A disproportionate number of existing superhero comic book readers – they who use the term “civilian” to describe those who don’t hit up their local establishments on weekly basis, as if they’re in the front lines in Iraq – want their stories spoon-fed to them, leading to an equivalent percentage of superhero comic book “stories” that aren’t worth the electricity it took to email the files to Quebecor.
Obvious, I know, but I figured that the reiteration of the obvious is germaine to the discussion. I was just looking at a recent Hulk comic in which the first page served as a text recap: there’s two Hulks, one’s Green, one’s red, and the red one (given the idiotic portmanteau of “Rulk”) has done something really awful. The first page of the actual comic is narration: “Oh, hey, Bruce Banner here, I’m The Hulk! There’s another Hulk! He’s red! They call him the Rulk! He did something bad.” While I am, as regular readers know, all about making sure titles are as new-user friendly as possible, losing a page of storytelling at the front of a book (that’s cut into two halves right now, mind) to a recap means that you should go straight into the action.
One of David Mamet’s better pieces of advice (and the man throws out many worth paying attention to) is that you can lose the first ten minutes of any movie, as they’re generally exposition and little else. By picking up a comic book or sitting into a seat at the multiplex, the audience has already said “I trust you. Give it to me.” Thus, by having Banner reiterate the situation, Jeph Loeb (a screenwriter by trade, it should be noted) oversells his goods and creates a moment where, consciously or not, the reader sees the puppet’s strings. Banner’s bemoaning the setup that’s just been recapped is the Marvel Comics equivalent of Jackie Chan making sure we see his face when he does those crazy stunts: it places the writer/performer ahead of the story. I’m more than happy to let Jackie Chan do his thing; that’s why I’m there. I’m not reading a Hulk comic to watch Jeph Loeb write dialogue circles.
One of the reasons I enjoy Grant Morrison’s work with superheroes so much is that trusts the audience to follow along and very deliberately slices out narration and expository dialogue, letting the medium tell the story and exemplifying Mamet’s tenet. This is why Morrison’s reveals and relevatory moments are so memorable. “I can see you!” and “You’re Martians, aren’t you?” stand out because they’re organic and when they hit, chunks of the rest of the story suddenly make perfect sense. Morrison’s work may occasionally suffer due to artists who can’t quite pull off his scripts (Tony Daniel on Batman being an obvious example) but it’s obvious that he respects his audience more than contemporaries like Mark Millar.
Morrison also trims the fat out of his stories whenever possible: rarely is someone seen walking out of a room or driving a car unless the narrative is furthered by it, and he’s fond of cutting off either end of those scenes to move to the next piece of the script. Very rarely do people sit and talk: they’re in motion. Witness the majority of “talky” scenes in his JLA run, or All-Star Superman #6, in which the Chronovore’s attack and the explanation of its importance to Superman’s life overlap, leading to a final moment that is better for the lack of outre sentimentality.
Having to read and look at the art and think isn’t what the majority of the comic book audience wants to do, however. They’ll throw up any number of excuses or complaints, saying that it’s hard to follow or that they shouldn’t have to “work” to enjoy a story with Thor in it. I’m not going to say that Morrison is not without his opaque moments – his masturbatory opus The Filth, for example – but his superhero material places only the slightest of demands on the readers and is thus reviled by many, even as those in editorial (and snot-nosed, self-important bloggers) reward him for at least trying. When so little change is permanent in superhero comics, someone with the bravura of Morrison is to be admired. There’s a reason I’ll pick up anything with his name attached to it. Even when he makes storytelling choices I disagree with, it’s plain there’s thought behind them.