On the perception of artists in comics

July 16th, 2013 by | Tags: , ,

One thing I feel really strongly about is the position of artists in comics. I talked about it last year and I’m sure I’ve tweeted about it a lot. Artists are, thanks to a wide variety of factors both intentional and incidental, often devalued in comics, especially when we’re talking mainstream fare, corporate or otherwise. I honestly, earnestly believe that the best comics happen when the writer, artist, and the rest of the creative team are on the same page and into the work and each other.

If you swap out everyone on a creative team but the writer like aftermarket car parts, then the only stable figure in the equation is the writer, then the writer will be viewed as the prime mover, the “creator” of the story. The truth is that a comic isn’t a comic until an artists puts pen to pad, and the relationship between writer and artist isn’t as simple as “This guy tells this lady what to do and she does it.”

But that’s the perception. I’ve talked about it again and again, but let me reiterate: the most common formula for a comics review is a bunch of paragraphs about what happens, followed by one paragraph about the art, followed by a conclusion. I know why it happens–cape comics in particular are about “what happens” as opposed to “how it happens” in marketing and reviewing–but I hate it. It’s aesthetically ugly, intellectually lazy, and it serves to devalue the artist. They’re always an afterthought, an “Oh by the way,” if that, and that contributes to our perception of artists.

Jack Kirby didn’t draw Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four. They created it together. The same is true of the dumbest movie tie-in comic and the greatest pop comics single issue. Collaboration is key.

I put a lot of thought into this last year in particular. I made the conscious decision to swap how I credited comics, both in headlines and normal conversation. The normal way of doing things is writer/artist, like Stan Lee/Jack Kirby. (I didn’t realize it until just now, but even the term “writer/artist” is tilted in favor of writing, not drawing.) Instead, I force myself to think for a second and type “Kirby/Lee.”

I don’t do it to suggest that the writer is less important than the artist. It’s a mental device that keeps me in mind of the facts: comics are collaborative, and each link in the chain is vital. You can’t talk about comics without talking about art. You can’t make comics without art. Going from writer/artist to artist/writer forces me to reconsider how I talk about comics and who I credit for what.

I used to empathize with reviewers who did the one short paragraph-about-art thing. It’s hard to talk about art if you aren’t an artist, the story’s really what interests you, you lack the confidence to speak as authoritatively on art as you would on story. Nowadays, though, I think they’re scared, or maybe just too soft to do the legwork required to talk about comics intelligently.

I’m a dummy. I dropped out of college, turned away from art school in high school, and I couldn’t tell you the difference an inker using a brush and a pen if I tried. (I would hazard a guess, though.) But I can look at art, figure out what it means to me or what it brings to mind, and express that in a critical manner.

If you aren’t doing that, you ain’t doing your job. And if you don’t know, figure it out. Ask someone, think about it really hard (I like this one), or just mull it over until it coalesces in your head. You can do it. I talk about my dumb emotions until I’m comfortable enough to talk about the art itself, as opposed to my reaction to it, though those are often tend to merge into the same thing once you start talking about them.

Darryl Ayo‘s review of Sam Alden’s Backyard (print) reignited these thoughts for me. It’s a review-via-numbered list, a technique I’ve enjoyed and used myself, but I haven’t seen it in a while. Darryl snaps from observations about the atmosphere, tone, characterization, art, and back again because he understands a fundamental truth of comics: the art is the story.

I enjoyed this piece from Andy Khouri on valuing and devaluing artists in comics, too. He lays out a lot of plain truths I agree with 2013%. I like this especially: “Story is art. Style is substance. A comic is not a comic until it is drawn.”

Gospel truth.

Dennis Culver, artist and co-creator of Edison Rex (print, digital) with writer Chris Roberson, is a friend of mine. We talk a lot about comics, mainly because he makes them, I read them, and we both have strong opinions on the subject. I’m coming from the perspective of a critic, someone who takes forever to read good comics and wants comics to be better. He’s coming from the perspective of an artist, someone who wants and deserves to feel valued in the comics conversation and puts in a massive amount of work to get a comic done.

