Comics Master Class: Employing Narrative Captions (2022)

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by Rich Johnston

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by Aldo Alvarez AKA Dale Lazarov

I have not read any in-depth writing on how narrative captions operate and how they operate well. (Let me know if you have in the comments section for this essay as I am eager to read what you have read about them.) Narrative captions went out of fashion the more comics tried to resemble moving image narrative and less like comics. Because of this "cinema/tv/gaming bias", captions have been stigmatized as a narrative cheat that well-dramatized comics best avoid. Also, captions are associated with genres not popular in capey comics culture, like Romance comics and autobiographical graphic novels, both which heavily depend on them. Given that I quickly burned out of having to slog through redundant, back-and-forth captions in the expositional narrative voices of Superman and Batman that meagerly represent how "different and yet the same" they are, I can understand why comics creators shy away from them.

I don't think that narrative captions are a narrative cheat; I think that when narrative captions are used as a cheat, they come off as a cheat. I'm particularly thinking of how Sex Criminals avoided dramatizing an emotional transition between the first story arc and second story arc by having its narrator abruptly describe a change in her boyfriend's commitment to crime that happened off the page between arcs. I was being told, as a reader, that a central issue with one of the protagonists had conveniently gone away…and it was the one I was most engaged in and wanted to see play out. It felt, given what I saw in the first volume, like "Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet" and the dramatic tension I was invested in was an inconvenience to the caper plot. And that's when I stopped reading Sex Criminals.

I know that it looks preposterous for an Astute Geek Elder Gay Latino Wizard known for comics without dialogue or captions to write a listicle about using narrative captions in comics. But I have thought about them quite a bit; it's my understanding that you have to know how traditional narrative technique works – what it does for a narrative form – before you choose to break the rules by not using it. Lately, I have been seeing new comics writers reviving the use of captions to impressive and emotional effect — like in Tom King's scripting for The Vision — so I have been revisiting my ideas about how and why narrative captions work.

Here are a few thoughts about how to employ narrative captions in comics. Note that these uses are not mutually exclusive; as you will see, you can combine them.

• At the very minimum, a caption serves as a transition between moments in a comic that don't have an immediate connection and would seem like an abrupt change of scene without them. Any caption that starts a new scene is a transitional caption: time and date captions, captions with dialogue in quotation marks at the end of a page that lead you to flipping the page to the next scene, "Meanwhile, back at The Carrier traveling through The Bleed", spring to mind as examples of this use of captions.

• Non-transitional narrative captions add a layer to the action or the moment being presented in the illustration. They don't reiterate what's been drawn; they add to the flow of the narrative that the image can't communicate by itself, like an action the reader is asked to imagine and expand on before the next moment happens. These captions use the illustration they're embedded with as a key moment or key example so you don't have to see page after page of Jimmy Olsen washing dishes in a fine restaurant's kitchen because he forgot he had to pay for his dinner date with Lucy Lane.

• At best, third person narrative captions are used to add nuance, texture and/or flavor to the story that is as immersive and evocative as the sequence of images. Both images and captions frame each other's meaning and bring about the experience of the narrative. Compare the flavor of these actual captions from The Authority with the deliberate flatness of my version of it in the first bullet point:

Caption one in a large title font: "THE CARRIER"

Caption two in traditional comics lettering: "Tacking into The Bleed, superposed channel between alternate universes…"

And I am swept up by the sci-fi poetry and spectacle of the moment and can't wait to read the scene that follows it. It doesn't need an exclamation mark to thrill me.

(Video) Comic Script Tips (Unscripted), Part 2: Formatting and Writing your Script

That nuance, texture and flavor in third person narration is primarily about giving the world of the story a "god" narrator who embodies the "personality" of the world. That god voice can be whimsical, awe-inspiring, frightening, or any narrative stance you can evoke with words. All stances work if the personality of the narration adds something to the narrative that makes it more engaging rather than alienating…unless alienating the audience from the story is the point of the narration.

