Comics Survey: Words, Part II

Like Part I, this column focuses on dialogue and narration. Looking at over a dozen comics and graphic novels published from 1951 to 2013, I criticize some for regurgitating tired phrases and praise others for verbal inventiveness.

Superman #1 by John Byrne (DC, 1986); Superman Unchained # 1 by Scott Synder and Jim Lee (DC, 2013);  Adventures of Superman #2 by Various (DC, 2013)
After Byrne’s super-villain introduces himself in 1986’s Superman #1, Lois Lane goes on the attack: “’Metallo’? You have got to be kidding. Where the heck did you pick up a cornball name like that?”


The trope of a character calling a villain’s shtick “corny” pops up repeatedly in 'Silver Age' comics (c. 1956 -1970), particularly those scripted by Stan Lee, one of Byrne’s major influences:

The Amazing Spider-Man #13 (1964). Dialogue by Stan Lee; Art/Plot by Steve Ditko.

If you know it’s corny, then why do it? Perhaps Byrne sees no other option: such names are part of the fantasy world he operates in. But admitting to foolishness rather than quietly playing along makes it worse — can you really write something corny and then act like you’re above it? I think "Metallo" is a solid villain name and needs no apology.*

The scene from Byrne's Superman #1 plays out a battle that has raged for decades in the pages of superhero comics: not the eternal clash between good and evil, but the epic struggle between writer and cliché. In Superman Unchained #1, Scott Snyder’s narration opens with a version of the most venerable — and most overused — superhero cliché: “Look, it’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Snyder’s doesn’t restate it word for word, of course, and he spreads his riff on it over two pages.


But shortly after it was first uttered over 50 years ago, reworking the cliché became a cliché. Given this history, why would a writer use it? Perhaps it’s a kind of mystical incantation: the one who speaks, reads, or writes it becomes part of a grand tradition of comic-book magical heroism. But that’s just a guess. I don’t know. What I know is I'd rather not see it again.

In Superman Unchained #1, The Man of Steel is anything but “unchained.” Maybe Snyder and DC hope this word will give the series a little Quentin Tarantino edge. But in the director’s Django Unchained, the metaphor connects to the title character’s life as a slave and the film's unrestrained violence. Maybe “Superman Unchained” is intended to evoke the epic mode of works like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, recalling the (allegedly) mythic nature of superhero comics. Yet, this version of Superman, like many others, seems pretty tied up and uptight. He’s a good guy who, restrained by a moral code and his corporate overlords, can never quite fly off the chain. Maybe he does something crazy in later issues, but I doubt it. And if he does, it’ll surely be depicted as an aberration, an act out of character with ‘who he really is.’

The opening line of dialogue in Adventures of Superman #2 is a not-so-promising echo of Synder’s opening: “Look! Up in the sky!”

RU4Writer J. M. DeMatteis bases his tale on a grand cliché/corporate myth: Superman represents the “embodiment of the very best in us. Our inspiration to strive harder . . . Aim higher.” I typically look to superhero comics for a little light entertainment (and often don’t get even that much), not for self-help clichés. Do adults really view caped crusaders as role models, as spandex Jesuses whose beliefs and actions should be applied to their own lives?  “We’re all . . . each and every one of us . . . Superman,” proclaims DeMatteis.** Personally, I don't want that kind of pressure.

Catalyst Comix #1 by Joe Casey, Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, and Ulises Farinas (Dark Horse, 2013)
Like recent Superman stories, many contemporary superhero comics spend their sparsely-worded pages trafficking in clichés. In a landscape littered with comic-book writers who, ironically, have little interest in language, Joe Casey unleashes word-based fun. The book’s third-person narration (itself a disappearing art) overflows with puns, jokes, word-play, allusions to a few decade’s worth of pop songs, and repeated riffs on current idioms — and when Casey refers to a verbal cliché, he tweaks it for humor’s sake. This concoction comes together in a knowing prose that playfully recalls, but never falls victim to, the excesses of Silver and Bronze Age cosmic comic-book verbiage.

Readers often complain that superhero comics aren’t fun anymore. If you like your fun served up linguistically, this is your book.

