Read Fewer Comics

June 29th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

Hey, let’s talk about Rise of Arsenal some more!


Let’s do some math instead. According to my hyper-literate, arithmetically-impaired brain, comics are, at first glance, 50% writing and 50% art. In reality, the scales are probably tilted a little more toward 25% vs 75%, since you can look at a comic and see the art but not even notice the words, but ride with me here. I have a point and I’ll not let numbers stand in my way.

1. Good Writing + Good Art = Good Comic
2. Good Writing + Bad Art = Bad Comic
3. Bad Writing + Good Art = Bad Comic

This is a boiled down version of how I judge comics. Both halves of a comic have to work in concert to tell the story. If one half isn’t pulling its weight, then the other half suffers. A comic with bad art or bad writing is like watching a wonderfully cast movie with excellent dialogue, but with sound editing done by a three year old. It doesn’t work, it’s clashing and ugly, and there’s no reason to put up with it.

Bad writing can be any number of things. Same-y dialogue, lackluster plotting, crap pacing, or simply being boring all count as bad. Bad art is similarly varied. Unrealistic proportions are not bad by default–Chris Bachalo and Eiichiro Oda being two examples of people who twist and contort figures and it all looks fantastic–but when used poorly (read: looks like crap), it’s crap. Poorly designed layouts are another thing that can kill art, as well as being blatantly photo-referenced.

Good is easier. If you look at it and go, “I like this!” Congrats! You have found good writing and/or art! Embrace it and watch your enjoyment of comics increase!

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar are the all-time champions of this sort of thing. Morrison’s had his Batman scripts drawn by Philip Tan, Tony Daniel, and one particularly bad issue by Ryan Benjamin. The middle third of his run on New X-Men is frustratingly ugly, with Igor Kordey and Ethan Van Sciver turning in some subpar work. Millar’s the opposite. He’s worked with John Romita Jr, Steve McNiven, Leinil Francis Yu, Frank Quitely, and several other artists who deserved better stories.

Jeph Loeb sits in this strange middle ground between the two. He’s a solidly average writer, but his extreme lows (Ultimatum, Ultimates 3) were paired with artists like Joe Madureira or David Finch. When working with Tim Sale or Ed McGuinness, or really anyone who’s worked on Hulk with him, he delivers scripts that usually don’t get in the way of the art. You could make a case for the constant narration boxes being distracting, but Loeb does simple, crowd-pleasing books. If I had to pick between Loeb working with Ed McGuinness and Millar working with him, I’d choose Loeb every time.

I decided a while back that I’d stop settling when reading comics. No more paying money for things that make me go, “I like it, but.” No more suffering through sub-par art to get a Grant Morrison story. No more forcing myself to read a Mark Millar script just so I can see what John Romita Jr is drawing this month.

I’m a picky comics reader by choice. I could sit through Greg Land or Salvador Larroca just to keep up with what’s going on, but I don’t think that’s worth it. These are just stories. They aren’t so important that I have to know, and if I’m reading comics for fun, I’d have to be stupid to willingly put myself through something that detracts from that. I like comics more since I started reading fewer of them. Funny how that works out.

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24 comments to “Read Fewer Comics”

  1. I bought the FLCL manga when I was 15 and ever since have realized it’s a mess on the writing side, but for some reason it still stays on my shelf just because I enjoy looking at Hajime Ueda’s eccentric linework. Strangely enough I don’t really regret ever buying it; it’s kind of a little mini-artbook, but, as you said, it fails as a comic, and I probably wouldn’t have picked it up these days. If I want an Artbook, I’ll buy one; if I want a book of prose, I’ll pick one up. You shouldn’t need to suffer through an additional artistic element that’s executed poorly just to enjoy one or the other on its own merits, because that’s when it really stops being comics at all.

