On Dialogue - A Response
Submitted by Sean C on March 30, 2006 - 16:02
Recently, there has been a debate over the importance of dialogue in webcomics. The majority of these arguements tend to favor the visual over the written aspects, but I would like to argue the merits of dialogue.
There is the tendency for the webcomic reader to simply skim over a comic that appears "too wordy" and move on to the next bookmark. If that's the case, a creator will have a difficult time reaching that particular reader, and a situation like that may be unavoidable. However, dialogue itself is an art form, and the typography stylings of the letterer can also be an attractive part of the comic. A word in a different color here, a word made out to be far more elaborate than the rest of the dialogue can instantly grab a reader's attention, and reel them back in. This technique is not too be overused, though, or the creator risks making his or her strip too harsh or wild in appearance. It is a method to enhance a wordy strip that has some merit, and is worth considering.
Fancy typography will not win readers over alone, though, and the chosen dialogue must contribute to the strip. EVERY WORD must have value. Pointless dialogue, even so much as an unnecessary "Hello", can take away from the comic as a whole. The vast majority of webcomics are humor strips, so the creator should approach the dialogue from the perspective of a stand-up comedian. If the comedian takes to long to get to his or her joke, the joke itself fails; and the reverse is true that a rushed joke will also fail. The comedian is a verbal artist, and chooses their words in a precise manner in order to make the joke more effective. The most successful comedians have an excellent sense of pacing. If a writer can put themselves in such a mindset, they may be surprised to see that their jokes become stronger. Struggling cartoonists can use such a mindset to refocus their efforts.
Writing makes or breaks webcomics. There can be no disputing this fact. We all read comics where the art may be lacking, but the humor is spot-on. White Ninja and Dinosaur Comics emphasize writing, and don't have the best art on the web. Dinosaur Comics doesn't even change its art, which only proves how well it is written. Art is a bonus for comics, and as an artist, this can be a tough thing to admit. I do believe this, however, and have had an experience which really taught me this. I used to do a weekly comic for my college newspaper, but decided to stop when the printing quality became so poor the strips were unrecognizable and unreadable. That particular downward spiral took time, though. I had to focus my energies on making the comic funny through dialogue, since the art would not be seen at its best quality. I was able to accomplish this, and the comics were actually quite popular on campus.
This rule does not apply only to webcomics - print comics have had to learn this lesson, too. The ninties emphasized art, and most comics were cookie-cutter, which was a (but not the only) contributing factor to the industry's near-collapse. There are writers who tend to be wordy, but are so successful because their writing is wonderful. Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis, and the immortal Alan Moore can make just about any book, with any artist, stand out. Powers could have had a superstar artist, but the more minimalist approach worked out, for example. When the new X-Force (now X-Static) came out, the response was huge, despite having truly indy-style art.
The way to make dialogue work is too make it believable, and make it clever. Stan Lee's writing would never stand on its own today, even though it worked back in his hey-day. (Nothing against, you Stan - you're still the man.) The characters the writer creates must have some characteristic that the reader can identify with. Make them as human as possible. Create a world that could truly exist, and not just be a background. It's almost overwhelming, but dialogue, if consistently clever, can make a comic stand on its own. If the writing is good, people won't mind wordiness. There are just a few rules to keep in mind.
1. Make every word count. Figure out exactly what's needed, and how it should be said.
2. The artist knows how to pace the comic, and the writer should, too. Dialogue follows the same rules, and should be approached as the stand-up comedian developing his or her act. (This only applies to humor comics.)
3. Is the dialogue "real"? Is it believable? Would that particular character say this line? These questions must be addressed. Most cartoonists write up a short paragraph about each character in the comic. Make sure the dialogue accuratly reflects the personality described in the write-up.
I'm not putting down art, or artists by any means. I personally feel dialogue has its place in comics, and it is a very important place. There are times when it is appropriate to be wordy, and times when silence is golden. The idea is too make those "wordy strips" effective to the point where the reader does not want to simply skim things over. Be clever, be witty, and be realistic.