I’m going to change pace a bit and dole out some advice for would-be writers or critics of comics at large. Take note and feel free to disagree with me…
Here’s a little exercise: Take your favorite comic and read the dialogue out loud.
Most comics, especially superhero fare, don’t hold up very well when you’re hearing a real voice say the dialogue aloud. Maybe it’s the hokey terminology and character names ("I’ll crush your soul, Cyclops!"), or maybe it’s the events themselves that seem foolish as the world hangs in the balance over and over each month. Whatever it is, it’s a lameness which we should strive to avoid in our own work and mock it when we find it in the work of others. We’re looking for natural-sounding dialogue.
Read my last paragraph and you’ll realize that people don’t talk the way I just wrote above. I said all sorts of things back there, but not in a way that comes across as real dialogue. It’s quite informativeâ€¦ but not natural in any sense of the word.
Listen to real human speech and you’ll soon realize that people talk in ways that would break your English teacher’s heart and soul. Started thoughts that die in mid-sentence, interrupted points, in-jokes and strange grammar. Mix in jilted turns of a phrase with a dash of colloquialism and you have big fat dialogue mess. But, that’s real human speech and it adds an air of authenticity to a story. Look at damn good writers like Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis and Justine Shaw. Their work shows a slice of lifeâ€¦ real human speech that makes their solid stories that much more grounded and believable.
But that sort of realism takes more than just mimicking an accent or throwing in catch phrase, bub. It’s listening to dialogue and understanding what makes a person sound calm compared to frantic, mesmerized compared to distracted, angry compared to in love. When you read a comic that does it right, your brain clicks in and you care about the characters. They’re not just spouting exposition to advance the plot, they’re people with real feelings.
You might be surprised at how much you can learn when you hang back and listen to other people’s dialogue: the way people talk on the phone, talk in a coffee shop or talk to themselves when they’re gathering their thoughts. You’ll even learn about how you yourself talk in patterns with certain words you may use again and again.
All this stuff might seem pretty anal for a column about comic books. You may think I’m crazy for harping on about dialogue in a reading-based medium. Maybe you just read comics for a quick punch line or to see some nice artwork. That’s all quite valid, but I’m hungry for the entire package. It’s the crazy quest for great story, great characters and great art. I’m selfish and I want it all.
I’m hoping you can create the complete kick ass comicâ€¦ you and a dozen others. I’m hoping that when you read natural dialogue you smile and realize how well it can enhance the reading experience.
Every time I read a comic that gets it all, I realize how amazing this medium is and what we’re capable of delivering. That may sound cheesy, but it can’t be any worse than "You’ll never learn Pepper-Lad. I’m invulnerable!"
"Heh." I chuckle to myself.
"What’s that? Why’d you laugh?" my girlfriend says.
"It’sâ€¦ the thingie. The one I’m running late on." I say.
"The article? That thingie, or the other one?" she says with a smirk.
"Yeah, that. Trying to nail this last partâ€¦ an example for people to check out. Some kinda di-"
"You’re gonna draw a comic for it?"
"Draw? No, noâ€¦ I don’t have time to write it, I sure as Hell don’t have time to make a comic for it. I’ll just write it up and have it there."
"Crappy. â€˜Cause you could, you know."
"Draw it? Yeah, Of course I could if I had the time. I could do all sorts of things ifâ€¦"
"Just stuff. If I had stuff better organized."
"Then you better do your next column ahead so Frank doesn’t kick your ass."