  2. Being a frustrated artist myself and one who has always derived a great deal of pleasure out of following this or that artist and enjoying what they do wherever they may choose to do it, I’ve always been able to justify, to myself, comics with great art and not-so-great stories. That said, I freely recognize that this model probably won’t work for everyone.

  3. It sounds like you’d have to read the comics beforehand, judge them, then reject and choose not to buy them.

    Honesly, I’m hardly a stranger to this, but I could see it being particularly problematic for some. It will just get worse as digital comics take over.

    Man, I hate owing comics with zero rereadability.

  4. […] Comics | David Brothers considers bad writing and art: "A comic with bad art or bad writing is like watching a wonderfully cast movie with excellent dialogue, but with sound editing done by a three year old. It doesn’t work, it’s clashing and ugly, and there’s no reason to put up with it." [4thletter!] […]

  5. This is why I go to a store where the owner lets me read the books. There’s a number of comics I never would have picked up if I hadn’t gotten the free taste to start with, and when a book on my list changes creative teams, I get the chance to decide whether I want to commit myself to staying subscribed without having to pay the money upfront.

  6. I can see the point, and wish more people took that attitude, but for my own personal tastes I disagree. In some ways I *prefer* art where I have to work to find the good amid the bad, and I can enjoy a Grant Morrison comic drawn by Tony Daniel, or a Paul Dini comic drawn by JH Williams, in the same way I can enjoy records by Billy Bragg (great lyrics, total inability to carry a tune) or the Beach Boys (musically sublime, lyrically often imbecilic).

    In fact I’d argue that that was a closer analogy than the film one – to be truly great, a song has to have both great lyrics and a great melody, but it can be *good* with just one. And given the sheer amount of *stuff* in the world, it might be worthwhile to ignore everything that isn’t great. But that’s not my choice…

  7. I definitely agree that comics need to be evaluated based on both art and writing. The problem I have with those equations is that I don’t tend to think of art or writing based on this good/bad dichotomy. It’s actually a much more nuanced scale from “absolutely terrible” to “absolutely brilliant,” with about a thousand degrees in between. Which complicates matters quite a bit.

    Of course, in a perfect world, every brilliant story would be paired with brilliant art. But in a less-than-perfect world, I have to admit that I’m willing to tolerate average art if the story’s good, or vice versa. I might even be willing to tolerate slightly-below-average art for the sake of truly amazing story, though the end result would be disappointing.

    I also have to say that a lot of art that critics/fans call “terrible” to me just looks kind of average, or “decent without being remarkable.” I always wonder if this is because people are flippant in their responses or if I’m just not very good at evaluating art. I certainly know what I like, and when art strikes me as great there is little doubt about it in my mind. But I look at all the supposedly “ugly” art from Tony Daniel, for example, and I can’t understand what people are talking about. I know it doesn’t wow me the way Frank Quitely or Chris Sprouse does, but it still seems very competent to me, and not at all distracting the way that I consider bad art to be distracting.

  8. This is pretty much the sole reason I never bought the Battle Royale manga. I’ve watched the movies (though I wish the second one didn’t exist) and I read the book. I KNOW the story is good. But good lord, the artwork wasn’t just ugly. It was repulsive. I just- no. There was no way I was paying actual money for that.

  9. I get the point here but it feels like you are cutting yourself off from the love of comics and settling for a position of critical appraisal, which is not superior in any way. If you can’t read and enjoy a flawed comic because you love something about it, you are missing a large part of the medium.

    Basically this is a great philosophy for an editor, and I wish more adhered to it, but for someone who’s a critic — or fan — it’s overly dogmatic.

  10. I agree with every word, including the implication that the script/art ratio is not quite 50-50.

  11. To be fair to Frank the story he did with Millar was his Authority run which is at least to me tied for Millar’s best work with his Superman Adventures run

  12. @Jordan: Oh man, I bought that and about two dozen other Tokyopop books I had no business buying back when TPop was pumping them out like candy. “I like Suikoden III! I should read the book!” Not my best financial decision(s).

