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Reading Comics: We Can Do better

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Fairbanks

The side effect of great writers is that, whether you like it or not, they usually get you thinking about something. What you're reading now was supposed to be a review of Action Comics #9, which had me thinking "how did this get printed," until David Brothers planted another notion in my mind.

I dropped about 700 words on the latest issue of Action that boiled down to "this is what Grant Morrison writing Superman should be" and "how the hell did DC fire Chris Roberson over his legitimate criticism of their business practices and then publish a very thinly veiled allegory for their treatment of Siegel and Shuster?" 

 

It's a damn fine comic, one that you really ought to give a read (the review would've been a solid 5/5). The backup by Cully Hamner and Sholly Fisch was a beautiful encore and the perfect example of what a backup should be. It was a comic I was happy to spend $4 on.

Out of those 700 words, a few of them were "Gene" and "Ha," with maybe a dozen or so others pertaining to the work he did on the page. It was easily less than ten percent of what I was writing.

And that's why you're reading this right now instead of a review. 

I read a fair bit of comics journalism, or whatever you'd like to call the stuff that's written about comics, and it's depressing to realize just how little of it discusses art for more than a paragraph. Brothers called out CBR, but it seems like a trend that's prevalent across most comics discussion, whether it's on the Internet, at the conventions, or among friends at the local comic shop. 

Part of the problem can be that writing and talking about art isn't always particularly easy, especially in comparison to writing about writing, a skill beaten into me throughout the bulk of my education; writing about the writing just comes naturally now, to the point that I sometimes find myself tripping over words and using almost worthless adjectives like "pretty" when describing art unless I try incredibly hard to articulate what it is I'm feeling. 

It's still not the greatest excuse though, and it's one that I'll be trying very hard to ditch.  Brothers hands out some useful advice that I'll be doing my best to follow; even if you don't write about comics, take this to heart when reading about them:

 

"Listen, here's a challenge to everyone who writes reviews, especially if you do this lazy words-first thing. Find a comic you like. Write a review that's predominately about the art, and leave one short paragraph toward the end for the writing. Talking about art isn't hard. You look at it, you examine how it makes you feel and how it portrays the action on the page. Take a close look and find something you like, and then talk about why you like it.

 

This is simple, and if you're writing about comics, you should be able to do this. You don't have to be fluent at art. You just have to be conversational. Comics is a visual medium. There are words, yes, but when you open a page, the first thing you see is the pictures. So how about you pay attention and talk about the pictures in something more than a perfunctory manner?"

 

So, why am I making such a big deal about this? Mostly because it's been rubbing me the wrong way for a while now. Not just the comics journalism, though, that's merely a symptom of the bigger problem: the industry's devaluing the role of the comic book artist further and further. For all the claims of comics being a collaborative medium, folks seem to think anymore that that means a writer writes the story and an artist illustrates what's been written. 

I'm not going to be na├»ve here; there are almost certainly some artist/writer relationships that work exactly that way.  However, some of the best, most famous comics come from a partnership, rather than being birthed out of this dictatorial relationship: Gibbons/Moore, Kirby/Lee, Quitely/Morrison, and many, many more.

I think many fans know this, at least on some level. They're aware of the Marvel Method, for instance, but they don't really seem to think about it all that much when they talk about or purchase comics. 

Fans cry out in favor of or opposition to Alan Moore regarding Before Watchmen, yet don't really seem to care much about what Dave Gibbons thinks. It's something in the language we use, and it really ought to stop. It's not as simple as changing "Morrison's We3" to "Quitely and Morrison's We3," though that's certainly a start. 

Did you notice that I've been listing the artist first in all of the collaborations? Did you ever notice before that they seem to always be credited second?

Even Jack "The King" Kirby takes second billing to Stan Lee (take your pick of the popular Lee/Kirby or Stan & Jack).

Hell, I can't think of a single time that a collaborative work has been referred to as having the team of Artist/Writer instead of Writer/Artist. The first name you see, the name you attribute that book to, is that of the writer, despite the necessity of art to the medium. And if you think that the order doesn't matter, look back to the controversy when Paul McCartney credited some songs that had once been Lennon/McCartney as McCartney/Lennon. 