We agree on a lot of things, but often in different ways. He collected a bunch of his tweets on the subject and reposted them on tumblr. I asked if I could repost them here and he said sure, so here we are:

You’re not writing about comics if you’re not talking/thinking about the art.

I think the trap a lot of critics fall into is giving sole credit for the story visuals to the writer.

And if any credit is given to the artist it’s usually for style. Ie Cartoony, realistic etc.

But if you give 6 different artists a panel description you will get 6 different images.

And each of those images can make you feel different things. Things the writer may not have initially intended.

That synergy is the magic of comics and it’s why artists are really co-writers.

The production line method of making comics is just an imperfect emulation of a single cartoonist.

Every part of the comics production line requires choices that affect the storytelling.

While the comics production line is great for speed, it’s created a lot of false boundaries that when strictly adhered to make bad comics

If you’re not directly communicating with your collaborators then you’re not collaborating. You’re playing telephone.

Don’t have time to read many comics but 2 books I look forward to the most are Daredevil by Waid and Samnee and Hawkeye by Fraction and Aja

Neither book singles out credit for writing or art and in the case of Daredevil, Waid and Samnee are just credited as “Storytellers.”

Both go beyond the normal production line collaboration and I think that is why the books are of such high quality.

I want to see more of this! I think it makes for better comics. And it shows that both writers value their artists as storytellers.

Because frankly when you’re an artist it’s easy to feel undervalued as a storyteller in this industry.

When a review only focuses on and gives all story credit to the writer while only mentioning the artist in passing if at all. I feel undervalued as a storyteller.

When a publisher puts out a press release that only talks about the writer, I feel undervalued as a storyteller.

When a publisher holds a story conference and only invites their writers, i feel undervalued as a storyteller.

It’s certainly not the writer’s fault but hey if you’re doing an interview about a book and the art is not being talked about. Bring it up.

The only way reviewers and the comics press can figure out how to talk about art is by talking about art.

When a writer refers to “his artists” I feel undervalued as a storyteller.

In comics I do think drawing is co-writing but I will also add in the best instances writers are co-directing the art with the artist

I have an excellent collaboration with on Edison Rex and if you could see out process, I think you’d be hard pressed to say where the writing ends and the art begins. Ask Chris, I am OPINIONATED about the story but Chris is the same about page layout and design. And I think that makes for a better comic.

It’s frustrating to read a review or tweet or whatever that glosses over my role as a storyteller.

You learn to do things by doing them. I’d rather see a reviewer clumsily talk about art than not at all.

I use undervalued specifically because this industry is built on undervaluing its creators. Creators that feel valued make better comics!

Here I was talking with a reviewer:
The art IS the story. Even if you don’t care for the style or don’t think it’s dynamic

The presentation by the artist of the images in sequence is how the story is being told. The art IS the story.

If you get rid of the art and are only left with the balloons, you will have no idea what’s going on. Comics IS art

When a reviewer only credits a writer with the story it is inarguably wrong. That’s just not how the process works.

Chris and I are credited for each others ideas in Edison Rex reviews all the time. Often we’re not sure who did what. If we don’t know how can you?

I want to have this conversation. I want to be better. I want reviewers, fans, and companies to listen and consider how they view comics and the role of each creator. The only way I know how to do that is to talk about it whenever I can and pray people pay attention.

