Supposedly the nice thing about art and literature and music is that you don’t have to defend your opinions. There are, of course, social expectations as well as expectations of contemporaries that limit expression, but we should be okay with girls liking Twilight if it really moves them so powerfully.
I go back and forth on this. Sure I can tell bad poetry when I see it, but I really want to be able to enjoy things without stigma. For instance, in an ideal universe no one would demand a defense of my intense addiction to Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness.” However, that world doesn’t exist. Worse yet, if you live in the strange magical universe of Academia it is suddenly unthinkable that you would have an opinion or taste that you cannot support. The result is that I have trained myself to constantly question my opinions. I’m sure this is good for me or something. I’m sure it will make me a more intellectual or well rounded person or some shit, but mostly I find it exhausting and irritating.
Whatever, that’s not the point. The point is I’ve figured out why I have a problem with too much narration in comics. If you don’t know what I mean, take a look at Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons, which I think is the worst example I have ever seen. (Let me be clear that I'm not saying the whole comic is terrible, just this specific element).
I’m not sure what makes this a comic and not an illustrated book? I mean, look at it. I’m sure those pictures are very nice, but I can’t see them! The only place in which illustration is used to assist the text is in the final page when the boyfriend transforms into the mother.
As Johanna Drucker mentions in her article, “What is Graphic about Graphic Novels,” “In Western culture, the differences of word and image are freighted with value judgements that map onto reductive binaries of spirit/flesh, pure/sullied, ‘truthful/deceptive....” In other words, media must fall into one or the other. This is a fight that graphic artists have been familiar with for a long time.
The point is, Drucker also explains that artistic innovation both reflects and eventually rejects previous standards. An example of this might be in early printing when printed books were done in the style of handwritten manuscripts, even though there was no reason to do so. In this case the comic is imitating a traditional autobiography, heavily narrated. It’s basically an illustrated book. The proportion of words to images is heavily skewed toward words and the balance that is so essential to good comics is lost.
I can understand why many autobiographical novels give in to the temptation to rely on heavy narration. It eliminates the shaky barrier between artist and narrator and allows them to speak directly to the audience. This is always a tricky question in all writing. We never know where the speaker and writer diverge. It becomes more so in graphic novels where we are doubly aware of the presence of both a set of characters and a writer/artist. The autobiographical comic collapses this distinction. This collapse may make narration an obvious choice.
However, it leads to sloppy storytelling. It requires very little innovation or decision making. A movie going audience would never put up with a voice over in every scene. It would be considered sloppy and amateur, perhaps limited only to an immature or young audience. The same is true for comics. It is hard to tell a story through image and dialogue. I get it. I’ve been there. However, every writing teacher I have ever had has drilled “show don’t tell,” into my head. Narration comes between the audience and the characters. A narrator must intervene with a logical interpretation which undermines both the emotional and artistic.
There are instances in which this may be used to enhance the piece, but, as with any creative element, it must be used intentionally and carefully. Though I can understand the temptation to use the traditional forms of story telling, especially since they have already been tried and tested, but I must urge my fellow artists to innovate and defy convention. Especially if it is dangerous. In closing: