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.
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.
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.