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Comic Dictionary – Grace Notes

Over on the Comics Should Be Good forum, everybody’s pal, T, started up a thread about suggestions for the Comic Dictionary. So I figured I’d post a few of the suggestions that I thought were neat. Today I’ll do one by Omar Karindu (this one) and one by T.

Grace Notes are plot points that exist as homages, references, and reenactments of past stories of a character or title that have become iconic for that character or title. When Jean Grey goes Phoenix again, that’s a Grace Note; when Bullseye or the Green Goblin threaten the hero’s girlfriend, that’s a Grace Note; when Batman winds up facing Ra’s Al Ghul in a swordfight in the desert, that’s a Grace Note. When Green Lantern teams with Green Arrow for an issue or two, that’s a Grace Note.

The difference between a Grace Note and a mere homage is that a Grace Note is a plot point; and homage can be a deliberate coincidence of image or a reenactment sequence with no major bearing on the plot.

Used well, it can play as a variation on a governing theme or a classic, as when Brian Bendis had the Kingpin return to take over the New York mobs, only to twist it from Miller’s version of that story idea by having Daredevil simply get pissed off and beat the fat man to pulp. Another might be the neat reversal of the classic Green Lantern/Flash team-up formula in Mark Waid’s “The Return of Barry Allen” plotline. At a certain level, the entire post-Crisis rivalry between Superman and Batman was a Grace Note in a different key, referring ironically or inversely to their decades-long teaming as the World’s Finest Duo before.

More popularly, Kurt Busiek in certain sense builds some of the background material of Astro City from Grace Notes, albeit Grace Notes from superhero source material rather than from his own characters’ (pastiched) histories. Planetary/Batman might well be a masterclass in the use of Grace Notes.

Used badly, Grcae Notes produce what Brian has already called Karaoke Comics, or when really abused, pure kitsch.

Jeph Loeb’s work is, to my mind, a prime example of the abuse of Grace Notes. Hush, Supergirl, and Superman/Batman were structured around Grace Notes. In Hush, one issue might give the fans the comforting spectacle of Superman facing Batman; the next would tap Neal Adams’s iconography by giving Batman his de rigeur swordfight and cryptic verbal joust with Ra’s al Ghul; yet another would play out the ingrained spectacle of Batman “almost killing” the Joker in rage about the death of some cast member or other. All of these are remixes, or, more accurately, representations of stories past, stories of great impact. Put together, they create the illusion by way of allusion that Hush is also of great impact.

Because it was once important that Superman and Batman threw down, or that the Joker’s murder of a “name” character nearly provoked Batman to kill, because an entire era of Superman stories can be signified by Luthor’s green armor, and because both the casual and the dedicated fans — and, one has to say, a subset of analytically-minded superhero fans — immediately detect the “aura” of importance surrounding these moments, Loeb’s stories tend to be treated as importnat for including the set of referents that carry with them that significance.

It’s a bit beyond nostalgia, of course, because nostalgia in its truer form wouldn’t abide a story that hits Miller’s DKR and Bill Finger’s 1950s mystery stories one after the other, all in the key of the Image 90s courtesy of Jim Lee’s art. What happens instead is that “importance” becomes a selling point while the very specific reasons for the original, actual importance of the stories being referred to are subsumed by the sheer quantity of Grace Notes.

17 Comments

I noticed this occurence as well but never put a name to it. Top work!

These “grace notes” are probably my biggest problem with the comic book industry at the moment and are really indicative of how cannabalized, insular and self referential it has become.

That entire JLA/JSA crossover was nothing but Grace Notes. And boy, did it suck.

Best use ever was Ra’s’ appearance in Kyle Baker’s ‘Plastic Man’.

“This is a situation that can only be resolved with… SHIRTLESS FIGHTING!!!”

I’ll agree with Mr. Jones, above, and call the trend towards Grace Notes (and homages) one I’m uncomfortable with, both as a reader and as a writer. When working in a shared universe, on characters with a long history, there’s not a very clear definition of plagarism. As such, I think it’s frequently all too easy to retell other people’s stories and add very little of your own work.

While I don’t think every use of a Grace Note is an instance of plagarism, I think it’s hard to avoid the fact that you’re counting on the reader’s familiarity and affection for the previous story to add emotional resonance to your own that simply wouldn’t be there otherwise. I think it’s very easy to overuse them, and I try to avoid them as a writer when possible (although the temptation is always there.)

Would Bryan Singer liberally borrowing from the Donner Superman movie count?

So where does the “Grace Note” term itself come from?
Did someone named Grace do it a lot?

And here I thought this sort of thing was typically referred to as Fan Wank. But I guess Grace Note is a more, um, refined and eloquent term :)

Great points about Hush. They help pinpoint why I hated that story so much. Well, that and the lame “introduce a character only to have them be revealed to be the villain by the end.”

Heh. I borrowed the term from musical notation, where Grace Notes are a form of ornament. In music as in comics, grace notes can accentuate a good story or theme, or can be overused to the point of destroying a good story or theme.

I do hope that the term’s essential neutrality catches on; there are, as I tried to indicate, good uses of Grace Notes in comics alongside the Fan Wankery.

No, Fan Wank is not the phenomenon described here, the use of repeated plot elements in order to give the current story some of the emotional weight of the story it reuses.

