Wednesday, 6 October 2010

I Know Nothing No: 6: Captain America 610 (Too Few Notes, Mozart!)

In which the blogger continues the tradition of his "I Know Nothing" pieces by attempting to make sense of the conclusion to the recent "No Escape" serial in "Captain America" without having read the first four parts beforehand.


Comic books are, we're constantly told, as if we might otherwise forget, a visual medium, and it certainly can't be denied that there's a great deal to be said for that point of view. After all, yes, we do indeed look at comic books, and, yes, they certainly do present images to their readers.But we seem as an age to be in danger of missing the fact that the word "image" can be applied to words as well as pictures, and that the interaction between the two can achieve some remarkable effects that neither on their own can create.

We know this, of course, and yet somehow we also seem to be quite forgetting it too.

But then, it won't have escaped your notice that for a long time now, a great number of the writers in the mainstream of superhero comics have seemed hellbent on avoiding as many of those pesky words as they can in their scripts. Writers such as Don McGregor and Chris Claremont once seemed set on creating great baroque follies of words on the pages they wrote, regardless of the brain-numbing and pace-slowing effect of their more extreme grotesqueries. Now, as with all puritan reactions to periods of perceived excess, the supposedly-virtuous absence of the thought balloon and the narrative caption has become an item of apparently unthinking dogma. Less, it seems, is somehow more, and even less than that a very good idea indeed.

The simple fact that an absence of wordiness might speed up the reading experience seems to have somewhere along the line become inseparable from a sense that storytelling excellence is synonymous with an incredibly restrained use of text. It's as if the very awareness that words might obscure the worth of the art they're placed over has transmuted into a fundamentalist faith that demands that not only must words be avoided wherever possible, but that they must be abstained from even where a story suffers gravely from their absence.

One of the more unfortunate consequences of the fashion for the textually-unadorned panel can be seen at work in Ed Brubraker and Jackson Guice's "No Escape: Conclusion" in Captain America 610, where a very traditional and rather sweetly absurd plot has been pressed into service and presented using the very modern traditions of wordilessness (*1). The result of this is the incoherence that often threatens when a rickety if charming set of Silver-Age premises are put to work without cloaking them in a great deal of explanation, colour and, indeed, misdirection. For to cut the writer's contribution beyond the adaption of an age-old genre plot to the barest bones of dialogue and a tiny measure of narration is to reveal the rather silly basic traditions of the superhero narrative, many of which are well to the fore in "No Escape". For example, Mr Brubaker and Mr Guice here present their readers with the following genre tropes from what must be classical antiquity;
  • the super-villain with the ridiculously complex and impossible-to-grasp plan to destroy a superhero. (What exactly is Zemo trying to do? Why does he keep changing his explanations of what his purpose is?)
  • the hero who's captured, made helpless and then set free again, twice, for no apparent good reason. (Why didn't Zemo put Barnes on the missile at the beginning of issue 610 rather than freeing him so that the two could fight again?)
  • the villain who's been defeated and then permitted to get up and strike back at the protagonist for no good reason except that it's fun to see folks fighting. (Why did Barnes not make sure that his enemy wasn't capable of hurting him before he released his grip? He was enraged, but surely not insane.)
  • the secret hideout and death-trap which must have cost a fortune in time and money, and which serves no good purpose except that it looks spectacular. (Surely Zemo never expected Steve Rogers not to check that island out? Surely anywhere with a space of open water over which a missile might be launched could have done?)
  • the friends who can't get to their comrade's side quite in time. (Aren't there European superheroes that can be called in? Aren't there hyper-sonic jets, teleporters and, er, entire NATO armies available at the other end of a mobile?)
  • a spectacularly improbable death trap matched to a typical "I'll-reveal-all" speech by the big bad baddie,
  • the protagonist who walks into a trap knowing it's a trap, knowing his enemy has the high ground and knowing that the low ground is swarming with costumed underlings,
  • and so on, and, indeed, so on and on ....
To present these traditions so unadorned with the details and distractions of a greater measure of text is to draw attention to their over-familiarity and illogic, and sadly that's what Captain America 610 does. The wearily over-familar plot has been here stripped down to a few spectacular set-pieces which are then rushed through as if the audience might be alienated if they were asked to stop and notice what's actually going on, an irony, of course, since those few ill-explained set-pieces throw the reader out of the story anyway.

