Friday, June 11, 2010

Same Bat-time, same Bat-captions

Batman and Robin is a fast, slick and gorgeously entertaining read. It barrels along at a great pace without pausing for breath, but never feels tired. This is partly because of the mostly kinetic artwork and frantic happenstance, but after re-reading the first 12 issues of the series, there is another mitigating factor – no bloody captions.

In the whole run so far, there have been barely any captions. The Red Hood’s scarred sidekick got her own inner monologue that filled up a few captions during the second story arc, but that’s about it – no tortured musing on the pain of being a superhero, no establishing captions, no “meanwhile” or “soon…” or dates or anything.

It’s a surprisingly effective technique, forcing the reader to rely on actions and dialogue to follow the story. Fortunately, after decades of creating pop comics, Grant Morrison knows how to distil everything he needs to say in one piece of dialogue and relies on this to shoot ahead with the story. (The best example of this might just have been his Green Arrow dialogue in Final Crisis, which was so refreshingly direct it showed why the character was a true individual in a universe of power.)

So Batman and Robin get by on quick quips and sheer momentum, and isn’t that all we need from a Batman comic? Is there really any need for acres of indecipherable cursive text for mood or feeling? Is there any desire for another comic with multi-character captions duelling it out for the reader’s attention?

* * *

When thought balloons went out of fashion sometime around lunchtime in 1984, it was seen as a minor step forward in the medium. It certainly helped raise the readability of the most basic stories, while also forcing writers to actually put a bit of thought into how their stories were presented, when they couldn't rely on a running commentary appearing in big fluffy clouds over a character's head.

But then Frank Miller went and ruined it for everybody, with those glorious captions peppered throughout his work in the 1980s and beyond. Miller really got inside the head of his characters in the Ronin, Daredevil and Batman comics he produced in the 80s, and with a healthy sense of irony and a sharp eye for the right word, he showed a thousand other writers how to over-do it.

So just as the mainstream of the medium were getting rid thought balloons and sound effects in a bid to progress the form, it was Miller over in his own little world who gave writers a new crutch with the caption box.

Now, they're fucking everywhere, in some wildly diverse super-comics. Sometimes they serve a point, offering the vaguest of entertainment value by juxtaposing the actions of a character with what they're thinking. Again, this was something Miller has always excelled at, and can be seen in the very first Sin City story where Marv drives off a pier while still swearing revenge, thinking only of Goldie and moving into auto-pilot to escape the corrupt killers after him.

Unfortunately, when people copy Miller’s tricks, they often pick up on the wrong things. We’ve had nearly quarter of a century of misery-guts Batman because nobody seemed to notice the humour or irony or goddamn human emotion embedded in the Dark Knight Returns, but picked up on the fact that he grimaced a lot.

* * *

After reading a bunch of recently collected Batman comics that date back to the 90s, I found it was a whole lot easier to just ignore the captions altogether. It meant some plot points were harder to pick up on, but it’s a Batman comic. It’s not hard to understand.

A lot of the ease with which I could skip over this stuff is due to the fact that there is no way I am ever going to plow through caption after caption of cursive text revealing Batman’s inner-most feelings. The use of cursive is one of my great turn-offs in superhero comics and the printing process on cheap paper can often render them almost illegible. There is nothing wrong with being challenged by a new comic by Dan Clowes, but a bloody Batman comic shouldn’t be hard work to read.

So most of these captions are just superfluous, showing nothing but contempt for the reader's own ability to understand what's going on, while allowing writers to go totally overboard with the tortured metaphors and flowery language.

In real life it's the actions and things we say that define us in the eyes of others, surely comic writers can do the same, tearing away that crutch. There is bound to be a bit of hobbling, but at least we'll be walking free.


Devlin Thompson said...

It's worth noting that those cursive captions were also Miller's fault, originating in Batman: Year One.

Bob Temuka said...

Dang! I really think I hate Miller a little bit because of that, because I really, really hate cursive captions that much.