Narration in comics. It’s kind of like a voice over in a movie. Kind of. Narration is used to give the reader a look at the thoughts of one of the characters. Or else it is used to progress the story quickly and efficiently. Phrases like “Meanwhile” or “Two days later”, let the reader know exactly the setting or time shift in the story arch without having to set up an establishing shot or spend four panels with the sun setting and rising.
I’ve worked on many books and decide well in advanced if I’ll be using narration or not. Narration is one way to tell the story, as in the same way that you would tell the story around a campfire. “Once upon a time”, or “Bob rounded the corner and was startled to see the one-armed man”. The beauty of comics is that you can show these phrases with pictures and no words. It’s more challenging and more rewarding to draw a character scared, with squiggly shiver marks around them than to just have a speech bubble stating “I’m scared.” or a narration square saying, “Bob was scared”.
So then is it that creating a mood, or progressing a story just using pictures is more difficult than using narration? Is narration, consequently, the easy way out? I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but narration give a whole different kind of feel for progressing a story.
I’ve been pouring over my comic books and have found that, more often than not, most comic book artists don’t use narration. Out of my large collection of comic books and collected works I found very few titles or books that use narration regularly.
Spider-Man Maximum Carnage uses narration, most especially to progress the plot to the action sequences of the story. Simple phrases like, “Across town” which can take you from one panel reading about Spider-Man web slinging to Carnage and Shriek hatching a nefarious plan. These, story-progressing-narrations, are found on almost every fourth or fifth page. The tool that they’re serving here is plot progression. Not only that but a company like Marvel has to “turn it out” every month. There’s the story, the pencils, the inking, and the colours. Four to five people have to get this twenty-four page book out in a month. So phrases that can quickly bring you around a story spanning over ten characters are a welcome tool. Another consideration is page count. Most comics have a page count that is a multiple of four. Twenty pages, Twenty-four pages, Twenty-eight pages, you get the idea. The reason behind this is that every four pages are printed on one large sheet of paper that is folded down the middle. They are collated, then tucked together, and stapled with a glossy cover and you’ve got yourself a comic book.
There are some different narration blocks in Maximum Carnage that are the character’s inner thoughts. These often progress the story, but also, and more importantly, give the reader insight into the character. It’s a great, and often easy, way for character development. This, I feel, has always been one of the appealing points in the Spider-Man series. Because, not only is Spider-Man, filled with action, web-slinging, and fighting baddies, but there is also a soap-opera-ish story line that is weaved throughout each issue. Peter Parker struggling to keep his identity secret to protect the ones he loves. Any kind of fight with Mary Jane. The rivalry between Eddie Brock and Peter Parker as far as photography goes. These are the story lines that get people hooked and buy issue after issue.
So Spider-Man uses the narration blocks practically for pacing, plot progression, and character development. But if you’re a comic book artist and you’re working for Marvel, you probably don’t have to worry about any of this because the writer will do it for you.
Charles Burns, who got his start during the drug induced comic movement, has created some of the most unique characters to grace the page: Big Baby (a young bald pre-adolescent), el Borbah (a three-hundred pound Mexican wrestler who is an undercover detective). Throughout Burns’ career he has used narration blocks. In the earlier onset, Big Baby and el Borbah, they were just plot progressing phrases, such as “a few minutes later..” They were hardly used at all. Burns would tell his stories through pictures and character conversations.
It wasn’t until much later in his career that Burns utilized narration for character development. His epic tale about teenage love, lust, STDs, and misunderstandings, Black Hole, was the book where Burns really developed the emotional range of his characters. This worked spanned from 1995 to 2004. Burns had total freedom for this book, much like his other work, if he was restricted in anyway, it may have been length of issues. So he could set his own pace, not use plot progressing phrases or summaries to keep his story to eight pages so that it could be printed in Heavy Metal (as he did do with el Borbah).
There are two main characters which get the narration block treatment, a teenage boy and a teenage girl. Getting to know their thought process really draws the reader into the story. The boy, Keith, is the insecure high school kid who is afraid he’ll never get laid. Chris, is the girl that he has a crush on. They both go through a crazy ordeal, including a strange epic of STDs that is plaguing the town. Burns carries out a lot of inner monologue with both these characters. In this way he has gone from the funny, wacky, sometimes grotesque, and always shocking story telling (Big Baby, el Borbah), and added a bit of emotional drama. This added element grounds his characters, fleshes them out, and in that way makes the book more like life. The characters are easier to relate to and thus brings the characters and story depth.
Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Maus, chronicles the struggles and survival of Spiegelman’s grandfather’s time spent in a Nazi imprisonment camp during World War II. Along side this story arch is Spiegelman’s own struggle to completing such an heart-wrenching book and his somewhat sour relationship with his father.
