Friday, May 15, 2009

Why I hate text boxes/ blame Eric Larsen and Wolverine fight scenes

Again thanks for the question Andrew

Andrew Dimitt asked if I could clarify my anti-text box views. I'll try to do that and be as short and to the point as I can be. [everyone laugh now] The best way to do this is share my general views with you and do some compare/contrasting between Flowing Well's and Andrew's other comic Drockleberry. The reasons I hate text boxes are:

Reason number 1: I like the guessing game

I'm the type of reader that enjoys a little personal projection on the characters I read about. Filing in some blanks about characters and/or the motivations especially of the leads. I don't want too much mystery, but a little mystery is fine particularly in the case of motivations for actions, instead of what actions a character takes. Years ago I read a comment in Savage Dragon by Eric Larsen explaining why he didn't use thought balloon impersonating text boxes in that comic. I don't know if he still holds to this or not, but he said the reason was to keep characters real thoughts/motivations a mystery. Think about that a minute, and the options it gives you in storytelling. The reader doesn't know if a character is doing the right thing for the right reason, the wrong reason, or if their even doing the right thing at all. Not knowing just what's going on in a character's head really grabs me as a reader. It also gives the creators the opportunity (depending on the genre of the story) to do a heel or face turn, even if that isn't what they had planned from the beginning. That wrestling parlance meaning someone you thought was bad from their actions turns out to be good, or vice versa. I like it when writers leave some aspects of the story open to the readers interpretation's based on their own views. What is so-and-so's real motive is one of the most involving things for a reader to guess at. Seeing characters deep thoughts printed on the page takes all the fun out of that.

Reason number 2: The text box that thinks it's a thought balloon needs to shut the hell up

Ever wonder why in most cases (in American comics) except for humor comics the thought balloon has disappeared? It has been replaced (by and large) by a text box thought balloon impersonator. My guess as to why is it's a beauty pageant on the page and puffy odd shaped clouds lost out to straight sharp lines. Text box thought balloons by their look imply focus and direction, thought balloons imply more lackadaisical if not damn meandering thinking. Wolverine, Batman, and the rest just look more 'fanboy badass' with strategically placed boxes on a panel instead of a little cloud over their heads. I don't like thought balloons in general and having text boxes impersonate them, doesn't change what they are. At least thought balloons are honest about what they are and don't try to hide it.

Reason number 3: Reading a character's 'deep thoughts' fucks up fight scenes

[I think I borrowed this bit from Frank Miller, could have been another artists thoughts, whoever it is I agreed with him and am paraphrasing] I have never liked Wolverine [my personal view and example] no matter who is writing him. This most popular X-Men is the worlds worst offender when it comes to 'inner thoughts' on the page during fight scenes. If your a great writer the inner monologue can add to the action, but it does slow down the page and isn't really needed. If your going for a really intense fight scene you don't need characters saying monologues to their opponents and you don't need to take time away from following the action to read text boxes. If your going for a fast paced fight scene between enemies leave the words out, and let the artist do his/or her job and make it look cool as hell. Words can 'hide' [take up a distracting amount of space on the page] excellent art, but they can't 'hide' bad art. That's not meant to be counter-intuitive, just the way it is for me as a reader. Fight scenes should read fast and furious so let the art do the 'talking' save the pithy remarks for the befores and afters. What about a character who is close to losing that all important battle and must draw upon his inner strength? Which is usually shown to the reader by a close-up to extreme close-up of a character with a text box thought balloon which contents amount to a personal pep talk. Actions speak louder than words, a picture is worth a thousand words, a comic book fanboy can come up with his own 'what Logan thinks when the chips are down' inner dialogue. Just because you can have a character thinking deep thoughts while fighting a thousand Ninja doesn't mean you should.

Reason 4: If you really want a quiet moody start -go textless

You have a slow start set-up in 8 screens at Zuda your already taking a risk. You have 8 screens of text boxes that's even more of a risk, plus it's expected and dead common. I like extremes from both ends of the spectrum in terms of art, and the same thing applies to words. Show me the photo realism of Reed Crandall, or the mass of confusion that's was Jae Lee during his Youngblood strikefile era. Same thing goes for words show me a lot of well written dialogue, or do silent no text panels. A good artist can convey all kinds of emotions and feelings without words, and leave things open to some reader interpretation like I mentioned earlier, for an example read Rumors of War. Having no text boxes can make scenes read faster, or much slower depending on the skill of the artist/writer in screen composition/pace. For a slow or high concept start to a Zuda comic I want to be able to savor good art work at my own pace, not see how well the text matches up to the illustrations. It just does more to grab me as a reader.

