Up in arms about speech balloons

I often lament bad dialogue to anyone who’ll listen, be it uncomfortably placed exposition or language that character – or anyone else – would ever use. It’s bad enough in Hollywood, where cheesy one-liners and saccharine romance are king (and these are scripts that are usually scrutinised and revised by at least four or five different people, regardless of the final credits), but it can be even more dreadful in comics.

It’s not something that tends to get noticed a great deal, probably because no-one’s actually reading the words out loud. But go ahead, pick up a modern comic from Marvel or DC, read a couple of pages out loud and you’re guaranteed a couple of clunkers; nobody talks anything like that in real life, or even in movies.

Part of the problem is that in superhero comics you get characters tossed around by a lot of different writers, and depending on the status of both them and the writers, the chances are they’re not going to sound a lot like themselves. If the character has had a unique, established voice for a long time, that’s great: a small-time writer can be kept in line by a stringent editor on what they would and wouldn’t say. But it you get a superstar writer like, say, Brian Michael Bendis – who has a brilliant line in teenage soap opera with Ultimate Spider-Man – along to write, let’s see, the X-Men, then they’re just going to write the way they’re used to writing, and in this case you end up with a group of grown adults fighting for the rights of an endangered species who sound like a bunch of stammering, angsty teenagers.

While I think that is a problem – with both the unchallenged egos* and highly stylised dialogue of certain creators, along with wishy-washy editorial policies that are easy to pinpoint in the yearly retcons and relaunches of the Big Two – I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

In a recent Q&A, new X-Men writer Brian Wood spoke about his relationship with the editor of that book:

“And she (Jeanine Shaefer) doesn’t let me slack; she’ll send me back for a third draft if the story needs it.”

And it hit me: most comic scripts only have two drafts? If you know anything about screenwriting, you’ll know that getting a film right in two drafts is no mean feat, and it certainly explains a lot about the levels of quality in mainstream comics…

(That said, I actually think Brian Wood is one of the good writers, which makes that quote all the more perplexing.)

*For the record, I’m not suggesting BMB has an overblown ego. I don’t know the guy, but I’m pretty well aware that the comics industry isn’t without its divas. He was more an example of a personal style creating a problem.

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