Saturday, July 25, 2015

Rant: Give Artists Credit

Comics Beat posted an interesting article a few days ago about the importance of the artist in selling a comic. Incredibly, only 5% of retailers credited the artist as the most important thing in terms of selling a comic. I understand there's market forces at work there; comic book retailers have taken on the near-insane task of selling comic books, so their ideas are necessarily skewed by the need to "feed their family" and other similar considerations.

As someone who is entering the "comic book podcast" arena only a handful of years after most, I've already noticed that the two episodes that have gotten the most downloads thus far are the two with work by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, two "names," that, not coincidentally, are not comic book artists. Not to pick on my co-hosts, but I cringe when introducing an episode by saying "Alan Moore's The Killing Joke," or similar pronouncements (although to be fair, in that episode we did explain that the story is really Brian Bolland's project more than Moore's).

The thing is, this mind-set is both backwards and toxic. Art is the most important thing in comic books. Period. It is the defining point of separation between comics and its bookstore neighbors in the sci-fi section.

On that Comics Beat article, 63% of people voting in a two-day poll said art was the most important reason to buy a comic. And yet the comments are full of people saying they buy comics for the story, or "the creative team," or the character. I'm not saying people can't buy comics for those reasons, but they shouldn't be as important as the art. I also wonder how, exactly, these people are reading the "story," since every story I've read in comics has been told by art on the page. It's like arguing that a movie's script is the most important thing about whether it's good or not, ignoring that movies are not staged readings read over the radio. People talk about "fridge logic" to decide that Avatar is a bad movie because it has literally the simplest script in the world ignore the fact that Avatar made a billion dollars because it looked amazing.

Personally I think there's a sort of life-cycle of a comic book reader. Their first, biggest impression is the art. The other most compelling aspect is probably the character, since historically that's the big marketing force (when I started reading comics, only DC even put its creative team on its covers). Then, at a certain age, comic book fans feel like they need to justify reading genre picture books, and do so by pretending that they really love certain comic book writers. They note that top-tier writers tend to put out top tier books (ignoring that these writers almost necessarily collaborate with great artists), and decide that it's the writer that makes the book. These fans don't notice or care that the thing their pet writer does best is focus on the strengths of his or her collaborators. Is my hypothesis based on my own experience growing up a comic book fan? Mmmmmmaybe.

But what's the harm in marginalizing the fact that art is what catches people's eye (and again, the very method of telling the dang story)? Beyond contributing to outright untruths like "Stan Lee created the Marvel Universe," the harm is that it limits people's ability to talk intelligently about comics. The plot of the average comic book is almost always dumb, and it's even worse now since one plot tends to stretch at least two to three, and sometimes up to six issues. And when we talk only about the plot, we're doing a disservice to the artist, who is doing the bulk of the work actually telling the story. Stan Lee could "write" ten books a month because the Marvel method meant letting Kirby or Ditko or Don Heck or John Romita go off and tell a story, and then writing in groan-worthy dialogue and narration boxes to explain the non-cinematic story elements those artists didn't want to draw.

Now most writers today don't work that way, but the work on the page of any given comic you read is still the artists' perspiration more than the writer's inspiration, and should be more of a deciding factor when it comes to buying a comic. As for what folks like me can do about this tendency among post-adolescents embarrassed to admit they read comics to look at cool pictures of things, the best solution is to give credit to the artists front and center. Don't take away a co-plotting credit when an artist is given one, don't bury the artist's name paragraphs after the writers, and do take the time to talk about art. Don't talk about the writer like he's some philosopher-king genius who just hired some bum off the street to draw his pictures. Joss Whedon's not picking John Cassady off the street, so don't minimize Cassady's importance by pretending Joss Whedon just made Astonishing X-Men by himself.

Just in case you think that isn't a real problem, look at this "Pop Matters" article circa 2011: Cassady's name is mentioned TWO TIMES. Once in the intro, and once in paragraph 3, wherein three sentences are devoted to the art, mostly talking about how well it serves Whedon's writing: "[The art] also effectively communicates the characters' complex human emotions, which plays to Whedon's melodramatic style of writing." When we don't talk about the art in any real way and marginalize the artist's input by reducing the credit the artist receives, we ignore literally the thing we are looking at when we look at comics.

1 comment:

  1. I've said several times before that writing comic books in the Marvel Method, if you have a talented artist, has to be the easiest job in the world:

    Step 1: Bang out quickie plot.
    Step 2: Relax and let artist do heavy lifting.
    Step 3: Bang out quickie script.
    Step 4: Collect paycheck.

    I guess I should add Step 5: Receive all the credit.

    (Note I said "receive", not take, because I hope most writers would acknowledge the importance of their artists, even if the rest of the world doesn't.)