Witches Tales #1 by Various (Harvey Comics, 1951: Reprinted in Harvey Horrors, Volume 1)
While current comics typically shun third-person narration, countless horror comics from the 'Golden Age' (approx. 1933-1955) embrace a pulpy point-of-view indebted to the multi-syllabic Gothic lexicon of Edgar Allan Poe, whose sound-conscious language — driven by alliteration, assonance, and other forms of poetic repetition — creates these horror comics’ linguistic mood. Witches Tales’ narration continually crosses the border between literary and sub-literary: it’s well-crafted and over-the-top.

RU6For some readers, especially those used to modern comics’ relatively sparse dialogue and narration, these comics might seem overly wordy. But if the words are well-chosen and compliment the art, then it all works: “My nerves are like pulled rubber bands.”

(Here's Harvey Kurtzman's parody of this style from 1952's Mad #1):


The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books, 2012)
Bell’s drawing, narration, and dialogue exemplify unpretentious cartooning. She employs the rhythms of everyday conversational speech infused by an open-hearted sense of humor and a searching intellect, one that’s more prone to self-doubt than to attacks on others. Her tone recalls the intimacy of a personal journal, yet when she shares moments of anxiety or crisis, her prose and understated drawings (which, paradoxically, can be appealingly chaotic) work together to create an overarching sense of buoyancy and intelligence.

Lose #4 by Michael DeForge (Koyama, 2012)
Rightly celebrated for his visual imagination, DeForge creates comics with impeccably clean art, endlessly inventive character designs, beautiful panel compositions, and narratives that blend dread and sadness. (A relentless work ethic ensures that the cartoonist’s high-quality work appears at an astonishing rate.) DeForge also possesses an unusual ability to create worlds with language. A perfect example is this issue’s “Canadian Royalty,” a faux-anthropological survey of an imaginary aristocracy’s habits and dress. Its narration mimics the "it is"- and passive voice-heavy bureaucratic mode of a researcher who wants to appear objective:


The comic’s oblique humor comes from the cartoonist's juxtaposition of a disinterested tone with imaginative, anything-but-neutral compositions and designs.

What good, though, are carefully chosen words if they’re not carefully lettered and easily read? Luckily, DeForge is one of his generation’s most precise and readable letterers.

Justice League of America # 95 by Mike Friedrich, Dick Dillin, and Joe Giella (DC Comics, 1971)
There’s something great about that pulpy point-of-view in which a narrator, presenting himself as a worldly-wise troubadour, talks to a main character while telling his troubled story. A comic-book mainstay from the 1940 to the late ’70s, this dramatic prose style might not be everyone’s thing — and it’s clearly fallen out of fashion with writers. Though excessive, it can create an engaging sense of sympathy between narrator, protagonist, and reader, while simultaneously highlighting the artifice of storytelling, as a narrator talks in the present-tense to a fictional human being who lives only on the page.

RU8I’d guess that comics have employed this style more frequently than other mediums, perhaps because, while it’d be tiresome if used for too long (e.g., in a novel or film), it works fine in a work of twenty pages or less, a typical length for the war, horror, and crime comic-book stories that used it.

Black Is the Color by Julia Gfrörer (Studygroupcomics.com, ongoing)
Julia Gfrörer’s Black Is the Color takes a fairly minimalist approach to language, often relying on dramatic wordless scenes. What makes its language compelling is the stylized and often unusual way that Gfrörer’s characters ‘act out’ their speech. Their physical gestures, especially those involving hands, give their language a strange resonance, the kind of emotional quality that would be hard to describe in words.


When a writer or cartoonist incorporates modern words or phrases into a period drama, the results can be a drag, often because the language and setting clash — the ‘joke’ feels forced.  Gfrörer avoids this pitfall by setting up her subtle blended approach (modern + antiquated) early on and using explicit 'incongruities' with restraint.


Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith (1970-Present)
Only a few cartoonists have fundamentally changed the way I see the world. Bill Griffith is one of them. To read Zippy is to experience an unusual “How to Get the Most out of Life” manual. Our eternally delighted and bemused tour guide, Zippy counsels us to contemplate mundane objects until they become magical, to appreciate (rather than simply deride) the ridiculousness of contemporary culture, and to enjoy the words we speak by recognizing their strangeness: e.g., Refurbish. Griffith is a great artist, yet Zippy’s dialogue — philosophical, witty, absurdist — reveals that he may be an even greater poet, one who treats silliness as a mystical experience.


Zippy affirms (and perhaps even created) my belief that looking slowly and carefully at life, art, and language is fundamentally worthwhile — and endlessly entertaining.  Even the most morose intellect should find some solace in the fact that our world contains a long-running newspaper comic strip drawn with such detail, care, and joy.

Men’s Feelings by Ted May (Revival House, 2013)
With its naturalistic dialogue, subtly shifting narrative tone, and theme-based approach, this comic feels like something very new. If it were prose, we might call it a ‘short story cycle,’ a series of related pieces that, while linked by reoccurring characters or a consistent setting, don’t form a narrative. (Maybe it’s a ‘concept comic’?) What ties May’s eight comics together is their seemingly documentary-like portrayal of regular males (aimless teenagers, middle-aged professionals, senior citizens), who experience all manner of mental feelings — from mild confusion to joy and bitterness — and physical feelings — from satisfying bowel movements to excruciatingly painful ones. As his characters’ feelings registering on their bodies, May reminds us that emotions often are more physical than mental. Good cartooning requires a cartoonist versed in psychology and physiology.

In Men’s Feelings, the comedy veers from toilet jokes to ‘gags’ about the difficulties of male bonding. The understated humor and pathos develop out of numerous man-man encounters: baggy-pants youth and a defeated guy who’s anesthetized by watching TV football; an irritated teen and a self-satisfied old man in a public restroom; a sobbing twenty-something and an impatient pizza delivery guy.

RU10A singular blend of stories about poop, magic casino tokens, and scenes of public and private grief, this comic is funny and moving. And it ends on a genuinely inspirational note involving a giant body part.

What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008)
Lynda Barry is a master of the word-driven comic.  The language of What It Is reads as if it were magically transferred directly from the author’s brain to the page, uncensored and unfussy — a kind of ‘artful artlessness.’  In What It Is — an evocative title that's almost a question — Barry explores artistic creativity by asking readers questions about language, memory, images, mental habits, and work routines. She knows that the best way to inspire readers to think about writing is by using unassuming language: straightforward, provocative questions about key issues have a better chance of generating complex, valuable response than those burdened with overly clever ‘verbiage.’ As a product of the approach it explores, What It Is validates Barry’s method: it’s a hyper-active and highly imaginative verbal, typographical, and collage-y celebration of critical and creative thinking.

Tiger Girl #1 by Jerry Siegel and Jack Sparling (Gold Key, 1968)
This comic reads like a superhero parody, yet takes the drama of superheroics seriously — at least I think it does. Written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, who was 54 at the time, it features the ‘hip’ vocabulary of 1960s teen comics like Swing with Scooter and Bunny (which I discuss in Part I), with references to “groovy-thrill lovers,” “way-out doings,” and the like. I sometimes find a work of art compelling if I can’t quite tell what it’s going for. When Siegel employs expository dialogue, for example, is he mocking others’ use of this device (it's rampant in contemporary comics), or simply delivering necessary information?

Much of the entertainment flows from the comic's language:

RU18I can’t explain why, but “he gloats prematurely” sounds funny; it’s an awkwardly formal thing to say as you’re about to be crushed by a giant cat statue's severed head. More silliness:

RU19“I return the towering stumble-bum to you . . .”

If the comic had been drawn in the muscular 1960s Marvel Style, it wouldn’t be as good. But the under-rated Jack Sparling’s scratchy and energetic art is perfect — even imposing villains have something clownish about them that compliments the goofy dialogue. Speaking of clowns, one of the good guys is a Steve Ditko-esque circus performer named “Laughing Boy,” a great title for a silly comic’s hero:


Does the hood who gets his dome tenderized ask "Whatcha got in that bladder?" Perhaps he talks so young readers won’t worry that he's dead . . .

