Captions? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Captions…

40 Noteworthy Comic Stories Containing Very Little or No Dialogue

1. “Silent Interlude,” G.I. Joe #21 (Marvel, 03/84)
There are literally hundreds of comic stories that can be defined as pantomime pieces — stories containing zero dialogue and relying on visuals alone to convey the plot. Most of these silent stories appeared during the earlier years of the comic industry, and they were generally one- or two-page humor stories in which no words were needed to deliver the visual punchline. Creating longer stories without the benefit of dialogue, especially in adventure-oriented genres, is a bigger challenge, and Marvel — a publisher that built its brand on snappy patter — would be an unlikely place for someone to try. But that is exactly what G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama did with “Silent Interlude” in 1984, creating a book that has since become a classic among diehard Joeheads (or whatever G.I. Joe fans call themselves). Why the silent treatment? The book marks the first comic-book appearance of the Cobra ninja known as Storm Shadow, who captures Scarlett and brings her to Destro’s castle as a present to Cobra Commander (some people are just impossible to shop for). Snake-Eyes — a ninja on the side of good — sneaks in to rescue her, and of course readers later learn there’s a connection between the two ninjas. That a book starring two opposing ninjas arrived on stands with zero dialogue seems entirely appropriate, though that still didn’t stop rumors from circulating that all the lettering was lost in a printing error. As Comic Book Legends Revealed pointed out, though, Hama himself said the idea for telling an entire story without balloons or captions was something he had thought about doing for some time. And where better to try it than with a story about ninjas?

2. “Hush Job,” G.I. Joe Yearbook #3 (Marvel, 03/83)
Roughly a year after that first experiment in silent comics, Hama went back to the well in “Hush Job,” a story that can be seen as a companion piece to “Silent Interlude.” This time, Scarlett and Storm Shadow team up to rescue Snake-Eyes from Cobra (a better Joe expert than I could explain Storm Shadow’s shifting allegiances over the course of his career), and their mission is a similarly stealthy undertaking into enemy territory. “Hush Job” is a continuation of a story that later appeared in G.I. Joe #56, which had the requisite amount of dialogue and shooting for a typical G.I. Joe comic, so there isn’t any reason for the silence in “Hush Job” other than the novelty of the idea. And, you know, ninjas. Plus the Baroness trussed up in her undies. Rowr!

3. “SFX,” G.I. Joe #85 (Marvel, 04/89)
In Hama’s third attempt at mixing things up silencio style, he altered the formula by allowing the insertion of various sound effects, which are technically words, but since the story’s title makes it clear the sound effects are part of the package, I think the book still qualifies for this list. On the plot front, Storm Shadow and Jinx are fighting a running battle with Zartan (don’t worry, there isn’t a quiz later), who had arranged a trap to kill Storm Shadow. The battle ends when Storm Shadow’s arrow hits a driving henchman and causes the van, Zartan included, to plunge off a bridge. Hard to imagine we wouldn’t see at least a partial “Oh, shi—!” in that final scene, but there you go.

4. “Closure,” G.I. Joe #21 (Image, 08/2003)
Once more unto the breach. Marvel’s G.I. Joe series wrapped up after an impressive 155 issues (not counting various spin-offs, specials and mini-series) in 1994; after Dark Horse took a stab at the franchise in the mid-’90s, Image came out swinging with its own series in 2001. The chance to pay homage to “Silent Interlude” was apparently too good to pass up, and the 21st issue of the Image series also contains a silent story, and yet again it centres around Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow. Specifically, Snake-Eyes and the rest of the Joe crew try to take down Cobra Commander, and they fail at keeping Storm Shadow free of Cobra’s mind control. Or maybe that’s the line he fed them because he didn’t want to admit it came down to who offered the better dental plan. Even ninjas have to be practical about these kinds of things.

