The Auteur Theory of Comics: Commentary

A column article by: Arlen Schumer

Editor's Note: Arlen Schumer's Auteur Theory of Comics has attracted a lot of attention since Arlen first made it available. We here at Comics Bulletin were delighted to have Arlen share his theory with us. This week we share two comments on Arlen's theory, and we'd love to hear your comments as well. Please join in below!

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First, we share the comments of cartoonist Batton Lash.  Batton is a longtime industry veteran whose Supernatural Law (aka Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre) is one of most durable self-published comics of all time. He also writes for Archie and Bongo Comics. A graduate of the School of Visual Art, Batton (like our publisher Jason Sacks) is a huge fan of Steve Ditko and has a deep and abiding love for the Universal Monsters. More on Batton can be found here: http://www.exhibitapress.com.

Arlen-

I wanted to write a response to your thoughtful and passionate paper “The Auteur Theory of Comics” because, at first, I thought it had a lot of merit. I love the presentation. However, it’s difficult for me to accept. I have a hard time accepting the auteur theory for film, let alone comics!

I don’t dispute that certain directors put their “stamp” on films. Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra, Sidney Lumet comes to mind. But with a film such as Network, which Lumet directed, the auteur theory is flipped. It is so much a Paddy Chayefsky movie. It’s his voice; his point of view. Lumet’s New York sensibilities add a lot, to be sure, but other New York-centric directors such as Sydney Pollack, Martin Ritt, and Herbert Ross could’ve directed it and wouldn’t have made a difference. It is clearly the screenwriter’s movie, not the director’s. Speaking of Herbert Ross, he directed Play Again, Sam, based on Woody Allen’s play. Allen himself, who also starred, adapted the movie’s screenplay. Is Sam considered a Herbert Ross movie or a Woody Allen movie? Who’s the auteur of the movie version of Play It Again, Sam?  Then there’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick. Tim Burton may be considered an auteur, but is director Selick the auteur of The Nightmare Before Christmas? Burton’s sensibilities informed that movie, from concept to character designs to script. Burton is totally identified with Nightmare Before Christmas. But there are those who would claim Henry Selick is the auteur of Nightmare. So who is the auteur? Burton or Selick?

Which brings me to comics. There are a lot of strong points in what you say about Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and their working relationship with Stan Lee. But your auteur theory just cannot be applied across the board in the conclusive, sweeping bow you present in your paper.

For now, let’s look to another Stanley in comics: John Stanley. He wrote some of the best humor comics, particularly Little Lulu, which was drawn by Irving Tripp. Tripp is a fine cartoonist, but I am loath to say he is the auteur of those Lulu comics. Also, Stanley wrote one of the scariest comics ever produced in the post-EC era, Tales from the Tomb (Dell, 1962). Journeymen artists such as Frank Springer drew the stories. The art is serviceable. A harsh critic would call it “hackwork.” But it is the script that shines. Yet, according to your theory, Springer would be considered the auteur. But wouldn’t the true auteur of Tales from the Tomb be John Stanley?

You bring up Dick Sprang’s Batman as an example of how a superior cartoonist can elevate hackneyed scripts to Art. No argument there. But I ask you to consider this: one of the all-time great Batman stories (“Origin of The Batman,” Batman #47, 1948) is drawn by one of the “lesser” Bob Kane ghosts (the story’s art is often credited to Kane; I believe it is Lew Sayre Schwartz). But it is the script—Bill Finger’s emotional, dramatic story that packs a wallop and made it memorable. Wouldn’t that entitle Bill Finger, the writer, auteur status? I read that story recently, for the first time in 30+ years. I couldn’t recall who drew it, but what stuck with me for decades was the story. It was thrilling when I read it as a young teen and it was still thrilling reading it as a middle-aged man. Yet, by your theory, Lew Sayre Schwartz is the auteur of that story!

I’ll go even further: Edmond Hamilton’s script for a Dick Sprang illustrated story, “The Mental Giant of Gotham City” (Detective Comics, #217, 1955). Yes, the Sprang art is fabulous but it is Hamilton’s script that informs the drama and pathos. Who’s the auteur in that case? (By the way, Charles Paris’s atmospheric inks embellished just about all we admire about Sprang’s Batman. Does Paris deserve co-auteurship with Sprang?)

