COMICS: Matt Maxwell over at Broken Frontier has a good column up about caption boxes in comics, of all things. Caption boxes are something I've been thinking about also, trying to work out the best way to use them or not in my writing. Warren Ellis has talked about not using captions in his comics. Don't quote me but I believe he has said he did away with captions because he feels they slow the work down, which I can see. The main problem I have with the current trend of getting rid of captions is that you lose a very important aspect of fiction, narrative voice. The voice, attitudes, believablity, etc., of the narrator is a very, very important part of prose fiction and it's something that a lot of comics lack. Most comics just tell the story flat, you don't have a narrator at all. And I don't know that a narrator would help most comics, since the stories are pretty flat to start with. Not to say that it's stories are flat at all but I don't know if having a narrator in say, Queen & Country, would benefit the story any but without one it's hard to judge (of course Greg Rucka is writing a Q&C novel which will almost certainly have a narrator to deal with so we'll see what the difference is). Matt Maxwell is right, a narrator in comics who isn't just explaining the images is hard but I think more writers need to at least look at the benefits.

My favorite examples of the benefits of a narrator are A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange makes that book. Without him, it would just be a story about a bad kid who gets caught by the government and reformed. His voice and attitudes about what are going on are what the story a classic. The invention of the 'nadsat' or the slang language that Alex and the other teens in the book use is enough to get Anthony Burgess a place on my pantheon of authors. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is maybe a better example of the difference not having a narrator makes because the book has a narrator (Chief Bromden) and the movie doesn't. They tell essentially the same story but the removal of the Chief as the narrative voice in the movie takes away quite a bit of the power of the book. In the book, the Chief is clearly mentally ill and it colors everything he says. He has paranoid delusions about machines in the walls and of The Combine, a conspiracy of everyone in power that is dedicated to keeping people stupid. The movie takes all of that away and you get the flat story of McMurphy, a born rule-breaker who comes to the hospital and fights with the head nurse. None of the nuance of the book is left because it was all in how the Chief saw McMurphy. In the book he's a man who has been able to keep away from The Combine and that's what gives him his power. In the movie he's just a fighter who doesn't like authority.

It's hard to describe really so if you have any interest in this topic at all I would recommend reading the book of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and then watching the movie. Pay attention to how the Chief's illness provides another important layer on top of the story and how that's missing in the movie. This is the difference I see between comics with and without a real narrator. Captions are the way you can provide a narrator in comics so I wouldn't be quick to dismiss them.