Talking About Talking


I am typing this with limited battery life on Tuesday evening, but I have no power, so even if I somehow finish the article (which I have been writing in my head over the past day), I dunno if I will be able to post it in time, so you may be reading this in the far flung future (okay, next week)–but at least I tried, right?

First off, I have to tell you…I tried. I really did. I was going to do this piece focused on the two of the most recommended trades from the iFanbase and do a comparison/contrast thing and then segue-way into some way of linking the two struggles together…but I just…well, I haven’t been able to get through the Starman Omnibus Vol. 1.  I finished Walking Dead Vol. 1 in like two fantastic nights, but when it came to Starman by James Robinson, whom everyone seems to love so much…I just–I haven’t been able to get through even the first four issues.

It’s a good book, I know–I know it’s a good book, I know it–but right now, it’s just a slog.  So this article is going to put that article on the backburner (because I will finish Starman, I definitely will) and wonder, is there such a thing as too much dialogue?  Too much talking in our talky books?  Word balloons that just have too many…words?  

The books I am thinking of our the aforementioned Walking Dead Vol 1 (first 12 issues) and Starman Omnibus (first 13?) and Matt Kindt’s 2 Sisters, which I read last night (336 pages) when it was clear–so very clear–that I was not going to be able to finish Starman in preparation for today’s [next week’s?] piece. (336 pages in one night = a damn good book, by the way.)

Some quick backpedaling: I realize that some books require more dialogue (and more reading) than others and that is okay.  What I am trying to posit is that there are some cases, some kinds of books, where too much dialogue makes pacing difficult in the best case and, in the worst case, just looks silly and makes you wonder if the editor was actually, you know, editing.  Also, if you have read these books, on the face of it my comparisons might seem ridiculous–but let’s just see how this goes, and we’ll discuss your protestations below.

Finally, let it be known that I love dialogue. While I am in LA auditioning for film and TV, I have a theater background and my favorite writers are Shakespeare, Mamet, Stoppard, Albee and Lanford Wilson…and there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. Theater, by its very nature, is dialogue and, for the most part, film is action and I think the best comics figure out the perfect balance between action and dialogue.  (And also, as I re-read this piece (and making actual cuts), I realize that my harping on someone talking too much might look intensely hypocritical.)

Enough dithering, let’s get on with it.

I was very excited to read Walking Dead. I was intimated, sure–the guys talk about the book all the time, and if you listen to the show you probably chuckled when Ron mentioned the podcast code to never spoil the book, which, like, is amazing when you think about it. Robert Kirkman is the writer that everyone seems to rave about, but I feel like I got to the party really late and I am at the point where if I actually met him I would feel silly because I really haven’t read much by him at all.  

(I will not be spoiling anything, by the way, but I will mention the fact that it is a zombie book.)

So, as you know, this is a zombie book and the action really starts with much of the zombie infection already in place. The characters are in a very dire, very desperate situation, and the stakes themselves could not be higher. All of this works out very well–good book. But one of the things I noticed, sort of in the middle of the first trade, were some dialogue portions that were just crazy with the word balloons. Like–multiple sentence paragraphs in word balloons, explaining a great deal of background and character notes, just heaped into one or two word balloons.

Problem was, the reader was taking all this in, but it just got to be silly after it happened a few times.  If you have a character do a monologue onstage or on camera, I argue that watching reactions of the people listening to the monologue are at least as important, if not more so, than watching the person ramble on.  Now, I get it, perhaps this is just what happens when you are limited to a few pages, or when the artist is like, “hey, look, you have me doing 2 full page spreads of zombie fighting in a junkyard when it’s raining with 40 zombies, 2 dogs, 3 humans, an outboard motor, and a few mirrors, I can’t spend a lot of time drawing people listening,” but still.  I have noticed this happening in current comics, too, especially during fight scenes, where you have some character speaking 3-4 sentence in one panel during a fight where you are like, “really? they have that much time to discuss the finer points of not bantering during a fight during a fight?”  Yes, I know I am being picky, but it just feels sloppy to me when the dialogue distracts from the moment you are supposed to viewing, because the longer those sentences, the less of the scene you are watching, right?  

Hey, the power’s back on!

Here’s one example from Walking Dead where this dad is yelling at his teenage daughter and her boyfriend and it just, like, after pages and pages of this kind of thing, it’s like, enough already:

“Don’t ‘dad’ me, young lady. This isn’t going to go on right under my nose. I just don’t have time to put up with this. I don’t want to worry about you two fooling around all the time. I don’t want to have to keep an eye on you on top of all the other shit I’ve got to do. You want to get pregnant? Do you not see how dangerous that would be? I don’t know how Rick and Lori are dealing with it the way they are. This isn’t a game. I don’t you two think you are in love but you’re young…think about what you’re doing.”