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21 comments to “On the perception of artists in comics”

  1. Would you say that the review trend you’re outlining affects both well drawn comics and poorly drawn comics in equal measure? I just read an old Pauline Kael essay in which she basically defends an emphasis on story/context in reviews of movies–of the time, products of the Hollywood studio system–on the grounds that, with many of these films, not very much interesting is taking place in terms of composition etc. I’m somewhat sympathetic to a reviewer who would say less about art than about plot when writing about the average corporate superhero comic–the ways in which the comic’s plot/values/etc are a mess is likely a more exciting topic than the presence of house-style pencils of an artist producing work for hire. I’d argue that the reviewing arm of the comics internet tends to deviate from the focus on plot/the writer when a work of relative ambition comes out of the big two–just look at the way people discuss Aja on Hawkeye.

    (This is not to defend the treatment of writer as prime mover and artist as interchangeable parts WITHIN companies like the big two–but I think it’s difficult to gauge the extent to which comics writers have actually enabled that.)

  2. For the record, I’d support artist/writer/letterer/colourist credits being listed in alphabetical order, so you’d have Aja/Fraction or Fraction/Francavilla. That way you’re not favouring the writer (although it certainly would work out that way most of the time for Bendis and Brubaker) or the artist (Aja and Allred get a good deal).

  3. David, you and Andy both hit on something major that I had been desperately trying to cobble together for months (years?)

    That is: if the only constant on a comic book series is the writer than the “equal partnership” necessarily becomes one of hierarchy because the artist has lost his or her share of the control for however many issues he or she is replaced.

  4. That’s last line of Culver’s message is something I’ve been thinking about. It’s a collab effort, and as a reviewer or critic, you have no idea where the writer begins or the art begins. And what about the inking? What does the inker do and what does the penciller do? Is it all pencil sketches and the inker finishes, or is the penciller doing a lot of the inking himself and the inker just doing the spot blacks? Where does it begin and where does it end? Colorists, too. Digital coloring means you can shape the art much more than you used to(Dean White somehow made Billy Tan look like Jerome fuckin’ Opena back in Uncanny X-Force), but they’re also making them look “realistic”, so using colors for moods is kinda a thing of the past(although Francesco Franchella clearly still does that). And what is the script like, exactly? Is it like Stan and Jack, where it’s general plot descriptions, then Kirby does Kirby, then Stan does the dialog? Is a full script? Is it Alan Moore style, with precise details about the lettering on the hard-covered books sitting on the desk in the second panel?

    Reviewers don’t know these things, so they speak in more general terms. I’ts a lot easier to talk about that dialog on the fifth page or the plot twist at the end then try to parse out which artist did what.

    And there’s just so many damn layers you can talk about? The character design, the wardrobe, facial expression, body language, the setting, the backgrounds, the landscapes, the building designs. Where do you begin, as a critic writing these relatively short opinion pieces that informs the readers of your perspective of it? Where do you end?

    And quite honestly, sometimes I think the writing is more interesting than the drawings. If I were to talk to you about Astro City, I would probably mostly talk about the plots Busiek is doing. No offense to Brent Anderson but his work is…pretty meat-and-potatoes, ya know? It’s not flashy or crazy or really unique with it’s panel layouts or shifts in mood, it’s…kinda mundane superhero artwork. Which is fine, because that’s what you need for a book like Astro City, but it what it is.

    Another big thing is that as a critic, you’re basically finding new ways to talk about the same damn things over and over and over again. How many new ways can I talk about Steve Dillon’s art style on Preacher? If I said to you, “Steve Dillon draws this one”, you’d know exactly what the book was gonna look like, talking heads, standard panel layouts, great character acting, etc. Issue #12 of Preacher looks a lot like issue #48, do you want me to cover it for you again? On the other hand, with the writer like Garth Ennis, he definitely has his tics too, but I can specifically talk about “what happen” in the story of this latest piece of monthly sequential comic, which are the words on the page.

    I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I can bet my black ass there aint just one right answer, either.

  5. I wrote “Milligan/Allred” on Twitter and immediately cursed myself.

    @Michael: That’s a really nice idea. Letterers/Colourists/Inkers are highly undervalued, too.

