Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This Way to the Exposition

Mark Waid is a comic book writer that, if nothing else, I respect. I enjoy a lot of his work, and while I can't say he's my favorite writer, he's certainly one of the best at the technical craft of serialized, sequential art. So it's interesting to hear him engage in self-criticism in the same interview at Comic Book Resources that launched yesterday's post:

Robert Taylor: Biggest weakness?

...Mark Waid: ...my dialogue comes off as being a little too expository sometimes.

RT: Can you explain that a little more for me?

MW: Har de har har.
I've heard criticism of Waid's over-explanatory dialogue before and I understand it. In The Brave and the Bold #3, for example, the villain takes a page to explain who exactly each member of the Fatal Five is to a room of hostages who really don't care.

And while it does sound a little unnatural to hear the villain rattle off player stats, at least Waid understands one important fact: Exposition is Necessary. Sometimes it's a necessary evil, but it is always needed.

Remember, every comic is someone's first comic, especially an intentionally new reader friendly book like The Brave and the Bold. So some readers just won't know who the Fatal Five are. Probably even less are familiar with the new Blue Beetle. Heck, it's conceivably someone's first time reading about Batman. (okay, not really...)

It may give "the fans" a thrill to catch something that the casual reader just can't, but if someone who hasn't read comics for the past ten years is constantly left in the dark, then they're also going to be left in the cold, and just walk. The Fuck. Away.

You can't just throw, say, the Ultra-Humanite at the heroes and expect the reader to care without somehow explaining who he is and why he's a threat. When Dolores Winters pops up in the poorly-written Justice League of America #8, the casual reader has no reason to care at all because Brad Meltzer doesn't stop to explain that Winters is the Ultra-Humanite. And that the Ultra-Humanite is a body-hopping evil genius, who is also sometimes a giant white ape, as John Rogers explains in just one (1) word balloon in the much, much better Blue Beetle. (Really, why aren't more people reading that book?)

It used to be, comics had narrators who flat out told the reader what he or she needed to know to enjoy a particular issue, usually the writer/editor, who provided backstory and pointed to the issues in which those stories took place. Every Marvel Comic was (still is?) supposedly being told to you by Stan Lee himself, in his own inimitable style. Or if not the writer, than a host like the Crypt Keeper or the protagonist like Wally West in Waid's run on The Flash told the story directly to the reader.

In the wake of Watchmen, as superhero comics became more self-consciously filmic, narrators were more or less discarded as distracting artifice. Which is an acceptable artistic choice but it meant the thankless job of exposition fell to dialogue between characters.

Done well, and the reader never notices he learned something. Often, however, it's either Authority Figure explaining the plot to the Plucky Hero ("We believe Hitler is looking for the Arc of the Covenant. Here's why that's a bad thing..."), or it's Character A reminding Character B about something that Character B knows all too well ("Wow, you must be really angry that your girlfriend was brutally murdered yesterday by a gang of robot ninjas.")

But, and this is important, badly done exposition is better than no exposition at all.

Yes, the pleasure of ongoing stories is building on what came before, but not everyone read what came before and it's silly to expect them to have. So unless you want to just give up on new readers (and those without exceptional memories for details), you need some way to let readers know what's going on. Serial television shows employ "Previously on BLANK" segments before each episode to catch viewers up. Following that example, Marvel's been using title pages to re-cap the plot, to some good effect. And if you're not going to use a narrator to explain who and what everything is, then you're going to need to have characters speak in Waid's expository style now and then.

Or you could just have The Phantom Stranger explain everything. He's good at that.


SallyP said...

Well, bringing in the Phantom Stranger is always a bonus, but maybe that's just me. You're right on the money however, with the way that Blue Beetle explained who the Ultra-Humanite was, in a single hilarious word bubble, and the way that any number of other books fail to explain who characters are.

While a great many of us already know who that character may be, some of us don't.

Tom the Bomb said...

Once again, you nail something that needs to be said. I'm a big fan of the Roar. Also check out the Absorbascon's recent post on Decompression; in that Scipio points out that decompression often leads to exposition lapses.

My response to both posts - yours and his - got wordy, so I posted it on my own blog.

Steven said...

Actually, this post was somewhat inspired by Scipio's post, but as my point moved away from his, I couldn't figure out an appropriate place to link back to him.

Your post is a great summery of good expository tools. I think you're a little hard on Stan Lee-esque narration, because it was used for comedic purposes even back when it started. Other than that, welcome!

Derek said...

Isn't the Phantom Stranger narrating Shadowpact already? He could easily do the same job in all DC titles.

It's kind of his job in-universe anyway, right?