects, and thought balloons as effective narrative devices.

      “There was this confusing disparity between the static art and the text. It’s poor storytelling.”

      This is a really elegant way of saying it, and something I’d personally been struggling with in my own art (I’m an aspiring comic artist) for some time now – I want the art to look real, inspire feelings of believability and solidity of space, and yet I never want to weigh down the page or overwork it to the point where the characters look as if they couldn’t move. It’s a difficult balance, but static art is something all comics ought to strive and strain to avoid.

      Also, I liked your article! Fascinating look at page design and panel placement. Reminds me of some of the analyses I’ve read on Watchmen‘s Chapter 5.

      Graccia’s minimalist style is highly effective in this story – he gives only what needs to be given, nothing more. I wonder, however, if the story would be as effective without knowing the Poe tale it was adapted from? Just something I was pondering throughout the article.

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