Monday, July 17, 2006

The Fourth Wall is Angry at You

Violation of the Fourth Wall, the literary barrier between an audience and the entertainment they are viewing, has a long and distinguished history. When did the Fourth Wall become a sacred taboo in comic books? Probably when publishers realized their audience wasn't children any more... .

Once upon a time, comics treated the Fourth Wall as a feature of the medium, not an obstacle. If it was a wall, it at least had a window you could occasionally open or wave through.

During the Golden Age, when kids were watching the Superman cartoons and serials at the cinema, the comic book versions of Clark and Lois go to the movies where one is playing. Suddenly Clark realizes that the cartoon will reveal his secret identity to Lois, so he has to engage in all sorts of super-shenanigans to distract her from what's on the screen. Madness.

In Golden Age Batman comics, whole pages would be set aside for Batman & Robin to talk to us kids directly about the Evils of Crime. Or How to Run a Scrap Drive. Or the Importance of Flossing.

As we've mentioned before, comics used be to full of stuff like Wildcat being inspired by Green Lantern comics and Barry Allen collecting comics of Jay Garrick's adventures. Heck, when Jay left the JSA, the characters openly talked about it being because he'd now gotten his own title. Mindboggling.

Superman's Silver Age winks to the reader while still in the story are a staple of the character (so much so, Grant Morrison had to revisit it at the end of the wacky DC 1,000,000 storyline). In fact, if you'll check the Filmation cartoons of the 1960s, you'll notice the Superman frequently does "the wink" at the end of his episodes during an aside to the audience, but Batman and Aquaman never do.

Check out the Showcase Presents: Teen Titans. The "Titans Cave" is hidden behind a billboard for ... the Batman television series. According to the cover at left, Batman himself used to enjoy watching his own show.

In the Bronze Age, in-story "winks" and other Fourth Wall violations seemed to peter out (although occasionally Batman and others would still take a page out of book to chat with us about other comic books and characters that might interest us). But, in another sense, the Bronze Age shattered the literary barrier between this world and the DCU by revealing that our world ("Earth Prime") was simply one of the many worlds in DC's "multiverse".

This wasn't just an abstract idea; "Earth Prime" people (Gardner Fox, Elliot Maggin, Cary Bates, Julius Schwartz) would sometimes get mixed up in a multiversal crossover and appear as actual characters in the stories they were writing. Creepy. Really, anything with Cary Bates is creepy, fourth wall or not.

It was an odd idea, but not unprecedented. For example, Golden Age creator Jack Cole featured himself once in a Plastic Man story. In the late Silver Age, the Madman Bob Kanigher actually called Wonder Woman's supporting cast into his office and retired them. IN PANEL. Freaky.

But, at some point, the Fourth Wall got angry and locked its window. Earth-Prime was no longer our world, but just another one of DC's fictional worlds, home of the Boy Who Created the Rolling Head of Pantha, and a few other great characters. If superheroes did PSAs in comic books, they talked to the Earth-1 children drawn in front of them, not to the readers. Superman stopped winking.

The hardening of the Fourth Wall is responsible for the demise of two other devices formerly common in comic books: the Narration Box and the Editor's Note.

Personally, I miss those absurd little boxes that told you exactly what was happening in the panel, as if, somehow, you couldn't see it, or were listening on the radio. I'd rather see a suprapanel box that says,


than have a character be forced to say unnatural things like,


And I certainly don't want to have to figure all that out from just looking at the pictures. Pictures are for Marvel readers. I mean, maybe the gorilla is undereducated and unaware of the historical significance of the swastika; maybe somebody got Sam Simeon drunk, slapped an armband on him and shoved him through the window. Please don't leave me guessing, DC; that kind of Moral Ambiguity is for Marvel readers; bring back the Narration Box.

The Editor's Note also was deemed "tacky" during this period, so nowadays we're left wondering things like,

"Hey, I am supposed to believe Superman can weld a brick building back together in one panel while talking to Jimmy Olsen?"

Yes, reader; yes, you are.
Editor's Note: Just as a furnace first softens, then hardens clay, so Superman's heat vision joins the building's cracks, sealing them with a sudden blast of super-cold breath.
Oh, well; okay, then. Why, Barbelith would evaporate if DC brought back the Editor's Note. And, you know, I'd be okay with that.