    @Ayo: Fill-ins are the devil. I’ve noticed on Hawkeye and Young Avengers that the fill-in issues seem to be written as deliberately non-essential to the wider/longer story. (The in-story recaps are elegant and somehow more evocative than the issues themselves.) I’m not sure how I feel about that – on one hand it’s an acknowledgement of the importance of the book’s “real” artist, but as a reader it’s yet more wheel-spinning that’s only “necessary” because of the insistence on over-shipping. (That those two titles have used only very talented artists for the fill-ins is nice but immaterial.)

    So you’re right, even the “rotating artists” solution (which is promised far more than it’s delivered) is undesirable, because it creates that hierarchy in the title in question and reinforces it across the genre/industry.

    (Prophet is different, I think, for a lot of obvious reasons. It’s hard not to say “Brandon Graham’s Prophet” though, and that is wrong.)

    @Jeremy: I think the solution is to, as far as possible, avoid assigning credit at all. You don’t have to know/mention who did what to engage with a comic’s visuals. As Andy and everybody has said, “what happens” isn’t just the words on the page, it’s the action (noun not genre) depicted. A description of a comic’s plot actually doesn’t mean you aren’t talking about the art… unless you attribute that plot to the writer alone. And I’m sure you’d agree that plot descriptions don’t make for very interesting or informative reviews.

  6. Would it be fair to liken the situation to movies: a director is responsible for turning a script into a movie, and the director’s choices have everything to do with whether the script’s potential is realized (and even improved upon)? I can see that.

    Now sadly, I’m the sort of comic book reader who barely pays attention to the art. If the comic is rendered well enough for me to tell what’s going on, that’s all I’m looking for, and beyond that I’m all about the word balloons. Sorry, guys, I suck that way.

    Back in the early 80s I used to collect “Warlord” comics, written and drawn by Mike Grell. Anyone remember them? Grell was a huge fan of letting his art do the storytelling, and as much as I enjoyed the comics, I was fairly lost whenever he’d dispense with word balloons. So Grell would do a three-page spread of Travis Morgan narrowly escaping a complex death trap, and at the end Morgan would say “Whoo, that was a close one!” and I’d be all like “wait, did something just happen?”

  7. @Chunky Style: I meant “three-page sequence”. A “three-page spread” is clearly nonsense and the product of a diseased mind.

  8. “When a publisher puts out a press release that only talks about the writer, I feel undervalued as a storyteller.” – Dennis Culver

    I meant to say, I asked two questions on Tom Brevoort’s tumblr about how Marvel’s publishing strategies actively devalue artists, using the NYT Inhumanity announcement as an example. (The NYT interview doesn’t mention the art at all, and uses a promo by Steve McNiven. After some googling I found a secondary Marvel.com interview that mentioned in passing that Joe Madureira would be drawing the book.)

    It’s not supposed to be some big “a-HA!”, but I do find it interesting that he didn’t answer either question, given some of the troll-y “WHY DO YOU HATE THE X-MEN” questions he does give the time of day.

  9. @Jeremy: “Another big thing is that as a critic, you’re basically finding new ways to talk about the same damn things over and over and over again. How many new ways can I talk about Steve Dillon’s art style on Preacher? If I said to you, ‘Steve Dillon draws this one’, you’d know exactly what the book was gonna look like, talking heads, standard panel layouts, great character acting, etc.”

    One thing I’ve been attempting is talking about how specific choices in the art that inform the story. The use of clocks in Satellite Sam #1, for example, might be what Matt Fraction scripts, but Howard Chaykin is placing them in such a manner as to be omnipresent and foreboding (I compared it to the Doomsday Clock in Watchmen. One thing that helps any critic is specificity. Yes, Mike and Laura Allred are evoking Silver Age superhero comics and pop art, that much is a given, but talk about how the way they go about it reflects what you’re reading (such as the use of blues in FF during scenes where Scott Lang becomes agitated by his responsibilities).

