mama can’t tell me nothing

September 9th, 2011 by | Tags: , , , ,

All of these are taken from the first five (seven, in one case, but I forget which) pages of Scott Snyder’s most high profile work: American Vampire (with Rafael Albuquerque, Daniel Zezelj, and Dave McCaig, Detective Comics (with Jock, Francesco Francavilla, and David Baron), and Swamp Thing (with Yanick Paquette and Nathan Fairbairn). Snyder’s had fifty or so comics published thus far, but all of these hit in the last 18 (or so) months. American Vampire is 18 issues deep, his run on ‘Tec was 11 issues, and Swamp Thing just started.

Do you see what all of these have in common? “[Aged male mentor figure] used to say [anecdote relevant to the plot].” He switches it up in American Vampire 12 with “Someone once told me”, and he pulls out families and tv shows for another. The real twisty one is ‘Tec 875, where Harvey Bullock, the aged male mentor figure, talks about how kids these days just don’t get it and AM radios are a thing that exists and here’s how to survive in Gotham. Never a mother, interestingly. Always either dudes or groups that are traditionally led by dudes.

All of these are basically the same thing. Anecdotes to kick the story off and show what sort of things the issue’ll be dealing with. It isn’t a bad technique, exactly, but it’s in half of ‘Tec, a quarter of American Vampire, and the first issue of Swamp Thing. It’s substantial, and it’s noticeable, when what it really should be is invisible.

It’s like Garth Ennis and Ireland or (expletive)(facial feature), Brian K Vaughan and stupid trivia, Chris Claremont and BDSM, Brian Bendis and his style of dialogue, Greg Rucka and characters like Sasha Bordeaux/Rene Montoya/Tara Chace/Dex Parios/what’s her name, the lady cop from Adventures of Superman/Elektra/maybe the newlywed widow from Punisher I dunno/the marshal from Wolverine/etc, Mark Millar and really specific numbers and/or really out of place diminutives, Frank Miller and hardboiled/Dirty Harry-style heroes, Warren Ellis and his hard-drinking British dude or lady who takes no guff off anyone and comes up with clever insults while moblogging all the way up and down the Web 2.0, Alan Moore and rape, Nick Spencer and writing terrible comics, Grant Morrison and dead cats, Frank Cho and impeccably drawn but super out of place boobs/butts, Ed Brubaker and women being arm candy for troubled dudes, Peter Milligan and identity issues/questions, and Bruce Jones using “______ THIS!” as a response entirely too often. It’s a tic, and once you notice it, you can’t not notice it, and it yanks you out of the story. It’s the FedEx arrow.

I don’t know how I noticed it, or how whoever told me noticed it (it was my man Luis, as a matter of fact), and his editors didn’t, but man. I opened Swamp Thing 1 and immediately rolled my eyes.

It sucks, because Snyder is a pretty good comics writer (American Vampire is definitely ill), but this is just so… lazy. Like “How to setup history and foreshadow a resolution to a cliffhanger for dummies” lazy. If this was some wack writer who kept trotting this out, I wouldn’t care, because I wouldn’t be buying his comics.

edit: from Amy K, here’s an example from Severed, Snyder’s creator-owned book, where a kid doesn’t have a father to tell him stuff like “Don’t take wooden nickels” and horrible things presumably happen to him as a result of taking a gang of wooden nickels off some demon-possessed hobo or something:

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37 comments to “mama can’t tell me nothing”

  1. Damnit, now I can’t unsee it. Be interesting to see if Batman #1 has anything.

  2. Kevin Smith and grossout bodily functions
    PAD and being an Eagle condescending to Ants
    Devin Grayson and homoerotic undertones – although that was best expressed in Inheritance

    I’ll be back!

  3. Kirkman and exponentially escalating gore and violence.

  4. Like Hickman and his future worlds devoid of non-white people?

  5. I wanted David to call this article “that ain’t the way to have fun, son” but 4thletter goes another day without Three Dog Night references. :frown:

  6. I’ve been following this site for years. Years. Seriously, more than anything else here, more than the Pretty Girls stuff, more than the 4 Elements pieces. More than any random (great) string of posts that you’ve written, this is the piece that humbles me.

    I hate brown-nosing, but I will assign praise where it is deserved. And You? You. Know. God. Damn. Comics.

    For such a long (embarrassing stretch of) time, I was under the illusion that knowing comic book continuity bought me cred in this crazy, geeky online circle. It might have, but it was meaningless. It was stupid. You’re the one who taught me that.

    There’s no point in mouthing off unless I study this shit. There’s no point to talkin’ less I know what I’m talkin’ about.

    It’s patterns. It’s history. Getting a feel for who is who and for what is what. It’s learning what works and what doesn’t. It’s listening to your peers and your betters, and striving to learn and to be better in turn.

    Thank you for that.

    Do you see theatre at all? I’m dead serious. If you do, what do you look for? If you don’t, what do you think would be compelling on stage? What’s the difference between that and something that might grab you in a comic book?

