Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 2

And we’re back for another exhilarating edition of Points of Impact. Like I wrote last night on Twitter, this week’s haul was quite impressive: close to a dozen books! No wonder I took the entire evening to read through it all so I could have something enlightening to tell you today!

A now customary caveat:  these aren’t reviews; they’re more like pointers to interesting tricks and devices that a beginning comics writer could find useful. Hence even a book that many would consider “bad” can still have something to teach us about writing – even if it’s by a bad example. To further drive that point in, I’m beginning this week to add a closing statement to each part called Lesson Learned. If you feel like just skimming the blog post, those are the parts for which you want your eyes to slow down. At the end of every month, I’ll be doing a digest of all of the month’s bits o’wisdom in a single post I’ll probably title Lessons Learned. Yeah, that’s my great imagination at work, folks – buy my comics!

I loved…

The dialogue in Brian K. Vaughan’s SAGA #1 – Before I start catching too much flak for praising writers for not writing dialogue, this week I’m going in reverse. No, I won’t be talking about writing a lot of dialogue (sorry, Mr. Bendis!), but rather about writing the dialogue that was exactly required.

But first a confession: I’ve never read Y: THE LAST MAN and only the $1 sampler of EX MACHINA. That means my familiarity with Vaughan’s work could be considered sorely lacking. However, it also means that my expectations were at an ideal point, that is completely neutral.

Despite hitting me right off the bat with a splash page of a woman wondering if she’s defecating or not, this comic contains some of the best dialogue I’ve read in a long while. This is saying a lot considering that it’s part space opera, part high fantasy – two genres I absolutely loathe. Indeed the dialogue elevates the whole experience above the simple context of the story, far beyond the winged guardsmen, unicorn ladies and robots doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel.

I’m not making any of this up by the way.

But the heart of the matter is that Vaughan succeeds in creating dialogue that not only advances the story and serves as a great introduction for his world and his characters; he also makes us care deeply about these characters. It’s thanks to dialogue so perfectly on-target – especially in highly dramatic moments where it would be easy to fall back into whine and cheese – that we can almost lose sight of the funny aliens and intergalactic wars and see this story for what it truly is: a universal tale about two people in love nurturing the life they created together.

My very own personal favorite line in the entire comic? As Alana and Marko, our two protagonists, are caught in a crossfire between enemy troops and will surely die, Marko utters a sentence that is very simple yet so powerful at that moment:

MARKO: I loved you so much.

That use of the past tense, as if they were already dead, it hits you like a pack of gunpowder in a mouth full of fire.

Lesson learned: Writing dialogue is a precarious balancing act between moving the story forward and establishing characterization. Too much of the former and you get a plot-driven story peopled by interchangeable robots. Too much of the latter and you get quirky talking heads show that goes nowhere. Good dialogue keeps the balance between the two; GREAT dialogue pushes both to the limit. That way, you can maybe reach out to people who would have no interest in your story in the first place.

I liked…

The amount of research done by Nathan Edmondson for THE ACTIVITY #4 – This is the second time that THE ACTIVITY makes the list as the “liked” item. Will it ever attain the coveted “loved” spot? Only time will tell but it’s racking up a pretty good track record in the meantime. (2012-03-16 UPDATE: I checked and it did get “loved” already. Sorry for the lapse in memory!)

Once again, this is not about shutting up. This week, I’m all about the talky bits! Here, I’m amazed by the load of research Edmondson no doubt had to get through to incorporate so much authenticity in his plot and his lines. We’re talking about:

  • Diplomatic relations
  • Military operating procedures
  • The military structure and chain of command
  • Bleeding edge covert ops technology
  • Military lingo

And this isn’t flavor text peppered all over the dialogue just to make it sound real. These notions are also integral part of the plot. This is one of the elements that make THE ACTIVITY such a good book: it’s done its work and it shows!

Of interest too is the fact that these characters not only talk like soldiers, they also act like soldiers. They’re solid and reliable professionals who do their job without angst nor exaggerated relish. Hence you won’t find among them the usual characterization shortcuts, the stereotypes like the hard-assed drill sergeant, the young hot impulsive hotshot, the contemplative wisdom-sputtering mentor, the PTSD victim teetering along the edge – you know them because you’ve seen them all in the other comics and at the movies.