During this period (which, I suppose, we're still in), there were rare moments of transquartomuralistic address (such as the end of Impulse, where Bart's dog gives the series' farewell speech to the reader).

But, unlike instances of the literary device from previous ages, most modern transquartomuralisms are intended to startle. They aren't gentle waves from the characters, they're more like slaps in the face. Grant Morrison uses them regularly; in fact, some have criticized him for overusing the device or abusing it as a deus ex machina (as in the end of his run on Animal Man).

The "tabooeyness" of violating the Fourth Wall is actually heightened by its current, principal "acceptable" uses: the Fifth Dimensionals imps, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite. Those characters have evolved so that doing the impossible is now part of their essential nature. As a result, every time they violate the Fourth Wall, it's a kind of backwards reaffirmation that it can't be done.

Transquartomuralisms of any kind remind the readers that what they're reading is a fiction. For those who want to lose themselves in that fictional world for a while, that can make escapism more difficult. They know the DCU isn't real, but they don't want the DCU itself to acknowledge it. In real life, we do not "turn out to the audience" (except, I suppose, when we pray). So, when comic book characters do, it can (for many people) damage the aura of realism in the story.

Kids are very into pretending. INTO it. They have no shame in it and understand (intuitively if not intellectually) what it's for: an outlet for emotions and exercise for the imagination. That's why work geared at kids (like Peter David's) isn't squeamish about violating the Fourth Wall, because kids want it broken. I like to read about Robin; kids like to pretend they are Robin. It's one of the reasons that Archie Comics freak me out so much; because they're still written for kids and delight in, not exactly smashing, but smushing the fourth wall, in ways that, as an adult, my mind just can't handle.

I know what degree and kind of transquartomuralisms I want: I want Narration Boxes (when fun), and an occasional "Flash Fact" or "As seen in" from the editor, but any other "violations" confined to the 5th dimensionals, for whom such things are perversely in character.
What about YOU, dear readers? Do YOU want to see more violations of the Fourth Wall? Write us and let us know!


Anonymous said...

Appropos of nothing:

In 1944 there was a Captain America motion picture serial. The character in the serial bore almost no resemblance to the comic book character. He carried no shield; he used a gun; his secret identity was different; I think he had a different origin, too, though I don't remember for sure. In fact, the serial could have played in the Marvel Universe exactly the same without revealing anything about Captain America. In the 1970s, fanboy de luxe Roy Thomas wrote a story stating that it did, and in fact the real Captain America played himself in the serial.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Not the same as Earth-Prime, but akin to it: A recurring bit in Marvel comics up until the late eighties was that in the MU, there were, in fact, "Marvel Comics." They published licensed versions of superhero adventures, and on occasion, the superheroes would complain at the inaccuracies. (Characters like the Hulk and the X-Men were done without licenses, because hey--they were criminals.)

In the late Eighties, Captain America's secret identity of Steve Rogers worked as the penciller for the "Captain America" comic. Heh.

Breaking the fourth wall is fun in moderation, irritating in larger amounts. Works great for covers. One of my favorites was the cover to The Flash #172. Because when Grodd speaks, you listen. Captain Cold, on #193, did a good job too.

Anonymous said...

In the first volume of the current Dan Slott She-Hulk series, the law firm where She-Hulk/Jennifer Walters works keeps hundreds of long boxes full of Marvel U comics for use as evidence in the superhero/supervillian court cases they try. It is explained that because of the Comics Code Authority approval stamp, a Federal institution, the comics are admisible as evidence.

KMP50 said...

Why do the Marvek geeks always show up to defend their titles?Feh.
Anyway, I'd like to see the editor's notes come back, too. I'd like for Superman (or the main character - but Superman seems like he would do it) to turn aside, as if to look at me, and say something that helps me figure out what is going on.

CalvinPitt said...

I can't say I want the characters themselves to be breaking the 4th wall, though I think it can work in series that are designed to be more offbeat (that recent Plastic Man series, or maybe NextWave), but it should probably still be used sparingly.

I'd really like to see a return of the "as seen in. . ." Those boxes are how I've made a lot of my back issues purchases. A comic I'm reading references an old story I think sounds interesting, and I'm off to hunt it down.

