Monday, January 01, 2007

Okay! Clear my calendar!

In Saturday's discussion on "What gives a series impact?", the subject of catchphrases came up (and was oddly re-emphasized by last night's TV Land airing of "the Top 100 TV Catchphrases!").

For me, the entire issue took a step up when commenter "Tadwilliams" said:

"(An aside: Jack Benny's signature joke, the "I'm thinking!" joke, seems like it's a tagline, but it's not -- it's a character piece. It works best because we feel we "know" Benny and how lovably stingy he is.)"

Now, I think it's fair to say that Tad knows something about writing (including dialog) because he writes books. Big books. Books so big that, really, if you're not careful, you can hurt someone with them. So I thought a bit extra about what he was saying.

What he's saying about Jack Benny reminds me of the series "Monk". Until I saw a "making of" show about it, I never realized that Mr. Monk has not just one but around seven or eight "catchphrases", and that he says most of them in every single episode. Yet I had never noticed.

Why? It could be simply because I'm unobservant (not a good trait if you're watching "Monk"). But I'd like to think it's because they seem to flow from his character and not vice versa. Because the actor doesn't say them as catchphrases, just as things his character says alot without realizing it.

Literature aside, every real person does in fact have pet phrases, characteristic constructions, and favorite words. Not coincidently, the previous sentence contains three of my own:

  1. an 'Ablative Absolute' construction ("literature aside");
  2. the phrase "does in fact"; and
  3. a Ciceronian triadic sequence (always giving three examples of anything you are talking about, arranged in parallel construction).

Each one of those is something that happened to my English writing because of studying so much Latin. So very much Latin. More than Latin than decent people should know.

Anyway, a good dialogist understands this phenomenon and uses it to his advantage. I remember reading a book once (a murder novel set at my college) where alongabout Chapter 3 the author stopped identifying which of the four main characters was speaking. It was many chapters later before I noticed it; you simply knew who was talking by the way they said things. A good writer gives each characters his or her own voice.

A not-so-good writer does not, and its one of those things an editor can't help much with. You can help somebody fix their plot, but if they can't write good dialog themselves, there's not much to be done (other than completely re-writing all spoken words and unspoken thoughts). I remember a good and well-read friend of mine, a talented musician, stage performer, and leader of men (an Air Force colonel, in fact), who was writing a book and wanted me to take a look at it for him with a critical eye. The plot was interesting, but everyone in the book spoke exactly the same way: the same way my friend did, right down to his pet phrases, characteristic constructions, and favorite words.

I finally couldn't help myself when I got to the Vatican scene (don't ask), in which the Pope says,

"Okay; clear my calendar."

After I picked myself up off the floor and started breathing again, I said in a loving and supportive way,

"Bob, the Pope does not say 'okay, clear my calendar',
or anything like it in whatever his native language is."

So great an impact did the event have on me (and some of his other friends) that to this day "okay, clear my calendar" remains one of our catchphrases.

"Catchphrases", I suppose, are the fastfood version of giving a character his own voice, a shortcut. Nor are they an Evil Peculiar To Our Modern Degraded Age. Dickens, for example, is loaded with them; Bah, humbug!

Now, it would be nice if it were possible for DC's iconic characters to speak with their own individual voices. That's pretty hard to do, when so many different people write those characters and when, through much of their history, no one saw a need to give each hero a distinct personality, let alone an individual voice to go with it. Take any old JLA story and draw the word balloons going to different characters; except for references to their powers, it won't make much difference.

Occasionally, a catchphrase will accrete to a character, such as Superman's "Up, up, and away!", Robin's "And how!", or Hal Jordan's "So ... you're a stewardess, eh?". In DC, however, catchphrases are usually confined to Signature Epithets, as we've previously discussed. In Marvel, there's a greater tradition of dialog individuation, but it's usually just hollow ethnic dialects or lumpy archtypes like Brainspeak and Lugspeak. I swear, just reading a conversation between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm makes me wish my eyes were deaf.

Still, in group books, it becomes really painful when all the characters are speaking with the same voice, particularly when you suspect (or know) that it's the voice of the author. In fact, there are a few DC books right now that are suffering from the problem; I'm not going to name names, but I'm not going to stop you from doing so.

All this said, who do you think are DC's best and worst dialogers, judging them with a particular ear toward giving their characters individual voices?


SallyP said...

I always thought that Giffen and DeMatteis did a lovely job of creating distinctive voices when they were on JLI. You didn't even have to look to where the word balloon was, you KNEW who was talking.

Oh, and thank you for the Hal Jordan catchphrase. VERY appropriate. Hee hee.