Fan Wank is the creation of a plot element designed solely to demonstrate the writer’s knowledge and familiarity with the continuity of the series. Frequently, fanwank elements resolve continuity problems that only long-time fans care about, or tie up loose ends nobody remembers. (Incidentally, the late Craig Hinton claimed to have invented the term when writing reviews for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, and I see no reason to doubt him on that claim.)

For example, the sequence in ‘Avengers Forever’ where Busiek devotes the better part of an issue to explaining how the Vision can be made from the body of the Human Torch when the Human Torch wasn’t dead…that’s fanwank. When Geoff Johns brings back Alexander Luthor as the villain of ‘Infinite Crisis’ so that everyone can say, “OMG, this is just as important on ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’, because it features the return of a bunch of characters we haven’t seen since then,” that’s a Grace Note.

Luthor in the green-and-purple armor…Grace Note. Luthor spending a page discussing the different types of Kryptonite he has in his armor, and their uses…fanwank. The principal difference, I think, is that fanwank is generally an aside to the story and Grace Notes are generally central to the plot. I wouldn’t say either one is superior (in fact, I’d say both are to be avoided.)

I think the best example of fanwank does come from its source, Doctor Who; in the novel ‘Original Sin’, the Doctor is looking for a pair of boots to wear during the book, and spends the better part of a page reminiscing about the mudstains on the boots in his boot closet, and what adventures they came from. Now _that_ is fanwank. :)

Okay, so, on the final page of Astonishing X-Men #15, with Kitty Pryde in the sewers striking the exact same badass pose that Wolverine did when fighting the Hellfire Club in Uncanny X-Men #132, would that be considered a Grace Note, or is it Fan Wank?

That, I think would be a Grace Note. She’s in that pose so that we know that she, like Wolverine in the classic ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’, is about to kick some serious villain ass. It’s there to add extra emotional weight to her preparation to fight back.

I love this article.

I’d say that the scene where Luthor flees from the Superman / Batman v. Darkseid battle, only to return in his “Power Suit,” (a classy expensive-looking business suit, not green and purple at all) is a great Grace Note.

When the camera panned around, part of me was expecting the 80s Iron Man style armour, and all of me was pleased with the play on words.

I would consider pretty much anyone saying, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” to be a Grace Note.

From the article, I’m thinking that Grace Notes are like spices. Just a little, and they are barely noticable, too much and they overpower, and you can’t make a meal out of them exclusively.

Fan Wanks, on the other hand, are (as I recall) originally a Doctor Who term from where some fan fiction writers were moving up to actually write cannon for the series. I think that things like “art trace” would count for this (where an artist depects a scene that matches up line for line with an older comic book by a different artist.)

But, I think that the primary use for Fan Wanks are when a fan puts in something that is really just for him, either a way to explain something no one else remembers or to demonstrate that he remembers obscure trivia, and it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes this can be a good thing, if the majority of the audience are likewise long-term fans.

I consider the amnesiac Harry from SM3 to be a Fan Wank, as it really didn’t affect the plot of the movie, and seemed to be in there solely for people like myself who remembered the story arc from the comic book.

I do have a question: would Captain America’s original triangular shield be a Grace Point, a Fan Wank, or a false ephiney? How many times has that thing been dusted off and subsequentally destroyed?

Theno

Here’s another way to seeing it:

Fanwanks are the kind of thing you get No-prizes for. Grace Notes are the kind of thing you a pat on the head and a “Good for you, you noticed!” for.

Re: Cap’s Old Shield–

It’d depend on how it was used. If you were writing the Avengers, and you had it hanging on the wall and someone asked Cap, “That’s not your shield, is it? The shape’s all wrong!” And Cap launched into an explanation of how he once had a shield before he got his classic round shield…then they got on with the plot, which had nothing to do with any of that…that’s fanwank.

If, on the other hand, you had a story where WWII Cap traveled in time to the present, and in the middle of a fight, both Caps stood side by side in battle, one with the round shield, the other with the triangular one…that’d probably be a Grace Note.

If all this made the present day Cap realize he had to be more “contemporary”, well…that’d be a false epiphany. :)

Or, alternately, it was a bit of Fan Wank when Roger Stern made sure that Captain America had the triangular shield in a flashback to his first adventure in Cap v.1 #255. It was a Grace Note when Mark Waid actually had Cap go back to using the triangular shield for awhile.

I know it’s been three and a half years since this article was originally posted, but I have to leave a comment for posterity. The term “grace note” is completely wrong as a descriptor for the phenomenon discussed here. Something like “allusion” or “throwback” would be more appropriate.

In music, a grace note is a very, very short note that leads into (or trails out from) the primary note, creating a more robust sound. Though if overused, it can be made obvious to a point where it becomes annoying.

The little details that Steve Englehart hangs here and there in his Batman arcs “Strange Apparitions” and “Dark Detective” are true grace notes. The little transitions into and out of each scene gives us glimpses into the life that is going on in the background. The characters are alive and taking actions that you and I do every day. The details make the transitions more natural. These are grace notes, just like those played by a great improvising jazz musician. They have nothing to do with recalling the past.

A character standing in a pose that is a callback to a famous scene from the past is not a grace note, it is an allusion to that past scene.

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