You mentioned that Sprang’s work stands out from the “surrounding hackwork” of Kane’s ghosts. Define “hackwork.” Does this mean Shelly Moldoff, Jim Mooney, the aforementioned Lew Schwartz are not auteurs? How do you pick and choose who’s an “important” comics artist and who isn’t? What are the criteria? It’s acknowledged among the comics cognoscenti that writer Bill Finger is responsible for a great deal of what went into Batman’s creation and what we recognize in the character. Bob Kane drew that first Batman story in Detective Comics #27, which was written by Finger. According to your theory, Kane is the auteur of that seminal Batman story. Yet, wouldn’t your auteur theory disregard the immense creative contributions of Bill Finger to Batman as much as it is designed to respect the enormous contributions of Jack Kirby to Marvel?

Your paper brings up Gaines and Feldstein (for the record, Gaines wrote only one story for EC, which appeared in the first issue of Two Fisted Tales. True, he provided many “springboards” to Feldstein, but Feldstein was the one who wrote the finished copy). Yes, “Master Race” (Impact #1, 1955) is a masterpiece and a groundbreaking work of comic art, but is it all due to Kreigstein? The script (by Feldstein) is so powerful with a subject matter that was unprecedented in the newsstand comics of the time that I believe, even with a pedestrian artist, “Master Race” would’ve made comics history. You dismissively refer to Feldstein’s stories as “overwritten” and ask if they were more “important” than the art in “Master Race” and the Wally Wood-drawn “My World” (Weird Science-Fantasy #26, 1954). I say both art and script are equally important. Here’s what I ask: Is Wood actually the “auteur” of “My World?” Feldstein wrote it specifically for Wood, thereby informing Wood of his own world! Who’s the auteur in that case?

Furthermore, let’s look at the classic EC SF story, “Judgment Day” (Weird Fantasy #18, 1953). Is Joe Orlando truly the auteur of that tale? The last panel of the story is, indeed, one of the most poignant ever presented in a comic book. Yet, it is Feldstein’s script that drives that poignancy; his (overwritten?) copy compliments Orlando’s staging of characters caught in their double standards and class system. Writer? Artist? Which one is the auteur? I say neither. Both Feldstein and Orlando required each other’s skill to create a timeless classic.

Let’s use a couple of more contemporary examples: Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men. Many talented artists drew his scripts, from Cockrum to Buscema to Romita Jr. . . . yet I don’t consider any of those artists “auteurs” of the series. I can’t! No matter who drew X-Men, it was always Claremont’s show. Claremont's famous story arcs, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (Uncanny X-Men, #129-138,1980) and “Days of Future Past” (Uncanny X-Men, #141-142, 1981) are beautifully rendered by John Byrne and Terry Austin, but what made them memorable was the writing. Does this earn Claremont “auteur” status?

Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The series had many artists, but who is the driving force of that comic? Whose sensibilities inform the series and character? Is “A Game of You” (a story arc from Sandman #32-37, 1992) memorable because it was drawn by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch or because of Gaiman’s compelling story and narrative? I’d be hard pressed to call any of those talented artists the auteur of Sandman, especially when it is Gaiman’s vision that steered the entire series. As far as I know, Gaiman didn’t do thumbnails or roughs (a la Kurtzman and Moore). Does that mean Gaiman’s not a “legitimate exception” like Kurtzman and Moore?

How does Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor fit into your auteur theory? Is R. Crumb the auteur of Pekar’s “humdrum” life? Is Val Mayerik? Joe Zabel? Gary Dumm? Or is Pekar also a “legitimate exception?” He’s “only” the writer, but it’s his life! Archie Goodwin would do stick figures for the artists when he wrote his Creepy and Eerie stories, tailoring his story to the assigned artist’s strengths. Is Goodwin a “legitimate exception?” Archie Comics writers George Gladir and Frank Doyle would storyboard their scripts for such great artists as Dan DeCarlo, Harry Lucey and Stan Goldberg to follow. Are Gladir and Doyle “legitimate exceptions?” Who else would be exempt?

I wrote the script for Archie: Freshman Year. The series was cartoonist Bill Galvan’s idea; he asked me to plot it and dialogue it. He drew it. I don’t consider Bill the auteur of it at all, not when I informed him on what the characters are going to do and showed him how they’re going to do it, when I provided tight roughs for him to follow, which he did. Does that make me a “legitimate exception?” Frankly, I don’t consider myself the “auteur” of Freshman Year, either. But I do believe Bill and I were collaborators. Another example from my experiences: Archie Meets The Punisher. I wrote and laid out the story; Stan Goldberg drew the Archie characters, John Buscema drew The Punisher characters and Tom Palmer inked the whole package. Who’s the auteur? No one. We were all collaborators on Archie Meets The Punisher.