Anonymous said...

Worst? Wolfman on Teen Titans when anyone was in pain:

"My God...the pain, the pain!"

or some variation thereof.

Anonymous said...

It's not limited to Marvel, but I really hate the Lugspeak (Ben Grimm, SCRAPPY, UGH). I don't see it so much anymore. Thank God that Ultimate Thing talks like a human being.

The worst dialoger at DC right now is definitely Judd Winick. Every character seems to drop the same lame "not-quite a wisecrack"s, like "What was your first clue?" and "No, really?".

Anonymous said...

I must admit that my preference for witty, clever dialogue trumps my desire to see writers give their characters clear, distinctive voices. While the very best are more than capable of doing both, I'm more than willing to settle for the former over the latter.

That said (note: this is one of my own personal pet phrases) my pick for top dialoguer (note: I am also apt to make up words at my own convenience) has to go to Ms. Simone. I can sum up why I feel so strongly about this by quoting a recent passage from Birds of Prey #101:

(As they watch Big Barda attempt to take down a fighter jet using her prefered weapon of choice)

Huntress: She likes to hit things with her big mega-rod.
Judomaster: She seems quite fond of her mighty mega-rod.
Huntress: Oh, yeah, her mega-rod looms large in her hands.
Lady Blackhawk: (at the controls of the helicopter they are all currently flying in) You know it's bad when even I know y'all are talkin' dirty. And if you fall out and die, don't come whinin' to me.

As sophomoric as this exchange may be to some readers, to my mind (note: another pet phrase of mine) it perfectly encapsulates the genius that is Simone. By having her characters gleefully joke about the obviously phallic nature of a teammate's weapon during the middle of an otherwise tense action sequence, she deflects away the inherent absurdity of the situation and makes her characters seem more human in the process (insofar that the gleeful mockery of our peers pretensions is part of what defines us as a species). She then caps the moment with a perfect piece of character dialogue in which the blonde bombshell anachronism that is Lady Blackhawk calls them out for behaving so childishly.

What can I say? This brief moment made me happier than anything else I've read the rest of the year. Perhaps that speaks ill of me, but I like to think that it makes me special instead (note: I am incapable of writing anything without at least once using the word "instead" at some point in the body of the work).

As for the worst, well....I tend not to focus on or think about what I don't like. I just ignore it and let others deal with it at their leisure, so I honestly can't think of any writer whose dialogue qualifies for such negative condemnation.

Neil said...

It's hard to put into words why I think Grant Morrison is one of DC's best dialogers. The closest I can come up with is that his characters always seem to say more than their word balloons convey. I feel like his characters know each other, are reading each other's body language, and inferring based on their knowledge, as much as they are listening to the words that are being said.

A great Morrison dialog, to me at least, seems to go beyond what the character "said" and includes what the character meant, how they said it, the context it was said in, etc.

So all of his characters come across as having their own voice, because, to me, at least, it's based upon the very things that would give a live 3D human being voice.

He also manages to avoid my cardinal sin in dialog...excessive exposition. It's hard not to think of the 90's Superman writers when I think of this. It seems that they were constantly shoving down your throat recaps and explanations of what was going on. I feel like writers such as Grant Morrison respect the reader enough to either follow along, or at least pick up the previous issue, instead of spending a good amount of time explaining things to the reader.

Derek said...

I know you specified DC, but I'd like to gripe about a particular instance of Brainspeak in Marvel, if you will allow me.

In May 1997, my favourite Marvel character, Hank McCoy, got his own mini-series, The Beast. I haven't been reading comics for a year yet, but when I saw the back issues in my LCS, I of course had to pick them up.

The whole series is chock-full of Brainspeak, but the very first issue had an example that made my blood boil.

Beast: "Still, any haven in inclement weather."

Argh! It still gets me. Isn't "Any port in a storm" a "smart" enough phrase without having to artificially inflate it? When was the last time you heard anyone use it (that wasn't a sexual innuendo)? The whole thing just smacks of a writer trying to write for a character that's smarter than he is, plugging in replacement words from his handy, dandy thesaurus.

Big words /= well-spoken.

Since it's relevant to the discussion, the offending writer was Keith Griffen.

ostrakos said...

The ablative absolute was always my favourite grammar point in Latin.

David C said...

I have to admit a great fondness for Lugspeak, though if I had my druthers it'd be limited to Ben Grimm himself.

Tegan O'Neil said...

