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.