A mix of drama, parody, and silly teenager slang, Tiger Girl #1 is a very entertaining comic. Unfortunately, there was no #2.

Supermag #1 by Jim Rugg (Ad House, 2013)
Part portfolio, part anthology, part scrapbook, part sketchbook, part career retrospective — and something much more than what these terms imply — this beautifully designed magazine-sized collection is infinitely rewarding. Rugg visually travels across numerous genres, making comics inspired by classic adventure strips, blacksploitation films, superhero and monster comics, girls’ romance stories, alt-comic real-life tales, and Disney-esque does in danger. Many cartoonists lack the stylistic range and drawing chops required to do what Rugg pulls off here. In many of the collection’s comic, Rugg works with Brian Maruca, a skillful writer who shares the artist’s gift for creating intelligent and funny genre spoofs. Supermag is highly recommended.

#1 by Grant Morison and Darick Robertson (Image, 2012)
If Grant Morrison really is a genius, then perhaps this comic makes a perverse kind of sense. When genius misfires profoundly, we shouldn’t be shocked that the result would be in inverse relation to past greatness: in other words, Happy!#1 stinks. The problem here is the gimmicky overuse of the word “fuck,” which appears thousands of times — or so it seems.  (Each “fuck” on this two-page spread is crudely circled in orange.)


Because the front cover character resembles Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Watchman (and page 2’s Santa looks like Moore), I thought that Morrison might be yelling “Fuck You” at his elder or at the gritty, unhappy comics that Watchman inspired, which use “fuck” an awful lot. Or perhaps he directs The Finger at readers, suckers like me who paid $2.99 for a literal load of fuck.

As I was reading the comic, I began to suspect that Morrison was secretly challenging us: his comic is an endurance test of a reader’s devotion. If one makes it through every “fuck,” one is worthy. Though I heroically trudged on to the end, I still felt defeated. Morrison 1, me 0. Devoid of genius, I guess I can’t recognize it even when it’s right the fuck in front of my face.

Fantastic Adventures #15 by Unknown (Super Comics, 1964)
A collection of reprints from 1953’s Spook #23, this comic features “The Bloody Horror,” a prison story bursting with criminal slang. Some of the words and phrases were clichés in the 1940s and ’50s, but they’re spit out with such speed and vitality that the comic becomes a non-stop verbal assault — in a very good way. The artist provides cops and convicts with attractively crude, melted rubber-like faces, and the writer ensures that nearly every word balloon contains one — if not three or four — slang terms or expressions. A conventional plot — hostility between prisoners and guards — sets up the action, but it payoffs big with the dialogue: it's a virtual gangster glossary. I’d be hard pressed to find a current mainstream comic that gives this much attention to a vernacular’s entertainment value.

“Sam Lomax, N.Y.P.D.” in Police Action #1 by Jack Younger, Mike Sekowsy, and Al McWilliams (Atlas, 1975)
I’ll let this comic’s slang, a ’70s update of the lingo that rules “The Bloody Horror,” speak for itself and conclude my survey:


Beautiful . . .

* Madballs #1 by Michael Gallagher, Howie Post, and Roberta Edelman (Marvel Comics, 1986) shows a better (i.e., an intentionally stupid) use of cornball dialogue than does Byrne’s Superman #1:


** I’ll say this in Byrne’s favor: though his dialogue often reads like generic 1940s and ’50s, American movie banter (which can feel corny to many modern viewers), he always uses clear and uncluttered panels and page layouts — and his older comics are colored without much ‘mud brown,’ the plague of modern mainstream comics. If it were up to me, I’d christen this era the “Mud Age of Comics.”

*** For entertaining comics that feature Superman, see the Otto Binder-scripted issues of Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal (from the 1950s and ’60s). Binder fashioned an engaging character out of a rigidly moral hero by making these stories about the close, continually threatened friendship between Superman, an invincible alien, and Jimmy Olsen, an accident-prone cub reporter. Who knew a Man of Steel could be so vulnerable?