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Blake & Mortimer: Is the narration needed?

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#11 · Posted: 15 Jan 2010 11:56 · Edited by: Balthazar
I think we also have to acknowledge that it may be obvious to us now that the pictures can stand without explanation, but that is a position that had to be arrived at by experimentation, it wasn’t self evident.

That's a good point. Another example would be Winsor McCay, probably the greatest comic strip pioneer. His earliest Little Nemo strips have under-panel narrative prose, but he soon dropped this device as the series went on, presumably realising (or proving to his editors) that it was unnecessary clutter.

McCay was working in the very early 1900s, and pioneered a lot of the rules, conventions and visual grammar of comics (and animated cartoons), but I think his work had somewhat faded from view by the 1920s, so I'm not sure how aware of his strips Hergé was when starting Tintin. But I think Hergé was very aware and consciously influenced by contemporary American comic strips of the 1920s, and these may have shown him that speech balloons and drawings alone were sufficient and best.

What's odd about E P Jacobs' narration panels, though, is that he started his Blake and Mortimer series in the late 1940s, long after the period when they were thought necessary by comic creators and editors, and when almost everyone else had abandoned the device. Jacob's can't have believed they were necessary; he must just have liked that style of comic-strip storytelling. Maybe he really liked the old-fashioned feel of strips like the aforementioned Prince Valliant and Tarzan.

Or maybe it was his background in opera (he was a professional tenor) that gave Jacobs his taste for stagey formality and over-kill narration. I believe opera audiences are traditionally given a full synopsis of the opera they're about to see in the programme notes, even when the opera is being performed in their own language. Jacobs' strips have a rather formal, stagey feel generally, which he must have wanted, and which is no doubt part of their charm if it happens to appeal to you.

You're right that Rupert the Bear has no speech balloons at all, Tintinrulz. They have brief rhyming couplets beneath each panel to economically tell the story, and then a mass of narrative prose at the foot of the page, which generally simply repeats in more detail what the couplets and pictures have already told you. Sometimes this prose clears up some plot detail that the rhyming couplets couldn't quite make clear, but usually the prose is completely unnecessary and redundant and is best skipped. To be fair to the publishers, at least having the prose at the foot of the page intentionally makes it easy for readers who wish to skip it do so, leaving the pictures and couplets nicely uncluttered, unlike Jacobs' panels.

I believe that Alfred Bestall (not Rupert's creator, but it's best and longest-serving artist) used to make up the stories and the couplets himself, in addition to drawing the pictures. I don't know if he also wrote the foot-of-page prose, though, or if that was added by an editor.
#12 · Posted: 15 Jan 2010 12:41
What annoys me is when they refer to Britain as "the kingdom", like anyone refers to it as such, it sounds very odd, and is obviously a blind translation.

Indeed. It's good that many comics from France and Belgium are becoming more available in English, but I have found that the translations sometimes leave a lot to be desired. I read one such comic and it was almost like the translator had taken a French-to-English dictionary and translated word-per-word. The way the characters spoke was stilted rather than natural.

cigars of the beeper:
Do the Blake and Mortimer adventures which Jacobs did not write have that much narration, or do those all have varying style?

I'm afraid that they still are present and correct, at least in the first three post-Jacobs stories; I have not read the more recent ones yet.

If an edition of "Tintin magazine" published in the late 1970s is anything to go by, it would appear that the publishers felt that these boxes were essential. In this edition, we have a scene from a Blake and Mortimer adventure drawn by another artist. It is just a couple of pages and a parody rather than a serious remake, but the final panel has a breach of the "fourth wall" in which the editor angrily points out to the artist that he has left out the descriptive text boxes: "one of Jacobs' essential characteristics". See them at page 1 and page 2.

In fact the artist adds a text box of his own, telling the readers that "if you can't figure out what is happening in these two pages, carefully read the descriptive texts in pages 50 and 51 of "The Secret of the Swordfish" (vol. 1)... you'll easily forgive this neglect on my part". But I think that he is being cheeky rather than patronising.
#13 · Posted: 15 Jan 2010 13:42
What's odd about E P Jacobs' narration panels, though, is that he started his Blake and Mortimer series in the late 1940s, long after the period when they were thought necessary by comic creators and editors, and when almost everyone else had abandoned the device

I suppose there we have to look to the fact that Jacobs, while now thought of by us as being in the school of Hergé, actually developed out of the school of Alex Raymond. Raymond’s Flash Gordon, if I recall the reprints that used to run in the Sunday magazines of one of the British newspaper in the Eighties, were a sort of mix of illustrative panels, blocks of text, and panels with speech balloons.

Jacobs began his cartooning career as a Raymond copyist, providing his own pastiche resolution to a Raymond series which had been interrupted mid-story by the war (which cut off the supply of material from the States), and it followed this same pattern. He then used the same approach for The U-Ray, which was in the Raymond style (he revised it as a more regular comic for republication as an album).

As you say, there are many possibilities for why Jacobs took this approach, but my guess is it lies somewhere there. Personally I really don’t mind it, any more than I mind music on films, or see it as any more peculiar than times when characters appear as disembodied heads next to a speech balloon (beloved by Hampson on Dan Dare): the question to me is if the use is tasteful, or well used. Frankly the narration is less of a problem than the often huge balloons, with endless reams of speech. I think it is more of a testament to how economical Hergé was as both an artist and a writer than anything else.

Raymond (and thus Jacobs) wasn’t alone in the approach either: while you suggest that it was on the way out, I think that the more “texty” approach wasn’t dead, it was just losing the cause at the time. The early Batman and Superman also had quite a high incidence of text to picture, often providing narrative to frames instead of dialogue.
#14 · Posted: 16 Jan 2010 11:35
I suppose there we have to look to the fact that Jacobs, while now thought of by us as being in the school of Hergé, actually developed out of the school of Alex Raymond.

That's a very good point Jock. The Flash Gordon influence explains a lot. And you're right that there was still a more narrative text in many mid-twentieth century comics than I was recalling. As you say, it highlights how skilfully economic Hergé was compared with the common standards of the time.

Thanks for linking that pastiche from Tintin magazine, mtc. It's really interesting, and a bit weird, to see Jacobs' pages redrawn in a Uderzo-ish cartoony style. I'm sure you're right that the artist's instruction panel to readers is intended to be read as cheeky irony. I'm sure the angry editor's interruption is too. It looks as if Jacobs' habit of laboriously describing what was already blindingly obvious from the pictures was a source of some teasing from fellow cartoonists.

But these days, it seems to have become a well-loved mannerism of the Blake and Mortimer style, since as you say the modern post-Jacobs books faithfully continue the tradition. To be fair, the modern B & M books are styled and set in the series' golden era of the 1950s and 60s - faithful homages rather than modern reinventions of the characters - so it does make sense to stick to Jacobs' own way of doing things.

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