Spiegelman uses narration lightly to set up the scenes with himself, his wife, and\or his father. They are small sentences like, “Summer vacation. Francoise and I were staying with friends in Vermont…” During the heavily emotional segments where you are with his father in the concentration camp, you learn that Spiegelman has interviewed and tape recorded his father’s memories of that time. These sequences rely heavily on the narration of Spiegelman’s father. He must write it word for word, because as you read it you can almost hear his father speaking. The character designs are simple, yet highly detailed. The whole book is groundbreaking. It’s one of the books that proved that comics aren’t just funny books for teenaged boys. Spiegelman’s excellent use of his father’s narration to tell the story and to make it personable are a strong factor in this formula.
These examples show us the wide range in which narration can be used. It can be used simply to propel the story along, or it can be used to reach a deep emotional connection with your reader. Many comic artists out there don’t use narration. It’s not just daily strips that are four panels long, which can be but is often not enough space to delve into deep emotional states. Some books that are deeply emotional tell their stories and characters emotions with actions and conversations. Is it thus more work for the artist? Perhaps, but it depends on the artist. For a more visual inclined person telling a story with no words can be easier than to plot out a script.
James Kochalka is a great example of an artist who rarely uses narration in his books. He does often use them for his four panel daily strip titled American Elf. He usually narrates his thoughts on any number of subjects from Mario Sunshine to his cat Spandy. When he does use narration it gives the reader a real sense of who he is and how he thinks. If you read American Elf from the beginning, October 26, 1998, to the this day, it’s scary how personal Kolchalka’s comics are and you get a sense that you really know him even though you may have never even met him.
His other works, Monkey vs. Robot, Super Fuckers, Fancy Froglin’s Sexy Forest, are all wonderfully drawn and move at a comfortable pace without the use of narration. Monkey vs. Robot, in fact, hardly has any words at all. Do the characters and story feel “real”? Not specifically. It feels about as real life as watching the Monchichis. Do you get to know exactly what the monkeys and robots are thinking? No. But does this make the book any more less enjoyable? Not in the slightest. Monkey vs. Robot is an excellent read that draws the readers in with its cute drawings and easy plotline. The absence of narration makes this book stronger. It doesn’t need any explanation, it doesn’t need any deep emotional thought. The pictures, in this case, say it all and are worth a thousand words. It’s a fun, light-hearted read. And it feels as complete, if not more so, than any of the books with narration mentioned above.
Does that mean that comics without narration can only be action oriented or Saturday morning cartoonish? Not even remotely. Many artists can get as emotionally deep as Spiegelman without the use of narration, or hardly even any words at all. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, is a Japanese comic artist who got his break in the sixties and whose influence can still be felt today with the re-release of some of his adult comics he calls “Gekiga” which translates roughly to “dramatic pictures”.
Tatsumi’s strongest works from 1969 are collected in The Push Man and other stories, released a few years ago by drawn and quarterly. Most of the stories in the collection are only eight pages, some are a bit longer. Each story focuses on the seedy underbelly of common day life in Japan in the late sixties. No narration is used at all. Tatsumi’s pacing is smooth, and efficient. Even with only eight pages to work with his stories are never jumpy or erratic, but always smooth. The strength and dramatic emotions from Tatsumi’s stories lie in the powerful images he draws so effortlessly. In Sewer, the images of a dead baby floating in the sewer drain are shocking and alarming. To see that human life is disposed of as so much excrement is saddening.
Tatsumi’s work proves the point that deeply emotional work can be touching without the aid of narration.
Stan Sakai, creator of the samurai bunny Usagi Yojimbo, has been drawing the same title for over twenty years. Each volume follows the ronin rabbit through his many adventures in feudal Japan. Sakai’s story telling skills, as well as his excellent layouts, make any issue of Usagi a treat to read. Sakai rarely uses narration in Usagi. When he does use narration, it is usually Usagi telling a tale of the past, even then the “voice over” is minimal and Sakai lets the action unfold like a well paced movie.
Sakai’s character’s expressions speak volumes. And, like Tatsumi, it is often the wordless panels that are the most emotionally gripping. Those exciting moments before a dual to the death are heightened by Sakai’s pacing. That moment in real time, which might be ten or twenty seconds, feels excruciatingly long with Sakai’s breakdown. It builds suspense and is reminiscent of legendary director, Sergio Leone’s, pre-shoot out scenes in his spaghetti westerns like Fistful of Dollars, or Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sakai’s issues of Usagi seem to encompass all elements of entertainment in one book, much like a well done kung-fu movie. There is comedy, drama, action, love interests, ghost stories, revenge tales, tales of deceit, you get it all in Usagi Yojimbo. All of this is done without narration. In Usagi, it works extremely well. His emotional parts hit home. You can hear the way that a line is delivered by the look on the speakers face.
All this narration vs. non-narration brings us to one of the most recognizable names in comics: Frank Miller. Even if you haven’t read any of his stuff (highly unlikely if you’re reading this essay) then chances are you’ve seen his stories in the movie theater. Robocop 2, Daredevil, 300, Sin City…any of these ringing a bell?