5-28. ‘Nuff Said (Marvel, 02/2002)
“‘Nuff said!” was one of the catchphrases that Marvel editor Stan Lee used often in his Bullpen Bulletins and other missives to the company’s fanbase; internally, Marvel’s production people would also write that phrase on art pages that were not intended to contain captions or dialogue. So when Marvel needed a title for a publishing stunt that would give readers a whole month’s worth of silent issues, it was the only logical choice. Twenty-four Marvel issues sporting a February 2002 cover date were published without speech balloons or captions, though some stories cheated a bit by displaying expository text in the form of, say, a newspaper headline or a computer screen readout. Aside from the novelty factor, most stories were fairly run of the mill, focusing on straightforward plots that didn’t require dialogue to help readers make sense of them. Perhaps the best of the lot were Deadpool #61, in which the normally motor-mouthed mutant is depicted as a silent ghost at his own funeral, and Uncanny X-Men #401, in which a distinctly Clintonesque politician is shown lying in bed, unconscious and undressed, with a wordless look of ecstasy on his face. According to Comic Book Legends Revealed, a leaked script for the story revealed the man on the bed was originally intended to resemble then-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani; we can safely assume post-9/11 sensitivities (not to mention Giuliani’s involvement in the next book on our list) put the kibosh on that bit of political satire.

29. A Moment of Silence (Marvel, 02/2002)
Appearing concurrently with the “‘Nuff Said” lineup, A Moment of Silence features four writer/artist teams (Kevin Smith/Igor Kordey; Joe Quesada/John Romita. Jr.; Bill Jemas/Mark Bagley; Brian Michael Bendis/Chuck Austen) telling stories that highlight the heroic sacrifices of average people during 9/11. The timing is no coincidence, as Quesada, then Marvel’s editor-in-chief, said the pantomime format seemed appropriate for a book focusing on events for which words seemed inadequate to describe. NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani was asked to provide a foreword for the book, which hit stores Jan. 9, almost four months after the attacks.  “I think we now realize that we do not have to read fiction to find examples of heroism,” he wrote. “The real heroes in American life have been with us all along. Our firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers put their lives on the line every day to protect the rest of us from the danger.” True, that. The stories themselves are all inspired by real events, and all four provide different perspectives of what happened on that date. Those wondering how Marvel’s heroes reacted to 9/11 weren’t left out in the cold, though, as Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #36 featured Spidey and other Marvel characters coping with the aftermath.

30. Sin City: Silent Night (Dark Horse, 11/95)
Enough with the Marvel, you say? Fair enough. Silent Night is a short story that appeared about four years after Frank Miller introduced his neo-noir series through Dark Horse Comics. Against a backdrop of heavy snow, the hulking figure known as Marv approaches a door in a dark alley. He intimidates the bouncer with his sheer size and is led inside and down a flight of stairs. He meets with two armed men and a leather-clad woman, who is apparently the boss. He hands her a wad of bills and is shown to a steel door in the far wall. Through a small viewing slit, he can see a terrified little girl crouching in the darkness. Marv then draws two pistols and kills the henchmen and the woman (the only time, if I’m counting correctly, Marv is seen killing a woman in the Sin City comics, at least up to that point). At the end of the story we hear the only words uttered in the entire book: “Your momma’s been asking after you, Kimberly,” Marv says. “Let’s get you home.” Powerful stuff, made all the more so by Miller’s trademark use of dramatic lighting and camera angles.

31. “Movie Madness,” Adventures of Little Archie #22 (Archie, Spring 1962)
When Archie publisher John Goldwater wanted a strip that followed the adventures of the Archie gang as young children, he turned to Bob Bolling, who in turn created Little Archie. Bolling worked exclusively on the strip for several years, writing, drawing, inking and lettering about half the stories in each quarterly issue; most of the rest were created by Dexter Taylor, Bolling’s former roommate and an artist who would go on to spend more than 50 years writing and drawing Little Archie stories. He had a real affinity for pantomime stories, and this story is one of his most elaborate. Little Archie’s parents go to the movies and leave him with a babysitter, but he sneaks out of the house, stows away in their car, sneaks into the theatre, switches the film reels to show cartoons instead, plays havoc with the popcorn machine, avoids the clutches of a frazzled theatre manager, and makes it back home and into bed just in time to hear his parents comment in the last panel about how quiet the babysitter said he was. Certainly not the kind of behavior parents would want their child to emulate, but immensely entertaining nonetheless.

