Metafiction in many ways is too adult a word. It cannot be precisely explained, the concept itself thrives to a large extent on unnecessary difficulty, and it's not very hard to be on the side of the fence proclaiming the whole idea is a load of junk. That's where Stephen King is and when one of the bestselling writers of all time is against an idea, you have to lend it some credence. (Although King's own critique seems to be of merely the word "metafiction," as the place I read him putting down the term was in the afterward of an undoubtedly metafictional novel.) Combine this was the child medium of comic books. Even with the creation of a masterwork like Watchmen (which isn't a graphic novel, people, get your words straight), there is a simple terminology response. Of course comic books can't be serious art. So, yes, these are "graphic novels." Forgetting perhaps that the lack of seriousness in the majority of books or even the majority of art. How then, could comics be metafictional? That would make them...[surprised sharp intake of breath] serious! And of course a good number of them are. There is a sort of comic metafiction that cannot be reached in any other medium. Consider the following:
Two of Warren Ellis's recent experimental publications (all recent Ellis comic publications seem to be experimental) seem to work off an old classic of comic books that has really fallen out of flavor: the thought bubble. Wikipedia offers the following on the dwindling number of thought bubbles in comics and the growing disapproval of the tool,
Writers and artists can refuse to use thought bubbles, expressing the action through spoken dialogue and drawing; they are sometimes seen as an inefficient method of expressing thought because they are attached directly to the head of the thinker, unlike methods such as caption boxes, which can be used both as an expression of thought and narration while existing in an entirely different panel from the character thinking. However, they are restricted to the current viewpoint character. An example is Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta, wherein during one chapter, a monologue expressed in captions serves not only to express the thoughts of a character but also the mood, status and actions of three others.Warren Ellis, as well as my memory works, appears to follow the same practice for the most part, as do virtually all writers/artists/comic creators. With the emergence of Alan Moore's style of writing which, just as described above, often uses captions or actual speech to refer to multiple scenes at once, something which seems to have been either independently developed by or as is most likely strongly influenced Grant Morrison. Moore even began to dislike captions, choosing to use conversations to narrate otherwise unrelated activity because, well I guess because it felt real. Once again I might preface with "if memory serves," but this is something that strongly shows in Watchmen. Morrison at times eliminates words altogether, either for a page or two in his early Animal Man or for an entire issue of his lauded New X-Men.
Work that references the speech balloon or thought bubble would ultimately have to come in comics, then, as this is one of the idiosyncrasies of the medium. Consider the Neil Gaiman children's books, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish or The Wolves in the Walls, illustrated by his common collaborator, Dave McKean, which become their most comic-book-esque when the characters speak in balloons, made brilliantly complicated the "he said," "she said" bits that sit outside the balloon next to the words. Even as the book comments on this bit of comic book jargon, the book itself first must become a comic book, rather than a illustrated children's story.
For Ellis, the thought bubble is something to be vaguely commented on. Consider the recent (and especially experimental, even for him) SVK, the acronym of which has helped supply our somewhat useless post title. Although BERG, the producers (if I have my understanding of both the situation of SVK and the word "producer" right) of the book refer to the secrets of this book as "hidden layers woven throughout the comic book," for the most part they are talking about the thoughts of characters.
Warren's interest in the thought bubble may not even arise from comic books themselves, but rather from science fiction, another often bastardized section of writing, although a genre rather than medium. As a predominantly science fiction comic writer who is somewhat moving away from comics or rather at least traditional comics for the here and now, Ellis has written about all kinds of science fiction staples, from space races to the future, albeit comic book style. In SVK he writes about mind reading, which in comics takes on a whole new mode of presentation. Although an omniscient story can tell us the minds of characters, comics literally show character's thoughts, sitting there next to the character. SVK in fact makes thought bubbles a part of the narrative itself. As Thomas Woodwind, the main character puts it, "I could see thoughts, I mean, see them imaged as a projection." What I find the most fun here is that Ellis has taken a question that I haven't really seen asked elsewhere (although I'm sure it has) and provided his own history as an answer. How would mind reading work? A little tongue-in-cheek as a complete answer, Warren's response is, in fact, "thought bubbles," and that just gives me the giggles.
In FreakAngels, the ongoing but now as in today (Friday), the day I'm writing this, just over. Unlike SVK, FreakAngels is experimental in a way unrelated to thought bubbles, but still relates to the structure of the comic. As a webcomic, FreakAngels is a new take on the Cory Doctorow way of publishing, that is the work is free online and sells as a print edition. According to everyone involved it's a success too, just as Doctorow's many books have been, before you trash the concept as unworkable. FreakAngels also deals with mind reading as well as mind control and Ellis provides another solution to his illustrator in this case. It might be a bit of a one-off but it does offer a way to avoid thought bubbles for thought-speech, as seen on this page, thought-speech is seen more as an amplification of actual spoken words. "Just talk normally," as Connor, one of the FreakAngels, puts it. Instead of thought bubbles we have speech balloons without arrows.
(A further bit of metafiction in FreakAngels that I read while catching up on the series, after writing this blog post is written up here. Links in this post would be casual spoilers...)
Ultimately these are questions a comic writer has to ask that any other medium doesn't touch on. Grant Morrison, another comic writer, has been working on comic specific metafiction since the eighties, and in contrast to Ellis is much more bold. Morrison's methods are a bit of a double edged sword, namely Warren Ellis writes a plethora of different kinds of stories, while early Morrison writes metafiction, which occasionally blends too much into the narrative so as to make his presence pesky. All this besides, early Morrison comics are great because of their newness. Like Das Racist in rap today, Morrison threw a lot of names, concepts, and theories out into books like Doom Patrol that had probably never been in comics before.
Now to talk about Morrison's metafiction in depth would ruin what's good about reading his comics, so I will simply write about a specific case. In Animal Man, specifically issue five, Morrison uses comics to parody cartoons. Issue five, "The Coyote Gospel," both celebrates and mocks the sort of zany violence and style of our children's so-called Saturday morning shows in ways you couldn't do anywhere else than perhaps in a cartoon, where the shifting of realities would still be difficult. Now I know I'm not doing the comic any justice in this bit I've written about it, but I don't really want to get into it. The more I explain, the less fun the issue'll be! (Not that this blog is going to turn any of its nonexistent readers to a much more popular comic...but I can dream, can't I?)
These are aspects of the style of the comic book medium that result in a specific kind of metafiction that simply cannot be done in other mediums. A lot of people write about comics as being new, as being full of potential and I hope I've shown some of the ways it has been opened up in the past, I guess it's thirty?, years that have made it a medium that has the potential to become as a whole more mature. Of course, all I've tried to say here has been more brilliantly stated by Neil Gaiman, yet another comic writer, and I'll close with a quote I've stolen from his Wiki page:
Asked why he likes comics more than other forms of storytelling Gaiman said “One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground. It was virgin territory. When I was working on Sandman, I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before. When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now. You know, you can go back. We have things like The Golden Ass. And you go, well, I don’t know that I’m as good as that and that’s two and a half thousand years old. But with comics I felt like – I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of. And I could and it was enormously fun.”