Now that was in one long horizontal panel.  It’s just a lot of words to assign to one picture of a guy looking angry and pointing at the camera.  It just feels odd to have him unload like that and not break it up with with at least a reaction shot or a medium shot of the scene happening. I know, it sounds picky, but it happens over and over and over again in the book and it just gets kind of silly.

There is a flipside to this, as well.  Like, in Starman, it wasn’t just some guy talking for awhile that got to me, it was the incessant narration that seemed to be fighting the word balloons for focus. I can imagine this being a good technique when showing the character being really confused, having to battle inner voices or something (though I would argue that Cowboy Ninja Viking handled this much more elegantly, with time being stopped and the single moment being broken down into 3-4 similar panels with each voice having their say, giving equal weight to each of the voices, slowing down the moment, sure, but filling it up with quality comic book goodness) but the beginning of Starman…it’s just exhausting. It was a relief when I could just read the backmatter, but then I felt guilty because Mr. Robinson seems like a terrifically cool guy and I feel badly for criticizing a book that is 15 years old, but it’s nothing personal and I am sure he doesn’t do this a much anymore.

Bendis has been accused of being overly talky (of course, there have been a few issues in Ultimate Spider-Man and Powers where there was no talking at all, so maybe he was balancing things out), but, many times, it was handled pretty well, probably because the talking was dialogue, not monologue.  And I think that’s a significant difference.  I remember at least one page where Mary Jane and Peter were talking and there were lots of alternating word balloons–it was at least a full page, maybe a two page spread, where it was just the two of them on the bottom and word balloons, alternating word balloons, filling up the top 3/4 of the page.  Maybe that was annoying–you could argue that, sure–but it still moved the story more than a monologue.  I think the monologue can be very powerful in live theater, but less so in film, and almost not at all in comics. I think you can get just as much character development, if not more, by using reaction shots and/or just using dialogue between characters.

2 Sisters, by 3 Giants creator Matt Kindt, whom will be the focus of a future article and, I hope a video show by the iFanboy crew (because this guy is terrific in so many ways it’s kind of disturbing), flips the script completely because he uses very, very little dialogue and he just makes it work so well because his story telling, how he uses the camera and page layout and labels and arrows…it’s actually gotta be read to be believed.  2 Sisters tells a pretty complex story, with the character moments coming mostly through reactions and actions rather than words, and it just works.

For some stories, I think less dialogue is more effective because it personalizes the story in a very different way–if the art is doing its job, that is, using character acting and camera shots in a way to convey the emotion, stakes and commitment that would otherwise be revealed through discussion.  You end up providing an internal monologue for the characters, in a way. I certainly did for the characters in 2 Sisters.  The main character is moody and quiet at first, but her actions reveal far more than she is willing to share outloud, which makes for a very, very compelling character.  I almost feel like if the character talks and talks and talks, the writer is not trusting us to get a feel for the character on our own.  You see this in movies, too, when the characters use dialogue to underscore the impact of a moment, or when a narrator is used to provide context for a scene that really was just fine standing on its own, thank you very much.  You may have heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell” when discussing screenwriting.  It’s just far more interesting for the audience to get to know characters through what they do rather than what they say.  This, of course, is easier in film compared to comic books but again, I think there is a balance.

I feel badly because I am not exploring 2 Sisters as much as I should, mostly because I am going to do a Kindt article covering Superspy, 2 Sisters and 3 Stories in a week or two (other writers: hands off! it’s mine!! mine!!!).  Suffice to say, Kindt is a master when it comes to using sound effects and action to tell a story that imbues the moments rather deeply into your psyche because you end up doing more work subconsciously to move the tale along. It would be one thing if Kindt were writing stories about brooding teenagers reflecting on the carcass of dead bird before a rainstorm, but he’s writing full on action stories set in World War II, you know? I wonder what he would do with zombies…

Anyway, please don’t take this as a knock against Starman or Walking Dead. I just think, honestly, that the mounds and mounds of dialogue in the former and the ongoing battle between multiple character narration and dialogue backfired and frustrated the pacing of the stories, at least initially. I assume things change later in the books anyway. I hope they do. (That being said, I really loved Walking Dead, and I have ordered the next two hardcover volumes.)