    @Johnny B: There are a lot of artists I loved and would follow anywhere, but Ultimates/Trouble/Wanted/Old Man Logan/etc pretty well beat that out of me. Jordi Bernet, Jim Lee, and a fistful of others still get a look, though.

    @West3man: I think these days, making judgments is easier than ever. Corporate comics are usually preceded by pages of previews and interviews, and indie creators often put up previews, too. Not to mention bootlegs and skimming in the store. Vetting a comic before you pick it up is a job that takes like, five minutes, max.

    Mostly though, it’s having knowledge about who’s involved in a book before going in. I know a lot of writers and artists, and writer/artists, at this point, and it’s not too tough to figure out that my love for Bendis has faded hard, PAD lost his touch, Tony Daniel is not quite where he needs to be, etc etc. Knowledge is power, and money is power, and I’m not sure where this is going, other than the fact that I haven’t read an issue of X-Factor in years.

    @Andrew Hickey: What do you get out of working to find the good inside the bad? And I’m not talking about good vs great–I’m talking about good (“I enjoyed it”) vs bad (“I did not like it”). I still say that a song that has good lyrics and good music > good/bad lyrics + bad/good music. Gucci Mane can release catchy tracks, but I’d still rather listen to Jeezy or Luda or someone with actual charisma/wit.

    @Aaron Poehler: How am I setting myself up for critical appraisal by saying “I think comics with good writing and good art are better than comics with one and not the other, and purchase books accordingly?” That’s “overly dogmatic?” Seriously?

    @Rick: Wolverine: Enemy of the State and most of Ultimates are his best work to me, I think. I’ve got the hardcovers for both. I still haven’t read his Superman Adventures stuff, but it’ll be interesting to see how writing for kids decreases some of his uglier tendencies.

  13. I always have trouble with articles like this, because then I go back to my reading list and judge it. I can never decide if it fits the description of “it’s good, but…” or if I am super critical of anything.
    It’s probably the latter though.

  14. @Discount Lad: Like what you like, man. If it floats your boat, keep at it.

  15. I don’t read interviews or most critiques beforehand because too few people seem to share my aversion to spoilers. I don’t do the Previews thing for similar reasons. Covers give too much away.

    Besides, I have an old school mentality in that regard, if no other. I don’t want to know anything about upcoming stories beyond the creators’ names, perhaps.

    But screw all that. I really wanted to comment, again, because I failed to praise your anti-praise of Igor Kordey. Absolute-fugginlutely-hideous. His work offends me – especially as it seems to follow much, much better artistry.

    The contrast is blinding. (Sorry to hear that you don’t care for Larroca.)

  16. I definitely find bad art with good writing much easier to deal with than vice versa as good writing will keep me involved in the story while bad writing will succeed in making me not give a shit. It’s why I can put up with all of Morrison’s multi year mega runs where his notoriously slow hand picked artist sadly can’t draw it all.

    I’d kill for all 40 issues of New X-Men to be drawn by Quitely though.

  17. If all 40 issues were drawn by Frank Quitely, 1. It would STILL be coming out today and 2. It would be the greatest comic book run of all-time.

    But I’ll settle for just being the best long-form superhero run of the decade ^_^

  18. I never really got the criticism of Ethan Van Sciver’s New X-Men art. Sure, he’d go onto do even better work at DC, but I always found his New X-Men to be very solid. I loved the art in the two issues he did, particularly his design for Beak and the last page in #122 where Emma’s defending the Cuckoos from Gladiator and his fellow Superguardians. Sciver was also one of the few artists at the time who could really nail down Frank Quitely’s Beast redesign; I don’t think another artist came close until Phil Jimenez came aboard.

    But back to the larger argument:

    Good Writing + Bad Art = Bad Comic

    I’m often willing to give bad art a pass if the comic is well-written. I didn’t like Igor Kordey’s art on New X-Men, for example, but the writing made me enjoy the issues nevertheless. Although if the art gets in the way of a story by making it unclear, for example (like some of Bachalo’s “Assault on Weapon Plus” issues), then I have a problem.