Up to this point, I've focused mostly on language and how we treat artists in our discussion of comics, because it's something that is at the forefront of what we do here at the Bulletin. We try pretty hard to make sure that every review credits everyone responsible for making the comic. Additionally, while it can be difficult, language is also something that we, comics writers, fans, and professionals, can actually have a hand in changing.

I suppose this does relate back to Action Comics #9 and Grant Morrison's philosophy on the power of words influencing ideas and the world.

The language we use isn't the only problem though.

Daredevil shipped twelve issues in a mere eight months, a frequency that even the swiftest artist would have trouble keeping up with. The count jumps to fifteen issues in the same amount of time if you include the direct tie-ins in three other titles. Someone at Marvel seems to have said "why are we only releasing this book once a month," throwing consistency out the window. And the fans have eaten it all up. 

Don't think I'm judging you either; I'm one of those fans. Waid's writing has been at the top of his game with Marcos Martin, Paolo Rivera, Kano, Khoi Pham, Marco Checchetto, and Chris Samnee bringing their best work, too. Daredevil is easily one of the best comics being produced by Marvel or DC and it would look beautiful and uniform if Rivera and Martin were kept on as the main art team.  That's not to discredit the remaining artists who have worked on the book, either, but it's pretty obvious that the only motivation behind switching the artists was churning out more issues, more quickly.

Now, Daredevil editor Stephen Wacker defended the artist swapping amongst not really getting the point of the criticism, indicating that Marcos Martin was moving on to different things, but that doesn't explain how we've gone from Rivera and Martin to Kano to Pham to Checchetto to Samnee. As far as I can tell, there's not a particularly good thematic reason for the changes.

It happened with Uncanny X-Force and Hickman's arcs on Fantastic Four and Future Foundation too, as well as some Marvel titles I've not been reading. DC's guilty of it too, though theirs seems to be mostly in the goal of shipping monthly books or dealing with delays, which at least seems a little bit less sinister than double-shipping comics and switching artists to accommodate this.

The worst part, though, is that one of DC's most critically acclaimed series of the last decade, All-Star Superman shipped four issues a year to accommodate Frank Quitely's schedule. There is evidence that great things can come out of a wonderful collaboration, but it's at the cost of delayed profits.

It was Brothers who brought this to my attention and he also gave the perfect example of a rotating art team done right: Prophet. While Brandon Graham is writing the stories, the series is set to have at least four different artists in its first year (Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Graham himself and Giannis Milonogiannis), with each one depicting very different perspectives of the universe that Prophet takes place in; perspectives that suit their individual art and storytelling styles.

What's more, on Graham and Roy's second issue, Roy's got a writer credit too, because they collaborated on the story. 

Do you see the difference? How one of these processes treats the artist as an easily replaceable cog in a machine and the other looks at them as a unique aspect of the comics that we all know and love? That's not to say that Image and other creator-owned books are without sin; a quick glance at the Tony Moore/Robert Kirkman lawsuit is enough to see that even the independent comics scene has issues with how they treat their artists, but they certainly seem to have their heads on much straighter than the folks at Marvel and DC.

The treatment of artists in the comics industry, from the unintentional slights by readers and journalists to the way they are regarded as commodities by the corporations that publish their comics, can be pretty depressing. Brothers gave up on the Big Two for reasons that I completely understand and sympathize with. I don't see myself quitting corporate comics anytime soon, though. I'm not about to tell you to quit buying the comics you love, but do give some thought to the artists.

I also feel it would be incredibly hypocritical of me not to mention the stellar effect that the right inkers, colorists and letterers can have on a comic. It feels pretty wrong to have this just as a footnote too. The best inkers can turn mediocre art into brilliance, the best colorists can turn simple illustrations into beautiful art and the portfolio of John Workman should be enough to show you that the right letterer can give a story a vastly different feel than just typing everything in Comic Sans.

 


 

David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books, and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.

Mostly self-indulgent ramblings can be found at @bairfanx and untilsomethingbreaks.blogspot.com.

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