“What is a party if it doesn’t really rock?” [Thief of Thieves]

April 9th, 2012 by | Tags: , , , ,

I liked this post by my bud Dylan Todd about Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, Felix Serrano, and Shawn Martinbrough’s Thief of Thieves. I’ve been making fun of that ridiculous “How does a thief stop being a thief?” line for ages now, millions of years in internet time, but Dylan pointed out something even more egregious. I don’t want to repeat what Dylan said, so be sure to read his post. The short version, though, is that this sort of construction makes for storyboard comics, “Please make this into a movie” comics, instead of good old adventure comics.

If you want to read the full sequence, CBR has a preview. It opens with this intensely boring page, trips to another conversation that’s just as stiff though not as static, and then onto an awkwardly depicted gunfight (what is with the jumping dude?). This page, though, is the sort of thing that makes bad comics worse.

“Talking heads comics” is a pejorative, and rightly so, I think. At this late stage in the comics making game, this sort of construction is enormously weak. There’s nothing to this page, no excitement, no drama, no nothing. The woman is stuck in a shocked pose, as if to say “WHOA, what?” (My twitter follower @ardaniel tweeted at me to say “I keep making that woman’s panel 1-3 pose and it just makes me go ‘DON’T LOOK AT MY NIPPLES.'” and I’ve been laughing ever since). The guy is holding his cup in the air while delivering life-changing information. And then… frame two.

I’ve got two reasons why this is so weak. For the first, let’s assume that you absolutely have to have a scene where two characters conversate in one room, never leaving their seats. A meeting, essentially. Now, have you ever had a conversation? Think back to the last one you had. Even if you’re theoretically sitting still, you’re moving around. You’re cocking your head, coughing, making hand gestures, or stretching. The only time you sit and stare directly into someone’s eyes for minutes at a time is… I don’t know, actually, maybe never, or if someone is in a coma but you think they might be faking. We emote when we talk, and we all emote in idiosyncratic ways. We pick up gestures (jerk-off motion, a pshaw hand-flip, a “stop right there” hand, a half grimace to show disappointment) from somewhere and employ them to our own ends. We make unconscious motions. We blink real hard. Our eyes wander. We move, basically, and we move often. Even when you’re having a conversation with someone when you’re half asleep, you still wave them away.

We all do these things. It’s what makes people-watching so interesting. Not including such a basic part of our lives in a scene that should have several different touchstones for us to latch onto takes whatever verisimilitude the comic has and beats it in an alley. I don’t believe in this scene at all. It’s stiff and awkward. Let’s assume that panel one is fine. She’s surprised and she doesn’t want the guy to look at her nipples, so her hands are up. Cool. Panel two — she’s just heard some serious news. What’s her next position when she’s trying to find out more information? A shrug would work here, or a cocked head. Something inquisitive, not surprised. She’s still surprised, but at this point, she’s moving on to the next step, which is “What the heck is this guy talking about?” In panel three, she’s starting to get angry and caustic. “What is with this guy?” That’s an entirely different motion than “You quit?!” Panel 4: she’s angry and he’s smug. Fine. Sure.

Reason two. I’ve been reading a lot of Leiji Matsumoto manga recently, specifically his Galaxy Express 999. A lot of his stuff doesn’t have any action at all, in fact, and is composed of long conversations. Bald exposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and boy does Matsumoto indulge himself sometimes. I was particularly struck by a scene from Galaxy Express 999, volume 1, when Maetel and Tetsuro land on a planet and have a quick conversation.

Instead of it being rendered like this scene from Thief of Thieves, the conversation takes place over a series of different scenes. They walk around, they check into a hotel, Maetel takes a shower… it was a fairly exciting way to show both time passing and to still give the reader all the exposition in the world. The conversation is impossible as depicted — they cover too much ground and do too many things for it to truly be one conversation — but it works to both introduce you to the land and the characters.

I know the pedants are getting ready to chime in with cries of “Manga is different!” (it’s still comics, shut your face) and “You’re comparing one page to ten!” (I am, but it’s not a 1:1 comparison, obviously). The thing is, Galaxy Express 999 is a great example. You can pick any one page, barring the splashes, and you’ll see a visually interesting conversation. Matsumoto shows that you can do more on one page than just show people talking, and that if you are going to show people talking, you can at least make it interesting to look at. People move and react and look around. It doesn’t get the blood pumping, but it lets you build up your world and characters. It’s characterization and world-building all in one. Tetsuro laying on the bed face down is meaningful in a way that three straight panels of “Seriously, you cannot look at these nipples right now” isn’t.

That’s what this really comes down to. Characterization. Every single thing we do as humans reveals something about us. A sneer hints at arrogance. A tentative smile suggests shyness. A sleazy smile and low eyes puts us in mind of naughty times in the bedroom. This sort of acting is characterization, even if it’s just two characters walking around a city or sitting in a room. Comics are an amazing information delivery system, and this Thief of Thieves page is lacking in info. It’s boring. It’s a speed bump.

