Ask Chris #308: Silent Interlude
Q: What makes a good silent issue? -- @XavierFiles
A: Listen: I don't know if you meant for me to interpret this question as, "Can you talk about GI Joe #21 for a couple thousand words," but I do think we all knew that was exactly what was going to happen.
Okay, admittedly, there are other "silent" comics that are certainly worth talk about, but as a form for mainstream single-issue comic stories, it's an idea that's always going to be tied back to Larry Hama and Steve Leialoha's "Silent Interlude." It may not have been the first to play with the idea of telling a full issue's worth of story without dialogue or sound effects, but it's easily the most influential, and arguably the best.
The thing is, it's not just remembered for its silent format. "Silent Interlude" is a turning point for GI Joe, and stands up as one of the most important pieces of a franchise that's been going for almost 35 years. It has the reveal of the connection between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes that would form what has essentially been the comic's biggest driving conflict for the next two hundred issues of ninja action; it has all of these hints that there's something deeper going on with Destro than just showing up with a bunch of laser guns to help Cobra Commander blow up the world; and on top of all that, it's still a great story of one soldier taking on an entire building full of adversaries to rescue someone who is, in turn, doing a pretty solid job of escaping on her own.
But even with all that going for it, GI Joe #21 wouldn't be the memorable story that it is if Larry Hama hadn't wanted to experiment with the form. Throw in dialogue and captions, and this thing would've just been another solid issue in an unbelievably consistent run. Take them out, though, and you've got an all-time classic of the medium.
So if you're asking how to make a good one, I think you start there. The silent issues that are really memorable to me --- the ones that come as the exceptions to the usual format rather than long-form stories that are dialogue-free as a general rule --- are all issues that have a strong foundation to work from anyway.
Doing a silent issue isn't going to magically elevate something that wouldn't be good otherwise, because at the end of the day, it's a trick. It's a decoration that can underscore a theme, but on its own, it's no different from anything else that makes a comic stand out, whether it's a limited color palette or an interesting lettering technique or an innovative page layout. Watchmen #5, for example, would still be a pretty good comic if it wasn't laid out symmetrically from the midpoint, but the fact that it is makes it work a whole lot better.
While doing a silent issue is a trick, it's a trick that requires a lot of work to pull off correctly. That effort that goes into making it work comes through in a way that's impossible to ignore, purely because of how it functions as a deviation from the norm.
For a lot of the tricks that make comics fun, the idea is to be as invisible and immersive as possible. It's one of the reasons that lettering and coloring, two parts of the comic-making process that can either make or ruin the experience of reading a comic, are often so underappreciated. When they're done well, you usually don't even notice them, because they're doing such an efficient job at conveying the information of the story. They're physical aspects of the page that break down the liminal barriers that separate you from a story, letting you hear the voices of the characters in your head, or feel the mood that's being set in a particular scene.
Doing a silent issue, on the other hand, does the opposite: It takes away those physical barriers, the words and balloons that are literally printed on the page, but in their place, it forces you to slow down the process of reading and pay attention to what's going on the art.
In my experience, one of the hardest parts of writing a comic is controlling the pacing, because you can't do it. Your story, unlike a film, is told at the pace of the person experiencing it, completely determined by how fast they read the dialogue and how much time they want to spend looking at the art. If you're an especially fast reader who's more concerned with dialogue than, you know, every other aspect of the comic, then you can breeze through a single issue in just a few minutes, only pausing between balloons to scan the panels for something of interest.
I'll admit that I've read comics that way pretty often myself, especially back when I was trying to keep up with everything that came out, and had plenty of titles that I was only reading out of obligation. Even now, when I'm trying to catch up on something for research, I'll find myself slipping back into that, despite the fact that it's probably the worst way to get through something that you're trying to pay attention to.
Doing a silent issue, on the other hand, forces the reader to slow down.
Without words, even the simplest idea has to come across through the visuals, and for readers trained to, you know, read, that means that the pace changes. And while that gives the creators far more control over the pacing of the story, that also makes it a lot harder to write.