*1:- Me, I like words so much I even make them up. "Wordilessness" as a term makes me smile.

But if Mr Brubaker had perceived it to be appropriate to add a greater measure of detail to his sparse dialogue and even sparser captions, he might have at the very least have explained away the inconsistencies and incoherences of the tale, and beyond that, might have added such extra worth to the story that the reader would have readily forgiven the tales pulp-era carelessnesses in return for some authorial invention and audacity.

After all, Marvel's history is full of pathetic death-traps and inane super-villains turned to a spectacularly good use through an author seeking to add rather than to detract from the information being given to the audience. This reader's mind turns to Dr Doom in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four 87, for example, wherein the supervillain choose to accept defeat rather than watch his precious art collection burn, and the suicide of the manically-depressed Scorpio in Kraft and Giffen's Defenders 50, the under-achieving antagonist dying without ever realising that the LMD Nick Fury who'd been his final companion would touchingly regret his passing.

The basic stories of superhero conflict we've read a thousand times, but it's the little inventive details piled up one upon the other by the most daring of comic book writers which have so often marked out the difference between the run-of-the-mill punch-ups and the truly memorable affairs.


Those old well-worn plots require a great deal of words, of plot and story and invention, to make them work in this day and age, and perhaps it's time that we all accepted that the new tradition of "illustrated screenplays" requires writers to come up with a different type of superhero story to match their relatively new methods. For those hoary old stories demand that a great deal of informing and entertaining material is woven into them to hide their weaknesses and over-familiarity, and beautiful art alone can't ever paper over all their stupidities and redundancies. Simply abstracting the most spectacular and emotional scenes from those pulp-era plots and focusing on them as if those moments were in themselves a satisfyingly complete story just means that their absurdities are isolated in plain view without the essential connecting-tissue of words being present to hold everything together. Mr Guice's art on "No Escape" is undeniably able, but it can't in itself explain away the oddities and the irrationalities of the story, or add unexpectedly surprising twists to a exceptionally predictable tale, and it certainly can't communicate to the reader the fact that plot and spectacle are just the beginning of the comic book reading experience, rather than the be all and end all of it.

Or: if we're going to be sparse, we need to be producing stories which don't require by their very nature a great deal of explaining and buttressing with the very same unfashionable and inconveniently-demanding words that are more and more becoming culturally verboten in the pages of the superhero comic-book.


I. The problems associated with presenting old-fashioned plots and characters without an old-fashioned measure of thought balloons, speech bubbles and narrative captions can perhaps be best illustrated by examining Baron Zemo's various pronouncements in "No Escape: Conclusion" concerning the purpose of his nefarious master-plan. Because there are so many inconsistencies on display in this one single script where Zemo is concerned that the reader is left completely lost as to what the super-villain in the purple-and-gold helmet thought he was up to. Indeed, the only rational conclusion to draw after reading this conclusion is that Zemo is not only mad, but mad in quite different ways on quite different pages, and that his insanity is such that he never realised there was any discontinuity between his state of mind in one scene and that in another. A shame, therefore, that there was so little space given in the story to allowing Zemo to express himself, internally or in conversation, so that those apparent inconsistencies might have been ironed out, or explained as reflecting his state of mind, or even simply obscured by some extra measure of apparent depth being added to a rather lackadaisical story.

II. The introduction to "No Escape" presents a straight-forward motivation for Zemo, explaining that he "recently discovered that his father failed to kill Bucky in World War Two", and that he's now determined "to destroy Bucky's life". Assuming that these two statements follow straight on one from the other in terms of their meaning, the reader might therefore quite understandably expect to be soon reading a comic book where the antagonist is set on taking revenge in his father's name upon the new Captain America.

