Welcome to Wednesday Whittling! This
week I’m diving into the precarious world of exposition. I’ll be using textual
evidence from Batman Annual #8, published in 1982 and brought to us by writer Mike Barr and artist Trevor Von Eeden, to show how
volatile it can be.
As is custom, there’s an original comic
at the end as a thanks for your time. Get into it after the jump!
Exposition is fickle. If you’re told something’s
purpose is to explain, that sounds
helpful. But when it comes to storytelling, it can make or break the
experience. When exposition is good, it guides a reader; when it’s bad, it
forces them to ask erroneous questions. Below are three examples of each.
Batman Annual #8 revolves around a
devious plan from Ra’s al Ghul. It wastes no time showing solid exposition.
Page 1 sees a character leaving home around dawn and taking note of the glaring
red sun. He mentions the old sailor’s adage, “Red at night, sailor’s delight;
red in morning, sailor take warning.” Already we know things aren’t looking
good for Shinn Corners, a small rural community north of Gotham, when suddenly
all the tissue is seared off the bodies of those rising early for work.
And then there’s this great little box
of exposition at the bottom of the page: “It’s
not the sailors who should have been warned.” Yes! Suddenly I feel like I’m
in the midst of a great campfire story. Killer line, omniscient narrator!
Later on in the issue, on page 31, every
written word is exposition. This is a bold move because if it doesn’t work the
whole issue could become a wash. Much like Batman Begins, the water has been contaminated with contents that
essentially vaporize the body’s tissue once shown bright enough light. The
highlights tell how the “madness reigns…as it has since dawn yesterday.
Vehicles packed to bursting glut in
the streets, making progress rare and evacuation impossible.” The scene is
painted as standing chaos; the very kind that you’ve sat in during rush hour
when four highway lanes have been cut to one. Now just imagine you’re sitting
there and your life actually depended
It continues, noting that “[t]he drivers
have planned well, though. Most have packed sufficient provisions…and all carry
plenty of water.” Welp. When someone
says they’re ready to die, this isn’t what they have in mind. The exposition
takes a big cut and hits a huge dinger late in the game.
Just three pages before the issue ends,
on page 39, Batman has battled Ra’s after each has had a drink of wine
containing the same contaminants as Gotham’s water supply. Bats picks up the
win as Ra’s goes to a space shuttle and he’s getting away. And he’s really getting away. If it were a movie,
this is where we’d see a convincing smile of satisfaction cross his face. And the omniscient narrator is doing nothing to convince us otherwise, acknowledging
how “gentle fingers of retro-fire nudge the ship out…carefully avoiding the raging crimson fire [that would kill Ra’s] a few meters away…then he is free…isn’t he?” The curtain is
falling but we don’t get to see the bad guy pay.
And then Batman takes remote control of
the aircraft and Ra’s is foiled; he becomes exposed to the “crimson fire” and
evaporates like his victims.
These are examples of how the exposition
works out really well, how when crafted to guide the story it’s an automatic
transmission you don’t even think about when driving. But this is a unique
edition, and it’s not without foibles. So…
Page 11’s exposition is really wonky. At
the top of the page Batman can be seen pulling a cloth off the Batplane. Our
nameless narrator reports that “Outside Shinn Corners, a concealing skin is
drawn from a craft of the air…”
What’s a concealing skin? Why did the
plane get called a craft of the air? Are these answers presumable? Sure. But
what do they provide? What Batman is
handling isn’t a piece of tech; it’s not a form-fitting reflective cloth or
something. It’s a white, lumpy sheet. And who calls a plane a “craft of
the air”? No one, because it’s four words that aren’t particularly rhythmic and
we have a single syllable word that does a great job. This is where the
exposition treats you like a passenger and it’s driving like it’s only figuring
out stickshift. No fun.
In another moment of misfortune we see a
similar foible on page 13, when we’re told Batman’s “craft of the air” is “sleek…out
of place here, under the sun’s bright beams, though its speed is undiminished.”
I stopped again as I read this. Why would its speed be diminished because it’s
sleek? Isn’t that what makes it sleek
in the first place? And why are we talking about the sun’s bright beams? They
have zero natural association with being sleek and there’s no context built
here to make it work. It’s just weird, and instead of flying through the page I’m sitting in a delay.
Beyond that, pages 20-22 feature a dry
monologue from Batman as he describes his A-Ha moment that reveals to him who’s behind this mess. At one point he reaches the secret lair where the water’s
being polluted and peaks in, only to say “someone’s here who shouldn’t be! I’ll assume they’re pros,
and left a lookout.” Yo, Batman. I got a tip for you: no shit.
But as I say that in my head the panels
keep progressing and we see Bruce round a corner. He says to himself as a goon comes into sight, “…And I’m right!” Then he hits the dude from behind and knocks him
out, and continues to rattle on, saying, “he’s no problem, but I’m alone…got to
play it quick and quiet – before anyone knows I’m here!” And now I’ve got more questions. Why is Batman so thrilled with himself? Why so many
exclamations? How would a reader not be able to surmise all of these things, and why wouldn’t he be quick and quiet
regardless? None of this tells me anything I either don’t already know or can’t
find out by myself.
For as much as the good examples show
how strong exposition shapes the story, the weak examples define how it can
lose the zone. Batman Annual #8 is still a lot of fun and engaging on the basis
of having so many examples of each. But a lot of books don’t. Exposition is a
big deal in comics and readers often get a beautifully designed issue or a
belly flop which has such impact that a reader puts it down for good.
Sometimes it’s lazy writing. Sometimes
it’s just that writing is hard. Exposition is a very powerful tool but is only
ever as useful as the writer behind it. I hope you find good craftsmen.
Thanks for reading this week. Here’s
your original comic: