The way we read comics is important. It’s one of the ways comics can tell a story versus other formats. The thought balloon, for example, is an evolution from the word balloon, a way for the reader to know what’s inside someone’s head without them speaking it out loud for some reason. That makes them look silly. Reading a character’s thoughts is a benefit to the audience, but some reason the caption box has taken over going over the character’s thoughts.
The problem is that the caption used to be the place for narration, whether someone was narrating to another character during a flashback or the third person narrator was filling in information for the reader, once comic creators realized that this wasn’t prose or an audio drama script and you could just show what the characters are doing, that would be clunky if the characters said it. Thus it reduces the “as you know” trope because whatever the reader needs the narrator can fill in.
Instead now the “first person” caption box is where you read the thoughts of the character, under the belief that this is better. However, whatever trade-offs it has I don’t feel is worth it. To set this discussion up I have a video from NerdSync Productions and Scott Niswander, with help from Strip Panel Naked host and comic letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou that goes over the history of the thought balloon and why the switch to captions was made. Then I have my own thoughts because it wouldn’t be a feature article if I didn’t.
My biggest problem with first person narration, and that’s what the caption boxes are in comics, is actually three-fold:
- Who are you telling this to?
- Nobody thinks this way during events.
- How did you know the parts you weren’t there for?
Star Trek has this gimmick with the “Captain’s Logs”, sometimes using a different member of the crew who might be in a better position to narrate for those who missed an issue or came in late during an episode. It’s not used as much in the novels, but sometimes the choices for log entry is a bit weird. “Captain’s log: supplemental. I’m trapped on an alien world with no technology.” Then how are you recording this? Homemade paper and ink? The advantage of a third person narrator is to fill in information for the reader. For example, today I read Star Trek Unlimited #10, which at the time Marvel Comics was doing this catch-up page on the inside cover. In this case it went over “A Piece Of The Action”, the classic original series episode that this comic was revisiting. You really didn’t need the Captain’s log to over the history of Sigma Iotia II. It was still in there for traditions sake or if you didn’t read the Marvel catch-up. It was actually a weird artifact in Marvel and some other comics where the writer would play catch-up just after the cover did. Academy Comics, Ltd was doing it too in their Robotech books for example.
This is the advantage of the external narrator. I actually find that third person narration takes me out of the story for the first reason I mentioned: who are they narrating to? Something like Rorschach’s journal or Clark’s e-mail that Scott mentioned in the video as well as many of the log entries where making one made sense is one thing. It’s rare that a character narrating their own adventure works, but they have to be telling that story to someone and if making an entry after the fact isn’t in their nature you lose that “in the moment” thought. Golden Age comics made the mistake of having the narrator tell when the art should be, or sometimes actually was, already showing. Good narration doesn’t forget comics are a visual as well as a prose medium, a hybrid of sorts.
The comic tie-in to Young Justice tried to follow the show’s example of having the letters for location and time on the panel the way it would on the screen. It only really works if you already know the show because there are only four ways lettering doesn’t look weird on a comic panel: dialog, narration, sound effects, or in-world lettering. Each developed it’s own way of doing their job. Those on-panel letters, and I’ve seen this done in comics that aren’t try to resemble a show, movie, or video game scene, just don’t have the same form in a comic book. I know comics are trying to be more like TV and movies because the creators don’t have the same trust in their own format and want to be more like the “cool kids” but comics need to be comics. Putting that in a narration box just looks better and confirms this is not in-world audio or lettering. Otherwise it again pulls me out of the story because the literacy of comics is being violated.
Have you ever walked into a room thinking “The room is quiet but people are moving around. Not silent, thanks to the sound of a baby cooing in the corner or random conversations in hush tones. The air is clean but I’m still wondering what I’m doing here. Oh right, I’m at the mall to buy new shoes”? I never have unless I was having a little internal mental fun with myself. Nobody thinks like that. When the first person narration is using present tense it just seems weird because nobody talks like that in their head, but past tense raises a bunch of questions. You can play games like Scott showed with Watchmen to give each character a unique voice but it is in the end limiting in the ways the third person narrator isn’t. There are a few other narration quirks I can go over but they aren’t relevant here save one: noir. However, noir feels like they are writing some kind of case file and usually the story stays with one person the whole time. We know only what the protagonist knows, and doesn’t switch over to what the femme fatale is doing or the thugs. It’s a style choice for noir but very limiting and only works in noir because it’s part of that style. Spider-Man isn’t noir…except for Spider-Man: Noir but that’s splitting hairs.
There was a commercial I gave up trying to find because I don’t remember the name of the runner. It’s from her point of view as she jumps hurdles. Her thoughts are just her counting to when she needs to kick, telling the viewer “what where you expecting, Shakespeare? I’m working here”. Our thoughts are pretty basic in our heads.
These techniques aren’t “silly” or “goofy”. They evolved over years of getting information quickly to the reader that this person is talking, this person is narrating, this person is using telepathy, this one is thinking something in their head that they can’t or don’t want to say out loud. First person narration messes that up and does more to pull me from a story than the immediate thoughts of a character with thought balloons and external narrator filling in gaps that make dialog less clunky or odd sounding. Comics once again needs to get over it’s own insecurities and embrace what it does best, how it sends information as to what the reader should know. I’m not saying get rid of first person narration altogether but it needs to be used properly just like third person narration. Comics have developed a form of literacy unique from totally prose or totally visual formats. Use them.
That’s what I think anyway.