Yet the story itself soon starts to offer up confusing and even contradictory explanations for the younger Zemo's actions in kidnapping and then freeing Bucky Barnes, all of them delivered in sparse word balloons originating from the bad Baron's mouth, who declares in turn that he's;
  • testing Barnes to see if Bucky is a sane man in control of his decision-making powers (page 5)
  • not motivated in any way by his father's experiences with Captain America and Bucky in World War II, despite what the introduction declared. (page 8)
  • already in possession of a precise knowledge of what sort of person Barnes is, meaning that he surely wouldn't need to be testing him, of course, and that he's actually designed the whole "island trap" as a means to show the new Captain America that he's (a) no better than anyone else (?), (b) unworthy of being Captain America, and (c) guilty of the crimes committed with his body while brainwashed by the Soviet and Russian authorities. (page 9)
  • aware that Barnes is also lying to himself about his true nature too, a situation that Zemo also seems to feel responsible for teaching Barnes about, (page 13)
  • actually working to get the new Captain to face up to his guilt and his need to engage more pro-actively with his own destiny, (page 15) a procedure which strangely involves chaining Barnes to a weapon of mass destruction before firing it off over the English Channel with a thirty-second fuse ticking away on board.
III. But the problem is that we never discover which of the above, in isolation or combination with each other, are Zemo's true motivations. All we're left with are a series of possible explanations of the Baron's purpose which in truth short-circuit each other. Why, for example, did Zemo create a death trap for a man he apparently wanted to destroy if that death trap was one that could be successfully escaped? And if Zemo didn't want Barnes "destroyed", then why has this story been telling us that he did? Had the Baron been deluding himself, perhaps, even as he'd been rebuilding obsolete World War II super-weapons? Or is Zemo truly a vengeful super-villain, or perhaps a one-man kangaroo court, or an unorthodox shrink bent on using violence and more violence to somehow help his client come to terms with his own demons?

We're never told, and so we can't say, and without that grasp of the Baron's purpose, there's no possibility of catharsis at the story's end, because there's no chance of grasping what the whole great brawl across two continents was about in the first place. For not only haven't we been given the information that we need to make sense of this tale in its own terms, but we've also been ladened down with contradictory data that short-circuits any logical model of psychological consistency that might be constructed for the Baron and his designs.

Which means, of course, that this is a story which not only hasn't explained itself, but which actually has logic-bombs seeded along its spine ready to blow up in the face of anyone dodging back through the confusing if thin narrative to make sense of it all. For though there obviously is a sequence of intense scenes on display in "Captain America" 610, those scenes aren't knitted together with the care and attention to detail which a more "wordily" literate tradition would demand, and so the whole tale carries with it a strong sense of the dreaded hyper-reality, of a media product that relies on presenting the reader with a smorgasbord of previously-familiar fare abstracted from its original context and delivered as a series of eye-catching moments rather than as a more traditionally-coherent story.

In truth, there are holes in this thing all over the place.


And so much of the problem seems to a significant degree to lie in the fact that Mr Brubaker is leaving Mr Guice's art to carry far too much of the meaning of the story. Page 21 of "No Escape; Conclusion", for example, carries just 6 words on it, and yet that page is in truth the climax of the five-issue long tale. In it, Bucky Barnes swims back across the Channel to the island, copes with swirling tides, climbs a cliff, runs over fields and then discovers that Zemo has left his shield and costume for him as, presumably, a reward for his choosing to survive. Are these panels showing Captain America overcoming great natural distances and challenges symbols of Mr Barnes' state of mind, or do they perhaps encapsulate his life's progress up until this point?

After all, if they don't mean anything at all in a precise fashion, then I'm baffled by what they're doing there, because they occupy space which might otherwise have been used to help the reader make more sense of, and gain more value from, this rather confusing story.

II. Or perhaps that sea-scape and the beach and the cliff and the field mean nothing at all. After all, without any kind of text being present, we can't know one way or another. For, obviously, there's a limit to what pictures can do where storytelling is concerned without the context and detail that words inform them with.

