Friday, March 21, 2008

The Beautiful (Thought) Balloon

As promised, I’m returning to comment on the series of recent Steven Grant Permeant Damage articles on the thought balloon. He covers the ground quite well, so I really don’t intend to do much here than add a couple of surface details, and bring up a few related points.

This balloon and caption stuff Grant is discussing occurs in a specific historical background. When I started seriously reading comics in 1980, it was at the cusp of the storytelling “revolution” hinted at in the column. The golden age’s anarchy of poor technique, with occasional better writing including EC’s almost experimental contributions to the field, had long ago given way to the Lee and Kirby distillation of Romance comics personal angst and war/action comics kineticism which reached its zenith during Roy Thomas’ run as editor in chief at Marvel. What had happened by the time I climed aboard is that the dominant superhero paradigm, created in the cold fusion of the early silver age, had been perfected, and had spent the 70’s starting to strain under the weight of creator’s ambitions to do something else with the form. It all continued to work, of course, but there was a great need to do something new, and frustrations arose, partially because the “language” was set so firmly, that it was difficult to tell certain kind of stories as well. Steve Gerber managed it, but for the most part, comics “product” seemed like an imitation of the recently perfected heights with occasional uncomfortable stabs at realism.

The caption box/thought balloon revolution in the mainstream was a long one, stretching from Frank Miller’s 1st person narrative boxes circa 1981 through to 1999’s the Authority, which seemed to be the ultimate statement of “we tell comics stories differently now.” It’s funny how these two examples demonstrate the opposite models pulling comics from the Lee mode – literature (in the case of Miller, Spillane specifically) and movies (the “widescreen” Authority with place/time captions only), but superhero comics changed during this time, gradually but totally.

The reason to abandon techniques such as the thought balloon is twofold: to kick out the crutch and to sever the link to the aesthetic. By crutch, I’m referring to the fact that usage of these devices were straightforward and time tested, and easy to use to tell the obvious kinds of big two stories. People brought up in superhero comics only knew how to tell the stories the way they read them, and was very easy in some ways and severely limiting in others. Bottom line: the “language" of these comics was both dominating and limiting but easy to employ, and thus encouraged the medium to stagnate. It was necessary to destroy the form to transcend it, or even just to move anywhere with it.

This brings up the second issue of the aesthetic. Say what you will about The Roy Thomas Avengers, but it is a specific thing. You know what you got with that book, you knew what to expect. If the cover said “Enter Goliath,” you knew what was inside - the story would have a certain feel and certain values. This was reassuring but also meant it couldn’t stray to far in the kind of thing it would attempt. In order to break this, comics had to stretch far enough away to effectively isolate themselves from the original paradigm, leaving the original paradigm as an antiquated artifact of another time. Doing a traditional comic like almost any comic from 1972 today would seem like pastiche, and we’d all be looking for the underlying (probably ironic)statement the usage of this style is meant to imply. That, of course, means you can’t really do a comic like that straight anymore (for the exception, read on). This could be considered a loss and, of course, still is by John Byrne.

Now, I’m a huge Byrne fan. I have the majority of his work (five longboxes and three magazine boxes worth) and have read it all, and enjoyed most of it, so this is a fan talking. Byrne seems to have taken the losing side in the revolution. Back when I entered comics, he was a major positive force for advancing the form, but he seemed to always believe in a core system of accepted values that shouldn’t change. It is most often sited that his public persona began to sour about the time Next Men went under, which many blamed on sour grapes - he went "creator owned" too late to fully capitalize on the industry’s boom time - but he had started ranting about people doing things “wrong” long before that. The fact that the image guys, who he openly feuded with, were such time bombs obscured the crankiness (made it seem, in fact, like righteous indignation) but by the time he started claiming Morrison’s Doom Patrol was some kind of moral plague on comics, you knew something more was up.

It’s gotten harder for me to read Byrne now. It’s not the Dave Sim effect either, with blonde-Latina-hooker messageboard comments tainting the actual work, it’s the way he started to look at rigid adherence to superhero comics values (as he saw them) as an end unto themselves. His recent comics read like they are trying to prove no one should have moved on from 1983. (please note, I developed some other problems with Byrne as well that revolve around an almost Star Trek the Next Generation-like need to examine the same plot ideas over and over with only slight variations. I should also note that Alan Moore, although has a different paradigm – a more literate one – is just as guilty about being stuck in the stylistic mud). Byrne nonwithstanding, it is but-ass hard to write a good traditional superhero story without running into the either the irony/pastiche or the looks-like-a-hack landmine. In fact, The Brave and the Bold is the only current title that is able (brilliantly, I might add) to do it today.

Back around to balloons and captions: the work of distancing superhero comics from the original aesthetic is done. The crutch has now been kicked out, and the leg has healed. Since though balloons have been removed from their original associations in the language, this is an excellent time to bring them back as more adaptable constructs. The real question is how to use them and the real work is to honestly judge the results. I’m not a big fan of Bendis’ use of them in Mighty Avengers, but that’s not because I disagree with the idea of using them… I just think Bendis’ tendency to try to emulate the way “people really talk” leaks over into the “way they really think” department in an uncomfortable way, and the “what I’m really thinking” sub-thought balloons following word balloons has too much of a jokey, ironic, high school-ish feel to belong in this book (it belongs in a book like Ultimate Spider-man).

Point is: the slate is clean, which means creators can attempt to use these devices again to try to create an effect, or figure out how to incorporate them holistically to create a new way to tell stories. These are unique devices without an analogue in other media, other than possibly voice-overs in movies (although they should theoretically be more useful in comics). Care just must be taken when re-employing them, however, to avoid loosing the ground that years of abstinence has gained.


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