Friday, January 09, 2004

Closed captions: At Broken Frontier, Matt Maxwell thoughtfully mulls over the demise of the caption in comic books:

"Captions. We remember those, don’t we? Oh sure, we still have captions these days. We use them for recaps or to dump backstory on readers. Very rarely, if at all, are they really used as a platform for artistry. I don’t know if it’s regarded as a game or contest, to see how little text one can use in a story and still get the story told. It seems like narrative captions are seen the same way that voiceovers are seen in movies these days (more on that comparison later) as things to be done away with altogether, as failures on the part of the writer to show character through dialogue or action."

It's a good column that brings up some equally good points, some of which I'd considered before.

I, too, occasionally miss the well-written caption, whether in the form of the first-person internal monologue or the less-frequent third-person omnisicent narration. In the hands of the right writer, captions could be things of beauty.

However, I think their near-extinction was brought about, in large part, because they became the tool (crutch) of so many writers who were less skilled in their craft. Captions became synonymous with purple prose, and considered artifacts of a sillier time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and comics were considered disposable reading for children. Illogical gaps in storytelling quickly could be covered with a flowery caption explaining just why the terrible sea monster had suddenly appeared to plague our hero.

I wonder, too, whether their disappearance can be tied to the shift in the past few decades from plot-style scripts ("Marvel style") to full scripts. When more writers were giving pencilers loose page descriptions then scripting dialogue for the finished art, captions were an invaluable device to make sure the story and art matched.

Lastly, though, I wonder whether the decline of the caption is tied directly to mainstream comics' attempts in the past decade or so to emulate movies. Taking their cues from screenwriters, comics writers adopted the mantra, "show, don't tell." It's a sound philosophy that further distances contemporary comics from their predecessors. No longer do we have a panel in which Superman punches a monster, accompanied by a panel that reads, "Superman hits the monster!"

But in that move to mimic "cinematic storytelling," I'm afraid many writers forget that comics isn't just a visual medium. Its true strong suit, when it's done right, is that it blends words and art to tell a story. And if the story is best told by using captions then, dammit, use captions.

One issue may be better served by two-page spreads and sparse dialogue, while the next requires lengthy captions and more conservative art. Storytellers shouldn't be afraid to use all the tools at their disposal, no matter how outdated their snickering colleagues tell them they are.

Just tell the story.