Anonymous said...

Curses, I wanted to be the Marvel geek that brought up She-Hulk, but bobby flashpants beat me to it. Over at Marvel, breaking the fourth wall is a regular occurence in the more comedy-themed titles like GLA, but yeah, I don't suppose you'll see Peter Parker attending the premiere of Spider-Man 3.

As for pictures and not narration boxes being for Marvel readers, clearly Sir you have never encountered the mind-bending hyperole of the Stan Lee narration box. Perhaps they are the platonic ideal of crazy narration boxes, and perhaps they are the nail in their coffin. Who knows?

Word verification: ezllc. I'm sorry, 'E-Z lick'? Ew.

Scipio said...

"clearly Sir you have never encountered the mind-bending hyperole of the Stan Lee narration box."

Hmm. Touche, Jay_0.

Still, as I recall, Marvel narrators excel at hyperbole, but DC narrators excel at stating the painfull obvious.

Anonymous said...

I liked the whole Earth-Prime thing as a kid because I liked how cleanly the DC universe was tied up. There's Superman on Earth-1, Superman on Earth-2, Ultraman on Earth-3, Captain Marvel on Earth-S, etc.

(Tangent: Though it always bothered me that there was no Earth-2 Legion; I'm pretty sure that as a kid (and when I say kid, I admit I mean my early teens) I created my own Earth-2 Legion based on which characters I thought it made sense to continue throughout the centuries. though I'm sure I would have had a 30th Century Red Tornado because I always though Ma Hunkel was cool.)

And somehow having comic books talk about Earth-Prime, the place where I lived, made it seem more, you know, REAL! I disliked the issue of JLA where they introduced Ultraa, the first superhero on earth-prime though, cause that stretched credulity. (insert ironic comment here.)

Editorial notes explained all sorts of stuff to me as a new comic book reader that I never would have figured out on my own (Barry Allen's wife is actually from the FUTURE!), and was important to figuring out the complicated DC universe.

The fourth wall stuff is like any other fictional technique. When overused it is less effective. I thought Grant Morrison used it well in Animal Man, though, as his appearance in Animal Man was of a different flavor than Cary Bates being a villain in JLA.

What happened to Cary Bates anyway?

Scipio said...

He left comics proper in the 1980s and now writes for cartoons:

Marc Burkhardt said...

I always like the old Golden Age and Silver Age comics that broke the fourth wall.

Robert Kanigher, in particular, excelled. There's a Metal Men panel where Doc Magnus invents miniature automated toys that, coincidentally, represent the titles Kanigher edited at the time: Sgt. Rock, Wonder Woman, et. al.

Once in the middle of a story, WW also referenced her letters column as a means of communicating with her readers.

And I said it before, I'll say it again, retiring characters by shoving them in a drawyer is the BEST RETCON EVER.

Plus, I always enjoyed stories where Doctor Doom would threaten Stan and Jack.

Think how much time and money we would have saved if Dan Didio did the same thing in a four-page story rather than the whole Infinite Crisis hoo-hah.

But, then again, I grew up in an earlier era. where it was OK to like Archie Comics too...

Anonymous said...

I'm not such a fan of breaking the fourth wall. I like Superman's wink to the readers and I'd badly like to see Flash facts, because I like the idea of Flash being a title that gives a nod to science. But that's about it. Narration boxes I don't miss at all.

Anonymous said...

I like Marvel-style narration boxes that comment on the action, but don't describe it. Spider-Man's trying to hold a collapsed building up, and the box says "the strain was greater than he'd ever felt before, but Spider-Man knew to let go was to invite instant death!!" Corny, but fun in small doses.

Anonymous said...

Grant Morrison brought back the superhero-less universe (read: ours) in the first story arc of JLA: Classified, though the Ultramarines (Global Guardians?) were sent there as penance for f#cking up.

I miss the old "last seen in #" and the word books that seem to be addressing the reader. I don't miss the unnecessary play-by-plays of the golden and silver age. They should be in braille.

Marvel readers are able to understand the artist's visual clues without needing help. Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think that Barbelith would evaporate at the reappearance of the ed's note. I don't even understand the rationale here?

