Text in comics: friend or foe?

The other day an author with tens of thousands of followers on a social network posted a ten item guideline to writing comics. I thought cool, let’s check it out. I always appreciate insight into other people’s methods of work and advice they may give. I needn’t like what they write to hear their say, as anyone working their field deserves my respect. Their experience, success and talent may be far greater than mine. So I lend my ears and think about their opinions. It’s great to discuss and reflect on the craft, that was literally my first reaction.

However I did want to point out something that day: you cannot measure certain things as if creating comics were maths. It is not. It’s an artform and there’s lots of ways of viewing it. Specifically the question of whether a maximum number of words per balloon or page can actually be set to a figure. Sure, you don’t want to put too much text into a page and have it become unreadable or dragging. I just alledged that the acceptable amount of text on panels or pages depends on your reading culture and/or habits. Also as a creator. That perception changes geographically and in time; it was not the same as it used to be (and maybe will be) on one hand and on the other you cannot judge American comics with the same parameters as Japanese manga or European bande desinée. If you were raised to equally appreciate Hergé, Will Eisner and Osamu Tezuka you’ll know what I mean.

So text. What is it about text. It’s like the first guest to a party hosted by the art. Visually, I mean. You do create having abstract concepts in mind, plus a specific visual setting plus the words that are said or heard on that plateau. But as you encounter a comic page, as a reader, what first strikes you is the art, the page as a drawn sheet, with text just following and helping you understand beyond what is seen -through what is read.

Text is a purveyor of information so it affects directly on how much data you can deliver to the reader. This data can be more or less objetive (plot facts) and subjective (how do the characters feel about those facts) or even atmospheric (what is the environment surrounding both facts and characters). It is a key tool but it’s quite elastic, really. One page may work beautifully with no words at all, another may be packed but also give what’s due without offending your sight.

And then there’s the question of whether using a narrator’s voice is all right or if, quite the opposite, only dialogue should be on the final page. We’ll skip that debate today because it would take all day just by itself. I’ll just put this forward, I’m not a fanatic enemy of show & tell either anymore. So go figure.

Text density affects both the tempo of your story and the readibility of the pages that build that story. But the quantity of it, that’s an industry standard. An editor may tell you, you use too much text, be more concise. OK. Or, as an American editor told me on one occasion, there’s too much (he meant plot, not words) crammed up in this story (there was not, but I spent zero seconds arguing. See: Dámsmitt).

Text density, again, has got nothing to do with what comics can or cannot support. Or is avisable when creating them. Should you adapt to guidelines fitting your industrial environment? Sure -if you want to get hired. What’s more, you may not like wordy comics -that’s cool. But that does not make them any less worthy (or enjoyable by people other than you, at that). You simply cannot judge the quality of writing by the quantity of words. That’s your taste. It’s not an absolute truth and does not split writers between good and bad. Just as there are no right and wrong ways to make comics. How many times the authors you really appreciate were those who dared to go beyond the so-said rules? How could The Dark Knight Returns or Elektra: Assassin ever been made if not. So you see, even an industry as standardized as the US’s benefitted from those trespassing.

I have been writing comics for two decades and my works are not specially wordly (I reckon). My point is don’t believe you can identify quality (or right/wrong) through single specific features. It’s ridiculous to dismiss combinations of words and images that do not follow a specific pattern. Some of those patterns are only mandatory for certain markets or regions. And John Byrne did not write the same way Tom King does. Maybe we could go and measure their respective word densities and see if it’s changed a lot or not?

In any case we wouldn’t tell Gunter Grass that Tin Drum took too many pages and should be edited. Alejo Carpentier, he could have told the same story of Explosion in a Cathedral with a shorter extension, but why should he?

Let’s respect our own craft too. If anyone thinks they can do better than Gaines, Feldstein & Kriegstein on Master Race or Van Hamme’s or Yves Sente’s runs on Blake et Mortimer, just because they use a smaller wordcount and/or ratio than those legendary creators, I’ll be happy to hold their beers.

Criticism, opinions, styles, all those are great. But don’t come to me speaking in absolute terms.

As the Greek poet once said, only the Sith deal in absolutes.

PS.- And no, you don’t know more about writing comics than anyone else just because you have a Major in Literature (congratulations on your resumé anyway -I wish I’d earned one too). It may come handy whenever you actually write one, though, if you do.

Gabriel Hernández Walta has now been for a few years in a row one of my favourite superhero artists, in part because there’s this so un-superheroic touch to what he does, that really challenges the genre without actually antagonizing it. He’s so good at making an Illyana, an Elektra, a Magneto… and at making them his and his alone. Because he doesn’t only draw those characters, he grew up with them as much as you and me and he understands them. It really shows on the final art.