    It’s still not perfect (I sometimes credit an artist for a move a writer, letterer, or inker may have responsible for, and vice versa), but it addresses the work as a whole rather than pieces.

  10. Great article! I’m a writer and have the utmost respect and admiration for artists. I love the whole script to finished page process. My artist does a great job of interpreting my script. When it’s necessary to send him one of my stick figure sketches to get some convoluted point across, what I get back always blows me away. As a writer I have the mentality of,”draw what I tell you to draw and we’ll go far”. I’m sure my artist feels,”My art is going to make this guy’s story look fantastic”. The synergy of a successful collaboration creates something greater than the sum of the two parts. In the comics industry, an artist can sell an art compilation or a sketch book with no dialogue. But,as you point out, a writer can’t put out a book of word balloons alone. On the other hand, a lot of artists aren’t the writers they think they are. It could be that reviewers who don’t draw, have never been part of a comic creative team or experienced the process of illustrating and page design just judge a book by if they enjoyed the story and if they feel the art helped or hindered the telling of it. Has anyone done a good article lately describing the amount of effort an artists puts into bringing a script to life? I look forward to the day when everyone gets the recognition they deserve for their talents.

  11. A great example to me of of writer/artist who-did-what-and-actually-it-doesn’t-matter is Mignola’s and Fegredo’s sequence of Alice breaking down and crying at the end of Hellboy: The Fury. I’m sure Mignola wrote those panel beats, but Fegredo elevated those beats masterfully in a way— dare I say— Mignola would be incapable of doing if he was on art duties. The pure despair on Alice’s face is clearly something Fegredo is 100% responsible for, and if anyone is breezing by those panels because there are no word balloons then they clearly are not reading comics right. As far as writing about that in a review of sorts, the subject would be all about Fegredo’s work, with compliments to Mignola’s mastery of pacing.

    Describing a house style or not, I don’t think it’s about necessarily assessing the quality of the technical craft in the sense of, “anatomy/perspective is off” or “holding lines are too thick and distracting,” those play a part, as basically, like anything, immersion is the goal, and distractions take people out of the story, but storytelling is not just the written word, it’s about the flow of a page, taking the reader by the end hand and guiding them through the page, it’s the panel beats, and the gutters, and knowing how a character went from one clear position in a panel to a completely different position in the next, and conveying the spacial relations of the two and communicating the action in-between through the void of the gutters.

    Narrative art is a language. Regardless of style or rendering technique, if a person cannot tell how something happens in a comic, or are blown away by how well it is told, that falls on both the writer’s and artist’s shoulders, and when discussing these things neither should be omitted from the conversation. These apply to the script as well as with the art, and sometimes the script fails and the artists must try making sense of the narrative within the limitations of the panels they are trying to work within, and other times the script may be 100% clear and the art is what distorts the narrative information.

    People tend to blame the writers as much as praise them. The artists are also to praise or blame. If an emotional or physical triumph or tragedy is the finale of a scene, arc, or series, the responsibility of its impact is not just the writer’s. It is the collaborative effort of everyone on that book.

    Even poorly placed word balloons can ruin the flow of a comic page. If the book leaves you in a funk at the end because the story seemed jilted, it was not necessarily the writer’s fault. Same thing goes for a letterer strategically placing word balloons to make up for the lack of clarity in the flow of the art if the artist isn’t up to snuff. It is, and always has been, a group effort, and should be treated as such. Colorists can ruin a perfectly good black and white page. They can also heighten mediocre art through well-utilized color theory alone.

    The best comics are the ones where everything flows into the experience— the story moves, the art informs, the colors accentuate moods, the word balloons are as delicate and wispy as clouds, and the panels slyly dictate how much time one should spend drinking them in.

    There is a reason I can’t even hold The Storm and the Fury tpb without my eyes welling up, remembering Alice at the end and everything that led up to her tears. The collaborative effort was a well-oiled machine running on all cylinders, and the whole creative team is responsible for the story’s success. Communicating that Mignola and Mignola alone had woven the fantastical tale is completely inaccurate.

