Last month Comic Book Resources has published an essay by Timothy Callahan about narrative voice in the comics form. As many have noted, the bombastic third-person narrator has vanished from comic-book captions, replaced by snatches of the main character’s (or characters’) thoughts. This change coincided, and probably responded to, the rise of autobiographical comics with more literary ambitions.
So is the result a type of first-person narration? Callahan doesn’t think so. Because comics almost always show characters from the outside, even as their thoughts appear in those captions, we readers aren’t taking in the story from their points of view alone.
Callahan notes a few comics that have tried to show only what the narrator/protagonist sees, just as Robert Montgomery shot Lady in the Lake entirely from Philip Marlowe’s point of view. But just as that movie became the most discussed in film-studies textbooks without anyone actually seeing or enjoying it, fully first-person comics usually come across as experiments or stunts.
Callahan therefore concludes:
Most comic book narration slides into what might be called, in literary circles, Free Indirect Discourse. It's not a perfect fit. Free Indirect Discourse is, basically, third person narration that slips into phrasing and tonality that matches first person narration.Perhaps a more fruitful conclusion is that categories developed for prose literature don’t always apply to comics, and terminology from film criticism might work better.
Callahan goes on:
artists carry the majority of the burden of Point of View. For an example, see something like CBR's Comic Book Idol competitions, in which artists submit pages based on the same scripts. The meaning of each version differs radically, precisely because the Point of View (and tone, which I'll get to later, as promised) depends so much on the what and how of the penciled page. . . .Indeed, if we stick with the movie analogy, a comics writer is like a screenwriter, but a comics artist is like a director—and, as Callahan says, also handles the acting. In movies the director gets primary credit for a movie, and the director’s and star actors’ names appear before the title. In contrast, even successful screenwriters are well paid but expendable.
None of this may be surprising at all. Perhaps you're thinking, "yeah, no kidding! Artists are the main storytellers in comics." But then why do writers get most of the credit (or blame) when a comic book comes out? . . . how much of the "writing" is done in the script, and how much is done in the translation of script to art?
Yet in comics, writers traditionally get first credit, and Callahan concedes that he buys comics on the basis of the writers’ names.
I've long thought of myself as someone who follows writers instead of artists. And we're now knee-deep in the age of the writer in mainstream comics, where artists bounce from series to series, but a writer can stick around and make an impact over several years on a single series. . . .I think that’s an incomplete answer. To start with, we should replace the word “writing” as Callahan uses it with “storytelling.” Writing is verbal; storytelling can occur in many media.
What exactly are we latching onto, if so much of the writing in comics is in the hands of the artist?
I suppose what we're left with is "a writer's sensibility." The way a writer emphasizes certain types of stories, or returns to a particular set of themes. The way a writer structures a story of the long term, regardless of who may or may not draw individual issues.
If a comics writer comes up with a story, the result is more than the dialogue, captions, and sound effects that survive in verbal form on the final pages. That initial story also establishes the events that make up its plot; determines what readers should learn when, and often at what pace; and sets the basis for the setting, characterization, and overall world-building. That’s more than “sensibility”; it’s the (choose your metaphor) skeleton or foundation of the end product.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of a comics artist being the first to structure a story, or writer and artist working together, or corporate owner dictating major plot turns and assigning writers to figure out how to make them work. And yet, as Callahan notes, the writer’s name still comes first.