In the meantime, this week’s post was cued by a question from a longtime listener/first-time caller. Christine asks: “I often overdo captions, probably because the theatre bug always makes me want to monologue, and captions can be a monologue broken up over corroborating or subverting images. What are the ideal ways to use a caption as a character-revealing and/or story-telling device in a short or long comic?”
This is an awesome question, because answering it gives me license to rant about my least-favorite narrative device in modern comics: multiple narration. You might want to put on a helmet for this. But first, let’s address Christine’s questions more directly.
Captions can be a great character-revealing device when they are used sparingly. First-person narrative captions, in particular, are a great way of letting us into the characters’ heads. But—as I keep insisting—comics is a visual medium. That means the writer has to be careful not to overuse captions in lieu of showing us the story. I wrote THE FLASH for DC for ten years using captions in the “first person immediate” tense, but that was a character choice—it made sense to me that the fastest man alive would be telling his stories in the moment. The danger was always the temptation to tell more than show. It’s deceptively, temptingly easy for a writer to overwrite captions because they’re generally the easiest part of scripting (it's so much easier to write monologue than dialogue). But the comics page is all about balance—words and images working in tandem to tell a story with depth and immediacy that that neither can accomplish alone.
Here are my pocket guidelines about caption use:
One: Err on the side of paucity. You really don’t want to have more than about twenty words in a caption, max—in script terms, no more than two lines of type across the page. (This applies to word balloons, as well, btw.) Any more than that runs the risk of creating a big block of type that’s just wearisome to read. And four of those in one panel and eleven of those on one page exhausts the reader. Don't make each page a chore.
Two: Always be aware that the caption creates a distance from the story that word balloons and thought balloons do not, same as v/o narration creates a distance in film. If there’s something about your story that demands that distance, go to it. But always ask yourself if dialogue might be a better way to immerse your reader more fully into the story.
Three, and most important: Find ONE VOICE for your captions. ONE. If your captions are third-person, stay with that. If they’re first-person, find ONE narrator and stick with him or her. Do not cross the streams. Do not interrupt the reader by confusing him as to who’s talking. And for the love of God, American superhero comics, stop having five different characters narrating a scene when all I, the reader, have to differentiate their voices is caption color. This has gotta stop. Frank Miller introduced multiple narration to mainstream comics twenty years ago with BATMAN: YEAR ONE, which was narrated half by Bruce Wayne (in scratchy, handwritten journal-entry captions) and Gordon (in faux-typewriting font captions). It worked then because it was fresh and exciting and the two voices and two caption styles were radically distinct. Now it is old, tired, and easy, and as storytelling tricks go it runs the risk of creating more confusion than insight.
(This makes my head hurt worse than anything in comics today: This month’s issue of Superteam X is tag-team narrated by everyone on the team plus their android butler, and immediately, I’m lost in a narrative where the voices are all the same but I’m supposed to know—and remember from panel to panel and page to page—that all the red captions are Team Leader’s, all the orange ones are Spunky Sidekick’s, all the blue ones are Plucky Speedster’s, etc. I’m not talking about a Rashomon set-up where Each Hero says to the group, “Okay, here’s what I think happened” and then we flash back to three pages that are clearly narrated from that particular POV. I’m talking about—I am not making this up—coming across an eight-page fight sequence with so many heroes narrating it that they ran out of colors. Martial Artist’s captions were medium-blue, Subatomic Guy’s captions were dark blue, everyone all sounded the exact same anyway, and the writer got to clock out at two-thirty rather than actually have to put some effort into integrating words and pictures. Multiple narration is very hard to do well and not for beginners.)
As in TV or film or the stage, comics captions/comics narration can be used ironically, can be used to reveal character, can be used to artfully step over the dull stuff...but they should work with the story you’re telling, not in isolation. Balance, balance, balance.