One of the most interesting things about a "silent" issue is that comics are always silent. It's why we had to invent things like sound effects and word balloons and figure out how they could interact with art and dialogue in different ways. It's a purely visual medium, but the language of comics was built on the idea of all of those elements interacting to create the illusion of sound and movement within a series of static, silent images. Altering that language ratchets up the difficulty in a very, very noticeable way.
It's more than fair to say that the art almost always carries the burden of storytelling in a comic book. It is the most important aspect of a comic, hands down. But at the same time, writers... well, writers write. They literally use the dialogue of a story to explain what's happening, to inform both the characters and the readers of all the information they need to process the story. The rule of the day is always to show instead of tell, but under normal circumstances, even the showing tends to involve at least some talking. And if something changes in the process of making an issue, the dialogue and captions can cover the gap, filling in new information or making up for anything that ended up unclear in the art.
Doing a story without that not only takes away a pretty big selection of a writer's tools, it also takes away that ability to make corrections later in the process. It's not just doing a highwire act without a safety net, it's trying to swing to a trapeze that doesn't have a bar.
Which is probably why people usually cheat.
In most "silent" issues, there's usually some kind of element of text. The twist is that it's almost always some kind of diegetic text, displays that the characters can read themselves, not dialogue or captions. "Silent Interlude" has it, and Batgirl: Endgame, the one-shot by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Bengal that takes place during a crisis where the entire population of Gotham City is turned into shambling Jokerized zombies, has a lot.
There are sound effects, too, and even one instance of the Joker laughing that, because of how it's presented, straddles the line between dialogue and sound effect.
What it doesn't have, though, is dialogue, and that absence is notable enough that I think it counts as a "silent" issue, if only because the burden of communication between the characters in the story has to be carried by body language, physicality, and all of the other acting that falls under the purview of the artist. At the same time, in silent stories --- or their thematic cousins, stories where the only words come in the form of sound effects --- that text sticks out too, even if it's part of the scene. It's there to convey information through words.
And heck, depending on how loosely you want to define language, that happens pretty much everywhere. New X-Men #121, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, was a silent issue that used a lot of easily recognizable symbols, and there's even a bit of emoji --- something that's so instantly readable that it's already become almost standard in comics for the #teens --- in that Batgirl special.
But even with that slipped in there to lower the difficulty, constructing your story under those restrictions has to be incredibly difficult. Which, I imagine, is why Hama decided to map the entire thing himself, providing Leialoha with detailed layouts for the issue:
That's not to say that a collaboration can't produce a great silent issue --- or that Leialoha didn't do a great job on "Silent Interlude" himself --- but in this case, it makes sense. Hama's a master of the form who has experience in literally every aspect of comic book production, so it's understandable that, for what he called an "experiment," he'd want to take a little more control.
It's also worth noting that he's said in interviews that he was only ever plotting "two or three pages at most" ahead of where he was, and that when he started this issue, he didn't know what the big reveal on the last page would be. That's not quite relevant to the silent issue format, just one of those jaw-dropping pieces of trivia.
There's one last aspect of silent issues that makes them work, and it goes back to the idea of treating the lack of words as a trick that can underscore the theme of a story. When it's done well, it works with the theme, existing for a reason rather than functioning solely as a decoration.
In GI Joe, one of the reasons it works so well is because it's a story about Snake Eyes, who famously never speaks. And in The Sixth Gun #21, an issue that's done as a direct homage to GI Joe #21, the silence of the issue results from the main character being temporarily deafened by gunfire:
(In the interest of full disclosure, I've done work with both Oni Press and Marvel, the publishers of The Sixth Gun and New X-Men, respectively.)
Point being, the idea of a silent issue twists the language of comics in a really noticeable way, and like most tricks that subvert a language, they're best used when they can have the most impact. And also in stories that involve Destro. But then, that's true of everything.