Sunday, January 01, 2012

What Comics Taught TEACH Me: Characterization

Hrm... from Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #3.
Not surprisingly, consideration of a certain comic book cousin to a famous literary monster offers some great examples of useful literary terms. (some of whcih are underlined herein)...

Once again, my penchant for comic books has shaken loose some unreflected upon learning I received from avid reading as a youth--much of the development of characters in literature is done through the author's use of diction, syntax and other verbal tropes in crafting the dialogue spoken by the character, or stated another way, what characters "say" and how they deliver their dialogue offers the reader can offer additional insight into their character taken as a whole. This is much more obvious in books and short stories presented form the first person perspective as we are reading the character's thoughts in (presumably) their voice, not the author's.
From the first issue.
In the English-teaching business, we call the use of these strategies and tropes, characterization. This point was further brought home to me this weekend as I caught up with a fantastic new book which was recently released as part of DC Comics "The New 52" initiative, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.Though I've just recently jumped on board, I've noticed, after reading the first four issues in rapid succession, an interesting piece of characterization that the writer, (and one of my new favorite comic book creators) Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth and Animal Man, too), in collaboration with artist Alberto Ponticelli, has been using with a number of characters, most notably, the books lead protagonist, Frankenstein (yes, a hero based on that "monster"). A more sophisticated way to talk about these facets of writing is to consider the tropes (devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations) employed by the creative crew.

Frankenstein consistently uses guttural "phrases" or sounds such as "Hrrm" seemingly as a vocal cue prior to delivering dialogue (well-read graphic novel fans will recall a similar strategy was employed by Alan Moore in writing Rorschach in Watchmen). The effect is to suggest a contemplative monster who thinks, the noise being a verbal cue of consideration, before speaking--even if what he says seems to show little concern for the feelings of others.

It is also interesting that Frankenstein's word balloons (think "structure" in the context of novels and short stories) are intentionally different than those of the other characters (in fact Lady Frankenstein, too, has a different colored and textured word balloon for her dialogue), a difference which also suggests something about his tone and "sound." "Jagged", rather than rounded, and green instead of white, Frankenstein's voice is much more guttural and raspy than those around him. The "Hrrm..." also helps to reinforce this. (At this point it might be appropriate to acknowledge the great work of the book's letterer, Pat Brosseau.) Together these also produce a cacophonous (loud, noisy, harsh) quality to Frankenstein's voice.

From issue #4, take note boys--even Frank knows girls appreciate manners!
Not to be left out, good ole' diction, or word choice, is also successfully used to lend an air of the "archaic" to Frankenstein's voice. The repeated use of "M'lady" by the lead when speaking to female characters (including both his ex-wife and a possible new romantic interest) suggest (as one other character notes) the more gentlemanly nature of the creature... in certain situations.

As you can read, I could probably go on all day as each idea I have about how this excellent book exemplifies the use of great writing tropes and strategies, but it would be far better for you to pick up the book and check it out fro yourself. If you're curious about a more English-classy type consideration of this and other mediums, a very informative web source for more information is  TV Tropes. It offers some very accessible definitions and examples from the world of broadcast media (and comic books, too) that is applicable across other mediums.

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