Comics were disparaged as “lowbrow” reading for decades by librarians and educators, in large part because words and pictures work in tandem (ideally) to tell a story. In traditional prose or poetry the writer is required to “paint the picture” with words, which educations viewed as in some way more “noble” than the prose presented in the pages of comic books. (In the educators’ defense a great deal of comic book writing was [and remains] hackery, but I doubt that a significant number of writers set out to make it deliberately so; it’s just the way the world works. To quote Theodore Sturgeon, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”) But comic book writing was tougher than one might suspect; the writer had to help move the plot by supplying written narrative which explained the story but didn’t overwhelm the panel and hide the art. Up until the turn of the 21st century (when the primary emphasis in comic books shifted to art at the expense of writing), the comic book writer walked the proverbial tightrope between providing too little text (thus losing the reader) and too much text (which covered up the artist’s hard work).

Despite the restrictions the medium naturally imposed on writers, some scripters found ways to be a bit more creative with a story’s text. Writing in dialect was used to great effect in Blackhawk’s adventures. His six mercenary airmen hailed from different countries, and Blackhawk’s writers took great pains to write dialogue in the characters’ various national dialects. This was great fun for the reader as it made the dialogue really come alive. It wasn’t nearly as much fun for the writers, as they considered writing in dialect to be a massive pain in the neck; in fact, several writers averred that in the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s DC’s editorial staff used to hand out the Blackhawk scripting chores as punishment to writers who’d transgressed in some way.

Writing in rhyme was another way that scripters could set a tale apart. Perhaps the best-remembered use of rhyme in comics was in the early 1990’s DC run of The Demon.

DC's The Demon v3 #1

Cover image from comicvine.com

When the book was launched in 1990, writer Alan Grant decided to have all of title character Etrigan’s dialogue rhyme. If memory serves, Etrigan’s dialogue was also lettered in an ornate Gothic script. The book was great fun to read and you definitely got your buck and a half’s worth of entertainment (cover price was $1.50) as it took a bit longer to read than most books; The Demon tended to be more verbose than other comics and the flowery faux Elizabethan rhyming of Etrigan’s dialogue required some active reading. (And Etrigan’s dialogue, like the Blackhawks’ dialect, was also a grind for the writer; I remember an interview with Grant from the early 1990’s in which he expressed some regret at his decision to make The Demon’s lines rhyme.)

I first encountered the “Mother Hubbard” stories from Scoop Comics when I saw them discussed on an Internet message board. The rhyming dialogue of the titular character wasn’t mentioned, but the modern readers involved in the discussion were positively scandalized by “the violence against children” depicted in the tales (I’ll have more about this in my next post). After reading the stories I was surprised that no one had mentioned the rhyming (which, by the way, wasn’t universal; sometimes Mother Hubbard will utter a single line with no rhyme) and hadn’t drawn the comparison with Grant’s Demon tales.

Here’s Mother Hubbard’s second appearance from Scoop Comics #2, a tale which is more like a traditional fairy tale than a contemporary superhero or crime comic. The scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum; right-click a page scan and open it in a new tab for a larger view.

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Scoop Comics #2, January 1942

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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