In this third part of our continuing series examining all the unique narrative tools comic books have to offer, we’re looking at captions, narration. Just like the last part of the series I will have to insert the visual examples in an appendix at the bottom of the article. Be sure to keep an extra tab open to navigate through the pictures a little more easily.
The use of captions and caption boxes has evolved over time. Most often they take on the role of narrator, but in text comics they tend to also embody the voice of the characters – most commonly in a wide variety of political cartoons that avoid traditional voice bubbles. As the use of thought bubbles fell out of vogue, captions began to embody a character’s inner monologues as well. Similarly, they can also convey a “mise en abyme,” or a text/story within the comic, like the “Black Freighter” arc in Watchmen, whose themes run parallel to the events of the comic but never collide with the main narrative.
The Art of Narrative Polyphony
There are certain advantages comics provide over traditional prose and even film in terms of narration delivery. Since caption boxes can be of any style or colour, they can also be coded onto certain characters, in much the same way as dialogue balloons. In Gail Simone’s fantastic body-switching gangster drama, Crosswind, Cason and Juniper switch bodies but their inner monologue is always represented by the pallet of their caption boxes (blue and red, respectively). By coding the captions, the reader is always clued in on exactly who’s narrating which segments, which can get tricky because, when your characters are switching bodies, images can be deceptive.
Taking the same concept to its next natural extension, the medium allows creators to insert various captions and simultaneous narration boxes in the same series of images while making use of the voices of different characters by varying their box design and text. Figure 1 is an example of precisely this, showcasing dialogue turning into a series of captions, yet maintaining multiple voices through visual cues. Another great example is Deadpool’s many inner voices all arguing with each other as shown in the featured image above.
While films can capture the delivery of multiple voices or even switch it up with multiple narrators (Goodfellas comes to mind), the interplay between text, stylised text, and images gives comics a lot of freedom. Figures 2a and 2b, from Pretty Deadly, are a perfect use of narration and stylised text being used to convey mood and carry the themes of story. The first page kicks off the caption dialogue, using brown boxes (‘butterfly) and white boxes (‘bunny’). On the second page, one of our narrators gets shot and his narration hangs free, words liberated from their rectangular confines, a subtle change mirroring the character’s own metamorphosis and loss of physical form. It’s a hauntingly beautiful opening that efficiently illustrates the major themes of the entire book.
Of course, generic unstylised caption boxes have their own benefits. The chief one being the ability to maintain mystery. Unlike film where a character’s voice can give away their identity, comics can play with the identity of the narrator to a larger extent. By virtue of a lack of defining characteristics, narration can remain absolutely ambiguous.
Rhythm and Pacing
We’ve delved deeper into the topic of rhythm and panel structure in a previous entry to this series, discussing the roles of panel sizes, as well as free-form and structured panel arrangements. Similarly, narration and word balloons also play a role in how the reader experiences the pace of a book, but textually as opposed to visually. Panel structure almost always takes precedence if one were to compare the degree to which certain elements determine the pacing of a comic. However, captions and narration come a close second.
In Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso’s seminal classic 100 Bullets, a story-arc involving Milo Garret showcases the art of pacing through caption boxes in a brilliant way. In issue #36, we get a re-telling of how Milo came to be who he is. In the last 3 pages of the story, the visuals show how he was gunned down, double-crossed, and brutalised, whereas the captions capture his state of mind during recovery and how the incident transformed him.
Figures 3a through to 3c are the pages in question. Milo’s ‘pulp-noir’-style narration zips in and out of panels frozen in moments of sheer brutality. The words are placed between each blow alongside images of blood-spatter, giving them maximum impact. The first page contains the highest word count, but the writing gets more economical as it mirrors Milo’s fleeting consciousness. The majority of the last two pages is a pair of words (‘be numb’) repeated over and over again in incrementally shrinking panels, creating their own little haunting rhythm.
A more extreme and overt example of captions and non-dialogue text acting as a rhythmic device comes from Tom King’s Mister Miracle run. King manages to create a genuine sense of dread throughout the book using stellar writing and an uncannily morose atmosphere. Since the entire series is pain-stakingly devoted to an evenly spaced 9-panel grid, when an entire panel is used as a caption, it draws significant attention.
As seen in figures 4a to 4c, King uses a voice of God narrative device where the words “Darkseid is” appear in plain text on a blacked out background. This is in stark contrast to the focused and precise use of colours within the regular panels themselves (reds, greens, and blues, both in the image and in caption boxes). It forms a paranoia-inducing motif that runs throughout the whole comic, appearing at various intervals as tension mounts and things get increasingly out of hand. At times it interacts with Scott’s inner thoughts like in 4b (‘No, Scott. No one’s here’ followed by ‘Darkseid is.’).
The words hang there ominously, unexplained in every moment, until the final page of issue #6 where the action reaches a fever pitch and Scott confronts Darkseid directly – the dialogue segues right into the caption reading “Darkseid does not do – Darkseid is.” The moment acts as an excellent pay-off to a rhythmic device, foreshadowed throughout the whole series up to that point.
While we’re on the subject of Tom King’s Mister Miracle…
Dissonance of Text & Image
Much of this article has been about the relation between text and image, and how they enhance each other (after all, that is the greatest strength of the medium). While tonal confluence of text and images is the norm, deviating into contrast at the right moments between the two also opens up new avenues.
Returning to figure 4c once again, we see precisely this technique. Even though the image is depicting an ‘all is lost’ moment, the final bits of narration are rather playful, mirroring the sensibilities of silver-age comics and their whimsical, up-beat tone in an attempt to enhance the sense of defeat the characters are experiencing. That dissonance between the content of the image and the tone of the text feeds into the paranoid and surreal environment.
It’s also a style of writing that works best in comics, due to how it harkens back to a retro style within the medium that most readers are well-acquainted with. Much like invoking a nursery rhyme in a horror story, it takes a playful reference often associated with innocence and places it in a subversive context.
There are a myriad other ways to use captions and narration to embellish the storyline and complement the in-panel image. As Harvey Pekar once said: “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” Hopefully, this series has given readers renewed appreciation for how comics utilise images and text. I’ve listed only a few of the millions of possibilities open to creators working with sequential art.