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Recently, I went to a discussion by longtime comic book creator Howard Chaykin that was a part of the Special Edition NYC comic convention. He is perhaps best known for his work writing and drawing American Flagg! in the 1980’s. Contemporary comic book readers may know him best for his artwork on the Image Comics series Satellite Sam, which is written by Matt Fraction.
Chaykin discussed many things during his panel, from his personal involvement in the comic book industry to the evolution of his art style. However, some of his most interesting comments were related to the ways that comic books are presently widely discussed as a “writer’s medium.” He thought this was somewhat crazy since comic books are inherently about stories told through art.
I think Chaykin is largely right about the trend in comic books towards giving focus on the writer. When Marvel appointed a group as the “Marvel Architects” in 2010, they were celebrated as the ones making the important decisions about the direction of Marvel’s characters and stories. The group was Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, and Jason Aaron. They are all writers. There are some recent trends towards highlighting the collaborative relationship between writer and artist, such as listing both as “storytellers.” Still in mainstream comics, the writers get a lot of the acclaim and attention.
Comics weren’t always viewed this way. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the superstars of the comic book world were artists. If a comic had the name Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee on it, it was guaranteed high sales. A group of popular artists at Marvel were so prominent that they set out to start their publishing company, which would pay creators for their work, not simply a page rate. That company was Image Comics.
Unfortunately, many comic books in the 1990’s saw story and character take a back seat to splash pages and poster-style illustrations. The stories suffered and eventually this turned readers off, leading to low points for the industry in the late 1990s. This may have may contributed in an indirect way to the renewed focus on the writer in the new millennium.
Chaykin is also correct, I believe, that much comic-based criticism these days is written like literary criticism: a discussion of the plot and characters with little emphasis on the art. Honestly, this isn’t a problem limited to comic books. If you read a great deal of writing about television or movies, most reviews do not discuss extensively the visual filmmaking elements (unless the work is unusually distinctive, such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). In part, this is because most reviewers are writers of some sort. They are in the case of comics writing a review, not drawing it. Many do not have a deep knowledge of the particulars of comic book illustration or the interplay between scripter and illustrator.
However, it’s not simply reviewers. Fans of comic books are often most concerned with characters and stories. They want to know what’s happening to Iron Man, not the illustrator’s process putting together a page of Iron Man. It’s not that comic book fans don’t care about the art. Clearly, the pictures are a big part of what make comics appealing.
Popular artists still will have long lines of autograph seekers and even less well-known artists can generate interests in illustrations and posters at the Artist’s Alley section at comic conventions. However, most fans are not artists so they do not have the inside knowledge of how the composition of the panels and point of view affect a comic’s story, and therefore they are usually less interested in asking those types of questions.
Scott McCloud’s books, like Understanding Comics and Making Comics, were very successful because he was one of the first people to really analyze the way that a comic book is made. However, most fans and people who write about comic books don’t spend as much time analyzing the use of panel size or orientation as they do on plot and character dynamics because the latter are things that people are used to talking and reading about.
While this is understandable, it does at times limit comic book discourse and presents a simplified view of how comics are made. Comics are collaborative medium when they are made by multiple people (as most mainstream comics are). Even if a comic book writer is very heavily involved in scripting the viewpoints and other visual elements, the illustrator is still doing a great deal of storytelling. So what creative choices actually constitute “writing” a page of comics?
Personally, I will admit to often giving the writer’s parts of comic books much more attention than the art. Although I have some art background, I have spent much more time focusing on reading prose and discussing writing. Chaykin’s discussion was a good reminder for me that as important as well-crafted plots, characterization, and dialog are, comic books are as much a visual medium as they are a written one. The artistic choices on a comic book matter and deserve attention as well. Comic books are a fundamentally unique medium because they use the interplay between illustrations and words to tell stories. We all – comic book fans and those who write about the medium – should think about these elements when discussing a comic book.