Bill Reed said...

But if Barbelith dies, I go with it...! Oh noes.

My favorite piece of fourth wall destruction occurred in the issue of Brave and the Bold where the terrorists tried to get Jim Aparo to draw Batman's death... but he escaped and teamed up with Bob Haney to finish the comic the proper way and save everyone.

Anonymous said...

editor notes made an appearence in wolverine origins this week.

Marc Burkhardt said...

Galacula and The Remembrinator? I want to read that comic!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that most people my age find it disturbing to have the fourth wall ignored in the various fictional mediums, but it's probably a good sign of my own innate immaturity that I've never stopped loving them for no other reason than I think they're cool.

My enjoyment of them may also have something to do with the fact that I myself am a writer (no, honest, they pay me and everything) and to me the fourth wall is a barrier and barriers are seriously annoying and a detriment to creativity, so it feels good to break them down every now and then. Plus I enjoy any device that acknowledges the existence of the creator because it serves as proof that these stories did not arrive fully formed from the head of Zeus (to use a cliche a particularly hateful editor once threw at me).

That said, I think there is a time and a place for such shenanigans and they definitely lose their effect if they are thrown about willy-nilly without any regards to their potential impact. If done right, breaking the fourth wall can be quite startling and exhilarating, but if done poorly it inevitably comes across as the worst kind of faux-clever.

Anonymous said...

While we're on wacky fourth wall stuff, I'll vote for the episode of the Spirit where Jules Feiffer kills Will Eisner so Jules can draw the Spirit (using his Clifford characters) and then tries to kill the reader to cover the crime.
In general I'd like occasional notes from the editor, judgement is necessary as to when they're used. Narration I prefer to be telling me something I can't see in the picture (started with Marvel, yes), although every so often a caption that repeats the information can have a useful effect- slow down,etc. Flash Facts? Sounds like a great idea. I looked at an issue of New Warriors the other day and stopped at the second page when a character purporting to be Albert Einstein introduced himself as the discoverer of quantum mechanics. In a silver age Flash comic this would have been a clue. As I didn't proceed with the New Warriors I may be doing the story an injustice, but I suspect it didn't have a clue.

Off topic, but isn't it Scipio's birthday soon? Will there be space for expressions of gratitude,etc?

Scipio said...

Off topic, but isn't it Scipio's birthday soon?


Will there be space for expressions of gratitude,etc?


Zaratustra said...

When you publish a comic issue without narration boxes or editor notes, baby Stan Lee cries.

Scipio said...

"When you publish a comic issue without narration boxes or editor notes, baby Stan Lee cries."

Heh, only because it means it's not one of the ones he gets a profit from...!

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but isn't it Scipio's birthday soon?


Birthday?? There goes my spore theory...

All kidding aside, happy birthday, pal!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I got called a Marvel geek, twice even. Can't a primarily DC fan bring up a comedy title like She-Hulk without being run out of town like a common pygmy?

Sleestak said...

Remember that Batman/House of Mystery issue (in I think, B&B) where Cain is outside the page layouts and says something like "In this panel, we see Batman in the corridor" or something. It's been years since I read it but I thought it brilliant.

Scipio said...

Does the frequent use of transquartomuralisms in She-Hulk make it different to use the character in situations outside her own book?

As for that Batman/Cain story, I remember it well, and it freaked me out as a child.

Anonymous said...

There's always the Recap page on Cable/Deadpool where the characters themselves tell what happened.

Sometimes they even set it up as a late night talk show.

Sleestak said...

"When you publish a comic issue without narration boxes or editor notes, baby Stan Lee cries."


Anonymous said...

scipio said...

Does the frequent use of transquartomuralisms in She-Hulk make it different to use the character in situations outside her own book?

From what I can tell, yes - I don't read much Marvel outside of Slott, Brubaker, Whedon, and Nextwave, but it always seems a bit of a strain to reconcile current Marvel U continuity when it comes up in the book (a la Disassembled, House of M, Civil War crossover issues). The Slottiverse is somewhat self-contained within the broader Marvel U.

Anonymous said...

The "tabooeyness" of violating the Fourth Wall is actually heightened by its current, principal "acceptable" uses: the Fifth Dimensionals imps, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite.

