In last month's IRON MAN, I began to run off at the mouth a bit about a problem I had recently trying to read certain comics. In a nutshell, I complained that by the end of the story I still couldn't figure out who the the main characters were and why they were doing what they were doing. I figured that the creators of the comic must have assumed that everyone in the world who read that particular issue read all of the issues before, so they didn't bother introducing the characters sufficiently. Well, I hadn't and I couldn't figure out what I was reading-- me, with a quarter century's worth of comic reading experience! Well, with that out of my system, I'd like to address another problem I've had reading comics lately.
This one is directed primarily at comic writers. What's the big reluctance to use transitional captions these days? You know, those little blurbs that verbally establish a change of scene and/or a lapse of time? Sure, I can see leaving such a caption off if the scene change or time change is visually explicit-- for instance, we see an establishing shot of a building with a sign in front of it that says "Daily Bugle" or a shot of a clock on the wall so we can see an hour has passed. But if it's not as explicit as that, what's the harm of putting in a transistional caption to make it abundantly clear? Or is it a sign of "sophisticated" writing to be unclear these days?
Now look, I'm not saying I know everything about the art and craft of comics writing. But I sure know when I'm merrily reading along and suddenly stumble over a hazy transition or an inadequate introduction of a character. My feeling is if these basic storytelling elements are not clear, the writer is not being artsy but amateurish. Here at Marvel, we take pride in the fact that we give you the basics of good storytelling each and every time you plunk down your money. (We also think we give you a lot more than the basics, but if the basics aren't there, you won't be able to find them!)
Incidentally, I sample comics by a lot of different publishers in order to keep abreast of what's happening in the field. And these problems I'm complaining about don't happen all that often, but that they crop up at all makes me scratch my head and wonder. How about you?
On the letters pages of some of the other titles I edit I've been talking about some of the things that writers do (in stories I don't edit, of course) that hampers my reading enjoyment. What it boiled down to were decisions on the writer's part to be tricky instead of clear. This time around I want to talk about what artists do (in titles that I don't edit) that hampers my enjoyment of their stories. It also boils down to decisions on the artist's part to be tricky instead of clever.
In no particular order, here are some things artists can do to make the reader scratch his or her head and say, "Huh? What's going on here? What did I miss?" 1. Drawing a scene in such great close-up that you've got to look and look and look to figure out what you're looking at. 2. Drawing a scene with such a long shot that you can't tell what it is that you should be focusing on or notice. 3. Drawing a panel at such a weird angle that it's hard to figure out what anything is. 4. Drawing a panel with such a weird panel shape that the shape of the panel calls more attention to itself than what's drawn inside it. 5. Arranging panels in such a way that it is unclear what order to read them. 6. Overlapping panels in such a way as to call attention to the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. 7. Forgetting to add gutters (the thin white spaces) between panels, making the whole page run together in a patchworld quilt design. 8. Never drawing establishment shots so we see the environment we're peeking into, know the spatial relationships between people and objects, and observe size relationships within that space. 9. Just plain drawing something so badly that no one can tell what it is.
If hard pressed, I could probably come up with some more, but the above nine constitute for me the Nine Principles of Bad Storytelling. (I ought to know-- back when I was an aspiring artist, I used to practice all nine of them religiously.) One last thing about the art of telling a story in pictures-- ever notice that the really great storytellers manage to put cause and effect in the same panel? Why? Because that maximizes the amount of information. If we see a man shooting a gun in one panel, and in the next we see someone getting shot, we have no idea the spatial relationship between the gunman and the victim. If the cause (gun going off) and effect (somone getting shot) is in the same panel, we now also know if the target was three feet away, thirty, or three hundred. In telling a good story, that makes a difference.