And that’s where I find fault in your theory. In cases like Eisner, Steranko, Crumb, Chaykin, Miller, Sakai, Sim, et al, where the artist and writer are one and the same (in some cases, even inking and lettering the work as well), I have no problem with the “auteur” label. But collaborations, especially extremely successful collaborations between two highly creative minds– and I’ll use Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert as examples– cannot be divvied up so easily to say one’s an auteur and the other isn’t. You cited a tri-panel progression as a Kubert “trademark,” when that was, in fact, a standard Kanigher device. See The Flash, Metal Men and various romance stories RK scripted; many of them use that triptych motif. You don’t see it in Kubert’s work for non-Kanigher scripted stories. I believe Enemy Ace, Sgt. Rock, Viking Prince, et al, to be as much Kanigher’s as it is Kubert’s.  You quote Gene Colon as saying “Every story I drew was like being a director of a film.” Does that make Colon the auteur of Howard the Duck?  Creator/writer Steve Gerber’s heart and soul went into that series. What makes Colon the auteur and not Gerber? Gerber’s wit and sensibilities was what directed Colon’s self-proclaimed “film director” status! Colon may have drawn every issue of Tomb of Dracula, but the series didn’t take off until Marv Wolfman became the series’ writer and gave it a direction and focus. Is Colon still the auteur? Is Wolfman? No. They are collaborators.

Another example: Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman one-shot “Mad Love,” (1993). Both of their considerable talents created what became an instant classic. It would not only be unfair to say artist Timm is the auteur of that story, it would be as much as an injustice to diminish writer Dini’s role as it would to deny Jack Kirby’s contributions to the Marvel universe.

Which brings me to the real problem I have with this “auteur” theory. At the beginning of this essay, I wrote that at first reading, I thought “The Auteur Theory of Comics” had a lot of merit. I initially read it as a PDF you sent me, before publication. Since then, I’ve read and re-read over the hard copy, while getting my thoughts together for a response that I think you deserve, since you put a lot of work and thought into your thesis. Unfortunately, the more I considered the auteur theory as it applies to comics, the more reckless I believe it is.

You’re concerned that the “uninformed” considers Stan as the writer and artist of the seminal Marvel Comics. I don’t blame Stan necessarily, but his fawning public.  For example, around the release of the first Spider-Man movie, none other than Howard Stern, on his morning radio show, was kvelling over Stan for his “genius” and the talent it took to “write and draw” characters like Fantastic Four, Hulk, etc. Stan, to his credit, corrected Howard by informing him that he “didn’t do it alone.” He specifically mentioned Steve Ditko as his collaborator on Spider-Man and likewise mentioned Jack Kirby. But Howard would hear none of it; he said Stan was being too modest! That reminds me of the people I met who thought Rod Serling wrote every episode of the Twilight Zone. I do my part and correct them. But if the “uninformed” refuses to adjust their thinking, what can you do? You can’t blame Stan (or Rod) for lazy thinking on the part of their fans!

Quite frankly, Stan being considered “sole creator” is a perception that’s changing rapidly. I didn’t read one review or article about the 2012 Spider-Man movie without seeing a mention of Steve Ditko as “co-creator” of the character. Furthermore, since the success of the Marvel movies, articles in the mainstream press (particularly The New York Times), describing Jack Kirby’s role in the creation of the Marvel characters are numerous and continue to grow. There are more knowledgeable people working in the Mainstream Media and New Media who are aware of Jack Kirby’s contributions to Marvel (and the field of comics in general) than ever before and they are not hesitant to give Kirby proper credit. And count on it: the number of comics savvy journalists will only increase over time.

“The Auteur Theory of Comics” is, at its core, exclusive. Remember twenty years ago, when the Image guys (all artists) boasted they “didn’t need no steekin’ writers?” I can’t help but think of those wrong-headed words when I read your paper. Comics are a unique art form that merges (written) words and (drawn) pictures to create a story. Why bolster a theory that drives a wedge between collaborators in a medium that is unique among the arts? To put it bluntly, you are trying to re-invent the wheel by attempting to bestow a theory for cinema (which I believe is dubious) onto comics. The auteur theory, applied to comics, is ultimately polarizing. It aggrandizes a conceit that one person (the artist) is more important to a comics story than that of his collaborator (the writer). It demeans a very crucial role in creating comics! Why? For what reason? What purpose? Ah, there’s the rub.