Unfortunatly, not only are Mxy and Bat-Mite the only "acceptable" means to break the 4th Wall, but stories that break said wall are the only "acceptable" stories to use DC's favorite imps.

I would love it if we could have a modern story where Mxy shows up just to annoy Superman, or Bat-Mite shows up just to lend Batman a hand without either of them being used as an excuse for a writer to go, "Look how clever I am! I'm making a reference to comic books in a comic book!"

If narration boxes, side notes, or Superman winking to the reader in the last panel of a story gets me that, then I am definitly for it.

Anonymous said...

"I looked at an issue of New Warriors the other day and stopped at the second page when a character purporting to be Albert Einstein introduced himself as the discoverer of quantum mechanics."

Oh my god yes. Hatred up the wazoo.

Anyway, um, barriers lead to creativity! But I agree, narrative captions are less clunky, bring 'em back.

Also, I liked the part in Infinite Crisis where Alex Luthor is looking around for Earth-Prime and goes "Ah! There it is!" and reaches out toward the reader...

R Greene said...

From what I remember, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience has been a feature of She Hulk since John Byrne took her from being the "Savage" She Hulk to the "Sensational" She Hulk (anyone remeber when?) As "sensational", she broke the fourth wall and addressed the author, obviously unhappy with her chosen foe and said "Toad Men, Byrne? Toad Men?!"

Since then, it has been a portable talent to many other titles she's been in.

Other than She Hulk and Deadpool, they don't do it too much in the MU.

Jeff R. said...

I'd like to lobby for an additional easement for Ambush Bug, another character who has historically had 'comics awareness' for his entire career almost...

Anonymous said...

Of course, more recently, there's always the classic 'we're all in the comic, touch my hand' moment in Zatanna's recent conclusion.

googum said...

Breaking the fourth wall and caption boxes are tools, and should be used as tools: when needed and appropriate. I don't think they need to be in every comic ever, but not using them because of editorial mandate or because they aren't cool anymore is dumb.

And I was thinking of an old Peter Parker cover: the logo is worked into the villains shouting "We want Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man!" I don't know what would be more troubling to Spidey: that they just blew your id, or they actually call you Spectacular.

Anonymous said...

There's one issue of the Hulk (around 412 or so), guest starring She-Hulk, in which She-Hulk is dissatisfied with the story's conclusion, and starts ranting about how Marvel has gone downhill since Byrne left. The Hulk turns to her and asks "who are you talking to? There's no one there."

Chance said...

There's a lot of boxed narrative exposition in #1 of The Next (which was fantastic), but that might be ascribed to the writer (an apparently prominent novelist whom I'd never heard of and whose name I now forget) being unused to the graphic vs. prose format. Personally, I find all that stuff clunky and distracting. Long talk bubbles too.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to mention that the Letters Pages for Mark Waid's current run on (Supergirl and) The Legion of Super-Heroes frequently breaks the 4th wall. It's a decent comic, too.

Superhero movies seem to do this a lot, usually good for a laugh.

And American Splendor -- while not a superhero film, certainly a great comic book movie -- has scenes where the actors meet the characters that they are playing. Brilliant stuff. Plus, Paul Giamatti has tremendous acting chops.

S Bates said...

The Next (which was fantastic), but that might be ascribed to the writer (an apparently prominent novelist whom I'd never heard of and whose name I now forget)

That would be Tad Williams, whose work I quite like (especially the Otherland books).

Regarding this I was amused at Paul O'Brien's recent X-Axis review of The Next. About the fact that the writer used a lot of superfluous narration, he said "Didn't the editor explain to Williams that they're paying a
perfectly good artist to convey that sort of information?".

Seems like it's just harking back to the old comics to me.

Mark said...

Here is your Christmas comment: your posts are amazing. Keep with the good work.

Do you have a ref for the Lois and Clark Three's-Company-style Golden Age hijinks mentioned in paragraph the third? I'd like to see that madness with my own peepers.

John Seavey said...

I think "Crisis on Infinite Earths" was kind of the deathblow to Earth-Prime being the real world...after all, if it was, then Marv Wolfman would have to murder everyone in the world with a giant wave of anti-matter to make the story fit into continuity. :)