Reason 5: Show, or tell -but don't show and tell

Sometimes because of the way you (meaning anyone) structure a story you have to have text boxes -even during fight scenes. This usually happens because of a high concept that can't make ready use of genre expectations short hand with readers. The way I like seeing this handled is well written and very brief. It also helps out tremendously if information is imparted through the text you couldn't get any other way. For an example read Blood Hunter. It's obvious there is something wrong with the more savage native vampires, but only with the text do you find out their inbreeds because of their personal beliefs. The idea of corrupted purists vampire zealots grabbed me right away, so their are some text box exceptions that prove the rule. The worst offender is when you read a caption text like Captain x flies off to save the day, and the art that accompanies the text box is sure enough Captain x flying off into the sky. Some Zuda comics have came dangerously close to failing into this early golden age storytelling mind trap.

Reason 6 Passive voice vs. active voice or text box narration vs. characters talking to themselves

Text box thought balloons are not going to be as engaging to me as character dialogue. Text box narration from the third person makes for a very passive read to me. Reading a characters dialogue is going to be more engaging because I'm hearing a characters voice, their doing something even if it's only talking to themselves. Talking to themselves is a habit a lot of people have, doesn't necessary mean their crazy, but it could. It could also mean their lonely, happy, mad, glad, or sad. It ties in again to leaving somethings open for reader interpretation, or for the writer to surprise us with something later. With third person narration I feel too far removed from the story it's not as involving to me as the characters speaking for themselves. Even thinking for themselves with text box thought balloons has more connection to the voice of the character and not the narrator, whoever that's supposed to be???

Compare and contrast

Go read (if you haven't already) Flowing Wells and the first 9 pages of Drockleberry, then come back. It obvious D-berry starts off with more of a bang than the slow start of FW. You would have to do some editing but screen 9 of D-berry would be the perfect surprise 8th screen cliff hanger for a Zuda submission. I know the method of operation (slow start, or not to slow start) is different, but D-berry is automatically more grabbing to me as a reader. Now notice these are text box thought balloons in D-berry not narration. From the text box thought balloons you get more of a insight into the character, the more interested I am in the character, the more interested I am in the story. 27 text boxes in D-berry vs. 23 text boxes in FL. Look at the average word count of the text boxes in D-berry. It's shorter text boxes (broken up by characters actually speaking) thus more focused and engaging. It's also text box thought balloons (and voice overs) in D-berry vs. text box narration in FW, so in D-berry's case it seems more to the point in introducing that world.

It's all personal opinions in deciding what 'reads' better, but I hope that gives everyone a clear idea of where I'm coming from as a reader. Again, thanks for the question Andrew and feel free to ask more. :)


  1. Thanks for posting this.
    I'll be gratefully surprised if you wind up enjoying the remaining few-to-several dozen pages of FW, but it might actually grow on you :)
    Much of the story is narrated, and like the first 8 pages, the narrative has little to do with what is actually illustrated. I'm parting with convention in that I'm willfully attempting to slow the reader down a bit :) It's a slightly risky experiment, and understandably, I'll lose a significant number of readers due to that ( as well as the simple fact that my writing isn't near as sharp or seasoned just yet either )...still, I plan on keep'n at this for ages :)

  2. RKB - I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say what you *really* don't like isn't Text Boxes, but the way poor writers use them in stories *cough Chris Clairmont cough* - some people utterly abuse them and that's true, but a well written text box (think Rorshach in Watchmen) has a lot of power to it. I think my Kharon, Scourge of Atlantis manage to use them in a way that kept them from being annoying. :)

  3. CC has never been one of my favorites, what tippd you off ;) and for anyone reading this Jim can write a great text box! :)
    I also think there is a dividing line between the different kinds of text boxes.
    VOICE OVERS screen 5,6 of Kharon is a good and well written :) example of this.
    TEXT BOX THOUGHT BALLOONS can be useful if well written and not too long. Screen 2 and 3 of Kharon is a good example of this, most of what Rorshach thought too.
    TIME AND DATE/LOCATION stamps in comics are needed some times.
    Text boxes are damn hard to do well, comics have a easier time with me if they just stick to dialogue.
    I flat out hate 3RD PERSON NARRATION, too too passive a read -it sucks the excitement out of a story.
    The different types of content for text boxes have different affects on story structure, and 'read' different to me.
    When in doubt just use dialogue, or let the artist do his magic with silent panels! :)

  4. Damn the ************************* subject breaks are back in a major way! LOL

  5. I agree with most of what you are saying about this.
    Let the art speak for itself.


  6. Thanks to Dennis, Jim, and anyone/everyone else for stopping by and reading. :)

  7. I couldn't finish reading this because of your grammatical mistakes. You are = you're, not your. Their is the possessive form and there indicates location.

  8. Come on Anonymous, it's a manifesto!!! No I'm not going to call you a grammar Nazi. At least you got down to reason 3.
    You could have left a name i wouldn't have taken it personal
    This blog is my own little internetland fiefdom, so i spells it the way i want to spells it.
    You could divide up the world between the people who can't stand the universal your, or there, and the folks who don't care about that at all. Some things do bother me grammatical-wise, but that isn't one of them.