There appears to be a disturbing meme among certain comic fans to perpetuate the narrative that casts Stan Lee as a shameless exploiter of talent and Jack Kirby as the guileless victim of a heartless industry. Both characterizations are not only wrong, but also insulting. And what bothers me the most is, that after many readings, “The Auteur Theory of Comics” comes off less than a theory and more of a polemic. I can’t help but think the “auteur” theory is being used not so much to boost Jack as it is to tear down Stan. Convince me otherwise.

Yes, Disney should give Kirby his due. And I think it’s admirable that you want to support Jack. Unfortunately, in doing so, you are advancing a hostile theory that ghettoizes the writer as a subservient non-entity to the artist. It is misguided at best and destructive at worst. 


Secondly ye editor steps in with his comments. For the record, Jason Sacks has been reading and writing about comics and related artforms for most of his life. He's written over a million words of comics criticism since joining Comics Bulletin eight years ago.

 

Hi Arlen -
 
I agree with Batton that the theory is a bit reductivist and doesn't allow for the assignment of different levels of responsibility to different creators. Batton calls out good examples with John Stanley and Robert Kanigher, where it's virtually impossible to assign different creators a slice of the credit as the auteur of the work.
 
I have two slightly contradictory things to say about that aspect of the theory.
 
First thoughts... if you imagine the whole percentage of work done on a comic as adding up to 100%, then you have a continuum of credit that is assigned to each creator of a work. In Batton's theory, maybe Kanigher is responsible for 50% of the work on the work on a Sgt. Rock comic- after all, he thought up the story, determined how the characters would go into motion, came up with clever dialogue, interesting events, clever and interesting page layouts and a snappy conclusion. Then Kubert is responsible for the other 50% of the comic, by taking Kanigher's work and executing on it.  
 
We could theoretically give each member of the team 50% of the credit for the story, but is that deserved? Kanigher may have banged the comic out on his lunch hour, but Kubert had to take days if not weeks actually drawing the story. Surely if you think about it that way, Kubert should get 90% of the credit - after all, it took him far longer to work on the material than Kanigher did. Without the art, it's just a script.
 
But you could also make the argument the opposite way. Kanigher conceived the story, created the mechanics of it and fleshed the whole thing out. He even did some if not all of the layouts. So should the man who did all that work be the auteur on the work? If not, aren't we trivializing the work of the man who set the work in motion? How does he not receive more than 50% of the credit? How can you stand in judgment of "ownership" of such assignment of credits? Who is the master judger who determines what percentage of the actual greatness of "The Rock of Easy Co." comes from Robert Kanigher and how much from Joe Kubert? I guarantee that while he was alive, Kanigher would have claimed most of the credit, and I'm sure that Kubert would have done the same. That's human nature, after all. 
 
I know that the question is somewhat different when we're talking about 1960s Marvel Comics, and of course since you wrote your piece for the Kirby Museum, you took a smart and important position. And there's no arguing that on my continuum of credit, Jack and Steve deserve much more of the credit for the work than Stan does. But 1960s Marvel is an outlier. It's an extremely unusual way of approaching Stan's crazily busy schedule. It's essentially an trick to get more work done - and has seldom been repeated in comics history.
 
But leaving that aside, I don't like the reductivist approach that's implied by this theory. Comics, like many artforms, is a collaborative process - at least as concerns  the material you're writing about. Nobody would argue that people like Jim Steranko weren't the auteurs of their work. But in the case of collaborative works - Lee/Kirby/Sinnott or Simon/Kirby or Miller/Janson or Gerber/Colan or McGregor/Graham - how is such percentages determined? How can you figure out who deserves the majority of credit? And isn't the real beauty of collaborations the fact that really great art is created, that something that transcends the work of all creators is achieved? So to speak, doesn't the work become greater than the sum of its parts? More than simply 100%, so to speak? 
 
I do believe in auteurs in comics, at least in theory. I believe in the idea of  the influential creator, the visionary who drives greatness in his Art with a capital A. I think we all instinctively understand that idea. So why can't that visionary be a writer or even an inker or colorist, let alone an editor?

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