My pal Clifford Meth asked me to jump in and take a last-second sucker-punch from Major Deadline. So bear with me here while I mount a quick defense in the form of a reasonably readable column. Like you, I’ve been reading Cliff’s weekly net-essays (“nessays?” hmmm? where’s my trademark attorney?) with equal amounts of enjoyment, entertainment and education. Like you, I’ve wanted more of them more often. And (probably) like you, I’ve asked the same question since day one?

What exactly is a Past Master?

Since I haven’t had time to interview any such masters, and since I’m not personal buds with nearly every great creative to ever put pencil to page (or finger to key) like Cliff is, I’m going to offer my audacity in defining the kind of person he’s been writing about. I figure that if he doesn’t like it, I’ll have at the very least given him a subject for his next column?and he can’t fault me for that!

Feel free to disagree, add insights, or light up the message board? but before you power up the keyboard flamethrower, remember someone has to volunteer to step onto the dodge ball field and get hit first. So here goes.

First, the “Past” in Past Master does not imply a passage of status (i.e., that the master is no longer a master). It simply means that he (or she) has put in some respectable amount of time at the drawing board and/or keyboard. Doesn’t mean it’s someone who was only “hot” (a stupid term for creative people?but that’s another column) during the Golden or Silver Age. As you saw in the recent columns on Mark Texiera and Billy Tucci, it can be a current fan fave as well. Rather, it’s someone who has been around the comic-book block; someone who’s not only been there and done that, but also might be here now and doing this. In many cases, they’ve paid their dues doing what others wanted and are today doing something they want that’s worthy of our attention. So Neal Adams, Dave Cockrum and Gene Colan can coexist in the same continuum as the junior Kubert brothers and Messrs. Tucci. and Texiera. Agreed? Good.

Now for the “Master” part. That’s trickier, but I’ll give it a shot. A Comic Book Master is simply one of the best there is at what he does. Notice that last part. For example, Dave Sim. Is there another person who can write or draw “better” than Dave? Probably. But is there anyone who can do Cerebus better than he can? Someone who can make it more Cerebus? Not a chance. And that’s the point. We’re not talking the single best at writing or drawing?nobody ever agrees on that?but rather that rare individual who stands out from the crowd as the very best at what he does and has enough of us agreeing with him to warrant the distinction.

So what specifically makes a Master? How do we know a writer or artist is the best at what he does? How can we tell? To be sure, there’s a certain amount of taste and opinion involved, but generally speaking, they all share some commonalities.

For writers, it’s those who don’t just type, but think and feel; whose words make us do the same; the ones who write characters that we love or hate just as much (or more) as the friends, family and a-holes with whom we share the planet. It’s a writer whose ear for dialog is so sharp that we can hear the voices of the characters while we read; whose plots are conceived and executed with enough respective imagination and skill that we recall them decades later?and can retell them with childlike exuberance at conventions and parties to whomever is in earshot. It’s a writer whose enthusiasm for their work shines through like a literary beacon in that sea of mediocrity.

With artists, it’s also in the story. Not just in communicating the writer’s plot, but contributing to that story with visual characterizations, settings, mood, tone, pacing and movement. For instance, in the case of Marvel Silver Age greats like Kirby, Ditko, Colan, Steranko, Adams, Kane, it’s also contributing much of that same plot. The artist brings the whole thing to visual life, making it that mysterious combo of words and pictures called comics that we all love and recognize. Pretty pictures? Yeah, sure. heroic guys, gorgeous babes, powerful perspective, accurate anatomy, dynamic compositions, dramatic pacing, visual flow? the master does it all. But all in service of the story. That’s what separates the true artists from the illustrators. The masters from the followers.

Don’t kid yourself. If you’re one of those readers who says, “I’d rather have a great story over great art,” you’re talking about the same thing. Great art is part of a great story. It’s an essential ingredient. You simply cannot have one without the other any more than you can have a great movie without great direction, acting and editing. No moviegoer buys a ticket to watch a script; comic book readers don’t pay 2.95 each month to read one. The plot may be cool, the characters memorable, the dialog right on, but that ain’t a story. No more than nice pencils or slick inks or bright colors would be. A good story is art and writing coming together to form a single work that becomes more than the sum of its parts. A great story is one of those good stories that you never forget?the one you remember from when you were 12 and discovered comics. The legal smack that got you hooked as a kid and hasn’t let go since. The reason your shelves are buckling and your mom or spouse complains that there’s no more room in the house.

Past Masters. They’re the people you’ll continue talking about for a long time to come. I’ve posted random examples from just a few of them. You’ll read about more of them in the weeks and months to follow.

Now that we know what we’re talking about, it should be that much more fun for all of us. Thanks for your time.

© 2004 Mike Pascale

(Artwork by Gene Colan, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby/Bill Everett, Gil Kane/Dan Adkins, and Bernie Wrightson copyright by their respective copyright holders. Bru-Hed by Pascale/Armstrong, ©1994 Schism Comics).

Note: Clifford Meth will return next week.

Mike Pascale is the creator/artist/writer of Bru-Hed?, “America’s Favorite Blockhead” and Nasti: Monster Hunter?. He’s currently working on projects for Aardwolf Publishing when he’s not being a storyboard artist or fill-in columnist.