Panel 1: A rare use of thought balloons in these first two panels, given that this storytelling riff is one i’ve largely avoided throughout Empowered—and throughout the rest of my earlier career, in fact. Then again, thought balloons have been out of fashion in North American print comics for decades now, probably dating back to the “comic are serious—deadly serious, now” trend of grim ’n’ grittiness heralded by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Of course, Frank Miller’s narrative caption style usurped the thought balloon’s role, for reasons now somewhat difficult to define—“Oh, c’mon, can’t you see that a caption saying ‘This would be a good death’ is clearly much more adult and serious than a thought balloon saying the same thing?” Ah, but in turn the once-ubiquitous narrative caption fell out of favor, replaced by the now-popular format of wildly overdialogued conversation scenes—to show off the writer’s oh-so-witty repartée—and confusingly dialogue-free action scenes—to make the comic all, like, cinematic, man. (Though I should hasten to add that just as many modern action scenes in mainstream comics do feature more doses of the writer’s beloved quippage, while leaving the action going on in the background unclarified and unexplained.)
That’s one peculiarity about manga that I really appreciate, though: Manga creators will often flirt with the use of thought balloons or first-person captions when, say, kicking off a new series, then not bother using ’em again throughout the rest of the story. By contrast, if you see a narrative caption in a Western comic, rest assured that you will be bludgeoned with many, many more such captions throughout the rest of the series. That is to say, Western comics tend to get locked into a fixed storytelling format which never varies, whether we’re talking about “hammer the reader with narrative captions” or “never, ever use a caption, save maybe to introduce a new location.” So, consider Ninjette’s thought balloons in panels 1 and 2 as my fond tribute to the greater narrative flexibility shown by manga artists.
Jumping back to panels 1 and 2: The key difference, here, between Ninjette and myself is that all the seemingly brilliant ideas that I devise when I’ve been drinking get imported directly into this series. Yeahp, I work up most of my concepts for Empowered either A) when out healthily hiking, whilst possibly indulging a secret death wish to get mauled by a bear or shot by a hunter; or B) when unhealthily winding down after the workday with a beer or few whilst blithely zoning out and playing the PS2 game Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition Remix. (Or Robotron 2084, if I’m feeling even more retro.) Perhaps surprisingly, though, I’ve never noticed a difference in concept quality between my hiking-time ideas and my PS2-and-Sam-Adams-time ideas…