Lugspeak works for Ben Grimm because that is, albeit undoubtedly exaggerated, at least an approximation of how a certain kind of person used to talk at a certain point in history, which is something that becomes obvious anytime you read Kirby talking about the character - Grimm could have stepped right out of Kirby's biographical "Streetwise" tale. It's certainly an anachronism now, but comics is filled with anachronisms, so it doesn't really stand out as especially bad given the context.

Anonymous said...

I'm really happy w/ Busiek's dialogue in his current Superman run. Admittedly, he's got a big advantage in that he's able to work w/ characters who have a rich history. That said, the lines the characters speak ring true and it doesn't feel like he's working from a dialogue play book. I think this really shows in his Jimmy Olsen - Olsen may be funny, but he's not a buffoon.

While on one level it's an example of "hollow ethnic dialect", I really enjoy the various alienspeak in Gibbons' Green Lantern Corps. Gibbons plays it for laughs but that's the way I like by GLC.

-alex p

Anonymous said...

I'll say Millar's by far the worst. But, he isn't the most egregious: reading Roy Thomas' dialogue on Avengers is like sustaining some sort of brain injury, whereas Millar just plain-and-simple blows.

So I prefer Roy.

As far as Morrison goes, I'd say what makes his dialogue interesting is that his characters obviously choose to leave things unsaid much of the time. A breath of fresh air! However I don't know if I could easily tell them all apart without the art, even so. Gotta go with Sally: DeMatteis actually did this in the G/DeM JLs, and pretty frequently too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, went outside DC for the "worst", there! Let's see...

Actually, I think all the DC writers I don't like sound the same as each other, too!

Elliot said...

The worst has to be Winnick. I think the reason people liked Barry Ween was because Winnick has the vocabulary of a ten year old.

I think Morrision is the best. I can't recall a single catch phrase of his off hand.

Phrases that should be retired:

"The hell?" Has anyone ever heard those two words spoken aloud? I have heard the first part, "What the...?" spoken out loud, usually when someone is startled into saying "What the hell?" but catch themselves before swearing. For some reason comic writers love writing "the hell?" Maybe it is the only cussing they are allowed.

"This ends now!" Ok, the first time that showed up, it was probably dramatic and cool. Heck, the tenth time it was probably still a dramatic enough statement. But after the hundredth time, it just loses a little something.

farsider said...

It bugs me when certain writers don't get it that certain characters should not use contractions: The New Gods, for example.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

elliot: In NY, anyway, people say "The hell", and it's coarser variant all the time. There's usually a hard t sound before the th phoneme, as though 'Wha' is being elided and not the whole word.

ostrakos: Better than passive periphrastic? I think not.

Monty said...

I say "The hell?" occasionally, but that's because I thought Tom Servo sounded cool the times he said it like that.

One thing I wish I'd see more of in comic dialogue is characters beginning to talk like each other. You know how when you work around someone else, you start to pick up each others' catchphrases? I would think that by now, Sue or Reed would accidentally say "It's clobbering time!" just because they've heard it so much. But I guess you need characters that don't start out the same to do that, which brings it back to Scipio's original point.

Anonymous said...

I just re-read the recent Suicide Squad arc in Checkmate, and I really enjoyed how Rucka remembered to give the characters distinct accents.

Yes, I know it's somewhat cliched and cartoonish...but it was obvious that Javelin was German, Mirror Master was Scottish, and Plastique was French/French-Canadian. Gave the book a bit of an extra snap.

One of the things I miss about Count Vertigo is that, in recent years, everyone's forgotten about a) his Germanic accent, and b) his imperious bearing.

Anonymous said...

[quote]"The hell?" Has anyone ever heard those two words spoken aloud? [/quote]

Yes, all the time? And also "the F***?" and starting questions WITH Hell or the F-word and letting you figure out the what/where/when/who from context.

Bemused: "Hell is wrong with her?"

Looking at wreckage: "Hell happened in here?!"


"What the - " seems much more artificial to me, cutting away from the curse word.

I'm from Philadelphia and I'm chock full of regionalisms, though.

Martin Wisse said...

One of the things about Ben Grimm's way of speaking is that it remains distinctive even when you take away the phonetical spelling. In the Dutch translations of Fantastic Four comics for example, they always render anybody's speech in grammatically correct Dutch, yet the difference between the Thing and Reed Richards is still quite clear.

Anonymous said...

I won't comment on Winnick, since my dislike of his work in general doesn't give me an objective opinion of his dialogue, however...

I think that my favorite is John Ostrander. I really felt that he made each of his characters have a distinct voice (even if it may have been an annoying one, like on the old Firestorm). That is probably why, after he left Hawkworld/Hawkman, no one else has felt like they had the right Katar Hol, and no one else seems to me to get the right Suicide Squad.