12 July 2009

Why We Quip

This weekly Robin installment is a follow-on to the preceding essays about the Boy Wonder as comic relief, and DC's collective effort to develop established aspects of superhero characters into meaningful personality traits. In this case, it's about an unnecessary step in the same direction.

From the very beginning of American superhero comics, the heroes and villains have conversed while fighting. Usually the villain lobs threats and the hero makes jokes. We often see panels that contain both punches and a long word balloon--or two.

Some readers find that unrealistic. Obviously the punch takes place in less time than the speech. Folks can accept people with superhuman powers and/or outrageous costumes, but not those same characters puffing out witticisms during a fight.

Judd Winick is among the comic-book scripters who have tried to provide a logical explanation for that habit, as in this panel from The Outsiders.
And below is another explanation, based on personality rather than fighting tactics, from Dick Grayson to Damian Wayne in the latest issue of Batman--also scripted by Winick.

Such efforts strike me as both futile and unnecessary. Futile because no explanation really covers all the circumstances in which superheroes observe this convention. Plus, the notion that quipping offers an advantage in a fight would mean vigilantes would need gag writers as well as costume and weapons designers. ("Okay, so you start with a few 'Your mother's so ugly' jokes, and--What? Starro is an alien species with no mother?")

And unnecessary because the essence of all comics is words and pictures together--two types of visual information stimulating different parts of the brain. The words make superheroes and supervillains distinct, and add the symbolic weight which makes the better stories more than people in costumes hitting each other.

I figure superhero comics are unrealistic enough already that they can do stuff that doesn't make sense, that's in the story just because it's fun.


Anonymous said...

It's true it is pretty unnecessary. It's one of those things you happily take for granted until someone makes it an issue.

Though I can take it sometimes when it's on a character level. For instance, Dick Grayson has since come to be known as the chatty one, and when he's talking to Damian I more take it as him explaining why Bruce was okay with it and didn't stop his natural chattiness than why Bruce would encourage it. (On a personal level they've already developed that Bruce liked Dick personally because of his different personality, and it wouldn't be unusual for Dick to unconciously do more of things that Bruce seemed to enjoy.)

Of course, it's not like Damian isn't quippy in his own way, as you said. It's just a different kind of humor. One that Dick might encourage.

J. L. Bell said...

You hit the nail on the head in saying this pattern isn't a problem until someone points it out as if it were. And then, for all my nonchalance, it's hard to see the same way as before.