• First person captions give an intimate experience of the person being represented visually because we get a sense of how they think and experience the world we're seeing. The texture and nuance is additive or contrapuntal with the image they frame and that addition or counterpoint is deliberately part of the story as a whole. I would argue that, in comics, as it is in Modernist literary narrative, first person captions are, at their best, also a narrative strand of its own, separate from the visual narrative, that's about understanding their internal and individual character as they engage with a material world of images and actions separate from it.

It's a missed opportunity if the first person narrative voice is just a convenient narrative vehicle and serves no purpose in understanding the person they represent through how they articulate their experience. This is why Rorschach's captions in Watchmen feel important for their own sake – as an expression of a personhood — and why grimdark first person captions feel like the expression of a style. This is why Alison Bechdel's captions in Fun Home, grasping at an understanding of her experience of her family and its remaining mysteries and uncertainty, are a counterpoint to the confident clarity and charming stylization of the images she renders to visualize her material past experience. In comparison, the captions in Marjane Satrapis' Persepolis come off perfunctory, about average memoir's self-justification.

• Ultimately, narrative captions are a storytelling tool. Forsaking them to be more like moving image narrative thwarts what comics can do as comics: represent both the subjective and objective experience of being human…and the subjective and objective experience of a sinister, immense interdimensional spaceship that looks like an awesome shark.

***

About The Author(s):

Aldo Alvarez, Ph.D. is the author of INTERESTING MONSTERS (Graywolf Press, 2001) and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University of the City of New York and a Ph.D in English from Binghamton University (SUNY).He's tenured faculty at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago and teaches writing, research, fiction, gay and lesbian literature, graphic novels and LGBT Studies. He was born and raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a shipping port and college town in the west of the island that received comics pamphlets, glossy comics magazines and comics hardcovers from all Spanish- and English-speaking countries. He also writes and art directs gay graphic novels as Dale Lazarov.

Dale Lazarovwrites, art directs and licenses wordless, gay character-based, sex-positive graphic novels published under the Sticky Graphic Novels imprint: TIMBER (drawn by Player), SLY (drawn by mpMann), BULLDOGS (drawn by Chas Hunter & Si Arden), PARDNERS (drawn by Bo Revel), PEACOCK PUNKS (drawn and colored by Mauro Mariotti and Janos Janecki), FAST FRIENDS (drawn by Michael Broderick), GREEK LOVE (drawn by Adam Graphite), GOOD SPORTS (drawn by Alessio Slonimsky), NIGHTLIFE (drawn and colored by Bastian Jonsson and Yann Duminil), MANLY (drawn by Amy Colburn), and STICKY (drawn by Steve MacIsaac). Sticky Graphic Novels are published in hardcover by Bruno Gmünder GmbH and in digital format through Class Comics. In his secret identity, he is Aldo Alvarez, Ph.D. and he lives in Chicago. His website is atStickyGraphicNovels.com.

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Comics Master Class: Employing Narrative Captions (2)About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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FAQs

What is a caption on a comic? ›

Caption. In a caption, words appear in a box separated from the rest of the panel or page, usually to give voice to a narrator, but sometimes used for the characters' thoughts or dialogue. In some comics, where speech balloons are not used, the captions provide the reader with text about what is happening in the images ...

What are narrative captions? ›

Answer: A Forced Narrative (FN) subtitle is a text overlay that clarifies communications or alternate languages meant to be understood by the viewer. They can also be used to clarify dialogue, texted graphics or location/person IDs that are not otherwise covered in the dubbed/localized audio.

Why are captions important in comics? ›

Captions are a narrative device used in comics to share information with the reader that cannot be conveyed through the normal means of speech bubbles. Captions are displayed on page as a box rather than a bubble so that the reader can distinguish between the two.

What is a comic narrative? ›

A comic story is a form of creative writing where the story is displayed by images, drawings and cartoons. The dialogues exchanged between the characters form the written part of the story. The images which are arranged sequentially are interrelated and together cohesive form a narrative.