And yet how very helpful it would have been, and perhaps both moving and fascinating too, to actually be told, to a greater or lesser degree, what Barnes was thinking and feeling about his ordeal. After all, he's just been put through a pantomime repeat of an event which was to all intents and purposes a replica of his own "death" in 1945. Certainly, the reader who's just witnessed this might feel a touch entitled to be given some small hint as to what the meaning of this was to Barnes himself. Is he too exhausted to care, or does he feel quietly jubilant at his own survival? Does he regard Zemo as a caring mental health professional with a strange set of alternatives to a black leather couch in his secret hideout? Is Barnes furious? Did he want vengeance when he saw the costume and shield there, as if they'd been a gift that Zemo thought he'd rightly held in his possession and could distribute as he saw fit?

Or does Barnes perhaps thinks that he's left the gas on across the ocean at home, or that the cat's been left unfed?

Because we're never told nor precisely shown, and so, in addition to never knowing why events have occurred as they have, we can't say what their impact has been either. Yes, Barnes chose to free himself from the flying bomb, but it's hard to see that as a marker of any kind of personal development in the terms we've been given in this story. After all, he was fighting hard at the beginning of the tale, and at every point from then onwards too, so it'd be odd if he hadn't chosen to fight on at the tale's conclusion as the fuse burnt down over the English Channel.

And so, we have a story where the villain's motivation is undefinable, the heroes response undetectable, and the purpose of the whole tale beyond understanding. "Zemo was right.." we're told Bucky thinks as he's flying across the waters on a great weapon of mass destruction, "I've not earned this life ... yet.", and for all that sounds informing, it doesn't truly make much sense at all.

For what does it actually mean? Is Zemo now admired as a kind and learned authority by Barnes, or what? Did Barnes stumble upon self-knowledge because of the Baron, or despite him?

Well, I don't know, and the text won't tell you either, if all you have is this single issue.

The answers just aren't there, though you'd swear they must be, because Captain America 610 looks like a traditional comic, and it contains so many moments that have traditionally been found in superhero books, but those moments haven't been strung around a coherent story. Oh, there's drama, and emnity, suspense and mystery, and explosive set-pieces and a great deal of teeth-gnashing and angst too, but it's not a story, or even an effective conclusion to one, and so it relies on the reader pretending that it is one in order to make it work as entertaining fiction should.


We're always told to laugh at the Emperor Joseph II and his apparently ignorant proclamation to Mozart that "The Marriage Of Figaro" had "Too many notes". But a modern equivalent of such an out-of-step critical heresy might be to suggest that the opposite problem has become a given today where superhero comic books are concerned; there simply are too few words, and too much silence.

And, as a consequence, so many of the most gifted of today's writers stray regularly into producing thin scripts based on over-familiar plots which contain small clusters of supposedly spectacular events and which, in their predictability and sparseness, lack the richness and invention that much of the best of the genre previously displayed.

Coming soon: a review of "The Only Good Dalek", the new graphic novel from the BBC by Justin Richards and Mike Collins, and, yes, of course they say "Exterminate!"



  1. I often have the opposite reaction these days; comics have too many words in them! I know, what with the paucity of verbiage on the modern comics page thanks to the death of third-person narration and the formerly omnipresent thought balloon, one would assume the opposite. However, I am sick to death of obtrusive first-person narrative captions that allow the protagonist (and often, in comics like Justice League, seven or eight protagonists, differentiated not in voice but in font color) to drone on with an internal monologue. At this point, I much prefer, say, Morrison's minimalist approach, at least when he's paired with an artist he can trust, like Frank Quitely. Writers are allowing the art to tell the story a bit more, these days. More words does not mean a comic is more literary.

    But then, I can forgive any of the above as long as the end result is good. I'm sure there are folks out there who can write sterling first-person narration and the like.