Miller has both narration and non-narration comics that are equal in caliber. Neither of his styles suffer any from the presence or the absence of narration. Miller is a very adaptable comic creator in this respect. Miller’s Ronin is a great example of his story telling without the use of narration. It’s an epic tale of feudal Japan meets futuristic technology. The images are solid with a sketchy quality, you can’t help but feel jealous of the guy for being able to draw so damn well. The pacing is good, though during some of the explanatory conversations, or to coin the phrases from the Incredibles, “monologue-ing“, gets a bit much. Other than that, the book is flawless. The story is well plotted out, all the plot twists are a shock. Miller goes from seemingly no words to some pages that are wordy indeed. This balance is respectable.
Miller’s other works, most notably, 300 and Sin City, use narration almost exclusively. Sin City was created in the same vein as 1940s-1950s film noir detective stories, which had an abundance of voiceover work. Sin City is no exception. It’s remarkably well done, though. For one complete story we get the voiceover work of one character. Marv, the crazy lug from The Hard Goodbye, is one example. Marv is telling us the story as it’s unfolding in the frames. He not only tells us the story, but he’ll give us background on the supporting characters that is important for us to know.; or Marv thinks it’s important for us to know. Marv says of a female character during an interaction, “Lucille’s my parole officer. She’s a dyke but God knows why. With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” In these few sentences, the scene is set, we know who Lucille is, and we get a good sense of the kind of person that Marv is.
Each Sin City tale is told in the same manner. We stick with one character through the whole tale, be it the do-gooder cop Hartigan, or Dwight the bad-ass. Each spins a different kind of tale, uniquely their own depending on who is telling it, though we all know that it’s Miller who is telling the tales. Like I said, the guy is adaptable. It’s hard to imagine what Sin City would be like without the narration, it wouldn’t be Sin City at all. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Ronin with narration. Miller illustrates that dramatic feelings can be expressed both with and without narration. The feelings will feel different depending on if and how you decided to use or not use narration.
There is one last technique for narration in comics, and that is the use of narration to tell a personal essay. Personal essays tend to be extremely personal, not the type of things that you would bring up about yourself at Sunday brunch with your family…depending on how close you are with your family. Personal essays, I would say, tend to be about something that happened to you and how you feel about it. I find personal essays, comic or otherwise, very intriguing. Some of my favorite works by R. Crumb are his personal essays. Where he writes out something at the top of the panel and illustrates it in the rest of the panel. My Troubles with Women is one of R.Crumb’s quite revealing works. Most of the panels have a great narration at the top, though some of them are just strait-up pictures of Crumb’s fantasies. One of the narrations on the top of the panel says, “It came to the point where I found that some girls will let you do anything you want to them if they like you a lot!” and the picture in the frame is Crumb on top of a girl who is on her stomach, he has her head in one hand and her foot in the other and is shoving the foot into her mouth. “Let’s see how far this will go!” Crumb says, while thinking, “Hey, she’s good!” Out of context that panel might seem to be drawn by a weirdo, but it fit’s the strip perfectly. Crumb does an excruciating self-examination as to why he is so awkward around women, spanning from his memories of his parents fighting in front of them to his happily depicted relationship with his current mate.
Another essay that strikes true with me is David Sedaris’ Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist. This essay is handwritten, so certainly a narrative, but it follows the same vein as R. Crumb’s essay comics. It’s about something that happened to the author, and Sedaris writes with the same rawness and edginess of Crumb’s work. This particular essay deals with Sedaris’ musings about what it is to be an artist, or more specifically, an artist with no talent and little drive. Sedaris paints a picture with his words, his attitude in this essay is satirical and comical. He focuses on how he could have been an artist if he’d just had the talent, and discusses his short stint as a performance artist. “I was living art. My socks balled up on the hardwood floor made a greater statement than any of their hokey claptrap with the carefully matted frames and big curly signatures in the lower left-hand corners.” Sedaris says of the traditional artists. This statement show the sarcasm that Sedaris uses to prove his points.
The most appealing aspect of a personal essay is the deep inner reflection that occurs by the author and/or artist. It may be satirical, it may be dramatic, but there is usually some kind of question, however vague it may be, that is pondered and answered by the last word/picture. A good personal essay will loosely follow this formula. It isn’t the formula that makes it worth reading, it’s the struggle to find the answer as to why you bothered to sit down and write it in the first place. This kind of deep reflection makes for an interesting read, whether it is about R. Crumb’s Trouble with Women, or David Sedaris’ Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist.
I’ve been struggling in my own work with how much narration that I need to use, and how long should I let the “scenes” play out by themselves. I have no deadline, no length restrictions. It makes for total freedom, but also leaves me with the question of, am I making this too long? If I did have a deadline I would trim out all of the childhood sections and get right down to it, but when I have the pen in my hand I feel that it is very important that I visit the areas of how I got to where I am. Sometimes restrictions can help us produce work, sometimes our best work.
I have noticed though, that a personal comic essay flows so much differently than any other comic. It doesn’t flow like a movie, smooth and seamless. It jumps around like a cricket. It’s more like following a person’s thought process, and less like a well plotted out story arch. I wonder if this jumpy story is good only for people with ADD or if it flows nicely for everybody. I suppose time will tell.