I’m not saying that all comics need to have intricate conversations conducted by people who wiggle their arms like muppets while traveling across a bunch of diverse locations. Not by any means. I’m not saying that statted panels are evil, either. They have their place, just like anything else, and can be used to great effect. But here? No. Here, they betray a lack of imagination, or oncoming deadlines, or something. What I’m saying is that there’s none of the drama that this conversation deserves or that would keep the reader glued to their seats. There’s not even enough drama to justify checking in every once and a while. This is anti-drama, something to make you remember that you’re reading a comic, and hey, guess what, you paid three or four dollars for this thing.

The entire point of verisimilitude is to trick you into believing something that isn’t true, but appears true. This doesn’t appear true. Instead, this is boring, and that is one of the worst things comics can be. Bad comics have their high points — discussing bad X-Men will never get old, like that time they left Gambit in Antartica like “Yeah, find your own way home, murderer” — but boring comics just feel like a waste of time. They fade from memory. They don’t leave an impression. They’re vapor, instead of being something more solid. Boring.

Further reading.

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10 comments to ““What is a party if it doesn’t really rock?” [Thief of Thieves]”

  1. The argument that any given manga’s way of storytelling isn’t valid as a critique of a western comic’s method is one of the big fallacies I keep coming across lately. Like, the idea that western comics can just keep on being shitty because they’re not in the same environment as all these series that do things better? I’ll never get it.

    Anyway, great article. Thief of Thieves is a bit of a travesty full stop (a guy who does poor dialogue teamed with a guy who does poor plots? Ouch), but dismantling this specific reason is super interesting.

  2. When I write scenes like this (and I do sometimes, unfortunately), I grovel and beg the artists saying “please find a way to make this dialogue non-boring,” and they do. I could make a lot of suggestions as to where things went wrong, but don’t know how the above comic was created. However, letting that page go live as is? Not excusable.

  3. I don’t know how much Kirkman, Spencer, Serrano, and Martinbrough collaborated and how much each had input and where, but I laugh at the idea that Kirkman thought “That comic that I was doing with Liefeld wasn’t Liefeldian enough, I’m pulling the plug. But THIS! This is Ay-Okay!”

    To be fair, I haven’t actually read any of the comics I’m talking about as I think Kirkman is horribly overrated, but this isn’t helping me change my mind at all.

  4. That is one of the biggest differences I see between Manga & NA Comics that manga artists understand that there is 360 degrees of a shot to be drawn so you better damn well use all of it to your best advantage.

    It does wonders for propelling you through exposition.

  5. I’m all about clip art, talking heads, and stat panels. And this isn’t– this isn’t my idea of great dialogue, no. But I guess briefly in the defense of those things (which I don’t think you’re picking a fight with so maybe there’s no reason to mention this), but the thing I invariably think of is animation. There are probably animation fans who think anything besides full Richard Williams-y animation. And maybe they’re right, that certain cartoons don’t take full advantage of the medium of animation. But that cuts out South Park, the Simpsons, Rocky & Bullwinkle, early anime– shows I like. There are animation fans who dismiss things that use heavy shortcuts and let dialogue drive things as “illustrated radio.” But one of the reasons I like watching Rock & Bullwinkle is seeing how far they got with their budget. Once you notice it, it adds to how that show’s fun. It just … I think there’s a way of doing it better than how they did it here– building a bigger morgue of clip art so you can vary the shots/layouts more; going for more dynamic layouts on two-shots; using more smaller panels than fewer larger panels, so it’s clip art but the page feels fuller; etc.

    (I’ve always had the theory that clip-art driven conversation scenes would be great for a web bonus to a paper comic that didn’t have those things– it’s a quick, minimal cost, relatively easy way to create “bonus material” that can act as web advertising for higher budget paper content. Doing a weekly serialized conversation inbetween monthly issues that expands upon but doesn’t undercut the paper comics? But … it’s nothing I imagine there ever being a stampede of people wanting to spend their time that way, so; most teams can’t even find time to put together a letter page).

  6. …damn. I was liking this book, but now I can’t unsee this post. Of course, we’ve got the eleventy billion “Wife as punishing, fun-killing mother hen” in a Kirkman book.

  7. “I know the pedants are getting ready to chime in with cries of “Manga is different!” (it’s still comics, shut your face)”

    Preach it, brother Brothers!

  8. I also liked Tucker’s take-down of #1.

  9. I’ve seen Martinbrough do much better work in other places…please don’t dismiss him unfairly. Perhaps he was as bored with this sequence as we all were. Which doesn’t excuse him, I know, but I have liked his work a lot in the past, and will always continue to check it out when it appears in the future.

  10. Speaking of storyboard comics:


    Looks like Kirkman is becoming the next Millar.