I don’t adhere to those “I don’t read superhero books but” crappy commenters who would praise H. Walta’s art while patronising uncountable other artists working in the field, while disregarding superhero books as a whole category. I place them in the same “I don’t read manga” ignorant lot. I both enjoy and respect so many talented individuals doing pajamas and punches. It just happens that Gabriel is a little above many of his colleagues thanks to his utterly personal style, his dedication to whole page work and his ability to merge superpowers with real-life feel settings and characters.

How today I came accross two gigantic truths about Frank Miller, one by an artist and another one by a colourist.

Although I value Frank Miller’s outstanding contribution to American comics and all the classic works his legacy has given us, I am not an unconditional fan of his. Some weeks ago I was wondering which books by him I actually have and this list turned out:

Batman: Year one (DC Comics); Batman: El regreso del
señor de la noche (Ediciones Zinco); Wolverine (Marvel Comics);
Daredevil: Condenados, Daredevil: Elektra, Daredevil: Born again
(Cómics Forum); Daredevil: Man without fear (Marvel Comics); Daredevil.
Visionaries: Frank Miller vol.1 (Marvel Comics); Elektra lives again
(Marvel Comics); Elektra: Assassin (Cómics Forum); Give me liberty
(Norma Editorial); Martha Washington goes to war (Norma Editorial);

300 (Dark Horse);

plus nine Sin City titles (Dark Horse and Norma Editorial).

Also, I don’t know what I’d make of it today, but back in the day I didn’t like issues 1 through 3 of Ronin. That’s about it,
I don’t think I’ve read much more than that.

As the list shows, I haven’t followed him for quite some time now, so I can’t say about DK2 or DKIII. Hell, I’ll probably never read those, as I’ve never read any Before Watchmen (I’m not comparing, remember: I haven’t read them). Nonetheless, as far as the part of his work I know is concerned, I reckon Michel Fiffe absolutely nails it when he says:

“Miller built his technical skill via Neal Adams & Gil Kane. Like Kirby, he nailed the basics and went from there: Moebius/Kojima (RONIN), Pratt (DKR), Muñoz (Sin City), Kurtzman (300), Feininger & Watterson (DK2).”

It’s sad that so many readers don’t know who Kojima or Muñoz are, that’s some basic comics culture you really should get ahold of no matter where you come from. It’s a big world, Charlie Brown, and there’s more to it than the U.S.A.

So. Apparently Miller doesn’t draw as well as he used to and some people have been making fun of it, which, again is sad and something your mom should have taught you about, especially if age and/or health have anything to do with it. Anyhows, Fiffe reblogs the absolutely astounding recolouring
of recent Miller art, by James Harvey, who does an awesome work along the lines of “Frank Miller’s recent work is good, but DC have no idea what to do with it” and in turn quotes his friend Julian Dassai, whose theory you just have to embrace:

“[Miller’s] work is dynamic and, in some cases, verging on abstract. Trying to color his stuff with representational lighting and rendering is pointless, whereas a flat, graphic approach (or just leaving it in b&w) allows the energy to jump off the page”.

Looking at the delivered ‘evidence’ I could’t agree more. I mean, I hadn’t seen those covers before, for Heaven’s sake, what on Earth is that? 90′s Image colouring? DC completely fucked it up. Editor’s contribution here? An utter level of artistic ignorance. Which is pathetic given the fact that comic-books are supposed to be an art industry.

As I said, I don’t think I’ll ever read DKIII. However, if recoloured the right way, as Harvey’s phenomenal approach shows, I just might give it a chance.

Give the man the job. He’s damn well earned it.

This is beautiful. As in a sparklingly dialogued, wisely character-constructed, apparently simple looking, masterfully drawn comic book. As in, this is so much deeper and full of life than it may look at first glance.

As in a little fucking masterpiece.

I actually downloaded and printed this shit
[Update: now I own a legit copy of the published
paperback -see cover above], and that’s something so alien for me to do. I must’ve done that twice or thrice in my whole life. Last time I’d begun to do it, Marvel read my mind and released an absolutely perfect (and unexpensive) trade paperback of Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, saving me the trouble of actually having to finish the job -God bless the editorial team behind that decision. But The short con didn’t seem to be released as a book anywhere I could also buy. However I wanted, needed to keep this story, because unintentionally it stands so much for what I wholeheartedly believe comics are about. Because, no matter how you approach it, it is the perfect definition of what a graphic novel is, as far as I, as a comic book writer myself, am concerned.

I insist a lot about ignoring length or intellectual appearance when it comes to the term graphic novel. Not long ago we had an outstanding example of another extremely short novel in the form of drama / slice of life, in Dakota McFadzean‘s Buzzy, while The short con falls in the comedy / adventure (in fact, buddy cop) genre. But both, the introspective vs the hilarious one, the quiet one vs the frantic and funny, have all the necessary elements required to build a strong, very well thought narrative, with a solid use of its own tempo and featuring evolving characters that tell us a lot about who we are -and who we can become. I cannot thank the authors enough for putting The short con out and sharing it with the world.

I will be re-reading this, I know for sure. And try to learn a thing or two, if I’m able, in the process.