Being Perfectly Clear: How extra information can enhance the comic experience

It’s been a hectic few weeks as the semester winds down while at the same time I’m gearing up for summer research and travel. Its left little time for comics but reading lot of scientific journal articles has made me realize an interesting crossover between sequential and scientific literature: the annotation. There are basically two types of citations in comics, the editor’s note and the annotated appendix. Both serve distinct roles and seem to be used to provide very different types of information.

Footnotes aka Editor’s Notes:

Most fiction, even serialized fiction, eschews the footnote. At no point in any of the Harry Potter books does a character say something like “and then we went into the Chamber of Philosopher Hippogriffs*” where the asterisk refers you to the book of the page with a note reading, “* As seen in Harry Potter and the Unfortunate Incident about which he Complains.” (Not intended to be a factual reference.) I think it’s pretty obvious why that wouldn’t do much to forward the narrative, even a long epic where people might not remember exactly when each adventure occurs.

But comics evolved down a different path. To my knowledge footnotes, or as they’re know in comics editors notes, didn’t really exist before the 1960s. This is an opinion piece not a pieces of well-researched journalism, but do correct me in the comments below if I say something egregiously wrong. But the advent of the editor’s note seemed to come about alongside the shared universe.

Stan Lee was and is a shrewd business man. So it makes sense that him or someone working with him would realize to potential profits in subtly letting readers know what new book to read next. Spider-Man would be swinging through the city and see Thor fly by off in the distance. The thought balloon would then read, “Hey! That’s Thor! I wonder where he could be off to in such a hurry!*” and the editor’s note at the bottom of the panel would read, “*Thor is heading off to fight the Space Gorilla that attacked Asgard in last week’s issue of Thor #17!” (The used a lot of exclamation points back then.)

This doesn’t really seem to forward the story as much as the bottom line, the exception being when a foreign language was involved. But for a while it was a staple in the world of mainstream superheroes and then it kind of faded away. Now we get page long checklists at the back of the big event books, which can be equally frustrating to those that are miffed at the thought of buying every single book in an event, which seems to be something that comes up on this site a lot. All I can say is Civil War would have been pretty frustrating to read if every panel was packed with editor’s notes linking specific events to tie-in books.

But a few modern books are bringing the editor’s note back, Amazing Spider-Man being the first, ok the only, book that comes to mind. The editor’s notes in Spidey seem to only refer back to his own adventures. “*That’s right readers! Spidey lost his Spider-Sense in a recent adventure!” or something like that. The whole thing seems a bit tongue-in-cheek but it does help recapture some of what made those older comics great. And I’d say by and large it works. I’m not annoyed by them; I don’t feeling like I’m blatantly being told to buy more books and sometimes I even chuckle at them.

Like anything else in comics the editor’s note will continue to evolve, so it’ll be interesting to see if some upcoming genius finds a way to incorporate them into the story like never before and blow out collective minds. When that happens I’ll come back to this article and add a footnote.

 

Annotation:

Then there are annotations, which I’m actually a big fan of. Annotations, at least as I define them, are the thoughts of the creators at the end of the book hopefully done in an organized manner, organized enough that you could go back to the page in question and actually gain some insight into the creative process. I’m still not done with the notes in From Hell because it almost requires you to read the entire book again and half. Alan Moore has a page by page justification of every scene in that book, with his sources all cited. I think that’s just about the most extreme example of annotations I’ve ever seen in comics, and if that’s what you’re into it really can enhance the experience you get from the book.

More tame, but by no means less enjoyable examples, are books like The Nightly News and Phonogram. These are notes that are both informative but also a bit more insightful. They tell us how the creators felt while making certain scenes, what inspired them in that moment, what music they were listening to, or in some cases even what they where drinking (Kieron Gillen is a method drinker).

My only problem with annotations is I never know when to read them. Do I flip back to the appendix after every page to see what was up? I’ve tried this and for me it really hampered the flow of the story. I’ve also tried rereading the book and flipping back to the footnotes as I go, but that felt like rewatching a movie with the directory commentary on, which I know some people love but has never been my thing. So the technique I finally settled on was to read the notes straight through at the end, flipping back into the book as needed. It works ok. It’s kind of impossible with really long books like From Hell, but it does well with more reasonable trades.

 

Well that’s where my brain has been as I’ve buried myself in science and citation. I’ve actually had the idea to talk about annotations for a while so I’m glad I did. But it’s not just about me. What about you iFanbase? Did any of your books this Wednesday contain notes? Do you like it when they do? How do you read your annotations? Let us know in the comments!

 


Editor’s note: Ryan Haupt can also be seen every week in his own solo series Science… sort of!

Comments

  1. Both great ideas.

    I’ve thought many times that single-issue comics (paper and/or digital) really need to become a more immersive experience again.

    We pay $3-4 and all we get is a very quick, streamlined product that takes 5-7 minutes to read, and 80% of the advertisements are in-house.

    But if you take a comic from 15-20 years ago (or older), what you’ll see is an incredibly varied experience. Even the advertisements were more varied. You had letters columns. You had Bullpen Bulletins (and the DC equivalent). And the comic pages themselves had editors notes. It was a much more varied, complete package, with different sorts of information pouring out of every page.