32-33. “Sssh!”, Archie #120 (Archie, 07/61); “Ssssh,” Betty and Me #9 (08/67)
There’s a reason why many of the biggest stars of the silent-movie era were comedians: some things that are funny don’t need any words to help explain why they’re funny. THe same principle applies in the comics; while you wouldn’t want every story to go silent, occasionally you’ll find a good humor story that doesn’t need a lot of words getting in the way. “Sssh!” and “Ssssh” are two stories that illustrate this; one has Archie struggling to get a carton of eggs home from the store without dropping them, while the other has Betty taking extra precautions to avoid any bad luck on Friday the 13th, only to end up accidentally causing bad luck for everyone else. Neither six-page story would give anything by Hemingway or Steinbeck much competition in the “enduring tale of the ages” category, but the pleasure in reading them comes from the little details that say so much, like the look of panic on Archie’s face as he drops one egg, or the way in which Betty seems blissfully unaffected by the rest of Riverdale devolving into an open-air Thunderdome all around her. Joy.

34. “Princess for a Day,” The Powerpuff Girls #28 (DC, 08/2002)
Never let it be said I don’t aim for diversity in these lists. Based on the insanely (and, to me, inexplicably) popular animated series from the early 2000s, the Powerpuff Girls comic was one of several titles adapted from Cartoon Network shows that DC put out in the 2000s to snare younger readers. No surprise, the combination of Gen X-brand irony, superhero homages, and “girl power” attitude attracted a lot of fans both young and old… well, older. “Princess for a Day” follows a day in the life of the Girls’ nemesis, Princess Morbucks, as they repeatedly foil her attempts to be the boss of everything. I could tell you what’s said in the lone two-word balloon at the end of the story, but… nah, I’ll let you feel the suspense instead.

35. “The Boys of Summer,” Cavalcade of Boys #8 (TMC, 08/2004)
Tim Fish’s Cavalcade of Boys was a nine-issue series (later collected in a 2006 trade paperback) that followed the lives and loves of several gay characters in modern-day America. Like a lot of independent series, the stories are intensely personal and rooted in real life, and they tend to alternate between sentimental and acerbic — in other words, just like real life. The cast of characters includes the sensitive but impulsive Warren, twink-obsessed Stanley, longtime couple Dave and Langley, and “everyone’s favorite ex” Murphy. In this short story, Sam is away for the summer, and he is captivated by one guy after another… that is, until he realizes he’s in love with Eric back home.  He even goes so far as to steal a kiss from the object of his affection, which is when he has his realization and breaks off contact. Some things just don’t need words to be clear as day.

36. “Game Wars,” Alien Worlds #5 (Pacific, 12/83)
They say in space, no one can hear you scream… which makes sense, with space being a vacuum and all. Still, that hasn’t stopped generations of Star Wars movies and their assorted knockoffs from cranking up the soundtrack every time spaceships start shooting at each other. “Game Wars” would buck that trend by presenting a space battle the way it was meant to be heard — that is, not at all. Two American astronauts are playing cards (and cheating) in their ship high above the Earth when a Soviet spaceship start blasting at them. During the battle, the American ship loses a man and crashes on the moon, mere moments before the Soviet ship also crashes and a lone cosmonaut steps out. Just as the two surviving spacemen are about to aim their guns at each other, the far-off Earth explodes into smithereens… leaving the last two surviving humans no choice but to start playing cards (and cheating) with each other. It’s a neat little parable that nonetheless sidesteps a few basic questions, not least of which is: exactly why isn’t the moon hurtling into oblivion as the men play their game?