    I'm not sure your problem with the above comic-- admittedly, one I haven't and almost certainly will never read-- stems from the amount of words or the lack of exposition, but rather from a lack of convergence between story and art, or a fundamental problem with the plot or theme of the story itself, rather than how that story is presented on the page.

  2. Hello Bill – I too despair at those comics which are saturated with banal internal monologues, and given a choice between an idiotic and over-crowded babbling on the page and empty panels, Bill, I’d go for the silence every time. But it’s not the presence or otherwise of those pesky words that I’m concerned about, but rather the existence of an orthodoxy that seems to say that words per se are a problem, that art can carry the meaning of a story unsupported, and that a good comic book is a quickly absorbed one. In the case of CAP 610, for example, the story presented couldn’t actually told in the few panels and words that were on offer.

  3. I'd say the art should be able to carry the story on its shoulders-- gone are the days when a writer would have a caption *and* a word balloon explaining what was happening in a panel, despite the art clearly depicting said events. And if the art's really doing its job, then the reader can presumably take his or her time absorbing what it has to present. So many readers-- and bloggers, myself included here-- seem to skim from word balloon to word balloon, barely managing to see what the art has to offer.

    Of course, it also doesn't help that writers are pacing stories out for 150 page collections instead of 22 page episodes, and artists are hoping to have bigger, more exciting panels in order to sell more original art boards to enhance their income.

  4. Hello Bill – but there’s a presumption in your statement that art CAN carry pretty much every kind of story, or that stories where the art can’t do so aren’t worth telling. And yet that surely narrows radically the type of story that can be told in a comic book. The Anatomy Lesson, for example, simply couldn’t be told in the fashion you’re describing.

  5. Bill – actually, of course, I'm wrong; The Anatomy Lesson could be told largely through art, or at least its plot could mostly be told. But it wouldn’t be The Anatomy Lesson; it’d just be a run of a mill horror story.

    By which I mean, using them pesky words can not only help stories achieve effects they can’t through art alone, but they can help companies avoid delivering the same basic plots with little added value month on month.

    Not that I want “Turf” levels of text in most comics, not in any way, you understand …

  6. I, of course, QUITE AGREE with everything said here. Although I feel the art's letting us down as well. Too often, panels are being composed like still frames from movies; one look, they serve their narrative function, and you move on. But I was just rereading some late-90s Ron Garney Captain America issues lately, and THERE is a dude who knows how to pace his panels to create movement and time. Or, to use one of your own examples, that first panel of the first Captain Marvel story, where you can extract a TON of information just by lingering a moment to study it.

    But then, artists are just drawing what's been written for them, right? Does anybody still use the "Marvel method" anymore? I feel like we might get more actual storytelling in our comics if artists had a greater stake in dictating the pace.

  7. Hello Justin! I think you're putting a finger on an important issue in that first paragraph, namely in reflecting upon what the intent of each individual panel is in a piece as well as the inter-panel continuity. I worry that the idea of the panel now is getting closer and closer to something which (a) serves largely to speed the reader's eye along while (b) delivering a film-like shot that delivers a rather limited amount of information. But the sense of composition that delivers a product that is both easy to read and rich in story-telling data, rather than spectacle, such as C C Beck achieved all the way back in that 1940 story is remarkably rare, isn't it? After all, what he achieved with information can be achieved with a modern, comic-realistic style too.

    With the announcements of DC's new - apparent - policy to establish solo artist-writers on the Batman titles, a move which has been rarely seen since the seventies in any numbers, we might see if there's a different sensibility arising. It's not the Marvel method, but it might show a differtent attitude to storytelling emerging. But you know, I doubt it, with the exception of the Batwoman title. I think the current culture is so deep-rooted now that folks rarely seem to know they're doing it, and it has great advantages for them too. It's in some ways less demanding, it simplifies story-telling, and it allows, as Bill Reed says above, pages appealling on the art market to be produced.

  8. Justin - and Bleeding Cool just announced that Ron Garney will be back on a Cap project soon! I have influence, you know! Oh, yes. A desire only has to be breathed on this page and the mighty corporations respond immediately ....