Lesson learned: If you’re going to write about anything that steps outside the bounds of your everyday life, do your research. Don’t half-ass it either. We’re living in the information age so it’s easy for anyone to look it up and second-guess your “facts”.

I was disappointed by…

The main character’s lack of presence in Mike Mignola and John Arcudi’s LOBSTER JOHNSON: THE BURNING HAND #3 of 5 – Just to drive the point home even further, this week’s disappointment stems from actually not saying enough. Specifically, it deals with the authors opting to keep their main character mostly silent, absent and/or ineffective for three straight issues, an irritating habit that reaches its low point in issue 3.

Throughout this installment, Lobster Johnson appears on only 6 pages, and on these pages he has no more than 13 speech balloons, a little more than 2 speaking lines per page on average. None of these are particularly meaty character-wise. Apart from one admittedly cheesy opening line, all of his dialogue refers to the plain situation at hand, no insight, quips or flavor at all.

That bothers me.

First there’s no way for the reader to get inside the hero’s head and thus identify with him. We’re irremediably stuck outside this character, getting the story told to us instead of having the slim opportunity to live it through Lobster Johnson. Even worse, since the main villain gets both more face time and more substantial dialogue, it’s actually easier to identify with him instead, thus making for a strangely skewed reading experience.

Then there’s the fact that Lobster Johnson seems like he’s guest-starring in his own comic, like Wolverine visiting a Spider-Man title in the 90s (he used to do it at least twice a month). The same way his appearance proves completely extraneous to the plot – he accomplished nothing and affected no one in any way – the reverse is also true: the plot leaves absolutely no trace on him. Issue 3 leaves us with a “hero” that’s left curiously unaffected, having learned about as much about himself as we already knew about him: nothing.

Talk about a classic mystery man!

Lesson learned: If you want your readers to like a character, introduce him properly. That doesn’t mean info-dumping his whole resume, but keeping a steady diet of characterization through interactions with other characters. Also, in order to really become “heroes”, characters have to be challenged by events and be transformed by them in order to bring a satisfying close to their journey. A character that passes through a story without change is not a hero but an extra.

Honorable mentions this week

  • The quirky scenes (“bring this horse to the race” and sex with a view to David Hasselhoff (please don’t ask me to explain; I already had to do it with my girlfriend who happened to pass by and see this over my shoulder)) in Andrew Osborne’s BLUE ESTATE #10
  • A 14-page fight scene that’s still an interesting read in Brian Wood’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN #2
  • An intricate plan that would actually work in the real world in Kurtis J. Wiebe’s PETER PANZERFAUST #2
  • The sniping scene and the fact that the Punisher actually sounds like someone with a background in the military instead of a goon with a gun in Greg Rucka’s THE PUNISHER #9
  • Examples of decompression that works in Nick Spencer’s THIEF OF THIEVES #2

Dishonorable mention

J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s BATWOMAN #7 is still a sorry mess and came in close to being this week’s disappointment. Normally, I’d leave it at honorable mentions and keep mum about everything else that didn’t particularly wow me but I thought this particular case warranted a special treatment.

I think I’ve expounded enough on this title’s problem last month and this issue gives us more of that same problem. However, one thing that stands out and underlines this book’s slow descent into meh-ness is the fact that the authors seem to have completely forgotten what made Batwoman special in the first place. Gone is the fiery fierceness, gone is the unflinching pride, and gone is the barely held-back grief behind the façade of the soldier. Batwoman’s characterization has been completely pushed aside in favor of an intricate plot structure that honestly fails at the most basic level: it can’t properly tell us what is actually happening.

Remember the first five issues: each scene was leading into the other almost seamlessly, all of them driven by the clashing of strong characters like Chase, Maggie and Batwoman. Heck, the comparison is even less flattering if you go further back to the BATWOMAN: ELEGY days, when Greg Rucka reinvented the character in the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS. That was when characters were driving the plot. Now it’s the plot – hindered by a gimmicky device – that leads the characters.

Here’s a fun thing to do while reading BATWOMAN #7: replace Batwoman with Nightwing in every panel in which she appears and see how much it changes the story or even just her lines. Not much, right? That’s a good litmus test right there for knowing if your characterization is strong enough to carry a plot.