How do you write a comic caption? ›

How to Write a New Yorker Cartoon Caption - YouTube

How do you use captions in comics? ›

Use captions to narrate your comic book and give more description to the reader of what is happening in the scene. Typically, captions will be in a colored outlined rectangle box within the comic. Captions are not the same as thought or speech bubbles (we will cover more about those in the next section).

How do you start a narrative essay? ›

Starting with a Story

Most narrative essays begin with a relevant story. You want to draw the reader in right away, offering something that surprises or interests them. And, since the essay is about you and your lived experiences, it makes sense to start your essay with a relevant anecdote.

What is narrative report example? ›

A basic example of a narrative report is a "book report" that outlines a book; it includes the characters, their actions, possibly the plot, and, perhaps, some scenes. That is, it is a description of "what happens in the book." But this leaves out an awful lot.

How do you write a narrative quote? ›

How to Format Dialogue in a Story
  1. Use Quotation Marks to Indicate Spoken Word. ...
  2. Dialogue Tags Stay Outside the Quotation Marks. ...
  3. Use a Separate Sentence for Actions That Happen Before or After the Dialogue. ...
  4. Use Single Quotes When Quoting Something Within the Dialogue. ...
  5. Use a New Paragraph to Indicate a New Speaker.
Aug 30, 2021

What does PR mean in comics? ›

Comic Grading Tutorial
10 Point Grading Scale
1.8GD-Good-
1.5FR/GDFair/Good
1.0FRFair
0.5PRPoor
21 more rows

Do comic strips have captions? ›

Some comic strips have captions that help explain a scene or event. Captions are usually placed in boxes in a comic strip. In this lesson, you will add captions to each frame, to tell what's going on at each point in the story. The captions provide details and inform your audience about the story's background.

What is the difference between a speech bubble and a caption? ›

Speech bubble are seen often in graphic novels. Not to be confused with captions, which are generally reserved for narration rather than dialogue and take the form of squares of text attached above or below the panel, speech bubbles are contained within the panel and used to convey the dialogue of cartoon characters.

Is a narrative in a comic book format? ›

Graphic Novel

A book made up of comics content that usually features a longer narrative than that found in a comic book. The term is often intended to include fiction, non-fiction, and anthologized collections of single issue comics . It is distinguished from the term "comic book", which is used for comics periodicals.

Is comics a narrative art? ›

While there are wordless comics, most comics contain words in the form of word balloons, captions, or sound effects. The words in comics suggest a literary narrative dimension: the narrative features of comics are constructed (at least in part) in the same way as works of literature.

How do comics tell a story? ›

Most comics I read structure their stories through a consistent interplay of words, in dialogue and narration, and images. Arguably the reliance on both written word and drawn image to tell a story is what distinguishes comics from other narrative forms. Prose is about the written word.

What makes a good comic story? ›

Consistent narrative helps the reader to feel comfortable with how the story unfolds. You can establish this in your own comic by including characters who are instantly recognizable, repetitive speech patterns, or even repetitive panel layouts.

How long does it take to write a comic? ›

Sketching, coloring and inking, and lettering your comic book should take six to eight months, but if you're outsourcing the artwork, you will have to adhere to the artists' schedules. The cover is another part of the artists' job, and it's one of the most important.

What is a caption box? ›

Caption Box is a container control that is meant to enclose one single other control. Caption Box provides many different labeling options. With this control, you can place labels on any control in more locations than the contained control would allow.

How do you show whispering in comic books? ›

Whispering. Traditionally, whispered dialogue is indicated by a balloon with a dashed stroke. More recently accepted options are, a balloon and dialogue in a muted tone (grayed-out), lowercase text, or as small dialogue/big balloon.

Why do all comics use the same font? ›

The short answer is usually that it's tradition inherited from when comics were printed on the cheap and intended to be read by young children.