37. “Silent Story,” Ultimate Spider-Man #133 (Marvel, 06/2009)
Nice work if you can get it: For this issue, Cory Petit was credited as letterer, but the only lettering in the story (aside from the text in the “Previously” recap at the beginning) is the small “Fin” (French for “end”) caption on the last page. Brian Michael Bendis enjoyed a decade-long run on Ultimate Spider-Man, earning much applause for deftly reinterpreting and updating a familiar character for the modern age. He’s also known for being a bit of a whiz with character-driven dialogue — which makes his decision to go silent for Ultimate Spider-Man’s final issue all the more interesting, if not downright odd. (Perhaps because of his reputation for wordiness, the “Previously” recap ends with a sentence warning readers “this is a SILENT issue,” as if Marvel was worried fans would rush back to their local comic shops demanding the “real” book with the words included). It’s a bit of a shame the title’s run had to end, particularly as part of an execrable crossover (Ultimatum) that would give some of the nastiest snuff films a run for their money. Still, lemons and lemonade: while readers were deprived of Bendis’s words, artist Stuart Immonen proved to be more than capable in moving the storyline along from the battle-ravaged streets of New York City to the final scene in which… but no, that would be telling.

38. “Silent is the Grave,” Weird War Tales #109 (DC, 03/82)
When the Comics Code Authority relaxed its rules about depicting supernatural creatures in the early 1970s, comic publishers wasted very little time in pumping out horror-themed books. Weird War Tales was a book with a twist, in that it told tales about war with a supernatural bent, often featuring ghosts, the undead, and other creatures in its stories set during history’s greatest wars. The short story “Silent is the Grave” would not feature any paranormal characters, but the horrors of war were on clear display: set during World War I, the story finds an unnamed U.S. soldier running from the fighting and falling into an open grave in a cemetery that just happened to be on the front lines. But before he can properly wig out over his close encounter with a rotting corpse, a German soldier lunges at him with bayonet at the ready. As they struggle, a violent explosion kicks up enough dirt to bury them both alive, with only a small part of the bayonet jutting out of the dirt. I’m sensing a metaphor here.

39. “Silence!”, Astonishing #14 (Atlas/Marvel, 06/52)
The “last man on Earth” story is one that’s been told many times in horror and sci-fi circles, and for good reason: there arefew more primal fears than the feeling you are truly and utterly alone (see also: The Omega Man, I Am Legend, that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith, etc.). In this short story, originally appearing in one of Atlas’s horror/suspense books and reprinted in a “special weird fantasy issue” of America’s Greatest Comics in 2003, an ordinary man picks himself up off the street and runs through an ominous-looking city desperately looking for anyone else. After checking city hall, a local police station and a theatre, he ends up at a bomb shelter where he finally finds another living soul… or so he thinks. With plot by Don Rico and art by Dick Ayers, “Silence!” lives up to its name by featuring no dialogue until the last two panels, and while it scores high in the spooky atmosphere department, the denouement still leaves you wondering: what the hell did happen to all the people in this crazy burg?

40. “Knight Light,” Batman Adventures #13 (DC, 06/2004)
Thank the local deity of your choice for the existence of DC’s animated universe — not only has it provided many hours of televised entertainment, it’s also served as the inspiration for several fine comic-book adaptations, including this series based on the Batman animated series. While the main event in this issue is “Swan Song,” the conclusion to a story arc that sees the Penguin become mayor of Gotham City, the backup short story is just as delightful, with script by Dan Slott and pencils by Rick Burchett. When a small boy tells his dad there’s a monster under his bed, he is told to get to sleep… but then the evil Copperhead slithers out from under his bed! And Batman crashes in through the window! And they fight right there in front of the boy! It’s obvious by the end the whole scene was a product of the boy’s imagination, but it’s equally clear that Batman helps vanquish a lot more monsters in Gotham City than he realizes. What makes this particular story stand out is the artful use of symbols in speech balloons taking the place of words, as seen in this image. Picture my own speech balloon showing two thumbs up right about here.



2 responses to “Captions? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Captions…

  1. I think you mean Deadpool #61. 🙂

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