That I'd have a problem isn't news to anyone who's ever met me. But this one was pretty unique.
As others have picked up on, I like the comics I write to be as sparse as possible, when it comes to dialogue. I don't care for sound effects, generally speaking, and I hate thought balloons. (Yeah, I still like first-person captions, in some contexts, at least. What can I say? Comics from the mid-to-late 80s were very formative.)
Batman: Kings of Fear was a bit different. Since it was set as Doctor Jonathan Crane's dissection of the Batman's psyche, it was always intended to be more dialogue-intensive than most of my works, but still with large stretches of silent or nearly silent panels or pages and even entire scenes. And when I'd get the pencils from Kelley Jones the great and terrible, I'd pretty much always say, yup, that's exactly what I was looking for! And then be amazed when he'd suggest I add some dialogue. I mean...why clutter up his phenomenal art with [what I saw as] unnecessary copy?
Still, I'm all about the cooperation, so I generally did as he requested, no matter how wrong he was, because, as Immanuel Kant once asked and answered, "what is going to achieve one's goals? Working together as a cooperative unit."
And then we got to the final issue. Here's what I wrote for the opening:
Page OnePanel OneBatman, out of control, has the Scarecrow by the front of his costume and is screaming into his face, out of control. Or maybe he’s got at least one hand around his throat? This is a scary, violent image.BATMAN: yaaargh [dialogue to be tweaked, presumably, after being pencilled]
Page TwoPanel OneThe Batman is very clearly just about to kill the Scarecrow....when…Panel Two…he glances over or up or whatever works logistically and sees the guard all trussed up over in the corner, nearly forgotten.Panel ThreeAnd the danger passes. Because the sight of the victim (or at least a witness) makes the Batman remember who and what he is. (A damn hero is what, Kelley, you cynical, jaded son of a gun.) So a similar pose but now all the tension is gone.Panel FourSad tired Batman is sad and tired. He drops the Scarecrow, who falls on the ground in a heap.BATMAN: Why?
Here's what Kelley drew:
Perfection! Print it! (Well, I suppose inking and coloring it first might be advisable. Especially considering how good the inker and colorist were for this issue—namely Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen, respectively.)
And then Kelley said those dreaded words: "I think he should be saying something in the first panel of the second page." I grimaced. I scowled. I looked at the pages again. And for once I didn't entirely disagree.
It really did look like it could use a tiny bit of dialogue, that the Scarecrow should be saying—perhaps babbling—something. But what?
I thought for a moment, and then I wrote:
SCARECROW: i'm sorry okay oh my god i'm so sorry please don't hurt me please don't hurt me please don't i know i probably deserve it and you’re probably really mad and i don’t blame you but please don't you're really freaking me out i'm so sorryAnd I thought...yeah, I kinda like that.
The problem was, that wouldn't look good in a word balloon. First of all, there's simply too much copy. And I could cut it way down, obviously, but I thought having the Scarecrow word vomit all over the dark knight was the most effective way to go, and trimming that overly copious copy down too much would kneecap its efficacy.
So. What to do, what to do? Well, one of the nice things about working in this business is that after a while you tend to develop a group of peers to whom you can turn for advice, whether it's in the initial spitballing or looking at an entire storyarc to make sure it works on a structural level or who'll be willing to go over an individual line of dialogue with you and pick it apart and put it back together over and over and over again until it shines like the top of the Chrysler building.
In this case, I turned to the utterly indefatigable Devin Grayson. I explained the problem to her, sent her the page and the dialogue. She looked at it for about half a second and then suggested:
what if there's no actual dialog, but the background is a faded scroll of Scarecrow blather. Like the whole background, in a very faint font, is just all "no please don't okay you win just don't hurt me"? Almost like Scarecrow's blathering on but Batman doesn't even really hear him, it's all just in the background, wallpaper...And I thought, oh hell yes.
But that brought up the next problem. Which was that lettering that was likely to be pretty tricky, which meant it might not work out at all the way I wanted, and could really annoy the letterer, something no writer ever wants to do (and all writers do anyway).
Fortunately, in this case, I had (my apologies to all the other very fine letterers working today) the best letterer in the biz on the job: the great and hirsute Rob Leigh.
I ever so politely asked if he could take the babble and fill the second and third panels with it...and this is what I got:
I am a very lucky man.
(Writing this just now, I discovered a note to myself during an earlier draft, where it's all silent, except for the Scarecrow whispering, very softly, in one of the first two panels, "you're scaring me." I like the final version much better...but I must say, that amused me.)