Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Less Said, The Better

Throughout the Silver Age of Marvel comics, which ended around 1970, comic book readers were blessed for the most part with cover art which was free from distracting captions or word balloons. Mainstay artists like John Romita and Jack Kirby were gifted with the ability to sell a comic based on the drama they could impart to its cover art alone. As a result, this period of Marvel comics produced a library of outstanding and memorable covers, which have made their respective books still in demand today.

When Kirby left Marvel in 1970, Marvel's cover art became less bold and dramatic, and began to be more representational of the pages and action within the books. There were exceptions, of course--but on the whole, while Marvel still relied on its covers to sell the books, there was much more "selling" added to them.

During this time, there were two noticeable debates going on in comics fandom: (1) the constant use of exclamation points in character dialogue, even for the most routine sentences, and (2) the seeming proliferation of word balloons appearing on the covers. You see, we comic book readers are a funny breed. We know we're reading comic books--but we're not reading Archie comics. There's less prejudice in that differentiation than you might think. I read a few Archie comics back in the day, and enjoyed every one of them; but comics with super beings in them involved more serious issues than anything Archie and his one-dimensional gang would have dealt with. The former was passing the time--but the latter involved reading. And it kicked the enjoyment factor of comic books up a considerable notch.

So when word balloons began appearing, it felt like Marvel was dumbing down these books and stories we'd invested a great deal of time and interest in. (And this was before "dumbing down" even became a catch phrase.) With characters on the covers now mouthing selling hooks like "I can't do it--I CAN'T!" or "You're all going to DIE!", comics were on the verge of becoming "kid stuff," a phrase we thought we'd left behind with Betty and Veronica. We knew, of course, that inside the cover we'd find the same stories we'd been reading all along--but aside from a business standpoint, we really couldn't grasp the necessity of cluttering up a cover with unnecessary exclamations. If the cover artwork was lousy, we probably wouldn't even care; but there's a reason when you hear the words "cover art" that there's a special meaning to the phrase. In terms of comic books, it seals the deal for you, the reader. It not only frames the story for you, right from the start--it also serves to show you, at a glance, at what point in this series you're at.

And it's also some damn beautiful artwork--where the artist puts their best foot forward in regard to their work for that issue.

Here's a good example of what I mean by word balloons being unnecessary, either to heighten the mood or to sell the book. Take a look at this cover of Fantastic Four, side-by-side with its cover sans balloons:

Thanks to artists John Verpoorten and John Romita, I'm pretty sure you can grasp the situation here without a play-by-play from the characters. The caption even helps you, with "The Monster Stalks the Streets!" Dangerous super-being, who seems to have the FF on the ropes. (Though at this point in the FF's career, Sue was always looking helpless and at a loss no matter what the threat.) Of course, in the story, mankind wasn't doomed at all--just New Yorkers within a certain radius of blocks. My point is that what the FF characters say on this cover really does nothing to add to the tension and drama already evident in the artwork.

Here, try another, just because I like playing with images:

Look at all of the clutter in the first cover. I'm guessing "To DIE in the Negative Zone!" is pretty much all we need to know, don't you? We see three of the FF (with a helpless and at-a-loss Sue staying behind, of course) heading into that zone to face that winged guy, whose threat level isn't heightened with the addition of his vague words. And what in hell do the Thing's words add to our expectations? "How do we get within clobberin' range?" Don't they look like they're about to get in range? Though I suppose I could have left in the caption which gives this villain's name--I just took it out because I think "The Living Death Who Walks!" stacks the deck in terms of his villain cred. Besides, think how vulnerable it makes him in a fight, if he has to say all of that: "Fools! I am Annihilus--Annihilus, the Living Death Wh..."  *POW*

Word balloons aren't so much a factor in comics anymore, though they didn't go gently into the night. They were with us through most of the Bronze Age of comics (until about the mid-80s). I'm not sure why Marvel feels no need for them nowadays, though I'm certainly not complaining. Comics today are smaller in size than they were during the Silver Age, which leaves less room to fit everything in--and that would possibly mean placing the word balloons over significant artwork, rather than slightly off to its side. Whatever the reason(s), I'm very pleased for the artist--who I hope takes as much pleasure and satisfaction from creating cover art of the story inside as I do from the moment I see it on the store shelf.

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