  19. My rule of thumb has always been that it’s easier to spot bad art than it is to spot bad writing. Someone asked me if that means that a well-written book is more likely to have a sequel… I haven’t quite decided yet.

  20. Not a bad article

    On the subject of being hypercritical, Ive found something kinda bizarre when it come to choosing trades or issues. The dilemma is this; if a story is so good that it worth following why not wait for the trade and be able to read much more easily again and again in the future?

    Few stories are good enough for me to consider buying twice in both issue and trade format or so good that I NEED to have them the minute they come off the presses (Return of Bruce Wayne fits this bill for me) so my pull list has become almost non-existent while the trades Im waiting for has dramatically increased.

    Of coarse single issues are still a good way to get a feel for a series, but then they just become expensive issues of those $1 #1 issues.

    Anyone else had this experience?

  21. This all sort of makes me wonder how much exposure people have had, to really BAD art…I’m primarily a Writing guy myself, but truly bad art can make it hard to even get to the words. Bad writing’s also not as bad as bad art: after all, bad writing can only be turgid, stupid, windy, ungrammatical, etc…it can make you throw a book against the wall shouting “I’m not reading this shit anymore!”, but it never makes it so you throw the book and shout “I don’t even know how to read this shit!”, and that’s what really bad art can do when it does its worst.

    As for good comics, gotta agree: they’re the only ones worth buying. Even if a good comic isn’t particularly to your taste, it’s still infinitely superior to a bad one.

  22. In My World:

    Good Art + Bad Writing = Still pretty good comic.

    Because comics don’t need a narrative. I LIKE abstract comics – Well, good abstract comics – ’cause I’m interested in the inter-relationships of sequential drawings.

    And you always have that, whether or not there’s a story attached.

    So if I can handle comics without a story, I figure I can simply ignore the story if it’s getting in the way of looking at the nice pictures, or ignore the words and write my own mental narrative.

    Or maybe I’m just agreeing that the art is more important than the writing…

  23. Great article and I agree with almost all of it.

    But for me, particularly regarding Grant Morrison, there’s a degree at which the value and importance of the given issue is so great within the larger scheme of things that it’s a must-read no matter who’s on art.

    You’re not going to read Morrison’s Batman if it’s not drawn by a good artist? When then you’re going to miss out on all the hidden connections going on underneath the issues drawn by the likes of Quitely, JH Williams, Fraser Irving etc. You’re going to miss out on the overall story. Same with the Kordey issues of New X-Men. Would you have just skipped those, then come back on board when Bachalo, Jimenez and Silvestri did their issues? You’d have no idea what was going on.

    At a certain point, I think you have to make a decision about whether the writer’s overall story is “worth it”. If it is, then in my mind there’s no question that it’s worth “suffering” through issues drawn by Philip Tan. Looking back on things, there’s actually a lot I love about the second arc of Batman & Robin. Am I always ambivalent about the Tan art? Of course, but at the same time there’s no way I ever think “Gee, I wish I could erase this whole arc from my brain.” It had some good stuff from Morrison. And good stuff from Morrison is worth $3 an issue no matter who’s on art, especially if the issue is part of a bigger, better whole.

    Sometimes exceptional writing DOES overcome bad art. That said, if it was just a self-contained story, then no I wouldn’t buy a Morrison/Tan/Kordey series.

  24. I like your formula and after the first time I read it here, I adopted it.

    Like most comics readers, I know jack about art and so I’ve always judged based on story, which has forced me through New X-Men’s shit fill-in period and plenty of other stuff where it’s been just sort of a chore to filter the art out so I can get what the writer’s trying to do.

    No more, man. I am as much a Morrison freak as any Morrison freak, but I’m not buying any more terrible artwork.