Heroes Never Rust #79 by Sean Ironman
Skip the Obvious
Two weeks ago, I met with an undergraduate student to discuss her thesis, a collection of essays. One of my suggestions for her essay about the sickness and eventual death of her grandfather was to skip the paragraph about how upset she was over his death. I told her that it was unnecessary because it was already understood that she was upset because of the language used throughout the essay up until that point. I said that it is important in nonfiction to not tell the reader the obvious. If you write an essay about a loved one dying and went on about how sad you are about that person dying, the reader will begin to skim the page. Then, this week, I sat down and read Mark Millar’s and Steve McNiven’s Nemesis and I realized that this same approach is used in comics. It’s basically the same lesson that many writers already know—skip the door—but it goes beyond just choreography.
On a smaller level, skipping the obvious is used all the time in comics. In the first sequence in Nemesis, a SWAT team enters a building, the wrong building, and they run into a trap and they are blown away as they activate a bomb. This sequence uses the typical skip the door approach. Readers are given an aerial shot of the building at night. Then, the SWAT team runs toward the front door. Then, they are walking carefully up a staircase. Two members of the tem kick down a door, and walk into a room full of explosives. And finally, the outside of the building explodes. The reader will, of course, put together the information in the gutters—the team moving through the building.
But, a few pages later, the approach is taken to a greater level. Part of the villain’s plan involved a train that ran near the building where the explosion took place. The explosion also destroyed the tracks. In a full-page shot, the train goes over the rails. But instead of showing the train explode, the destruction, the page stops short. The train is only a few feet from the ground. The next page features the villain celebrating. There’s no explosion. No sound of the train crashing. No bodies. The story just continues to the next scene.
Nemesis is not high art. It’s a widescreen comic about a supervillain who hunts the world’s top police officers (at this point in the comic, seemingly for no reason but for fun). Perhaps it’s just me being a pessimist, but I feel about Nemesis the same as I feel about many of Mark Millar’s comics these past few years—they are storyboards for a film he’s trying to sell. The comic is far from subtle. But, Millar does show some restraint in the first issue, even with having panels of a few thieves being shot and one man being hit by a train.
Being subtle, though, doesn’t have much to do with skipping the obvious sections. I doubt Millar and McNiven chose not to show the train being destroyed because they wanted to be subtle. If they spent too long on the train, they would have less room for other scenes. One of the constraints comics have to deal with that many short stories don’t is that comics are a set length. The length may change depending on the publisher, but one issue is usually 22 or 24 pages, not counting ads. And even in prose, while it’s not as strict, I know about the length of an essay or a short story as I write. I know which stories can be 6000 words and which have to be 3000.
If a writer (or in the case of comics, an artist too) decides to spend so long describing the obvious, the reader will lose interest. Partly, it’s an issue of not treating the reader as if they are stupid. And partly, it’s an issue of pacing, to me. Pacing is really just deciding how much space you have to give the reader certain information before you move onto the next set of data.
Here, in Nemesis, do we really need a full-page shot of a train being blown apart? Perhaps some readers want nothing more, but this incident at the beginning only serves the purpose to introduce the Nemesis character. It has nothing to do with the main plot. So, the story needs to show that he is dangerous and has done a great deal of planning, and then the comic needs to move on. People always complain that we see the same movies, watch the same television shows, read the same books. Nothing is new. Well, all we as writers can do is to ask if a certain scene or action or event or line of dialogue is necessary or if the reader will understand the greater story without it.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.