What do you think? I am I way offbase here? I have you read a book and wondered, “When will they just shut up and get on with things?” Or does this kind of thing not bother you, in fact, you prefer it because you are getting more “book” in your comic? 

Thanks for reading!


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who once told his friends, “I just would like everyone to notice how long it has been since I last spoke,” so he really has no business complaining about too much talking. You can email him here or follow him on twitter. He’s on facebook, too.

Comments

  1. That’s something I notice in all of Kirkman’s books from time to time.  I take it as him stuffing as much as he can into one comic because, in Invincible at least, he has so many plot lines going around that he has to touch on all of them in the span of 22 pages so that they can all progress somewhat. 

    Sometimes I do groan a little when I have to read so much, but then I think back at silver age books and just how hard it is sometimes for me to get through some of *those* issues.

    The other side of the coin is the complaint that a book reads "too fast".  Usually this is with books that let the artist do the heavy lifting, like most of the Old Man Logan story did.

    So my long-winded conclusion is that a good balance of dialogue is needed. 🙂

  2. I agree with you completely regarding both books. I had real trouble with the tedious narration in Starman– and later was similarly pained to read Robinson’s dialogue in Cry for Justice (which I ultimately had to drop).

    I also find the dialogue to be the weakest part of Walking Dead.  Too often, characters there explain to the most mundane detail what they’re going to do– and then the books shows them doing it. The "monologue factor" is incredibly high in that book. 

  3. Yeah, personally I found it difficult to read through most of the issues in the Amazing Spider Man omnibus,that just had a lot of meaningless thought bubbles that told us what art easily could of shown us. Personally I didn’t mind the writing in the Walking Dead, it is probably one of my favourite stories of all time, I recommend it to a lot of friends who either don’t like zombies or don’t like comics. I actually got a Tyresse sketch from Charlie Adlard at BICS at the beginning of the month!

  4. I hate when books go seven pages with just little sentences and then you get to the pivotal moment the author wanted to stress and all the characters grow an extra sixty I.Q. points and decide to go monologuing.  (Like Claymore, if you read Japanese comics)

  5. JLA by Grant Morrison is a terrible slog to get through.  What a horribly overrated mess.

  6. If you want some perspective on all this, you should pick up a Stan Lee comic from the early sixties. I have all the classics on DVD-ROM, and I sat down one night to read the issue of the Avengers in which Captain America is thawed out. It was a single comic– fewer pages than anything you buy now– and I swear ta Gawd it took me an hour and a half to read. Not only is every panel crammed with narration and long-winded dialogue, not only are people delivering soliloquies in the time it takes to throw a punch, but half the time the characters are announcing to one another what’s happening as if someone on the battlefield is visually impaired. "His ray gun…! Melting that support beam! I’ll deflect the ray with my shield!" By page eleven, you’re yelling at the book, "The picture already told me that was happening! That’s why there are pictures!!"

  7. I feel like that sometimes with Walking Dead; then I realize it expands the reading time of the trade a good couple of minutes so I don’t mind.

    Great article, I agree on all of your points. Especially Starman being a ‘slog’ to read. Although I probably have more colorful words for such a bad comic book 😉

  8. I don’t like comic books that have too many words. Words can be hard to read. I like to look at pictures. I like good pictures. I like pictures of people fighting! And my absolute favorite author is Shakes Peer. I like him alot.

  9. You’re gonna laugh when you read Starman, then listen to the Booksplode we did.  But rest assured that Paul was in the same boat as you, and he came around.  But you and Sonia and Conor might have some disagreement.  I got your back.

  10. Dialogue is a tricky thing. Think about all the prose novels with giant paragraphs of dialogue and how in the real world you can never go three sentences without someone cutting in.

    I haven’t noticed that in Walking Dead. When I reread or read the next hardcover, I’ll keep it in mind.

    I will say this though. The Walking Dead presents a different world. That world has two very unique characteristics.

    One, people constantly are being judged for their actions and looked on with suspicion. People kind of need to explain their intentions or they could be painted the wrong way. Being impulsive is very dangerous in the world of the Walking Dead.

    Two, there is really nothing else to do in that world but listen to people. There is very little tech to distract people. Maybe they are better listeners. Listening and watching people closely is a survival skill for those characters.

    I think you will dig on the series as you go along. There are a lot of silent reaction shots to visual adn verbal stimuli.

  11. Depends on the writer. I love the way someone like a Whedon or a Vaughan writes dialogue, so I wouldn’t mind at all reading word-heavy comics from either of those guys. Same with Alan Moore. I’ve never really had that problem with Walkin Dead either. Sometimes Kirkman’s dialogue can be a little dry/boring, but usually whats actually going on in the book is exciting enough to make up for that.

  12. I think, was it Conor on the Starman Booksplode, who said something like "…it’s not about the number of words, it’s whether or not they’re the RIGHT words"?

    I think the thing about James Robinson is that he has a real flair for theatricality in the dialogue — at least early in his work. It’s not naturalistic. It definitely reads to me as a poetic, theatrical approach. Larger than life.  And the stylized narration was definitely a response to the works of writers like Moore and Gaiman, who were adding a lot of poetic prose narrative to books like Swamp Thing and Sandman. I think at the time I was so aware of the fact that Robinson was trying to bring that sensibility to super-hero comics, that I forgave any overwriting. But it definitely improves as he goes along.

  13. I think what makes comics magical (and why we’re all obsessive about them) is that it’s a combinatino of words and pictures. That said, I think there are examples where books are too wordy and others where there’s just not enough. If you look back at the silver and bronze age, exposition was rampant. We’ve gone away from that (generally a good thing) but sometimes now it’s overdone. Stan used to always assume each issue was someone’s first. I think simple things like introducing the characters the first time they appear in the issue is just smart thinking.

    Ultimately I think writers need to understand that the pictures can tell the story. I don’t want to see dialog that’s recapping what I’m also seeing in the same panel. The words should complement the pictures, and vice versa.

    Chris Claremont, are you listening?

     

  14. @Mike Romo – Great article man. This same topic came up during the booksplode of Starman vol. 1 with Connor, Sonia, and Paul.

    I agree with you in that sometimes it seems like there are too much writing. But I would say as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter that it’s a lot. Starman is very dense and I have not finished the first volume yet, but I love it.

    I tend to like more writing because I have a very bad habit of skipping through (specially on trades), if there isn’t too much writing.

  15. Want a perfect example of too much narration? I give you: Chris Claremont’s X-Men!

  16. hey guys!

    Thanks for the comments; I apologize, I didn’t realize I was repeating what was already discussed in Booksplode! I hadn’t heard the episode because I hadn’t read the book!  But I am relieved that I am not the only one who was noticing this about Kirkman. At first I thought it was just a trap that beginning writers fell into, but perhaps not. 

    @Amircat–that’s funny…I find myself skimming when there’s just too much writing!  It just gets aggravating for some reason.  

    Really great comments, all…talk to ya later!

     

  17. Really great article. I think you hit on some really good points. Comics need to have that good blend between dialouge and action, because if there is too much dialouge, then I have trouble sitting down and getting through it, but if there is not enough, then I feel that I’ve wasted my money on the issue.

    Walking Dead is one series that I actually have no problem with overly large amounts of dialouge in because I simply have such great love for the book. I’ll take every bit of characterization and story out of an issue that I possibly can, so the more the better. It doesnt work like this with many series’ though, because if I dont absolutly love the series, then I dont want to sit down and spend a huge amount of time reading something I only half care about.

  18. @mikeromo: I agree, good article.  Another example of long winded dialog is Watchmen at times.  *GASP*

  19. Mike I enjoyed reading your article as well as many of the comments. I have only read the first Starman Omnibus and I recall it taking awhile to read but I wouldn’t call my experience with it a slog.  I thought the stories were good and entertaining.  It felt like James Robinson was trying on a new pair of shoes and he was walking around to break them in and get a feel for the characters and I was happy to come along with him on that. 

     It is a strange concept to me that a written work can have too many words or that because a comic has too many words you aren’t as interested.  I can understand if something is not well writen or not to your taste so that you aren’t interested in what is being said, but to dismiss something just because it is dense again seems a strange attitude to have.  Would we say the same thing about a regular prose novel?  I don’t think so.  If it is a book you like and are interested in then you tend not to care how long it is.  On the other hand if the writing or story are not to your taste then it becomes a slog. 

     Just a random thought.  Thanks for your patience.

  20. I don’t recall how much monologue was in Walking Dead; I was enjoying it too much.

    *shrug*

    Plenty of my friends (and even myself, at times) can blather on for what I’m sure would constitute a whole comic page about all kinds of crap, so I guess I don’t really have a problem with talking in my books. Also, I grew up reading 80’s comics; more than that, I grew up reading 80’s Chris Claremont comics. So talking is good with me. 🙂

     

  21. Most people complain that TWD is too quick of a read, not that there’s too much dialogue.  Usually, I don’t care for wordiness in my comics too much.  For a book like TWD, I LOVE it.