Thursday, October 1, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 8

Last time out I discussed how to craft a script sample for submission and briefly touched upon the importance of studying what techniques the pros are using in order to develop your own storytelling skills. Today, we're going to look at that idea a little further using an example from acclaimed (and currently unacclaimed) comics writer James Robinson. Yes, it's time to crack open the comics vault and pull out one of the most critically beloved series of all time, Starma... oh, wait. No, we're actually going to be looking at Firearm.

I know what you're thinking: what the F? Yes, that wasn't some sort of internet typing Tourette's, we're going to take a look at a Malibu comic book. While this may seem a bit counter-intuitive, in some ways Malibu is actually the perfect company to study when you want to learn writing tips, because they hired a lot of top talent but still published almost all of their books right at the height of the mid-90's bad art explosion. Because comics is such a visual medium, good art can often obscure good writing, making it more difficult to determine just which storytelling elements are being contributed by which collaborator. With Malibu this isn't so much of an issue, because there were top writers working on titles alongside artists who, even when they were talented, were being handcuffed by having to draw in this godawful 90's style (though to be fair, most of the art in Firearm is pretty solid). So when something comes out of it that's actually good, chances are you can figure out right away why: the writing.

Firearm is a particularly interesting case because they seemed to have trouble locking down a steady artist, meaning just about every issue is done by a different person; the only unifying voice throughout the series is that of Robinson. Moreover, the series is a direct antecedent to the series that would make him famous, Starman; indeed, the two series actually overlapped, with the final issue of Firearm (#18) being published at the same time as Starman #5. Because of this, many of the storytelling ideas and techniques that Robinson would go on to use to great acclaim in Starman can be seen germinating in his run on Firearm, including the one we're going to focus on today, which I like to call Contrapuntal Narration.

Okay, there's certainly some other term for this, but since I lent out my copy of Understanding Comics, you're going to have to bear with me. No, contrapuntal isn't some sort of dirty synonym for fellatio; it's actually a term I borrowed from the world of music. In the world of music, contrapuntal refers to "a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines"; another definition is "of or pertaining to counterpoint". So how does this relate to comics? Here's my definition:

Contrapuntal Narrative is when narrative captions are telling a story that is unrelated to the art.

Now, "unrelated" is probably a bit too firm of a word here; what I mean by unrelated is simply that the narration is neither describing the scene nor an element of the scene. But while the content of the narrative may be separate from the art, the fact that it appears in the same space as the art creates a relationship between the two. This is similar in some ways to cinematic montage, a technique in motion pictures where unrelated images are flashed in sequence; this causes the viewer to unconsciously connect the dots between the images, producing an emotional response that is greater than and different from what either image alone would induce.

Sound familiar? It should, because it's the same basic idea behind comics. In cinematic montage, the time between the two images serves the same purpose as the gutter between panels does in comics (see, even though I lent it out I still remember some of what I read in Understanding Comics). But in Contrapuntal Narrative, there is neither space nor time separating the two story elements; instead, it is the difference between words and pictures that causes the split.

This, too, is perhaps the single central magic of comics: the fusion of words and images to create an artistic experience that is greater than what either alone can produce. You can forgive me, then, if I admit that Contrapuntal Narrative is one of my favorite writing techniques, because for me it captures all the magic of comics in one single panel; and because it is tied into the DNA of the form so closely, it can often be an especially powerful form of storytelling.

Of course, like any other technique, there are times to use it and times to use something else. In Firearm, the narrative captions are usually describing what the main character, P.I. Alec Swan, is thinking. And so for most of the series, simple, classic thought balloons would have sufficed instead of narrative boxes. However, occasionally what Swan is "thinking" about is so completely unrelated to what is going on that a thought balloon wouldn't make sense. Is a guy in a life or death firefight going to be contemplating the meaning of a dream he had a few days ago? Probably not. In fact, any kind of long form narration in the heat of the battle would feel jarring and unrealistic to the reader. By using narrative captions instead of word balloons, then, Robinson gets the best of both worlds, because the captions can function as either thought balloons directly explaining what Swan is doing in a particular scene; or they can diverge completely from the story to provide a larger, more meta commentary when called for.

In Firearm, Robinson uses this technique most often during fight sequences, which I think is appropriate; comic readers are so used to seeing battles that the visceral impact of them is usually lost or at least stunted by the repetition. By adding Contrapuntal Narrative -- dialogue that differs in content and tone from the images -- it forces the reader to engage the sequence more fully to understand what is going on. In addition, the text can often add a layer of meaning that enhances the story being told by the images without necessarily directly correlating to it.

Take as an example the panels accompanying this essay. These panels are all from Firearm #11; it is this specific sequence where I first recognized this technique as a younger reader. In the images, Alec Swan is engaging in a running gun battle with some assailants (all of which is taking place inside a virtual reality). The text, meanwhile, relays a seemingly unrelated story about a dream that Alec had where he was visited by Lord Byron. Here, Robinson does a couple interesting things. Firstly, after three pages we learn that the dream was about Byron prophesying Swan's death; thematically, then, the seemingly unrelated dream discussion dovetails with the art, because the closer Swan gets to the end of the dream -- his "death" -- the closer Swan seems to get to his actual death in the art. And secondly, this disparity -- between the death Byron had prophesied and the way Swan seems to actually die on page eight of this sequence -- not only creates tension through cognitive dissonance, but also ends up being foreshadowing for a multi-part storyline that begins in Firearm #12. At the time you read this sequence, then, the disparity between the narrative and the art ends up crating four distinct storylines: one told through text, one told through art, one created in the mind of the reader through the increasing synergy between the narrative and the art and a fourth that only become apparent when the next issue comes out and recasts the entire encounter in a different context.

Not half bad for one simple storytelling technique.

Tomorrow: Okay, so Robinson knows a few tricks. But are the stories actually, you know, cool? Tomorrow we leave theory behind and check out the actual results as I review Firearm #1-18. Check it out!

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