This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 9, 2014.
Deadly Class is one of my favorite new series of 2014. It blends a fun and twisted premise with some of the best comics storytelling available. The characters are distinctive, the action is exciting, and the jokes are often hilarious. The thing I keep coming back to with each new issue though is Wes Craig’s sense of visual storytelling.
Craig is able to evoke the most important aspects of every sequence, providing emphasis where it is needed and selecting the best possible images to tell each part of the story. In the first issue alone he provides a look at San Francisco from the perspective of Marcus (the series lead character), various moments from his life, and a look into his memories. Marcus provides narration for the entire first issue, explaining how he lives, what brought him to this point, and his emotions when the action starts. It appears to be a story told entirely from Marcus’ point-of-view.
Except that’s entirely wrong.
Deadly Class is not told from the narrative point-of-view of the first person. It is not solely told from a stream-of-consciousness character voice or the third person either. It takes advantage of all of these narrative modes and blends them seamlessly. Although it may not be immediately apparent, Deadly Class breaks all sorts of rules and definitions found in prose.
It’s important to know and understand these tools of storytelling. However, I don’t want to get bogged down defining all of the various narrative modes found within literature. For the purpose of this article, it’s better to focus on how Deadly Class defies these definitions. There will be a quick glossary of narrative modes at the bottom of this article, but I will do my best to explore the variety of perspectives and voices present in this comic using language specific to comics.
Looking at the first issue of Deadly Class, all of the visual and prose elements initally support a first person view. The opening page is composed entirely of aspect-to-aspect transitions that reveal the city of San Francisco. The grungy brown coloring accompanying Marcus’ dour narration make it clear that this is his perspective of the city. Even these initial scenes are interesting due to the juxtaposition of images with words though. The reader is certainly seeing the world through Marcus’ perspective, but it is not truly a first person narrative. The very first panel showing the San Francisco skyline is not directly correlated to what Marcus sees in any individual moment. And when Marcus is shown on the page, it is clearly not from his perspective. Craig is framing him from an objective third person point-of-view, so that his narration co-exists with different perspective of the same moment.
Yet this sort of narration has been created in other mediums. It is very similar to the narration of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Although Bickle narrates portions of the film, the camera provides an outside perspective to his actions, observing him as a third party. It isn’t until page 8 that any attempt to define the narrative mode of Deadly Class using the established language of other mediums is entirely broken.
On this page, Marcus is contemplating suicide by jumping from a bridge. His narration continues, providing insight into his thought process. At the same time, Craig’s panels reveal his face and body language while considering the jump. This adds an outside perspective on the scene, but one still focused on Marcus and his knowledge of the moment. Then in panel three another character is revealed. This represents a significant change in the perspective of the art. Marcus is entirely unaware of her presence and remains so. The focus on Marcus perspective has expanded to include the world outside of his awareness. In the following panels a split appears, so that Marcus and the mystery woman are shown in parallel to one another while Marcus’ thoughts run down the middle of the page.
If read individually, they represent three different narrative modes that each reveal a piece of a single scene. They are not read individually though. An incredible thing occurs; readers are capable of looking at this section of the page and understanding all three components in tandem. Two separate points-of-view and a separate prose narrative being told from Marcus’ perspective are all registered simultaneously. In prose, it is possible to provide one narrative mode at a time. In film, it is possible to present two narrative modes at once. Here, there are three things occurring at once and the reader is capable of combining them into a single coherent narrative. Extra time is required in order to process the written words in the middle, but there is a precedent that all lettering represents Marcus’ voice, so this section immediately registers with readers as Marcus’ thoughts.
That sequence is something that could only exist in the comics medium and Deadly Class is filled with examples like it. Marcus narration continues to break from the visual narration that occurs on the page. Immediately following the sequence on the bridge is one which occurs during a festival for Dia de los Muertos. It starts with bold white letters stating “November 1”, an objective observation provided by an outside narrator. The difference in font lack of a text box emphasizes it as being separate from Marcus’ narration in the same panel. It can be read as being part of the art, but is still separate from the scene, much like the location and time stamps often seen in other visual media like film. Marcus’ narration is also separate from the art, not only because it is being provided from a first person perspective, but because it is not connected to the current time of the scene.
Nothing that Marcus is saying ties directly to his actions as he walks through the festival. His story is told as stream of consciousness, but it could be told from any point in time with no connection to his consciousness at the moment displayed in the panel. There is a thematic thread that connects his thoughts to what he sees specifically in the panel where he first sees the mysterious woman from the bridge. He references a story told to him in the past in which a third party asks someone to “describe blue” at the same moment he sees the woman. The connection between the story, originally told by someone else, and his own experience is that it is beyond explanation. Lee Loughridge provides a monochrome background to the panel, obscuring any detail of the festivities and lending focus to the woman’s face. It is the only thing to be seen, providing the sense that this is Marcus’ perspective. Yet it is doubtful that Marcus only sees a burnt orange background, so it is not truly Marcus’ perspective, but an interpretation of how Marcus is processing this one moment. The two narrative modes of sight and prose are both being processed through multiple storytellers and moments in time.
It quickly becomes clear how the standard vocabulary used to discuss narrative mode in the written word is woefully under qualified to explore the comics medium. A single panel or page is capable of representing a wide variety of voices and perspectives at the same time, and many of those modes are distinct due to the subjectivity of art being presented. Questions of color, lettering, and style all come into play. This obscuration of narrative source is a constant within the pages of Deadly Class. In its most recent story arc, Craig and Remender have placed Marcus in the position of enduring a bad acid trip which significantly alters his perception of the world.
Marcus is driven down the Vegas strip and a single page presents all of the following perspectives: an objective view of Marcus and his hallucination, an objective view of the reality of the scene, Marcus’ perspective of the world, a look at Marcus’ emotional state represented by color and facial expression. Only the first of these juxtaposes two different narrative modes, being the objective view of an outside narrator viewing Marcus in a car alongside Marcus’ view of the world as a gigantic leprechaun lunges toward him. The real feat of the page is that these modes are presented simultaneously, the transition between them is occurring constantly without interrupting the flow of reading. No outside narration guides the reader between the different experiences being presented; meaning the transitions rely purely on artistic elements. And it all makes perfect sense.
Perhaps the single most notable thing about all three of the examples presented is that they are perfectly clear. Despite the complexity of what is being presented and the various interpretations that may be applied to each component, readers are able to instantly make sense of the story they are being told. That speaks volumes about both the capacity of the human mind to comprehend visual information and of the comics medium to relate complicated narratives.
Based on what I have said so far, it may seem like Deadly Class is an anomaly, something that does what few or no comics before have. This too is entirely wrong.
I’ve chosen to use Deadly Class as an example because of Craig’s incredible flair and understanding of the principles of comics. His work makes for an excellent example of how comics can easily defy the structures created within literature in ways the written word cannot. Look to the new releases at any comic store and you’ll find numerous examples of artists and writers breaking these same conventions. Saga, Astro City, Hellboy in Hell, Lazarus, Zero: all of these comics and so many more are ignoring narrative mode as defined in English classrooms with no ill effect.
Although a lot of terms and concepts from the study of literature can be adapted and applied to comics, this is an instance where the medium reveals how it is unique and separate from other forms of storytelling and art. In comics, creators can simultaneously tell a story from the first person point-of-view, that of an omniscient third person, and with an epistolary voice (using fictional documents, like letters, to tell a story) simultaneously. They can combine any variety of narrative modes, thus creating ones which exist outside the realm of the written word altogether.
This leaves an interesting question for comics theorists, critics, and teachers to answer: What is the best way to define narrative mode when discussing comics?
The definitions adapted from the study of English, film, and other forms of storytelling provide an excellent starting point, but are insufficient for the comics medium. Perhaps the best way forward is to combine pre-existing forms of narration and describe the most common intersections. Perhaps new vocabulary needs to be created in order to reflect the uniqueness of the medium in this regard. Perhaps some third answer eludes me.
However this issue is ultimately tackled by comics scholars and researchers, the important thing is to understand how comics function in this regard. Comics are crafted with adaptations of film or literary tools. They apply their own unique language. The medium is capable of moving between any narrative mode without disturbing readers and merging any number of these modes together. They allow their audience to comprehend multiple perspectives in a single moment, creating a multi-dimensional world with a single page of art. This is but one example of the wonders comics can accomplish better than any other artform yet known to man.
And think… we’re only just beginning to understand how they work.
Narrative Mode – the various methods that the creator of a story uses in order to convey that story to an audience including, but not limited to, point-of-view, voice, and time
Point-of-View – the position of the narrator in relation to the story being told, includes first-person, second-person, and third-person views.
First Person View – the story is told by a person who also happens to be a character in the story
Third Person View – the story is told be a narrator outside of the story whose perspective can be limited to specific characters and events or can be omniscient, the most flexible of all the points-of-view
Voice – the process of how a story is told
Stream of Consciousness – replication of the narrator’s thought process
Time – the grammatical tense of a story, whether it is told in the past, present, or future