    I guess what I’m saying is I too would like to read more about the artist’s contributions to the book. I remember reading an interview with Brian K. Vaughan about Saga (for some big regular news outlet, USA TODAY? I cannot recall) and Fiona Staples was not credited anywhere, nor was she mentioned in the interview as the artist on the book. It really upset me.

  12. Here’s a question: does every artist want art direction from the writer? I can imagine if you’re putting 12 hours a day into factory-line work on a number of series then uneducated micro-management from a writer might be more trouble than it’s worth.

  13. Another observation: a lot of readers of superhero comics simply hold stand-out art styles in contempt if they haven’t been told that so-and-so is a “good artist”. I read a lot fewer criticisms of Maleev using photo-study when he drew Namor (not that photo-study is necessarily a bad thing, but criticism of it is more substantive) and a lot more getting mad that Namor was portrayed as kind of fat with five-o-clock shadow, as “off-model”. How did the old instruction go? Kirby draws like Kirby, Ditko draws like Ditko, and everyone else draws like Kirby.

    All that said, Marvel’s superhero books are more stylistically adventurous now than they’ve ever been (Daredevil, Hawkeye, the current Uncanny X-Force with its “inside”/”outside” dual-artist contrast). I hope that criticism will be forced to keep up.

  14. I still struggle sometimes to talk even 1/3 as much about the art as I do the writing on my website. I think part of this is because I have zero art skills and can’t discuss it that expertly, whereas I’ve taken courses on everything from story and playwright to scholarly work. Sometimes I just can’t say more than, “The art is just fantastic” because I feel like I lack the ability to describe exactly why. Over time I’m getting better though, I think.

  15. I admit I have done a few “reviews” of comics like David talks about, where I would say, “Oh, and the art is good. The end.” as the last paragraph.

    In the last year or two, though, I’ve really put a lot more thought into the artist’s role in comics creation and tried to understand what that is. Writing about art is difficult but I’m trying to be better.

    I think part of my problem was I got hooked on comics mainly through those classic Vertigo titles (Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, etc.) that got so many people and Vertigo seemed to be, in hindsight, very writer centric. Especially something like Sandman where the artists changed all the time and the only constant was Neil Gaiman.

  16. how many people buy a story they don’t like for the art? How many people buy art they don’t like for the story?

  17. Interesting post. Do you feel that producers are similarly devalued in hip-hop? The conditions of production are different, but I’m inclined to think that producers are also overlooked.

    Do you know if there is typically a difference in pay for artists and writers? There’s definitely a disparity in music.

  18. […] Let’s Talk About Art Nice piece about discussing and engaging with the artwork more when critiquing comics. I think this could easily be said for manga as well. So let’s try to talk about it more and think about it more critically. Art is 1/2 of the storytelling, it matters! […]

  19. Ever since Jim Lee and company used their Marvel reps and royalties to form Image, there has been a deliberate effort by the Big Two to devalue artists, and to put the emphasis on the writer as the important creator, esp. at Marvel.

  20. Interesting article. As a writer of a creator owned (owned jointly I should point out, by myself and the book’s artist) indie, I know that my story can not be done without the artist. Like, literally, WILL NOT EXIST without him.

    I liken it to the film industry where I’m The Screenwriter and Producer of the comic, while the artist is the Director and Producer.

    I try to make certain to mention my artist as the cocreator of our book and can name spots where his art told bits of the story I had not even comprehended (acting for the characters etc).

    I’d personally stay away from the Storytellers credit more in the worry it would rob him of his credit, than it would rob me of mine.

  21. […] -I wrote about Andy and Dennis’s posts, quoting Dennis’s in its entirety, and added my own thoughts on how we appreciate artists in comics from the perspective of a fan and critic. […]