How do you write a comic font? ›

Learn to write in different fonts: Comic Sans - YouTube

What are the 4 types of narrative? ›

Here are four common types of narrative:
  • Linear Narrative. A linear narrative presents the events of the story in the order in which they actually happened. ...
  • Non-linear Narrative. ...
  • Quest Narrative. ...
  • Viewpoint Narrative.
Sep 8, 2021

What are some examples of narrative essay? ›

5 Examples of Narrative Essays
  • “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion. ...
  • “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. ...
  • “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin. ...
  • “My Life as an Heiress” by Nora Ephron. ...
  • “Joy” by Zadie Smith.
Apr 13, 2021

What is a good narrative topic? ›

Some personal narrative topics include: A teacher you will never forget. An experience that put you in danger. A funny story that happened to you.

How do you write a good narrative report? ›

5 Tips for Writing a Good Narrative Essay
  1. Clarity. Complex words and syntax are a hindrance to clarity and should be avoided. ...
  2. Don't describe each and every one of your own movements. ...
  3. Avoid the second-person narrative. ...
  4. To interest the reader, dynamic word choice is key. ...
  5. Limit references.

How do you start a narrative report example? ›

The introduction must contain a hook sentence that catches the attention of the reader, a thesis statement explaining what your essay is going to be about, and a clear description of why the topic is relevant to you.

How do you write a narrative paragraph examples? ›

Your narrative paragraph should begin with a topic sentence.
...
Write your topic sentence.
  1. Name your topic. My first seashell hunt.
  2. Share a specific thought or feeling about it. A surprise ending.
  3. Write your topic sentence. My first seashell hunt had a surprise ending.

What is a detailed narrative? ›

A narrative is a story that you write or tell to someone, usually in great detail. A narrative can be a work of poetry or prose, or even song, theater, or dance. Often a narrative is meant to include the "whole story." A summary will give a few key details and then the narrative will delve into the details.

What is the narrative essay? ›

What is a narrative essay? When writing a narrative essay, one might think of it as telling a story. These essays are often anecdotal, experiential, and personal—allowing students to express themselves in a creative and, quite often, moving ways.

What grade is good in comics? ›

Comic book grading is based on a score out of 10: 0-1.5 = poor to good minus. 2.0-3.5 = fair to very good minus. 4.0-5.5 = very good to fine minus.

Is it worth getting comic books graded? ›

Most comics from the 80s are overprinted and are easy to find, even in high grades. If your modern comic looks like a 9.6 or worse, then chances are that it isn't worth sending to get graded. You would need to get a 9.8 from CGC on most newer books to make them worth your time and money.

What is the highest grade for a comic book? ›

Each comic book receives a numerical grade of 0.5 to 10 as well as a designation related to the page quality of the comic. It's worth noting that for many books (save for the most modern) the highest grade in existence is often a 9.8, with 9.9s and 10s for older books exceedingly rare.

What is a comic writer called? ›

A cartoonist is a visual artist who specializes in both drawing and writing cartoons (individual images) or comics (sequential images).

What are the text boxes in comics called? ›

Thought Balloon

Objects used to contain a character's thoughts. These text containers are sometimes called thought bubbles because of the trail of little bubbles that connect the thought balloon to the character in the comic.

What is a single comic called? ›

Floppies – A slang term for the single issue comic. Called so as it is used with floppy paper.

Do comic strips have captions? ›

Some comic strips have captions that help explain a scene or event. Captions are usually placed in boxes in a comic strip. In this lesson, you will add captions to each frame, to tell what's going on at each point in the story. The captions provide details and inform your audience about the story's background.

What is the difference between a speech bubble and a caption? ›

Speech bubble are seen often in graphic novels. Not to be confused with captions, which are generally reserved for narration rather than dialogue and take the form of squares of text attached above or below the panel, speech bubbles are contained within the panel and used to convey the dialogue of cartoon characters.

What is a caption box? ›

Caption Box is a container control that is meant to enclose one single other control. Caption Box provides many different labeling options. With this control, you can place labels on any control in more locations than the contained control would allow.

What is Emanata in graphic novels? ›

Emanata – This term refers to the teardrops, sweat drops, question marks, or motion lines that artists draw besides characters' faces to portray emotion.

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