Show and Tell

One of the really cool things about comic books is that they’re a ~*visual storytelling medium*~. They’re really special! On the other hand, they still have to follow a lot of basic storytelling conventions, and sometimes…… Well sometimes there is a lack of communication or trust between a writer and his artist, and I get so frustrated by how obvious that is that I want to write “SHUT THE FUCK UP” all over that comic in red sharpie. I wouldn’t even be obstructing any art because it’s all covered by inner monolog thought boxes.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me preface this with some context:
One of the comic book stores I go to has a back room that sells Dollar Comics (essentially old single back issues that they sell for a dollar each; they’ve got all kinds of stuff, from old Liefeld junk to the 2009 Power Girl). I go back there practically every week to dig through all the 90’s junk, and sometimes I come up with things I actually want to read. (Sometimes I come away with thirty issues of Harley Quinn what happENED TO SELF CONTROL.) A week or so ago, I got two issues of Batgirl, issue #28 from the original Cass Cain run by Kelley Puckett, and issue #1 of the relaunched Cass Cain run by Adam Beechen. That information is important.

Keep in mind that I have no experience reading Cass Cain in print: what I know about her and her personality, I know from snippets of pages on the internet and lovingly written fan analysis. And that’s all good for drumming up interest, but I never felt possessed to find a trade. Her fans really seem to fall over themselves for Cass though, so when I had a chance to find out why, I took it.
So I own two issues of Batgirl. I read both in chronological succession and… Well, I had some thoughts on them.

So. Issue #28, creative team of writer Kelley Puckett and artists Damion Scott and Robert Campanella.

I read this one first—I felt real smart when I figured out the chronology of the issues by the DC logos in the corner. It felt good and matched up with what I knew about Cass Cain: quiet, tough, socially…ignorant? The issue has two main points that clearly span over an unspecified period of time, probably a few weeks. As regular Cassandra, she trains Spoiler. As Batgirl, two mysterious men manipulate her somehow. You’ve got the setup? Let’s begin.

So how does this relate to the idea of showing, not telling? Cassandra Cain is mute when the Bat Family first picks her up, and she learns language and how to socially interact with other people throughout her comic. Her dialog in this comic is great! …Because she hardly has any. And when she does, it’s stilted and awkward—you can tell she’s searching for the words with some difficulty. Spoiler has five speech bubbles for every one of Cass’, but mostly the pages have no dialog at all. I love this because it feels like Cass. She doesn’t speak with language, she speaks and listens with her body, with movement. The initial panels in which Spoiler is propositioning for Cass’ help, Scott barely even draws them in the same panels (and when he does, Cass faces away from Spoiler), giving a good sense of Cass’ isolation from other people.

In between interactions, there are fast paced training scenes used to show Spoiler’s growth in technique. The first page, in which she gets her ass cleanly handed to her, is composed of very cleanly organized box panels, stacked on top of each other. There’s very little effort on Cass’ part— she doesn’t need to be creative with her moves. It’s a very routine beatdown. Wow Spoiler, you suck!

Oh but what’s this? The next raining sequence begins with the boxy panels indicative of Spoiler sucking, but melts smoothly into splash-page art. Spoiler (who I am getting sick of calling Spoiler by the way—you all know that she’s Stephanie Brown, right), is breaking out of her little box panels and is finally giving Cass a run for her money! Woah, Steph, you go! The stylistic change also indicates Cassandra herself loosening up and enjoying the training sessions with Steph. Unlike the previous session (“bored bored bored wow she sucks”), she’s smiling and impressed by Steph’s never-say-die attitude.

Might I also say that Damion Scott nails the expressions? Cass, being the quiet, practically-mute girl that she is, depends almost entirely on facial expression to tell us her story. Suspicion, happiness, irritation, excitement, intrigue—

Which segways into the suspicious manipulation segments of the comic. Okay, I admit, I have no idea what the fuck’s going on in this part. But at least I know I’m not supposed to know, the dialog between the suspicious men is cryptic, yeah, so how do I know that maybe Cass isn’t herself? BOOM she’s wearing her weirdo Batgirl mask. (….And costume. Not just the mask.) You know, the one with questionable breathing abilities? Somebody told me recently how much they hate that costume, but I think it’s a triumph of character design. It’s a monstrous, inhuman looking design. You can’t see Cass’ face—you can barely see her facial features. It takes away a lot of empathy from her character and replaces it with wariness or fright. People mistrust a person wearing sunglasses because they can’t see his eyes. Can you imagine what they think of Cass and her mask of sewn up—what is that—leather? Yeah.

In stark contrast to her show of the emotional spectrum with Steph, the scenes in which she’s sent out to mercilessly kick ass in her Batgirl costume turn her into something alien and dangerous.

And really, I could go on about how fantastic this issue is at telling through showing, but really, to get my fill, I would have to post every single page and break it down and frankly, this is getting a bit long. And I still need to get to why the other issue sucks balls.

Batgirl #1, by creative team writer Adam Beechen with artists Jim Calafiore and Mark McKenna.

I…maybe I would’ve been less disappointed if I’d read this issue first, granted how brilliant the other one was. Like when you eat a Cadbury Crème Egg and then drink black coffee. Your taste buds get all out of whack. I guess in this metaphor the taste buds would be…my brain?

But then again, maybe not. This issue may just be bad.

The first page is…embarrassing. There are no fewer than ten monolog boxes. And they’re repetitious. Cass gives some exposition, which hurts in contrast to the silence of the last comic. It hurts more when it reads just…stupidly:

“I’m Cassandra Cain.
I swore never to kill.
But then I did.
But then I swore again.
But now I’m going to kill again.
Let me explain what I’m doing on this page.
And this one.
And this one.
And this one.”

I liked you better when I wasn’t inside your head, Cass; you have a serious talent for the obvious. Every piece of her internal monolog is an explanation of what she’s doing on that page. A little blurb about her origin at the beginning of the first issue? Forgivable. But when I am being constantly bombarded by pointless little grey boxes of OBVIOUS, I start getting a bit pissy.

I hate to say it, but I’m not exactly enchanted Calafiore’s art, either. There’s a scene in which Nightwing confronts Cass about distrusting her or whatever, and it looks more like a comedic take on sibling arguments than a moment of dangerously building tension.

Apparently Dick also likes telling people things they already know, because he exposits at Cassandra her doings of the last few…weeks? Months? Unspecified time period. He even helpfully reminds Cass that she “[knows] MOVEMENT like [he knows] ENGLISH. It was [her] FIRST language.” Thanks Dick!

Also he talks about smelling her. It sorta makes sense in context.

The following page exposits upon the exposition in an inception of text box clusterfuck. I think there are more words than illustration.
What makes it worse is that while speech bubbles are becoming main characters, all of our heroes (Batman, Robin, Nightwing, etc) are standing around posing angrily while delivering this wall of text to the reader. It doesn’t feel like story, it feels like a lecture.

The last few pages again demonstrate that Beechen apparently either doesn’t trust Calafiore to draw anything or he doesn’t expect his readers to notice anything because he once again telegraphs every single thing happening on panel. My god man. You have a problem.

In conclusion, I think I need to own Puckett’s Batgirl run.
Oh. Also. Good comics requires melding writing and art to create a comprehensive blend of maximum good storytelling experience!! When you distrust your artist or audience, writers, it really shows through! So build a good relationship with your artist and don’t underestimate the ability of your audience to interpret the subtleties of good storytelling.

Arielle Sorkin

Generally nervous human being.