  7. Don’t forget Jim Starlin, and his love of zoom in on eyeball only to reveal a skull! haha I remember you telling me about that the other day. “That’s his shit”

  8. I always had something nagging me about his writing, and I think this might just be it. Maybe it’s because he had to write so many comics in such a short period of time (and I think he does other things, like teaching. But he might have stopped doing that.) so he hadn’t had much time to review his writing tics, or crutches. I think realizing this will make him a better writer.

  9. From The Shade’s Journal:

    James Robinson and the quiet dignity of the third-string superhero. And, perhaps, phrases like “the quiet dignity of the third-string superhero”. I’m sure he rues such singular quirks. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d say if he had a rue for every time someone said such a thing, he’d own Paris. I suppose we’ll never know.

  10. Thanks for ruining comics for me, David! :negativeman:

    I know you probably don’t care about Transformers like at all but writer Simon Furman is crazy known for this kind of thing: http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Furmanism

  11. :negativeman:

  12. I was with you until “Nick Spencer” and “terrible comics.” Seriously?

    Also, I’d associate Claremont and characters verbosely describing their own superpowers with the same phrase in large speech bubbles, a la, “My psychic knife– the focused totality of my psychic powers–…”

  13. Geoff Johns and Childhood Flashbacks for Silver Age Heroes, and their Cities being representative of their powers(Central City is all about Speed now, and Coast City is the City Without Fear).

  14. Oh, and Joss Whedon and Long Gestating Romantic Relationships Ending Tragically Shortly After They Actually Commence/Re-Commence, or as I call it “Love Is Pain”.

  15. I’d like to commend mr Spencer’s grace in the face of this.

  16. Ha, now that you mention it, Snyder DOES kind of overuse the anecdote narration thing. Maybe it’s partly because he came over from prose? I still love a lot of the guy’s work, though, especially American Vampire. He’s one of the great new finds in comics, tics or no. He’s got plenty of time to iron out the kinks.

    Although actually, I didn’t think a few of the American Vampire examples really fit the “[Aged male mentor figure] used to say [anecdote relevant to the plot]” formula. In the first two, Pearl mentions her father, but he’s in the background, he doesn’t provide any wisdom or even speak. It’s more about her childhood generally. And with Cash, his relationship with his father was actually a big part of that story, so it doesn’t seem to fit with the others, where the remembered mentor figure is otherwise pretty much unrelated to the story.

    I really love how you find connections like this (or even if someone else pointed this one out to you, you at least write about it very elegantly!). One of the things that makes this blog a joy to read. Somebody this to Scott Snyder!

  17. I love his comment, :negativeman: always makes me laugh.

  18. Oh thank GOD someone else noticed Rucka’s fixation for damaged government women with guns.

    I don’t know if I buy the Ennis/Ireland thing though. The -face thing, sure, but I like his take on Ireland, especially the way Irish Americans view and reinterpret their heritage. It’s a very East Coast thing.

  19. @RS David: Has he done it someplace other than SHIELD?

    @luis: Yeah, hands down best tic in comics. I wish I could do it in real life. Stare deeply into a girl’s eyes as she looks into mine, and then just make a skull appear in my pupils like whoa

    Or a heart I guess, but a skull is way iller

    @Lugh: So many of those could be Claremontisms, too. “This is the focused totality of my psychic powers, and if a body wants to call me frail again, tovarisch, there will be a reckoning!”

    @Nick Spencer: sorry bro :c00lbert:

    @Spankminister: Yeah. I read an issue of his Secret Avengers, Jimmy Olsen, and a few other things and wasn’t impressed.

    @Stu: David Uzumeri has a term for that–Johnsian Literalism. So Captain Cold has a cold heart, Heatwave is obsessed with fire in a big way, etc etc. It’s an interestingly comic book-y thing that he does, and probably worthy of a deeper look.

    Also Joss Whedon and quipping quippers who quip quips alla quippping time, yeahbuwha and/or completely unbelievable super cool and sexy ninja princess hacker waifs (Kitty Pryde Syndrome)

    @Munkiman: Yeah, you’re right, there’s definitely a lot of wiggle room. And I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t fit the story or anything, because they absolutely do. It’s just that the frequency of the technique (Anecdote->story) stands out quite a bit, particularly when viewed in light of his body of work to date.

    And thanks–the secret ingredient is jokes.

    @Desumaytah: You’re far too kind. I’d like to see more theater, because I do like it quite a bit (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is my favorite play), but I rarely have time to check it out. I should rectify that.

    And for me… dialogue, hands down. Engaging dialogue, whether funny or threatening, is about as important to me in comics as good art. I figure it’ll be the same on stage, too.

    @Joe B.: It’s not a bad thing, exactly. I’ve just noticed that he addresses the troubles or American appropriation of Irish conflict (I dunno if that phrasing makes sense, but I hope you get my meaning) pretty often in his work. He’s done it in Dredd/Hellblazer/Preacher/Punisher/PunisherMAX/The Boys and something I’m forgetting… I don’t think it was Hitman or The Demon. But yeah–it’s a tic, absolutely.

  20. @david brothers: Yeah, when I was reading Red Mass for Mars and the first couple of issues of Red Wing, I noticed that I didn’t see any real people of color, not even in the “extras” in the background (there may be one asian dude in Red Mass).

    I just found it really odd. Some savage natives show up in the past in “Red Wing” as a time travel story, but even that has the white protagnist teaching them the tools of civilization. It has the glaring omission subtext of 50’s sci-fi. At first, I thought it was just a blind spot in his work, but then I read about his lack of comfort writing black characters.

    Hickman also lays it on pretty thick with the Father issues too. FF, Shield, Red Mass and Red Wing all have father abadonment issues at the emotional core of the storylines.

  21. @david brothers: I’d put good money on Johns’ Secret Origins arc for Sinestro featuring a flashback where Sinestro’s father scolds him for showing FEAR in a dangerous situation, and tells him that criminals of Korugar only operate so freely because they don’t FEAR anything, and that FEAR is the most powerfull force in the universe, when used by someone with enough WILL.
    Doesn’t Ennis also have an America thing? In Preacher every couple of arcs or so there’d be a big speech or a conversation where Jesse or Cassidy or the German WW2 pilot in that town Jesse was briefly sherrif would talk about all the possibilities and greatness of being in America. It could get a bit tedious for a non-american reader.

  22. Brian Azzarello loves to have one character’s dialogue…

  23. …finish as a caption or another character’s dialogue on the next page.

  24. RS David and David: You really don’t notice it in Hickman’s work until that S.H.I.E.L.D. issue because we all kind of know the history of Ancient Egypt in the Marvel Universe. Then you go to his other books and notice the pattern… AND THEN on top of that, Hickman himself put that spotlight on this issue with those stupid comments he made a couple of months ago…

    I’m just like Des above that it is the patterns that keep me hooked to comics but at the same time to use the SAME pattern of storytelling constantly will turn off anyone. Which leads to the next interesting question: Who are the best writers at seemingly changing up their writing style yet keeping the ability to express quality stories?

    Yeah..that might be a hard one to compile….

  25. @Daryll B.: That would be a hard list especially in the context of superhero comics. The nature of the beast does not really encourage creative development. Banging out multiple comics on monthly basis(as most writers at the Big Two do), it seems it would be easy to fall into habits and tics.

    Outside the Big Two, you could point to some obvious names. Personally I spent the last year reading up the Locas stories, and it amazes me how Jaime Hernadez continues to evolve and get better.

  26. RS David..I hear you… the only two writers that I could put here would be Warren Ellis from my first exposure to him through his Stormwatch/ Authority/and especially Planetary stuff…

    and this will sound funny given how much I state that I don’t bow at his alter…

    Grant Morrison and how he crafts his year long arcs….

    but even with these two, as I see their older works I can see where the approaches and tropes have been used and used again…. Theirs however always seem to have a fresh spin on the concept tailored to their protagonist…. for good or ill… if you catch my meaning…

  27. @Daryll B.: I completely agree on Morrison.

    I had 15 year absence from cape comics, I pretty much missed his rise to fame. Over the last couple of years though, I’ve read a huge chunk of his work, and you do see a lot the same base concepts showing up over and over again

    (In fact, when Batman Inc started, I kept wondering why “ouroboros” sounded so familiar then I rembered he used it with Rebis in Doom Patrol.)

    But you are right, while he recycles a lot of themes in his work, he comes at them from a newer angle.

  28. Don’t worry Mr. Spencer, I still love you!

    Oh, and this was a great essay David. It should get back to Snyder.

  29. Another Greg Rucka one, I first noticed in the No Man’s Land trades, is coming into a scene in the middle of a sentence as someone is speaking. Though I think he got that from Denny O’Neill on The Question.

  30. @david brothers:

    Word, I really liked Morning Glories (first trade) and the Cloak and Dagger mini that’s coming out now. Haven’t read those you mentioned.

  31. Robert Kirkman and people Announcing Their Feelings.

  32. Surely Johns’ tic is dismemberment. And Peter David’s would be awful puns.

    What about writers that don’t have them? I haven’t noticed any with Jeff Parker, for instance…

  33. […] Commentary | David Brothers looks at the various “tics” of comic writers in general and Scott Snyder in particular. [4thletter] […]

  34. @James W: That’s why I gave up on that dude and The Walking Dead a long time ago. The man is in desperate need of an editor. I did an experiment once where I took an issue and a sharpie and blacked out 2/3rds of the dialogue. It read much smoother.

  35. @Joe B.: I’ll get a volume from the library every once in a while to check out the desolation, but yeah. That 3 page(?) sequence that was all “WE ARE THE ONES WHO ARE THE WALKING DEADS” was… oof.

  36. […] For those who don’t know me, I’m a pretty huge Snyder fan (though I have to also agree with David Brothers). American Vampire is awesome. I thought his Detective Comics run was fantastic (and had fantastic […]

  37. Honestly, I’d call Nick spencer’s tic writing hugely decompressed pages, almost like everything is worthy of a splash page. I quite like his work, but considering it takes about 5 minutes to read, it’s quite annoying to have such little content.