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Q:I'm working to get into comic writing, and I'm finding myself struggling with something: Narration boxes/captions feel lazy as a storytelling tool as opposed to plotting exclusively through action and dialogue. (This might be a holdover from things I learned while screenwriting.) At the same time, they're incredibly useful to communicate details of the story. Have you ever found yourself struggling with this, and where do you come down on the issue? Thank you--big fan!
Great question, and something I’ve thought a lot about over the past couple of years!
I went to film school and as a result, like you, developed a big aversion to voiceover — our screenwriting professors encouraged us to avoid it, to learn instead how to tell stories dramatically and visually through dialogue and action, since that’s the essence of what “moving pictures” implies. So when I started writing comics, I carried that bias over and tried to avoid voiceover caption boxes as much as possible.
But about two years ago, I started to think a little more deeply about everything I was doing as a writer. And I reread a bunch of my favorite comics. And I realized that almost every one of the comics on my “most loved” list used voiceover captions to show the inner thoughts of the main characters.
What I’ve come to realize is that comics is a hybrid medium. Yes, it’s telling stories with pictures, a form of dramatic storytelling like film. So everything I learned in film school helps me be a better comics creator. But we READ comics. They’re not just pictures; they’re prose, too. So the literary tools of the novelist and poet are also absolutely available to us a comic book makers.
When I started writing for DC, I let myself embrace voiceover captions in both BATMAN/SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, and I’ve been thrilled with the result. The trick, I’ve found, is to let the voiceover captions complement or contrast what’s done in the images and dialogue — not reproduce. Yes, occasionally something’s a little confused in the visual storytelling and I use the voiceover captions as a bit of a crutch to squeeze in a little exposition to make things clear. But even when I’m doing that, I’m trying to provide another emotional context, a bit of character detail, a touch of thematic resonance via those captions. A rule of thumb might be to never just explain what’s happening in the scene — instead, always look for some other way to enrich the story or deepen the emotional impact of the conflict or moment.
The result, when it works, is that the reader’s better able to get inside a character’s head — better able to empathize with or fall in love with a character. And the storytelling becomes more interesting with another contrasting layer that can show the subtext or secret motivations or history or hidden questions behind what a character’s doing.
Of course it’s possible to overuse any tool or to simply do voiceover captions badly. But for me, letting myself embrace the tool has right.
All the best and break a leg!
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