    I don’t know why everything got more streamlined. But a Bullpen Bulletins page is far more interesting than just another in-house ad. Bullpen Bulletins pages basically ARE advertisements, but they present more content and make the reader feel part of a larger world. Same with letters pages, on which different aspects of the creative process and fictional world are discussed. These days it feels like such a treat on the rare occasion when we get a 4-page preview or a behind-the-scenes page in the back of our comics–because at least that’s a switch-up from the normal streamlined “22 pages of decompressed story” approach.

    If Marvel and DC would just drop TWO in-house ads per issue and replace them with a letters page and a Bullpen Bulletins page, the comic experience would be MUCH more immersive. And if they’d bring back footnotes and put in some annotations (Morrison’s Batman run NEEDS them!), then the reader would have a much more interesting sense of “living history”.

  2. I’d like to see comics come out in oversized formats with humongous margins so that a running commentary can be placed there like some annotated religious texts.

  3. I have heard several writers say that “editor’s” notes aren’t from editors at all.

    But rather made up bits from the writers themselves.

    i.e.

    “Didn’t see where Spidey got that cool ducati?  Check out ish #241  Fact checkin’ Mike”

  4. @froggulper  I specifically remember the ads in comics back in the early 70’s. So many wonderful things could be had for $1.00. You could order Sea Monkeys, which I discovered looked nothing like the cute cartoon caricatures used to entice me into buying them. Heck, there were also ads for what I think I recall being actual live exotic animals like monkeys – the simian variety! (Oh, dammit, why didn’t I order one of those instead? I always wanted a pet monkey. Imagine me with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey with a little hat at a Renaissance fair… but I digress). I did buy a chameleon, which turned out to actually be a anole, from the back of a comic, as well as sea horses. All arrived alive, miraculously.

    As far as annotations, a good recent example was Paul Cornell’s “Kinight and Squire” series. The annotations were at the end and not referenced in the course of the story. That made them optional, but I found them to greatly enhance the story.

    Anything by Alan Moore needs annotation. Seriously.

    I think as we progress into the digital age, we’ll see detailed annotations as hyperlink pop-ups. That could be cool and would not interrupt the flow of reading the book.

  5. @lifesend  I totally thought of that while writing this! Those things are extensive.

  6. I want to carry my copy of Watchmen around like a Bible.  Running commentary on the margin please.

  7. @srh1son  Bibles are always printed on that really crummy paper stock though. You’d want be hefty pages. And obviously the gold around the edges. Super classy.

  8. I think Phonogram is an interesting example of a book like this. I’m glad you mentioned it, but I don’t know if you mentioned what makes it fairly different from other books of this kind. Phonogram leaves out anything in the actual comic to refer you to the appendix in the back. While I thought that would hamper the reading experience at first, I think it actually lent itself to a far more organic experience.

    I didn’t feel like I was taken out of the story every other panel by seeing a numeral plastered there in subscript (or superscript, I guess) and if something made me curious, I could just flip back to the appendix and look it up. I know this wouldn’t work for a lot of books, but figured I’d mention it either way. 

  9. I’m a huge of the editor’s note, especially when it incorporates humor.

  10. This is an area where digital comics can REALLY flourish and enhance the medium. Hyperlinking issues and parts of issues viw editors notes if there was an online comics database. Mixed with writer artist commentary, layered images showing the process of each page from pencils to inks to colors among lots of other things.

  11. @Haupt  You’re not wrong at all.  Even my nice edition I had for a religion class in college is hardbound, fully annotated (we academics love our footnotes), but very thin paper.

    Still, dare we hope the Gideons stock Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns in every hotel room in the United States?

  12. @srh1son  Instead of Gideons, how about Ozymandians?

  13. part of me feels that if a comic needs concise annotations, there is something horribly wrong. Its a friggin comic book! its not supposed to be that complex. If they write higher brow things like Vanity Fair and the New York Times for an 8th grade reading level than comics should be at least the same. 

    I was re-reading the Dark Phoenix saga the other day…man there is like a editor note on every panel seems like. Crazy.

    Annotations can work well for complex universes or new languages. I remebmer a copy of Clockwork Orange that i had that came with a glossary in the back. Totally helpful.  

  14. @wallythegreenmonster  I disagree with a couple of those points. Not sure how much I want to get into an argument, but suffice it to say anytime someone proclaims what comics “should” be I tend to find fault.

  15. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Haupt  Well said. 

  16. The first annotations I remember were the ones in the back my trade of Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.  That was nice because there was so much story in the background.  They were collapsing characters and events into the narrative of a man’s life. 

    Phil Sheldon’s journey was the story.  But it doesn’t mean there isn’t more to glean and explore in the background.  The annotations help with that.

  17. @Haupt  — well thats why i said “part of me” thinks that. heh. The comics medium is diverse and i’ve read some very amazing and complicated stories. For me personally, i just don’t want a story to be so complex that i can’t follow it on its own. That was what i was getting at. 

    I have a fundamental philosophy that if you have to stand next to your work and explain what’s going on or how it works, you haven’t done your job as a communicator very effectively. (irony with my comment!) I carry that into my own art/design work and its become my expectation for any form of media i interact with. I like things that are self contained and stand on their own.