The Autumnlands #12 Discussion: On Exposition
Written by: Kurt Busiek
Art by: Ben Dewey
Exposition is the necessary evil to storytelling. No one wants to read it, and no author wants to write it, but there comes a point in every big story where the characters just need to sit down and have a chat about what the hell is going on. The thing is, exposition needn’t be a curse word. It often is if you bother to read any of the reviews on this website, but no, it can work well.
The thing about exposition is that it needs to enhance a story. Facts on their own are not interesting unless they’re advancing a plot or a character.
Let me poke fun at DC, whose Rebirth issues have been awash in the bad kind of exposition. Each Rebirth issue has tried to be a one-shot way of introducing a character, a conflict, and then wrapping up said conflict in a way that hints at more to come. That’s a lot to ask of 20 pages, and most of the Rebirth authors have had to lay on the facts to make ends meet.
Unsurprisingly, most of the Rebirth issues have been awful. Telling me why Aquaman is cool does nothing for me. I mean, he isn’t cool to begin with, but spending 20 pages trying to convince me he’s cool by vomiting out his backstory and how his powers work only make me think less of the character. It’s bad writing.
But bad exposition doesn’t end at the Rebirth issues. Green Arrow #3 comes to mind. For most of the comic, Arrow is sneaking through Queen Industries and taking out guards–all the while not shutting up. He’s compelled to tell us how harsh his security is, how advanced, and all his talk does is bog down what could have been an alright set of action panels. Less is more, and his needless exposition did nothing but get in the way.
It’s obvious that a big corporation with big secretes would house a bunch of high-level security. I can take that at face value without being told.
Or let’s look at hard science fiction as another example (because I’m reading a Travis S. Taylor novel for review right now and he likes his science fiction hard). Scientific facts on their own don’t elevate a story. I don’t need to know how a ship’s engines work to know that it can fly through space. Now, if those facts actually advance the plot in some way, that’s different. Now let’s look at The Martian by Andy Weir. Mark Watney’s journey is filled with facts, numbers, calculations, and more, and the difference is: All of those formulas are necessary for the plot to work. Had he not spent time crunching numbers, the first leg of the novel would have been about an insane farmer growing potatoes on Mars, not an astronaut’s desperate plan for survival.
Now we get to The Autumnlands #12, a comic awash what I believe is the good kind of exposition. First and foremost, the facts given enhance the world the comic takes place in. We started with a high-fantasy narrative filled with talking animals, and now we’re swarming with futuristic sci-fi technology and hints at more human characters. The mystery that is this series has only gotten more mysterious.
Second, the exposition is used to showcase character development. Up until now, Learoyd has been more of an anti-hero than anything else, and then Eliza finished her story and we got a different facet of his character. Gone was his overwhelming sense of self preservation, replaced by something more akin to empathy. It’s different, and even Dusty remarks on it.
Keep in mind that we are not told new facts about his character. He’s given new facts and reacts to them in a way we haven’t seen before. Had Dusty said, “Learoyd has a soft side, and it came out here” that would have been a giant break in continuity since up until now, we haven’t seen Learoyd showcase a soft side.
The age-old saying in storytelling is to “show, don’t tell.” Exposition often comes off as telling, which is bad, but comic books are in this strange middle ground where they can do both. The author can tell us facts, but the artist can make them look pretty. TA:TaC as a series has always excelled at this because Ben Dewey is a phenomenal artist. He makes facts look and feel interesting.
Exposition is one of those things where you don’t notice it unless it’s handled poorly. The best kind feels more like character development and world building than straight facts, but even when there’s no way to dress it up as anything more than facts, it can still work for a story and not against it.